Backpacking With A Stove

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A while ago I wrote a piece on backpacking without a stove (you can find it here).  People liked it and I still think everyone should give it a try, don’t hate it till you’ve tried it!

But you have to admit, starting your day with hot tea and finishing it up with a warm dinner can make an otherwise hellish adventure down right pleasant.  Especially in the shoulder seasons, when you can expect rain and snow in the same day.

I talk to a lot of folks who get hung up about stoves…sure, stoves can be intimidating.  You can burn your food and set the forest on fire…but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Before we can get into to much detail though here’s a breakdown of your basic cooking options.

Wood Fire: while I don’t count it as a stove it’s been around a while, and it makes things hot and eventually cooks them…hot dogs, pots of soup, gore-tex boots, you name it.  While campfires are great for morale I don’t cook with wood fires while I’m backpacking, personally I find it totally impractical…but that’s a post for another time.

Backpacking stoves: these stoves are lightweight and compact.  Easy to carry in a backpack and generally easy to maintain and fix in the back country.  These backpacking stoves can be further broken down into three common types…

1: Canister stoves.  Canister stoves run off canisters of pressurized gas, they are far and away the simplest to use…generally speaking you screw the burner onto the top of the canister, set it upright, turn the gas on and light it…and there you go, a nice flaming burner just like the stove back home, only this one is small enough to fit inside your cooking pot.

2: Liquid Fuel Stoves.  These are the stoves you hear horror stories about, generally because people don’t know how to use them.  While they do take a little learning and practice I strongly prefer them.  You have more control over the flame which in turn gives you more control over how you cook things.  On longer trips these stoves are more compact because liquid fuel takes up much less space compared to canister fuel, and over time liquid fuel will be much cheaper then buying countless canisters.  On top of all this, liquid fuel stoves avoid the trash caused by all the metal canisters…and less trash is generally a good thing.

3: Alcohol Stoves.  These stoves are the secret weapon of ultralight backpacking, or anyone on a budget.  You can make one yourself, easily, they weight virtually nothing and run of denatured alcohol which you can get at the hardware store.  As an added plus, the fuel can be stored in a repurposed plastic bottle and if it leaks it wont contaminate food.  The only down side here is that alcohol stoves take some getting used to and you’ll have very little control over the flame.

Now…there’s a final option that’s worth mentioning only because everyone else is talking about it, and that’s Jetboil stoves.  These are really just fancy canister stoves with a mug that attaches directly to the top of the stove.  Beyond all the marketing these are good stoves for a very very narrow range of uses…in fact, really just one use, which is a mug of boiling water.  Beyond that you’ll probably need a whole different stove…and based on the lack of durability I’ve seen you might want a new stove either way!

Okay…hopefully this is a first step towards simplifying and demystifying the world of cooking in the back country.  Once you’ve figured out the type of stove that’s right for you then it’s time to practice, go out back and give it a go!

Remember: Always practice with a stove before you take it backpacking!

So, as the leaves turn and the frost forms on your tent fly this year, kick back and enjoy some hot meals and warm drinks before burrowing down in that zero degree mummy bag :)

Questions?  Want more info on a particular type of stove?  Have you set something on fire while trying to cook and want to avoid that ever happening again?  Let me know and I’ll address it in one of my next posts.

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