Wednesday, April 19, 2017

One Stove to Hike Them All

There's a dozen land management agencies out there.  What stove is acceptable to them all?

There are National Parks, State Parks, BLM, National Forests, Conservancies, and who-knows-what.  On a "long trail," you're going to pass through areas governed by a multitude of land management agencies – each with their own rules governing stoves.  How on earth can anyone comply with all the different rules!?  You need:
One Stove to Hike Them All.
Sauron knows canister stoves meet the regulations of all land management agencies
If you're a long trail hiker, you're looking for something light.  ESBIT and alcohol often come up, but they're often restricted or completely against regulations.

For example, all of the four southern most National Forests in California require (if you read their obscure websites carefully enough) a "shut off valve" (example:  San Bernardino National Forest)  – all year, every year, irrespective of fire danger levels.  That pretty much lets out alcohol.

Other National Forests specifically prohibit tablet stoves.  For example from Pisgah National Forest:
The use of commercially available portable lanterns, stoves, or heating equipment that utilize gas or pressurized liquid fuel is allowed. The stove must have an ON/OFF switch. No alcohol stoves. No hexamine or solid fuel cubes. [emphasis added]
Yes, of course, fire restrictions vary with conditions, but really, if you want to comply with the all the regs, all the time – regulations that may change as you proceed on your hike – there's really only one good lightweight solution:  A canister gas stove.

This is not meant to discourage those who prefer another fuel.  By all means, check with the various land management agencies along your route.  In many places, if it's been a wet year, there will be no fire restrictions.

1.  The longer the trail, the more jurisdictions.  On something like the PCT, CDT, etc. there are just too many agencies to check with them all.  I personally would just get a canister stove because it's the one lightweight option that complies with all regulations.  I'm not going to even think about identifying and calling/writing all of the various agencies along, say, the PCT.
2.  The regulations can change mid-hike.  Many agencies don't issue summer fire restrictions until June or July.  In really dry years, fire restrictions can be increased every month throughout the summer.  A stove that starts out in compliance may not be in compliance by the end of a hike.
3.  A canister stove will be OK every year, everywhere.  Sure, some other type of stove may be OK this year, but what about next year?  A canister stove is going to comply with the regs this year, next year, and every year.  And a canister stove will comply with regulations all over the US.  Other types of stoves may not permitted in some areas.

Is this how it should be?  I would argue no.  ESBIT for example is the very safest possible fuel in terms of fire safety.  Banning ESBIT is sort of like banning seat belts to promote automotive safety!  Why do agencies ban ESBIT?  Ignorance and bureaucracy.  There's just no logical, science based reason to ban ESBIT.

However, until agencies like the US Forest Service get out of the Dark Ages, these are the regs.  For now, it is only a canister stove that is a) lightweight and b) meets all regulations.

NOTE:  It's relatively rare, but occasionally there are 100% fire bans, a ban where no flames of any kind are permitted.  I've even seen entire National Forests closed during times of extreme fire danger.  A canister stove will comply with all regulations except of course a total, 100% fire ban.  Often major trail corridors are exempt from such total bans or at least canister stoves are exempted.  It's impossible to predict when such a total ban will occur, but generally land management agencies go out of their way to publicize such bans for indeed they are exceptional.
Canister gas stoves.
A Soto Amicus, left, and an MSR Pocket Rocket 2, right.

What Are the Choices?
OK, so it's a canister stove. Now, which one?  Well, that's up to you, but you may want to check out my thoughts on:  What Makes a Good Backpacking Stove?

Once you've got an idea as to criteria by which to choose, what are the choices? Well, there are three different general classes of canister stoves (upright, integrated, and remote), and within each general type, there are dozens to choose from.  I will here refer you to my article:  Canister Stoves, Compared, which discusses the three classes in relation to one another and has links to various reviews as well as to summary tables that allow you to compare the attributes of various stoves, side by side.

Given, the regulations (at least in the US) as they are currently constituted as of this writing, really, the only lightweight option that complies with all regulations all the time is a canister stove.  Please use the resources provided in this post to figure out what your needs are and to review the many canister stoves that are available.

Whatever stove you pick, I hope it serves you well in the wild.

Happy stoving,



  1. Yup. Living in Southern California I'm familiar with fire restrictions limiting stove use. I love alcohol stoves and other alternatives like that but at the end of the day, they were only usable around my home for about 2-3 months out of the year.

    I'll never forget the time that I was in REI buying a can of gas and the sales associate was selling a couple who wanted to backpack in Los Padres National Forest a Biolite stove.

    I pointed out that the fire restrictions made the stove unusable at that time. The REI guy was miffed at me but I was angry right back for encouraging, at best, a at-the-time pointless stove, and at worst, encourage a severe fire hazard that could result in a fine or a big wildfire.

    The couple bough a jetboil. Spent just as much money as the biolite, but they could actually eat hot food that weekend.

    1. It seems like for whatever reason I hear about California and Colorado fire restrictions the most followed by Oregon and Washington. Maybe that's just because California and Colorado are such popular places to hike and that I live out west.

      Yeah, that's irresponsible of the REI employee to not mention that you can't use a Biolite for backpacking in Southern California National Forests, not unless you stay in a developed campground with a Forest Service emplaced fire receptacle. A lot of people just don't know any better, but an REI employee should.

