A group of backpackers cook dinner at a campsite on the Great Circle Trail in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness. Carey Kish photo

After a healthy day on the trail, there’s nothing like settling into a comfy campsite and then chowing down on a good, hot meal. Cooking over a wood fire is a thing of the past, so you’re going to need a backpacking stove to prepare the soup and stew in the evening, and the all-important cup of coffee and oatmeal come morning.

There are a dizzying array of quality backpacking stoves available, from canister and integrated canister stoves to liquid fuel stoves to alternative fuel stoves. Within each of these categories are a range of specifications to consider, such as how long the fuel supply will last, how fast can it boil water, what’s the overall weight, convenience of use, and ease of field maintenance.

Other factors will influence your stove choice. Are you going on a long distance hike or doing overnight and weekend trips? Will you be simply boiling water for your meals or are you into more elaborate cooking? Do you plan to hike in the cold shoulder seasons or in wintertime? Is your budget a deciding issue? Are you hiking solo or with a group?

CANISTER STOVES

Isobutane-propane mix canister stoves own most of today’s backpacking market, and it’s easy to understand why. Just screw the canister onto the stove, light and start cooking. They’re compact and lightweight, and the adjustable flame allows good simmer control. Look for a model with a self-igniter. The self-sealing canister means no messy fuel leaks.

Lacking a screen, canister stoves are less efficient when used in the wind. The pot stand is often narrow so beware the tippy pot. Ounce for ounce, canister fuel is more expensive than liquid fuels. Calculating how much fuel remains in the canister can be tricky, so it’s best to carry a spare. Most outdoor stores recycle empty canisters, but you can also buy a puncture tool to dispose of them yourself.

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INTEGRATED CANISTER STOVES

These stoves are super fuel efficient with a heat exchanger and windscreen built right into the base of the pot, which locks securely onto the burner unit. One canister goes a long way, making them popular with ultralight and through hikers. These stoves are great for boiling water real fast, but not so much for preparing anything other than freeze-dried meals and instant foods like potatoes and ramen. Some newer models have better simmer control. The mated unit has a taller profile than most stoves, so tipping over is a concern.

LIQUID FUEL STOVES

Most liquid fuel stoves run on white gas, although some models are multi-fuel and can use kerosene and diesel, good alternatives when hiking overseas. A refillable fuel bottle is attached to the burner unit via the fuel line. The bottle must then be pumped to create pressure to move the fuel through the line. Priming is required to convert the liquid gas into vapor; this involves allowing a few drops of fuel into the burner cup and igniting it to pre-heat the fuel line. When fully cranking, these stoves roar like a little jet engine.

Long the backpacking standard bearer, liquid fuel stoves are still a solid option for larger groups, more involved cooking and especially for cold weather use. These stoves are low-profile and therefore very stable. Regular maintenance, like cleaning the jet and replacing the O-rings, is necessary for optimum performance. Liquid fuels are smelly, and any spills or leaks can be nasty, so proper handling is a must. It’s easy to figure your fuel level, and there’s no empty canister to deal with.

ALTERNATIVE FUEL STOVES

Denatured alcohol stoves are simple, lightweight, quiet and the fuel is inexpensive. The big downside is that it takes a long time to boil a liter of water because alcohol doesn’t burn as hot as white gas. A windscreen is a necessity. Wood-burning stoves operate on small twigs, so your fuel source is readily available, except during wet weather. A battery-operated fan fans the flames. Solid fuel tablet stoves are small, light and cheap but slow to boil.

Seasoned safety advice: Never cook inside your tent. Besides the carbon monoxide issue, it’s a disaster waiting to happen in so many ways. When you’re cooking, give it your full attention. Burns from stoves and spilled pots are all-too-common injuries on the trail.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is a veteran hiker and freelance writer. His latest book, “Beer Hiking New England,” will be available later this year. Follow more of Carey’s adventures on Facebook and Instagram @careykish


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