A guide to the best ultralight backpacking stoves for canister, alcohol, liquid, wood fuel.
Tested and written by ultralight Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers.
© Ken Koh (@adventurenomad)
So you wanna cook in the backcountry, eh? Backpacking stoves have come a loooong way in recent years. No more lugging around huge bottles of propane and heavy stove tops. These babies have gotten super lightweight - some only weigh a few ounces and can fit in your pocket.
Before you start looking at actual stove models, it is critical to consider what type of fuel you want to use first. Your stove's ability to heat up food and water will be limited by the type of fuel you are using. In other words, your stove is only as good as it's fuel source.
There are four main types of fuel sources: 1) canister fuel, 2) alcohol fuel, 3) liquid fuel and 4) wood fuel. Let's discuss the pros and cons of each fuel type and then break down their best stove models.
Canister stoves are by far the best way to go for lightweight backpacking in my opinion. The stove top screws into a fuel canister and unfolds (somewhat like a flower blossom) into a flat-pronged surface. The fuel canister itself has a wide circular base able to support your cooking pot. Once you are done cooking, the stove top folds back up into the palm of your hand for convenient storage.
Fuel canisters are heavily pressurized by one of a few different fuel sources: Propane, Butane or Isobutane. All of these fuel types work well and only vary slightly in functionality.
Canister Fuel Pros:
Stable surface to cook on.
Adjustable flame for a simmer or full on boil.
Canister fuel is readily available to resupply.
Strong flame to fight against heavy wind.
Easiest to setup and fastest to light.
(Sometimes) No lighter needed. Some have a built in lighter spark that is as easy as clicking a button called a ‘Piezo Ignition’.
Canister Fuel Cons:
Slightly heavier than some other stove options.
Slow flame in extremely cold conditions.
Weight: 3.75 oz Price: $44.95
The Snow Peak Giga Power Auto is what I used on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I loved it and still give it the green light for the best backpacking stove on the market. The built in 'auto' ignition makes lighting as easy as the click of a button. The four prongs provide a stable cooking space. See Snow Peak’s LiteMax for an ultralight 1.9 oz model or Snow Peak’s Giga Power Manual.
Weight: 2.6 oz Price: $44.95
MSR somewhat defined the genre with their iconic Pocket Rocket stove. The new Pocket Rocket 2 is even better - more compact and an entire ounce lighter than it’s predecessor. It also boils a liter of water in 3.5 minutes (a whole minute less than the Snow Peak Giga Power).
Weight: 2.54 oz Price: $39.95
The Crux Lite is as light as it gets for canister stove tops. It can burn a liter of water in just over 3 minutes as well. Fast burn AND ultralight? Yep. The stove top surface area itself is somewhat small and potentially less stable for your cooking needs. See the full size Crux for a bigger surface and faster boil.
Weight: 14 oz Price: $99.95
Let’s call the Jetboil Flash a “system” because they come with a stove AND a pot as an all-in-one system. Quite convenient. These are still canister fueled stoves though. The main advantage is that a Jetboil boils water FAST - a liter in about 2.5 minutes. Jetboils, compared to the traditional fork pronged tops, are much heavier though. Even if you were to carry your own 5 oz pot with the other canister stove options, you would still save several ounces. See the Jetboil MiniMo for a more compact setup or the MSR Windburner.
Some companies make these “can” stoves. However, they are usually made from a Do-It-Yourself beer or soda can with holes punched in the sides. Once your can stove is made, you just pour alcohol into the hollow chamber and then ignite the fuel.
See complete guide to the alcohol stoves.
Alcohol Fuel Pros:
Ultralight. Weighs almost nothing.
Cheap and accessible fuel. You can use almost any kind of flammable liquid.
Cheap and accessible stove to make/ buy.
Alcohol Fuel Cons:
Messy. Alcohol can get all over stuff. When finished cooking, your can is often left with alcohol to wipe out as well.
Unstable (and potentially dangerous) and can spill when lit. A rather flimsy and precarious surface to cook on.
Weak and inflexible flame. These have one setting... low. Not ideal for windy conditions or a fast boil.
Weight: 1 oz Price: $19.99
At under an oz, the White Box Alcohol Stove is a true ultralight backpacking stove. This is much more stable than your make-shift tin can stove from home and will ensure a more efficient flame. Also, for only $20, this is an extremely affordable stove. See Tangia for a more 'sealable' alcohol stove.
There are a TON of different ways to make a beer or soda or tin can stove - aka 'hobo stove'. It will take time to perfect, but can be a fun project. Again, these can stoves are extremely lightweight... often very unstable though. Here are 5 ideas and a how-to video to get you started.
A bottle containing fuel (white gas or kerosene) connects to the stove top from a chord. Manually create pressure inside the bottle with a mini pump.
Liquid Fuel Pros:
Stable surface to cook on.
Cheap and flexible fuel. White gas, kerosene, unleaded gasoline.
Large flame. Great for hiking partners and group cooking.
