Choosing Your First Backpacking Stove
Whether you are buying your first backpacking stove or looking to upgrade or downgrade, there is no shortage of products on the market to consider.
If you are the casual backpacker, like me, it's easy to get wow'ed by all the different choices out there. We've got Canister Style Stoves, Wood Burning Stoves, Fuel Tablet Stoves like the Esbit, and Alcohol Style Stoves. And I'm sure I haven't named them all.
The question is...are any or all of these worth the investment? I'm like most any guy and I like to have stuff. Having a few different style stoves is fun and can make the camping experience all the more enjoyable as you try one stove this trip then choose another the next trip. But, like most others, I don't have unlimited resources so I've got to make choices on how and where to spend my money for this awesome hobby.
Before you run out and buy your first stove, I'd suggest you start off with the absolute rock-bottom investment and make your own alcohol stove. Pair that with a dehydrated meal or two and you're off and running. We'll talk about that homemade alcohol stove in a sec but first just let me digress for a moment.
Yes, eating a great meal is important to having a great time. At least it is for me and my gang of backpackers. We like to eat well at the end of the day and first thing in the morning a hot cup or two of coffee is super important to me having an enjoyable time. With that said, you can have an absolute fantastic meal by going with a Mountain House, Backpacker's Pantry or Packit Gourmet Dehydrated Meal. And all you need to enjoy one of those is about 12-14oz of boiling water.
Every one of the stoves I list below does a great job of boiling water. There are about  Characteristics of Backpacking Stoves that make some the right choice for your needs and some not so much.
- Investment - The Home Made Alcohol Stove is the front runner here in the short term. You can make one for under $1 but you'll have to constantly invest in your fuel source. Boiling 12-16 ounces of water takes about 1 to 1.5 ounces of Alcohol and that stuff is really inexpensive.
- Pack Weight/Volume - That Home Made Alcohol Stove scores high marks here as well. Even with a few days worth of fuel, you'll hardly notice it in your pack.
- Fuel Source - Any of the wood burning style Backpacking Stoves top the charts in this category since you'll never have to pay for your fuel nor will you have to pack it in or out with you.
- Wow Factor - The Biolite Stove takes first place in this category in my opinion. Not only does it take an unlimited free fuel source [wood, pinecones, etc] it also has a thermocouple which can change that heat energy into electricity to charge your electronic devices. That's really something to brag on. There's been more than one occasion that I've almost pulled the trigger on one of these.
- Speed & Finesse - The Canister Style Stove just as the MSR Pocket Rocket or Jetboil Flash are the winners here. I've boiled two cups of water [starting at around 60F] in a whopping three minutes with my MSR Canister stove. That's over twice as fast as my Alcohol stove. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
Jetboil offers quite a few models with prices starting near $80 and moving up from there.
Note though that those prices, although a little high include a complete cook system [minus the fuel canister] with a burner, canister stand, pot, lid and cozy.
That's not a bad deal for all that gear. You're completely set for cook gear with one purchase.
One great advantage the Canister Style Stove offers in addition to it's duper fast boil times is a fuel control knob. That adjustment allows quite a bit more finesse in cooking and sautéing over just the standard full on flame 'boil my water' play. And it saves fuel.
Both the Pocket Rocket and the Minor Rocket are very similar and as will all canister stoves, they both have that same standard fuel canister threaded connection which is universal for all different makes of fuel canisters. So there's no worry about which fuel to buy - MSR, Jetboil and Primus are some of the most popular brands.
The distinct advantage of this style stove is the limitless supply of free fuel available. In a downpour this style stove would be tough to use unless there was overhead cover and some dry kindling but all that aside this style seems to be a popular choice.
I doubt there will be one of these in my future as I'm all about the campfire at my campsite anyway. For my needs, I don't see this style stove as useful. They are relatively slow to start and slow to boil water. And some wood burning style stoves are manufactured of titanium which can easily run in the $80-$90 plus range.
Aside from the advantages of super low cost, super low pack weight and relatively low fuel cost comes the additional benefit of it's ease of use even in wet weather.
The Esbit Fuel Tabs take a flame very easy and burns for about 8 minutes which is ample time to boil 2 cups of water for that dehydrated meal and a quick cup of coffee.
The unlimited fuel source of wood and/or pine cones makes this a one time investment that's always at the ready. And the super cool Thermocouple which converts heat energy into low voltage re-charge power for your mobile device makes this stove awesome.
I haven't seen any bad reports about poor reliability or short lifespan on the thermocouple so that's good. But at $130 or so, this one just might need to be a gift to me from someone in order for me to own one. Still, I'd have to say that I'd be really happy with one in my pack.
The only downside [and its barely that] is that there is no real flame control so once they are lit they basically burn at the same rate until the fuel is exhausted. If you need to adjust heat, it all about moving the pan away from the flame. Not a big deal to me since I'm almost always about boiling water and little else.
Boil times are also on par with the woodburing style stoves so there's no big advantage either way. But at less than $5 to make even the souped-up styles, I just love it.
As I pointed out in the beginning. If I could roll back the clocks, I'd save the money I spent on my canister stove and spend it elsewhere. The Alcohol Stove does everything I need it to. I hope that helps you make a good decision on your first or next Backpacking Stove.
Are you of the same opinion as me on the Alcohol Stove?