Sunday, November 13, 2016

What Makes a Good Backpacking Stove?

So, what constitutes a good backpacking stove?  Well, if you read stove company advertising literature, you might get the impression that boil times are all that matter.  While I can understand why stove companies might emphasize something they can put a hard number on, I think there's a bit more to it than that.

Below, I'll list my general "framework" for how I evaluate stoves, and then I'll follow that with a brief discussion.
A Soto Windmaster outfitted with the larger Four-Flex pot supports.
Can it handle the size pot I use?  Or is it a top heavy disaster waiting to happen?
So what are my criteria?  Well, here's my fourteen criteria (originally thirteen but my friends say that's bad luck, lol) that I evaluate stoves against, not necessarily in order:
  1. Suitability – Is this stove suitable for what I want to do?  
    • Can it support my style of cooking? 
    • Will it cook well the foods I like to eat?  
    • Can I cook in the temperatures and conditions I plan to hike in?  
    • Does it work well with the type and size of pots and pans I use?  
    • Can it support the different types of trips I like to take? 
    • Can it cook for both solo trips and the number of people I usually travel with?
  2. Reliability/Robustness – Can I count on this thing?  Can it “take a licking and keep on ticking” or do I have to baby it?
  3. Weight – How much weight have I got to lug around?  Remember that you need to look at your cooking system as a whole.  Don't just think about the weight in terms of the burner alone but also consider the fuel, the fuel container (steel? plastic? aluminum?), pump (if any), and any other necessary items.
  4. Price – Do I have mortgage my home to afford this thing?  It's generally a good idea to set a budget for yourself before you get your heart set on a stove only to find out that you can't afford it.
  5. Stability – Will it dump my dinner?  Is the whole assembly "tippy?"
  6. Efficiency (i.e. fuel economy) – Is this thing a gas guzzler?  Or can I cook all week on a single tank of fuel?
  7. Windproofness – Can I cook in real world conditions?  Can I (safely) use a windscreen?  How sensitive is this stove to wind?
  8. Compactness – How much room does the darned thing take in my pack?  Will it poke me in the back?  Can I carry it in the pot that I typically use?
  9. Ease of use – How much fussing around do I have to do to cook with this thing?
  10. Ease of maintenance/field repair –  If a problem occurs how easily can I fix it? Can I fix it in the field or do I have to send it back to the company?  Are tools and spares included with the stove?
  11. Speed – How fast is it?  Am I still waiting for my water to boil when my friends have already finished eating?
  12. Noise – Do I have to buy a hearing aid after using this stove?
  13. Fuel considerations (availability/versatility/morality) – How hard is it to get fuel for this stove where I plan to hike?  Can I use multiple types of fuels? Is it ethical to use this type of fuel (e.g. wood at high altitudes)?
  14. Safety/Legality.  Is this type of stove safe and legal where I plan to go?  Am I going to start a fire with this thing?  Will it flare if it tips over?  (Canister gas stoves frequently do)  Can the fuel spill if I bump the stove?  Does it emit sparks or embers?  Can it smolder and come back to life when I'm not expecting it?  Can it be easily extinguished?  Can I see the flame in broad daylight or am I going to accidentally burn myself in a near-invisible flame?  Can the stove be over-primed and thereby cause a fire?  Can the valve stick in the open position when I disconnect the stove?
The Snow Peak GeoShield will support large pots, but how does it do with small ones?
The first three factors one should consider when buying a stove are:  suitability, suitability, and suitability.  OK, OK, I'm being a little silly here, but seriously, if a stove can't cook foods you like (or are at least willing to eat) or handle the conditions that you will face, then the stove is no good to you, no matter what a high tech wonder it may be.

Take a good long look at the things I've written under suitability.  These are what your stove must measure up to, and it is these that you must address before you decide on a particular stove.

With all of the criteria, these are just things to think about.  There isn't a stove that's going to do well by every measure.  You must weigh the pros and cons and decide which matter most to you.  The frame work is intended to stimulate and guide your thinking as you use your best judgment as to which stove is best for you.
Descending from Glen Pass on the John Muir Trail.
Looks like it might be a little nippy tonight.  How does that stove handle cold?
Some example considerations:
A through hiker might want an itty bitty ultralight stove; they've got to scrimp on every ounce.  Hiking day after day is a huge grind on the human body if you're carrying too much weight.

A "weekend warrior" hiker who never goes out more than two or three days at a time might prefer a stove that can handle some real cooking.

An alpinist who needs to melt snow or he'll have nothing to drink or cook with may want a very powerful stove -- lest he wind up waiting an inordinate amount of time to get water.

A Boy Scout might want a larger stove so that he can cook for an entire patrol.  A small stove won't be very stable with larger pots.

I'm sure you get the picture.  The idea here being that you need to think about the length and type of the trip(s) you plan to take, the number of people you typically cook for, the conditions you'll face, and your style of cooking, minimalist, gourmet, or somewhere in between.  It is only then that one should start considering the other factors I've listed in my "framework" above.

Spend some time thinking through what you want your stove to do for you and what your stove must be capable of handling before you start shopping.
The Pacific Crest Trail at about 13,000 feet/4000 meters.
Looks a little barren up there.  You sure that stove can handle wind?
The criteria listed above are how I look at a stove and decide whether or not it's a good stove.  As I write evaluations, I try to address these points.  However, I can but point out which stoves in a given class are good ones.  You, the reader, must ultimately decide which class of stove is suitable for you and then from that class, make your pick.  I hope this is a helpful framework.

Have fun and be safe,


The Arizona desert.
Wherever you're headed, make sure your stove is equal to the task.

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My apologies to real people, but due to Spammers I have to moderate comments. I'll get to this as rapidly as possible but do understand that I like to hike and there's no internet in the wilderness. Take care and stove on!