      Personally, I think open wood fires are the real danger, particularly since they can smolder and then come back to life, but the regulations we have are the regulations we have, and canister stoves are the only type of lightweight stove that fully complies.

      That said, it's maddening that the Forest Service either bans or is unclear on ESBIT type stoves. They are the safest possible stove type in terms of fire safety. It's like banning seat belts in hopes of promoting automotive safety. What the heck are they thinking? I chalk it up to ignorance of the grossest sort.


  2. My current favorites are the Soto Amicus or the Toaks Titanium Alcohol stove with my Primus Primetech 1L pot. Either stove will bring water to a boil very quickly in that pot.

    1. Hi, Bill,

      Interesting! By odd coincidence, I just got... A Primus Primetech 1L pot (as part of the Eta Express Stove system) and last week a Vargo Ti stove. Not quite what you've got, but close.

      I guess the Toaks stove works by capillary action? Sounds like an interesting little stove. How much alcohol does it take to boil 500 ml of, say, 65 F water?


  3. Thankfully we here in U.K. Have no restrictions anywhere. So I can use my favourite 12-10 meths stove when ever I want. If I had one I would go with the Soto Windmaster as gas stove choice but we have too much wind and rain for it to be first choice.

    1. Indeed be grateful, Alan. We've lost so many beautiful places due to rampant wildfire here. It's heartbreaking. It takes multiple centuries for the trees to come back to full maturity.

      I do like the 12-10. I've had mine for the better part of a decade now, and it's taken everything that I've thrown at it.

      Wind shouldn't be too much trouble for the WindMaster, unless it's really quite severe. Rain, I'm not so sure of. It literally rains so infrequently here that I never have to deal with it. I just wait half an hour until the rain stops. There's almost always a lull.

      For really serious wind, there's always the Windburner which is astoundingly windproof (although it would be hard to argue that the Windburner is light by any stretch of the imagination). When really cold, I tend to want something more powerful than meths. Perhaps I grow impatient when it's cold and want speed? For the patient, the Ti-Tri or Caldera Cone type set up with a 12-10 stove is a very windproof set up.


  4. Hi Jim,

    Good info as always. As someone who has had a hand in implementing fire restrictions on various properties I can tell you my thought about why Esbit and stoves without an on/off mechanism are banned. Basically, we want to prevent people from having to think about how to dispose of a still burning substance once their cooking is complete. While in an ideal world someone using a solid-fuel or alcohol stove would calmly smother it and then safely store unused fuel, experience tells us that most people want to get right to eating once their water boils or food is done, and they can make hasty choices. An on/off valve makes the fire instantly safe and people can go about doing what they need to. With solid or liquid fuels without a shutoff, they need to do one more thing to be safe, and human nature means that thing is often neglected.

    1. Interesting.

      I'm still not getting it with ESBIT. ESBIT just blows out like a candle and you stick it back into it's package or something.

      Now, alcohol is nary so easy to blow out, and it's often difficult to a) determine that it's still burning and b) extract from the stove. If one picks up an alcohol stove thinking it is out when it is in fact still burning, that can cause one to (rapidly) drop the stove, a stove with a spillable, liquid fuel in it that is lit. I totally get it with alcohol (although compared to wood fires which can smolder, alcohol isn't even close in terms of fire danger).

      Can you walk me through a scenario where ESBIT might cause a fire? I'm honestly lost here. I just can't visualize a scenario where ESBIT might cause a fire where a canister or liquid petroleum fueled stove would not.


  5. It is certainly not state of the art, or fast...but the last time I saw the regs for so.e of the SoCal forests I believe "jellies petroleum " was also ok. I live in Eastern Washington and the burn bans seemed pretty Draconian last year even in a National Park but alcohol stoves weren't mentioned, thankfully.

    1. Whenever I see references to "jellied petroleum" in US Forest Service literature or on one of their websites, I always have to laugh. There is of course no such thing as a jellied petroleum backpacking stove. Most people assume they're referring to Sterno, which is gelled alcohol. An example of jellied petroleum would be napalm, a weapon of war. I hardly think the Forest Service realizes that they just established a regulation that makes using napalm in a National Forest perfectly acceptable, lol.

      To me, this is just an example of how out of touch the Forest Service is with the people who actually use the forest. They really don't understand what stoves and fuels are commonly used. If one were to take a really strict interpretation of the rules, one could construe the rules as to prohibit ESBIT, the very safest fuel type. If one were to promote fire safe practices, ESBIT should be encouraged, not discouraged. ESBIT does not smolder, spill, spark, or explode. ESBIT can be blown out by mouth like a candle.


  6. Please pardon my earlier typing.

  7. Though its true canister stoves meet nearly all regs....I have allergic reactions to both propane and most of these pressurized fuels. I know sucks to be me sometimes. Most regs do allow good ole sterno jellied fuel. Last fall i found the Sterno Inferno stove on Amazon. Laugh sure, but i was surprised how eell it works boiling water, which makes home made dehydrated meals and simple meals doable for me. Nice that its safe enough to use indoors as a low cost emergency stove as well. Im planning to add a pot stand and egg frying pan as i rigged up a way to use a single serving size pot and cooked eggs and french toast fine.....

    I may be Simply a Stove Geek as well


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!