Tec-splenations: Stoves

Tec-splenations: Stoves

“Some days I would go without any fire at all, and eat raw frozen meat and melt snow in my mouth for water. –Buffalo Bill 

How easy it would be to start off with a panegyric about how modern stoves have revolutionized camping life forever, and wouldn’t old Buffalo Bill have had a lot less to complain about! Yet despite the innovations and progress of the intervening 90 odd years, Buffalo Bill was certainly not the last camper or traveller to find himself suddenly without the means to cook up a nice meal or even a cup of hot tea.

 Cooked meat? You mean baby food!

Cooked meat? You mean baby food!

Of course, problems in the field may be the least of your worries. The fact of the matter is that of all the camping and travelling equipment to choose from when you walk into an outdoor store, stoves can easily present the most baffling array of choices to the newcomer—or even to the experienced camper, who has decided to finally upgrade from his Coleman® G.I. Pocket stove.  Canister stove? Liquid fuel? Those strange little boxes that you feed twigs into?

Well, have no fear! The perplexing array is about to be made simple. Starting off with an easy explanation of the most common stove types out there, and then, for the dedicated gear-heads, a slightly more technical explanation of fuel types and methods. (Pssst. You should read it anyway. It’s really interesting.) At first, it seemed like it would be easy to give an informative but nonetheless concise summary of all stove’s salient points. But there’s so much interesting information out there that we feel is vital that we’re going to go ahead and break it down into three articles: canister stoves today, then liquid fuel stoves, and then—if you can handle the suspense—fuel types and features. All the questions you never knew you had, answered! 

The two most common types of camping stoves available are canister stoves and liquid-fuel stoves. There are also alcohol stoves, fuel-tablet stove—even candle stoves and “natural fuel” stoves. However, with the exception of alcohol stoves such as Trangia, most of these are in the comparative minority so for the sake of brevity, we’ll mostly pass over them. 

Canister stoves Identifying a canister stove is easy because—you guessed it—it is fuelled by a gas canister, onto the top of which screws the stove itself. Most fuel canisters come in two sizes, generally 100 grams or 230 grams, although naturally this can vary from company to company (MSR is careful to state that their larger canister is 227 grams, thank you very much!)  

Optimus Crux - side view

Optimus Crux - side view

Canister stoves have several immediate and powerful advantages to other stoves. They are arguably the easiest stove to use, the quickest to set up and often the cheapest to buy. And fortunately, when it comes to canister stoves, cheapness is certainly not necessarily synonymous with inferior quality: the MSR PocketRocket®, which has been around for years, retails for around $85 and yet is a bastion of the outdoor world; dependable, tough and lightweight. Canister stoves in a nutshell:

  1. Incredibly easy to use
  2. No possibility of fuel spills (think: fuel in food, fuel in backpack, fuel on clothes...)
  3. Clean burning
  4. Compact
  5. Easy flame control
  6. Don’t need to be primed
  7. Quiet 

Eensie-weensie teeny weenie...green stove.

Eensie-weensie teeny weenie...green stove.

Their compactness might be the first thing that strikes you about them. The miniscule size which various companies have shrunk today’s stoves down to is truly wonderful. For instance, the Optimus Crux not only weights a mind-blowing 83 grams, but folds down to a minute 84 x 57 x 31 mm, which, in case these images haven’t loaded, is about the size of the middle of your hand. (Average sized hands only, please).  And yet that compactness hides powerful stove-ing abilities, with the Crux able to bring a litre of water to a boil in as little as 3 minutes. Compactness with canister stoves isn’t just a question of size. 


Fuel, stove, pot, coffee press - and it all packs down into one small gadget.

Some companies (such as Jetboil®) have invested in developing complete stove systems—where the stove, fuel, and cooking pot pack up and travel as one unit. Ever since Jetboil started making their stove systems, the loyal fan club of this easy-packing, easy-to-use, and cleverly innovative system has been steadily growing. With the addition of nifty accessories like the hanging kit and coffee press, the Jetboil® PCS (that’s “Personal Cooking System”, to you) has rapidly become a favourite amongst everyone from climbers to campers. There is undeniable gratification in being able to unpack, cook and repack as easily as many canister stove systems allow. 

Not having to be prime is delightful, and becomes more so in direct proportion to how hungry you are. We’ll get into priming later (the hows, whys and wherefores) but for now, suffice it to say that not having to prime a stove is the outdoor world’s equivalent of plug-and-play technology. No setup, no wait times, and the delights of your dehydrated pasta as soon as is humanly possible. 

Or Perhaps it isn’t Right for You...