Best option for sub-zero conditions.
Refillable bottle and flexible fuel quantity.
Liquid Fuel Cons:
Heaviest stove option, by far.
Most expensive option.
Requires manual pumping for fuel pressure. I have seen several of these on the trail and always pity the user pumping fuel into them. Not that pumping is particularly hard - just a fiddle.
A lot of moving parts and maintenance.
Weight: 15.2 oz Price: $89.95
The MSR WhisperLite is the most popular and best-selling liquid fuel stove model. The WhisperLite opens up into a huge and stable cooking surface. It also has a lot of flame control for more advanced backcountry cooking. Since the WhisperLite only uses white gas, see the International WhisperLite or the popular Dragonfly for more flexible versatile fuel options.
Weight: 12 oz Price: $89.95
A lighter stove than the Whisperlite, Primus Omnifuel often gets overlooked as one of the best liquid fuel stoves. This Swedish company is becoming a leading quality stove manufacturer in the USA. This stove is durable and can boil a liter of water in 2.5 minutes. It also accepts ALL kinds of fuel. This is a winner for versatility in cold weather camping. Bam.
A collapsible stove frame acts like a mini fire pit. You place twigs inside the frame and make a small fire. I only want to mention these as an option because some people do actually use them. I am not a fan and find them extremely impractical for any kind of backpacking.
Wood Stove Pros:
Cheap fuel source - free firewood.
Durable and simple.
The walls act as a built-in windscreen.
Wood Stove Cons:
Needs a lot of time to set the flame.
Finding quality dry wood is a constant struggle.
Poor cooking experience. Maintaining a steady flame with a miniature fire is a delicate art… and that tiny fire does not boil anything quickly.
Weight: 4.1 oz Price: $54.99
Titanium and one of the simplest wood burning stoves on the market. All pieces of the Vargo Hexagon are connected which makes setup a breeze. My favorite things about the Vargo Hexagon though is the big open “doorway” which makes access to the fire chamber very easy. The chamber itself is big too - a nice plus compared to most other tiny wood burning camp stove.
Weight: 9 oz Price: $69.99
The Solo Stove Lite is a compact furnace. Unlike other wood stoves that are essentially just metal walls, the Solo Stove is a high-tech cooking machine. Complete with double walls, internal ventilation chambers and a screen shelf, this is certain to provide the most quality cooking experience for wood stoves. It also won’t burn the floor it rests on, which is an exclusive Solo Stove claim to fame.
Weight: 2.8 oz Price: $69.99
The EmberLit Fireant is one of the lightest wood stoves. The four walls collapse into a flat stack of titanium. It’s vertical design helps efficiently channel heat towards your pot for a faster boil. For a $39.99 and 6.5 oz version, check out the durable stainless steel Fireant version.
No stove, no dishes, no cleanup. This is the ultimate way for packing light and moving fast. The problem can be the monotony of your food options. See the full list of backpacking food ideas from the Appalachian Trail.
Designed by the military to be an instant heat source. They are super simple and lightweight. There are a variety of manufacturers that make solid fuel tablets. I find them poor to cook with and hard to resupply. See Esbit.
This is kind of an extension of the “Wood Stove”. However, wood stoves require bringing the actual metal stove frame. Roasting some meat or boiling water on an open fire is as rustic as it gets. Of course, it does come with disadvantages - long setup, fuel is susceptible to rain and bad weather, hot and messy cooking, etc.
Shaking and estimating is not the most accurate. The best way to see how much fuel is left in the canister is to let it float in water. The part sticking above water will be the ‘air’ in the canister and therefore, indicate how much has been consumed. If the whole thing floats, you are outta luck (or fuel)!
I thought a windscreen would add unnecessary weight. On the contrary, I came to learn how important they are to increase fuel efficiency… especially in winter.
I’m always amazed at how slowly boiling water takes in winter time. Your canister fuel flows much slower in cold weather. Your stove is also fighting an uphill battle against heating colder water and a colder pot. The combination can drain your fuel while your water slooowly heats up. Help out your stove!
A double folded piece of aluminum foil will act as a windscreen - effectively blocking the wind and channeling the flame to heat your pot much more efficiently.
Adjustable fuel sources (alcohol, liquid, etc.) will vary depending on how much you chose to pack out. Canisters have a fixed amount of fuel. They generally come in 4, 8 and 16 oz. single-use containers. 16 oz. is too heavy to pack. The 4 and 8 oz. are a reasonably volume to carry. I found that a 4 oz. canister would last about a week. At that weekly rate, I use just enough to bring 500 ml of water to a boil once a day.
I had never considered a kettle to be very practical for backpacking until my AT partner busted one out. Tea kettles are much more stable than a cup and, therefore, extremely convenient to just toss in the fire and wait to boil. It can save on fuel big time. The catch of course is the whole fire thing… and the fact that you will need an additional cup to drink or cook in.
Here are a few last questions to help narrow which one stove and fuel is right for you:
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
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