How to Decide What Type of Camp Stove to Buy
One integral aspect of bike touring is having the ability to eat as much food as one desires, without having to be worried about gaining excessive amounts of weight. Many of the guests on my podcast talk about their absolute love of food and some even got into bike touring just for the ability to travel around a country and eat as much as possible.
While a stove is not an essential piece of equipment, it is not always possible to eat in restaurants or food markets, and there definitely comes a time when it is important to have a means of cooking your own food, brewing some morning coffee, purify water, or even to melt some snow, depending where you are.
This is especially true for people travelling through more remote locations where towns and villages may be few and far between.
In the associated podcast, recorded in February 2020, Adam and I talk about the various types of stoves available, what our own personal experiences have been with them and what our recommendations would be for you.
Four Questions We Will Take Into Consideration
As with all equipment choices, the decision on type of stove you buy can only be answered after careful consideration of factors pertaining to individual tour. By the end of this article, I hope to have provided you enough information so that you can make an educated decision.
- Where are you going?
- How long are you touring for?
- How often are you “cooking”?
- How many people are you cooking for?
Where Are You Going?
This question takes in so many different factors that it is important that you really know what kind of trip you are taking. When thinking about this question, not only is the continent, country and region of importance, but it is also important to consider where you are travelling in these places and how far away from civilization you will be going.
One of the most important factors to take into consideration is the availability of fuel, so knowing where you will be going is of utmost importance.
When travelling in N. America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, travelling with a canister stove can work well, as you can easily find replacement butane/propane canisters.
It’s also important to remember that you cannot fly with alcohol canisters, so they are something you would need to be able to buy on arrival in the new country.
When going away from these areas into places such as the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and South America, it will be more difficult, if not impossible, to find replacement canisters. For these parts of the world, a stove that can use denatured alcohol and/or petroleum based fuels will be much more effective. This includes but is not limited to methylated spirits, 99% rubbing alcohol, white gas, gas/petrol/benzine, kerosene, and diesel.
Knowing where you will be going on your trip will be one of the most important factors in your stove purchasing decision.
How Long Are You Touring For?
The second more important consideration is the amount of time you will be travelling for. Even when in N. America, when going off the beaten track for long periods of time, such as up north on the Dalton Highway, it may be problematic if you are only relying on gas canisters for fuel.
Being aware of the length of time you will be in between fill-ups can sometimes even mean life-or-death, such as was the case for two cyclists in China when they ran out of fuel. Luckily for them they had a multi-fuel stove and were able to use a piece of hose to syphon gas out of a motorbike and into their fuel tank.
Another import consideration with regards to length of time touring is that some stoves are not as efficient as others and use more fuel to cook a meal. This is not an issue when there are plenty of places to refill your gas canister, but in situations where you might be away from a place you can get fuel, this might mean having to carry more fuel, which equals more weight. For example, the Trangia stove is a great stove so long as fuel is readily available. As it is not as efficient as canister or multi-fuel stoves, you would have to carry a lot of fuel if you were to be away from a fuel source for a 2 week period.
How Often Are You "Cooking"?
There are plenty of occasions in which you might not even want to cook when on a bike tour. After having lived in Malaysia for 7 years, I am well aware that the cost of buying meals 3-4 times a day is almost as cheap as going to the store to buy food to cook. It is also a big part of why people travel, as you can learn a lot about a culture through their local foods. This is particularly pertinent when embarking on a shorter duration tour, such as I did in 2018 when riding the Mae Hong Son Loop in Northern Thailand. I opted to not bring a stove with me, as I wanted to eat as much Thai food as possible and wanted to keep my gear weight to a minimum.
Another situation you may not want to bring a stove is when taking part in an ultra-distance endurance race/adventure, when you might not want to take the time to cook and/or do not want to carry extra weight, such as during some of the events discussed in Bike Tour Adventures Episode 020. Of course, many ultra-distance endurance races take place in Europe, where food prices can raise the daily budget significantly.
Furthermore, what you mean by cooking is also an important question to address. When touring, many people go the simple route of using their stoves to only warm-up/boil water for oatmeal and coffee, make pasta, etc. For this kind of usage, an unregulated stove may be just the trick. One of the most popular stoves on the market used by bike tourers, the MSR Whisperlite International, is just such a stove and is perfectly capable of taking you through years of adventure.
For those that enjoy doing a proper job with their cooking and that like to cook a variety of foods, it is important to get a stove that has a gas regulator, as this will allow the user to simmer and cook with lower heat levels. One popular option is the MSR Dragonfly, a multi-fuel stove that provides a regulator, allowing for more controlled temperatures during cooking.
