Almost every backpacker wants a stove that weighs nothing, will function in all temperatures and conditions, is ultra-reliable and burns readily available, preferably cheap, fuel. Sadly, there is no such stove. As in most things in life a compromise has to made. Below are my thoughts, based on 30 yrs or so of camping and backpacking, of the different kinds of stove. After that are some useful links for further reading.
Types, Pros & Cons
1. Pressurised stoves Primus made the first pressurised stove and are still brand leaders. Liquid fuel is pressurised by using an integral hand pump and, after pre-heating, the fuel ignites. Pros are good in cold weather. Cons: heavy, liable to flare, smelly, need regular maintenance. I wouldn’t dream of using one ever again under any circumstances after a nasty “flare-up” but some people like them.
2. Gas Usually the fuel is propane mixed with butane to help the propane evaporate. Sometimes the burner screws directly into the canister, some times a hose connects the two. Pros are easy to light and high heat out put which is controllable. Cons are the canisters are bulky and hard to dispose of which means they are hard to pack in the bergen and the empty ones have to be carried. Also, it is impossible to know how much gas is left in a used canister so you end up with several semi-empty canisters. In cold weather they are hard to light unless you use your body heat to warm the canister. Butane tends to evaporate before the propane so the pressure, and heat output drops.
3. Meths (Denatured alcohol) The gold standard is the Swedish maker, Trangia. Trangias are possibly the only stove that works well in high winds and they are bombproof. But, my, are they heavy! The backpacking community has developed many light meths stoves including the Caldera Cone and the “Soda can” stove. Pros are very reliable, noiseless, smokeless, fuel is easy to find, usage can be predicted so excess fuel needn’t be carried. Cons are all meths stoves cook slowly, the flame is either full on or not burning (although Trangias have a simmer ring), flame is hard to see in daylight.
4. Wood stoves These burn twigs and small bits of wood, some reheat the hot gases to give a very hot, albeit uncontrollable flame. Pros are use natural fuel which is free. Cons: can be sooty, fuel can be hard to find above the treeline, can be hard to light.
5. Alcohol Gel stoves A multitude of fuels like Greenheat or Sterno which are all solid ethanol. Cooking times vary depending on the fuel but they are slow as the heat output is low. Pros are very safe as the fuel cannot be spilt, environmentally friendly, easy to light. Cons are fuel is expensive and easily blown out by wind.
6. Hexamine (Tommy cookers) Esbit were the originals and still the best. A solid block of hexamine is burnt. Hexi is the only fuel that can be posted or sent by air. Pros are very safe as no spillage, ultra reliable, can predict how many fuel blocks needed, quiet, no smoke, works in any weather, unused bits of fuel can be blown out and used later, stoves are very light – I have one that weighs 13g. Cons are fuel is relatively expensive, blackens pots (but easy to clean off with a used tea bag or wet grass) , some people don’t like the smell although it doesn’t bother me, not all hexamine is the same in terms of heat output, slow as low heat output, sensitive to wind.
If I’m car camping, I will use gas as it is quick, clean and controllable. Or maybe the Trangia. For backpacking trips of a couple of days, I use hexamine or a Swiss Army Gel Stove which is essentially a tin can with a pot stand. You can see a video review of the gel Cooker here. I think its brilliant and easily refillable with Sterno. For longer trips I often use a meths stove, like the Caldera Cone, as the weight of the hexi blocks comes into play. I’m not bothered about heating times as I’m out in the open to enjoy it and I like the quietness and safety of these stoves.
A bloke on YouTube, called hiramcook, has tested almost every conceivable stove and uploaded videos of the the tests. Possibly to the point of obsession but very informative. This is his home page. For detailed write-ups and instructions how to make your own stoves Zen Stoves can’t be beat. Here is a link to the home page.