You have humped all day and have that hangry-face. Hungry, tired and now you have to fool with dinner. If you're an experienced hiker, you know that it's more than warm calories. It's comfort. This is your home and nothing feels more like home than a warm dinner. It's not that hard, right? It shouldn't be, but deciding on your stove can be difficult. There are so many options and price points out there that we wanted to put our guide together for you. We appreciate that hot food for dinner and a warm beverage in the morning may not sound like a big difference in the world, but it IS a big difference in the backcountry. We want to make the selection process easier.
This piece is written for 3-season campers, fall, spring and summer, specifically for backpackers or hikers in groups of 1-2 people. I would say that this piece is written for the hiker that is thinking about backpacking in the woods for 1-4 days typically. Conditions can make your decision about what to use and cook with very specific. For example, altitude and extreme low temperatures can (and should) impact your choice. Once you start getting temperatures below zero or at extreme altitude, your considerations change. We wanted to write this for individuals learning their way into the backcountry experience.
Build your own cat can stove. You take a cat can, use a hole punch and make a burner out of the cat can. It's really that simple (and it's pretty cool). This is also called an alcohol stove. It burns denatured alcohol and (most commonly) Heet, which both are sold in hardware stores. Heet is a few dollars and found in auto/convenience/grocery stores. Stick with the yellow bottle versus the red bottle if you have a choice. If you want to get all fancy pants, buy an alcohol stove on Amazon or you can Google a ton of varieties of them. However, if you are going cheap and easy, you can have your stove and fuel for less than $5. It's a 15-minute project at most.
Alcohol stoves are probably the most widely seen with ultra light and long-distance/thru hikers. There are no moving parts and this makes them extremely reliable. It's not going to be the fastest at boiling water and not the best at slow cooking, but it'll get your coffee going and boiling water to rehydrate food. You'll need a windscreen and small pot to cook with too. There are tons of variants of the alcohol stove, also called the penny stove or Pepsi can stove as well. Some are more involved than the cat can stove linked above, but the cat stove will get you through and we've used these for years.
Pro-tips: There is not an off button on the stove. Bring something to cap it to extinguish the flame. Also note that alcohol burns clean, so you'll often not see the flame when it is first started—be careful. After you extinguish the flame, you can pour any remaining liquid alcohol back into the alcohol container. An ounce of alcohol will typically boil 12-16 oz of water. I would suggest starting with a couple cups of water and figure out your right amount of alcohol/water usage. A few ounces of alcohol will do the trick for an overnight adventure, think dinner and a cup of coffee in the morning. In the beginning, bring a little extra fuel until you figure out how much alcohol you'll be burning. This solution will require a cooking vessel as well, we use a GSI cup.
In this case, our favorite option is on Amazon from eTek City. It's a canister stove burner. This means that you screw this burner on top of a canister. It also has a Piezo style ignition. A Piezo ignition means that you don't need a lighter/matches to ignite the gas—it's worth it. It's fairly light, even with a small isobutane canister. This stove has some more adjustability in terms of simmering and flame control, but it's still essentially a big bunsen burner (remember those from science class). It's light, effective and the value here is incredible. We like this option a lot and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. In fact, we'd recommend it over the alcohol stove if you have kids or want a bit faster cook, flame adjustability or boil times. The downside about this solution is that for backcountry adventures at length, the canisters may not be as readily available. Please note that these are not the same quality as some of the more expensive burner options, e.g. Primus or MSR products, but it's $10 bucks. Set your expectations accordingly.
Pro-tips: Get yourself a canister stand. They are cheap and add a bit of stability to your setup. A windscreen is a welcome addition to the kit here as well. This solution will require a cooking vessel as well, we use a GSI cup.
In this category, you can consider some of the options from Snow Peak, MSR and/or Primus. Most of these options are burner styled stoves and they have many of the same requirements, like windscreens, pots and canisters, as the options above. However, the real upgrade on these versus the cheaper Etek City option is the quality of the components/hardware and you may see a slight improvement on boil times. Comparatively, think that two cups of water may be closer to two minutes than three minutes to reach a boil. That's the difference. Please note: This is not a knock on the quality of the Etek product. It is a fine product. However, there is simply going to be better quality and engineering in these more expensive options.
In this category, you're going to find more complete systems that are suited to specific tasks. In this category, JetBoil, MSR, and Primus all make really high quality equipment. People can extoll the virtues of one versus the other, but what you should expect for the conditions we outline is a sub 3 minute boil time, efficient fuel use and a system. This means a cooking vessel will be included in the price and the cooking vessel is typically designed to enhance the boil time.
Our conditions in the Midwest fall into the range above with the 3-season campers. Therefore, our experience is limited to these environments and we won't recommend items we haven't used.
There are a variety of reasons and situations where these are fine options, but we don't recommend these for folks looking to get started. After you have some experience under your belt, you'll know the best solution for your needs. We wouldn't start with one of these options.
If you noticed that we used the word boil a lot, you're right. In fact, that's what people typically do in the backcountry, they boil water and rehydrate food. They boil water for coffee or tea. All of the stoves boil water. Some burners will simmer and cook at lower temperatures a bit better, but our goal is to get you started and share some of the macro differences and easy ways to get you started
We most typically use a JetBoil product. It boils water really fast and is reliable. This is our automatic choice for anything more than a solo trip. If we're going ultra light or solo, we'll take one of the following two options. Option 1: We pull the burner out of the complete cooking system and use a GSI cup to boil the water inside. A small isobutane can, plus burner and GSI cup. You'll see our setup in the picture above. Option 2: We use the alcohol stove, wind screen and a GSI cup.
If you are getting started, we'd tell you to order the EtekCity device, a GSI cup and a small container of fuel. It's a pretty light, reliable and versatile configuration. It's not expensive, but that doesn't make it a cheap solution either. We wish we would have started with this solution because the JetBoil is a great system, but it's also a system. It's a little heavier than we like to carry at times and most importantly, we like the ability to mix and match to the needs of our particular trips.
Regardless of what you choose, get that hangry look off your face with some warm calories.
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