I’ve never personally used one, but all the reviews and information I have read on it has been great and it has been around since 1998, meaning it has shown its mettle for about 22 years and is still going strong.
How Many People Are You Cooking For?
The final question to take into consideration before purchasing a stove is the size of stove needed. If going on a solo bike touring or bike packing adventure, it would be a waste of space to carry a large cooking set like the Trangia 25. However, the opposite is also true and it would be unrealistic to carry a JetBoil Zipp if you needed to cook for 2 or more people.
The main reason that it is important to have the correct size stove, is that it would be unwise and unsafe to try balancing a larger pot on a smaller sized stove base, such as a Jet Boil or Trangia Mini. This could potentially cause serious injury and can also risk damaging your equipment in the event of an accident.
What Is The Best Stove For Your Bike Touring Or Bikepacking Adventure?
In the following section, I will outline the pros and cons of the various types of camping stoves, based on the information put together by myself and my co-host Adam Hugill. These observations are based on our personal experiences as well as those of other people within our sphere of influence.
The following stoves are written about in the same order in which they come up in the podcast episode.
- Use many types of fuel
- Fuel bottles are refillable
- Good for melting snow in extreme winter conditions
- More suited to international travel
- Heavier than other options
- More expensive than other options and need to buy bottle as well
- More complicated to use
- Can be dangerous –> Fuel can spill during priming
- Needs maintenance
- Quite noisy
Although multi-fuel stoves are the most expensive and most complicated stoves to use, the reason they came up first in our conversation is simple because of their versatility.
The way in which they operate is that the fuel is heated and vaporized as it travels through the fuel line, allowing for an intense flame to be produced, which helps to conserve fuel and is able to bring water to a boil in just over 2 minutes. Because the system operates by putting the fuel tank under pressure, this makes the stove extremely capable at higher altitudes as it can be pumped up more in order to compensate for the thinner air at altitude.
One of the most important benefits of multi-fuel stoves are their ability to use a multitude of fuels, the most common of which around the world is gasoline/petrol/benzine. Be aware that it is an oil product and will blacken the bottom of your pots, so it is a good idea to have a dedicated bag for the cooking set.
Perhaps the most popular multi-fuel stove is the MSR Whisperlite International, a stove that has been on the market since 1984 and which is relative easy to repair. Bear in mind that it took a year of nearly daily use before Adam had a mechanical issue and had to rebuild it. The MSR Whisperlite starts are atound $130 CAD at MEC or Sail, £84 at Elite Mountain Supplies and $90 USD at REI.
An alternative option for those that like to be able to control their cooking flame or are looking for a stove that is capable of cooking a wider range of foods, the MSR Dragonfly is a multi-fuel stove with a regulator allowing for a more controlled flame. However, it is a bit more expensive, starting at $180 CAD on Amazon, £120 at Idealo and $140 USD at REI.
Of course alternative brands of multi-fuel stoves are available, such as those designed by Optimus and Primus….no pun intended.
A quick word about the Optimus Polaris Multi-Fuel Stove. As one reader pointed out, the Optimus Polaris is a multi-fuel stove that allows you to use various fuels similar to that of the MSR Whisperlite International, but also allows for you to connect and use gas canisters, much like the MSR Whisperlite Universal. One added benefit of the Optimus Polaris is that you don’t need to change the nozzle when using different fuel sources, and it allows the user to simmer while cooking. While this stove is pretty amazing, it is on the more expensive side, costing $215 CAD at MEC, £146 at Elite Mountain Supply and $180 USD at Trailspace.
- Light and compact
- Easy to make
- Easy to find fuel
- Very quiet
- Use more fuel
- Slower cooking times
- Easily affected by wind
- No temperature control, but most have an adjustable lid
- Difficult to see flame –> Can be dangerous
- Not as good in winter conditions (need to prime it)
Alcohol stoves are stoves with a very simple design that have a strong following all over the world for their durability, simplicity and ease of use. Usable with methylated alcohol and other types of alcohol that are over 90%, they are also usable with petrol from a gas station, but then make a huge mess on the bottom of your pot set.
To start with, we will talk about the Trangia stove, as it is the most popular alcohol stove in the world. Designed to work together with a base, wind-block, pots and pans, the Trangia can be a little big to take as a complete set on a bike touring or bikepacking adventure. It my experience, the Trangia stove paired with the Trangia Mini stand works extremely well, and if a wind-block is necessary, it is possible to stack some of your bike bags around the stove to minimize the amount of wind hitting the stove.
With a starting price of CAD $40 for the Trangia Mini, $68 for the Trangia 27, and $80 for the Trangia 25, the Trangia system is a good place to start for a stove that is reliable and that will stand the test of time and never need repairs.
