This is the first of a two part series on cooking systems. In this segment I'll discuss different heat sources (fire, stoves), fuel and ignition for each.
There are many different cooking systems out there. Each one with it's own purpose. Some factors to consider when choosing your cooking system should be your trip location, group size, food choices and goals for the trip. All of these cooking systems have advantages and disadvantages. Though I prefer lightweight cooking systems for most of my trips, some may require me to choose one outside of my preference. I have personally used them all and hope that this info helps you in choosing what is best for you.
Open fires have their benefits and drawbacks. On the positive side of things, they can provide security, comfort and warmth. You can be caught in a nasty storm with nowhere to go (I have a couple of times) or have trouble falling asleep in your tent to the sound of something rustling in the bushes nearby. Yet when you hear the crackling of the fire or see it in your fire ring you ultimately get that feeling that everything will be ok.
Open fires can heat up large amounts of water very quickly which can be great if you are out with a large group. They are also the lightest cooking system around and the least expensive, as no stove or fuel needs to be carried or purchased. This method also offers excellent cold weather performance.
On the other side of things, open fires can be restricted and for good reason. Areas such as high alpine, National Parks, State Parks and environmentally sensitive locations contain scarce resources, thus making fuel hard to come by. Flames can emit embers which can burn holes in jackets or shelters. Most importantly, it can cause wildfires if left unattended or not set properly. Cooking over open fire is also synonymous with soot covered pots which can coat other gear in your pack if not covered. Lastly, starting a fire can require skill, especially in specific locations.
Pros: Lightweight, Great For Large Groups, No Cost, Aesthetically Pleasing, Works In Cold Weather
Cons: Land Restrictions, Can Cause Negative Impact, Fuel Not Guaranteed, Requires Skill
Backpacking stoves are portable, lightweight and follow the Leave No Trace Principles. These stoves may burn different types of fuel, operate and even pack differently. Below I will go through the various options out there.
Upright Canister Stoves
Upright canister stoves are a very popular option out there and can be found in any outdoor retail store (even Walmart carries a few models). These stoves are quick, fuel efficient when used during 3-season trips (they can be used in winter, see Integrated Canister Stoves further in this post) and are easy to operate.
These stoves don't require any priming, which can also lower unnecessary fuel consumption. They operate by simply screwing the stove onto a canister of pressurized fuel (usually a blend of butane or iso-butane and propane), twisting a fuel valve open and igniting the burner with a match or lighter. Some of these stoves may even contain an auto igniter called a piezo (pee-A-zo). With a piezo all you have to do is open the fuel valve, push the button in and your stove will begin to work (I still recommend to bring matches or a lighter if you use a stove with this).
Upright canister stoves will range in weight between 1.9oz to 8oz. They burn clean, hot (average is around 10,000 BTU) and rarely fail or need any type of maintenance. They are also very compact which can be great for saving space in your pack. Uprights are a great option for everyone from the solo adventurer to larger groups. Depending on certain factors, this type of cooking system is what I'll use most.
The drawback for these stoves is mainly the canister itself. Depending on where you are traveling it may be hard to find extra fuel if you need it. For shorter trips when you need less fuel, these canisters can also add weight (an empty canister usually weighs about 3-4oz, add the amount of fuel it contains to that). On shorter stints it may seem more feasible to use a stove where you can bring only the fuel needed and leave the excess at home.
Canisters for this type of stove cannot be flown and can only be purchased at a store due to the fact it is pressurized. Once they are empty they become trash and can be recycled, but not user refilled.
The other possible drawbacks for these would be windy conditions and high altitudes. In strong winds, many of these stoves don't offer much protection which can hinder performance. In high altitudes boiling temperature is lower, which means you'll have to use more fuel to cook meals at say 10,000 ft above sea level than you would at 200 ft above sea level.