So what are the drawbacks to a canister stove? The warning you’re most likely to hear is that “Canister stoves don’t perform well in the cold.” This one is tricky, and if you want to hear the reasons behind it (and an explanation of just how cold the weather has to be, and why the cold affects it) then stick around for part 3.

Original Coleman patent application...have things changed that much?

Original Coleman patent application...have things changed that much? 

But, as a general rule (and particularly in Australia), most people will not be dealing with sufficient cold to warrant this being of great enough concern to rule a canister stove out. While they certainly aren’t at their best in “cold” (a nice, completely relative term, if you think about it), they are, in general, more than serviceable in anything except deep winter conditions.

 There are certainly some tricks and tips to help compensate for the cold (like carrying your fuel canisters next to your body, mmhm!) With the standard disclaimers here about not being responsible for your death should this advice not prove right for you, it’s safe to say that many campers and hikers use their canister stoves even in snow and ice without any ill effect. Naturally, should you choose to do this, it would be wise to pay attention to the warnings, find out what the tricks are (hint: stick around for section 3!) and, advisedly, understand why the temperature can be an issue.

Counting the Cost

Another drawback to canister stoves is, of course, the economic factor. In the long run, canister stoves are definitely the most expensive to run. Let’s continue to use the Crux® from Optimus and the Nova®, also from Optimus®, as examples, because they are both excellent, high-performance stoves.  

As seen around the globe. MSR fuel canisters.

As seen around the globe. MSR fuel canisters.

 An 230 gram canister of fuel can cost anything from around $8 to $15, and the aforementioned Crux® gets a maximum burn time of 60 minutes out of this. Relatively good, for a canister stove. But compare it to the Nova®, Optimus’® liquid-fuel stove: Where the Crux® is burning about 3.83 grams of fuel per minute, or 230 grams per hour, the Nova is burns 3 grams a minute, or 180 grams per hour. A 50 gram difference, which adds up quickly and significantly, both cost and weight wise. Sure, it doesn’t make a huge difference on a weekend trip where you just throw in an extra 100 gram canister. But given that the recommended fuel budget in summer, on average, is 100 grams/person/day (double in winter), and you’re going for 5 days, you’ll have to invest in more than 2 large fuel canisters—say, 2 large and 1 small; at the minimum cost you’ll have already spent about $30 on fuel. Meanwhile, with the liquid fuel stove and the same fuel budget (500 grams, or 500 millilitres) you will spend less than $4. (A 1 litre bottle of Shellite, or white gas, retails for around $7.25) 

What this many canisters also means is that you, being the conscientious and honourable member of the outdoor community that you are, are going to have to lug around those empty fuel containers until the end of your trip. It would be fairly unnecessary to elaborate on how annoying this can get after awhile.

The bottom line, cost-wise, is a difference of $26! For most of us, that’s a pretty significant spend. And that’s just one 5 day trip. Go ahead and calculate it out by how many times you get out a year, and you might start to feel a bit uncomfortable. Something which used to be a significant concern for canister stove users is becoming less so, albeit fairly slowly, thanks to increased environmental awareness and green practices; and that is the environmental impact of empty canisters. In years gone by, canisters were either not recycled or recyclable, or were surreptitiously punctured (against all warnings) and buried in recycling bins under the tin cans. Today, Jetboil® sells the Crunchit®, a nifty little device which can be used to safely puncture empty (please note: empty) canisters so they can be recycled. At the moment, although none of the other companies seem to be jumping on this as far as the warnings or directives on their canisters, Jetboil® does claim that the Crunchit® can be used on any canister. Use with discretion.  

Jetboil group cooking system

Not just for soloists: Jetboil makes a Group Cooking System (also compatible with the hang kit) which still all packs down into the pot.

 The Bottom Line

There isn’t really a right or wrong when it comes to choosing a stove—except situationally. The needs and performance of canister stoves moves them naturally, for the most part, into the day trip or weekend trip category. However, they aren’t necessarily bad on longer trips; you just have to be willing to deal with the drawbacks in terms of fuel and weight.

Canister stoves excel on shorter trips and, for trips where you want to spend the least time possible messing around with your food and the most time possible doing everything else. If cost, weight or temperature are going to be considerations for you—or more important than the inherent simplicity of a canister stove—than hold on for our next post, where we’ll talk about the pros and cons of liquid fuel stoves.

Wendy Astleford is the Marketing and Web Co-ordinator for the Outdoor Life Group. She likes Magnificent Tree Frogs, diving, and writing long and technically detailed posts for the Trek & Travel blog.