An alternative alcohol stove is to purchase the ultra-lightweight Alpkit Bruler which weighs 150g and costs only $40. The kit also comes with a burner stand, which has little fold out legs to help stabilize the stand and the whole things fits well into the Alpkit MyTiPot 900, making a nice small all inclusive package. Plus, it costs the same as the Trangia Mini.
Finally, for those on a real tight budget or those looking to minimize their spending where possible, it is possible to make your own alcohol stove by using a beer can. Search for videos on YouTube, get practicing and before you know it, you will have a stove that cost you only the price of a beer.
- Light and compact
- Fast to boil
- Ease of use
- Burn cleanly
- Fuel is a bit more expensive
- Difficult to source internationally
- Not as good as a liquid fuel stove in extreme cold temperatures
- Do not work as well at high altitudes
Perhaps the best reason to use a canister stove is that gas burns extremely cleanly and is also very efficient, allowing the user to keep their pots and pans relatively clear from soot and also minimize the use of fuel. Bear in mind that the availability of gas canisters will be limited to certain regions of the world where they are more prevalent.
Most canister stoves work by attaching a burner to the top of the canister, thereby making the canister the base of the stove. While these are lightweight and easy to carry and maneuver, they can at times be precarious and you must ensure that the ground you are using is flat. See figure 1 below. There are some canister stoves that allow the stand to work independently of the stove and these are generally more stable. See figure 2 below.
Adam has used the MSR Pocket Rocket which attaches to the top of the canister and cannot be regulated. Currently the Pocket Rocket 2 is available which retails for about $60 CAD/£30/$45 USD.
Another option within the canister stove family is the JetBoil Cooking System. This is an all-in-one cooking solution, which, similar to the Trangia, provides all the necessary components in one compact package. The JetBoil system does just as the name suggest and boils extremely quickly, making it suitable for cooking foods that will not burn easily. They are also fantastic for making a brew, are relatively small and compact and don’t weigh too much. JetBoil systems range in price from CAD $85 – $200, depending on the size and ability to regulate the gas.
Wood Burning Stoves
- Fuel is free
- Don’t really need to carry fuel
- Good for the environment
- Slowest method to cook
- Times effort and practice to get good at it
- Difficult to use when wet outside
- Fuel may be hard to find depending on location
- Cannot use during fire ban
- Difficult to use during winter
The last type of stove I will talk about in this article are wood burning stoves. Wood burning stoves are portable, generally lightweight, boxes that you can add burnable fuel sources to cook your food. The best thing about wood burning stoves is that you never have to buy fuel, and this is perfectly acceptable throughout many parts of the world, but one should be very aware of where they will be touring. In certain places such as desert regions and arctic tundra it may be next to impossible to find suitable materials to make a fire.
It’s difficult to recommend a specific brand of stove as I have not used any before, but some of the recommended stoves I found were those such as the: Solo Stove Lite, BioLite stoves and KampMATE stoves.
The Solo Stove Lite gets great reviews, having won awards and been recommended by Backpacker Magazine. The stove is compact and weighs 9oz. and takes between 8-10 minutes to boil a litre of water. This stove costs about $65 USD
The BioLite Campstove 2 comes highly recommended in the comments below by Don and also ranks highly in wood stove reviews. However, this is not a light piece of kit and weighs 933g (>2 lbs), but boils water in 4.5 minutes, and has a build in battery powered fan that can really get the fire going. This also comes at a higher cost, being around $150 USD.
Finally, the KampMATE WoodFlame Ultra Lightweight stove is highly ranked as a great stove for a low price, collapses to pack flat into your bags, weighs only 520g (1.1 lbs), and costs only $22 USD.
So there. You have options.
BONUS STOVE: Solid Fuel Stoves
- Very inexpensive stove
- Small and compact size
- Easy to use
- No fuel spillage
- Expensive fuel
- Slow to cook/boil water
- No temperature control
- Does not work well in windy conditions
- Leaves a mess on cookware
- Smells bad
- Difficult to source fuel tablets
- Not effective in winter conditions
After some deliberation, I decided to add this to the list of stove types, mainly because it is an alternative that is available and should not be discounted just because I’m not a fan of them. Having previously used them on many occasions while in the military, they’re definite advantages are that they are small, compact and quiet to use. The hexamine tablets are more expensive to use than other fuel supplies, make a terrible mess and take some time to cook with.
There is a time and place for such a stove system, and I think they make a great emergency backup if a little added weight is an issue. They are also very useful if you are trying to be especially stealthy…aka…the military.