Pros: Lightweight, Compact, User Friendly, Efficient, Low Maintenance, No Priming, Clean, Follows LNT
Cons: Canister Weight, Cost Of Stove (Fuel Over Time), Winter Use, Wind Protection, Cannot Fly With Fuel Or Ship Easily
Remote Canister Stoves
Remote canister stoves work similarly to the canister stoves discussed above. In fact, they utilize those exact canisters. The difference with remote canister stoves is the fuel is fed from the canister through a hose to your stove.
These stoves can be a little heavier due to the extra components, but they can perform better in colder conditions. The fact that the stove is on solid ground and not using the canister as a base gives it extra stability too, making it great for large pots and more hungry hikers.
Aside from these differences, remote canister stoves will pretty much have the same pros and cons as a upright canister stove.
Pros: Lightweight, Compact, User Friendly, Efficient, Low Maintenance, No Priming, Clean, Follows LNT, Winter Use
Cons: Canister Weight, Cost Of Stove (Fuel Over Time), Heavier Than Other Stoves, Wind Protection, Cannot Fly With Fuel Or Ship Easily
Integrated Canister Stoves
Another option is an integrated stove system. Jetboil stoves, MSR’s Windburner and the Primus ETA Lite are a just a few of these types of stoves. These stoves have a built-in pot, which can be a good option for solo trips. Some have regulators that offer superior simmer control for cooking meals (others may be more suitable for simply boiling water). Integrated systems also have built in wind buffers resulting in quick boiling times and efficient fuel usage. This can make these stoves excellent for if your trip requires constant use. Most of these sytems also have a piezo like the upright canister stoves discussed above.
Due to its design, heat transfer is excellent which in return requires less fuel and provides slightly quicker boil times than an upright canister stove. These stoves can also be a little more reliable than a upright canister system in cold climates, although both can be used in winter with some possible amount of fuss. Because a canister is pressurized it needs to remain warm for proper performance. That fuss can come from things such as carrying the canister close to your body heat in a pocket while hiking, placing the canister on a foam sleeping pad or cardboard when operating or even placing the canister in a bowl of water while cooking.
Some of these stoves also have compatible accessories which can be bought separately and used with that specific stove, such as a French press or frying pan. Most integrated canister stoves also come with a canister stabilizer to prevent your stove and pot from tipping. The average weight for a complete integrated systems is between 11oz and 16oz.
Pros: Lightweight, Compact, User Friendly, Efficient, Low Maintenance, No Priming, Clean, Follows LNT, Winter Use, A Complete System (minus fuel), Wind Protection
Cons: Canister Weight, Cost Of Stove (Fuel Over Time), Can Be Heavier Than Other Stoves, Cannot Mix-n-Match Your Own Complete System, Cannot Fly With Fuel Or Ship Easily
Liquid Fuel Stoves
Liquid fuel stoves are another popular option. They are great for cooking in groups, have excellent cold weather performance and can be more suitable for international traveling where fuel options can be limited (you will always find fuel for this type of stove). Liquid fuel stoves use white gas, which does burn hot and clean. Choose a stove that has the option of using a petroleum based fuel though and it can possibly contaminate things nearby such as your food or even clothing.
Some stove models can even accommodate other forms of fuel such as kerosene, diesel, unleaded auto gas, iso-butane/propane mixtures (remote canister) and jet fuel. These stoves will usually weigh the most between the stove, pump, hose and fuel canister. Liquid fuel stoves require priming or periodic maintenance. A large flame from the burner, when first ignited, is almost always bound to happen. White gas can also degrade over time which can clog your stove. Fuel spills are a possibility as well as mechanical failure. Both of these would most likely be due to human error.
Pros: Fuel Readily Available, Excellent Winter Performance, Some Options Offer Versatility, Great For Groups
Cons: Weight, Priming, Maintenance, Possible Failure, Requires Skill Similar To Open Flame, Stale Gas A Possibility
Wood Burning Stoves
Wood burning stoves have similar benefits and drawbacks to cooking over open fires. Some key differences though are that you'll get better wind and element protection, these stoves have minimal impact on your campsite and the ground. They can also weigh lighter than an integrated stove system (around 10 oz or less).
One factor I would be concerned with, with using a stove like this would be fuel. Depending on your trip location fuel for this stove could be scarce and/or protected. I also feel other stove options would be more suitable for long unsupported trips.
Pros: Lightweight, Great For Large Groups, No Fuel Cost, Aesthetically Pleasing, Works In Cold Weather, Minimal Impact
Cons: Land Restrictions, Fuel Not Guaranteed, Requires Skill, Not Suitable For Long Unsupported Trips
This type of stove has quickly become my go-to for shorter 3-season trips when an upright canister stove isn't suitable. A popular (and often the best) option for ultralight backpackers and long distance thru-hikers. These stoves can be some of the lightest you'll carry (the one I made and pictured above weighs a mere 0.3oz). They can easily be made (see how you can make your own just like the one I made by clicking here), which is why you won't find them for sale in retail shops. Alcohol stoves aren't superior though! They have their advantages and disadvantages like every other type of cooking system in this post.
Some benefits to using an alcohol stove are that there are no parts to fail (in most designs). These types of stoves also use fuel which burns quietly, and can easily be found throughout the U.S. such as hardware stores (paint thinner), gas stations (HEET in the yellow bottle) and outdoor retail shops (denatured alcohol). You can also carry the exact amount of fuel you need for a given trip once you get comfortable with using one. Alcohol stoves are easy to operate. Simply pour, light a match and boil your water.
The drawbacks to an alcohol stove are just as plentiful. Boil time is slow (second slowest stove in this post) which can result in 6 mins or more to boil water due to factors like wind, design, water temp. This slow boil time makes it a poor option for big groups, melting snow and long trips.
Despite the fact it most likely won't fail due to lack of parts also results in having no turn-off valve or simmer control. Learning the correct amount of fuel needed for your meals would be necessary. These stoves perform poorly in windy conditions too so some sort of windscreen is necessary (I made one out of aluminum foil which is pictured above with the stove).
Pros: Ridiculously Light, Most Likely Won't Fail, User Friendly, Cost Effective, Fuel Readily Available, Fun & Rewarding To Make, Great For Solo Trips
Cons: No Turn-Off Valve, No Simmer Control, Poor Wind Protection, Not Suitable For Groups Or Long Unsupported Trips, Slow Boiling Time
Solid Fuel Tablet Stoves
Solid fuel tablets/stoves are another option for ultralight trips. They are a popular choice among the Scouts and also to keep as a backup for emergency and survival kits. Like alcohol stoves, these stoves are also slow (the slowest in this post) to bring water to a boil and offer the same performance. Tablets can be found in many places, but can cost more than alcohol. They also leave a sticky residue to cookware and often smell like fish.
Pros: Lightweight, Most Likely Won't Fail, User Friendly
Cons: No Turn-Off Valve, No Simmer Control, Poor Wind Protection, Not Suitable For Groups Or Long Unsupported Trips, Slow Boiling Time, Leaves Sticky Residue, Odor
The boiling times listed below are an average of what you can expect, but many factors can change this. For exact specs, I would also strongly consider checking info from the manufacturer's website (if available) or contacting them.
Though some of the stoves I use may have a piezo, I will always carry an extra way to start my cooking system. Options for doing so are matches, a BIC lighter or a flint & steel. Matches are the lightest option and work very well. You can even waterproof them with candle wax on your own if you chose to. Lighters are quick and easy, but don't work as well in colder temps and can also cause the user to get burnt fingertips. Flint & steel has been used for ages. My favorite is the Firesteel from Light My Fire (see above). I can get up to 3,000 strikes with one of these before it needs to be replaced. They also work well in wet and windy conditions.
Do you have a favorite cooking system? What is it and where have you used it?