AMC Outdoors, July/August 1999
By Michael Lanza
There’s something about fire that hypnotizes us. Maybe we all share some ancient genetic coding for the primal sense of comfort the earliest homo sapiens felt at building a fire to cook their meat and warm their cave. Only something so innate could explain the dreamlike daze in which two companions and I stared at a flaming pool of white gas spreading over our sleeping platform in the Guyot shelter in the White Mountains.
We were the only occupants of the shelter that night, so it seemed perfectly reasonable to cook inside. When I primed and lit the stove, though, white gas overflowed from the burner like water from a public fountain. The flaming liquid fanned out in a widening radius over the wooden platform. The three of us stared, slack-jawed in Neanderthal wonderment, for a long moment before scrambling to throw sleeping bags and other gear out of the path of our manmade lake of fire.
Used properly, of course, camp stoves are vastly more efficient than a campfire at producing a hot meal. Using a stove also minimizes your impact on the backcountry because you don’t have to denude the forest around a campsite for dry wood or blacken the earth with your fire. And your stove may be nearly as critical as your sleeping bag or tent in making the difference between a comfortable and safe trip and one that’s miserable and potentially dangerous.
Recent years have seen great leaps in stove technology. While all models have their strengths and weaknesses, stoves are more reliable and versatile than ever. Choosing the right stove boils down to finding a cooker designed for your kind of adventures. Basically, stoves come in two types:
Butane, or canister, stoves, burn a butane-propane blend in a pressurized cartridge. Cro-Magnon man could have operated these: A burner head or fuel line twists onto a fuel canister, then you open a valve, put a match to the burner, and you’re cookin’. These stoves have several advantages over liquid-fuel stoves: they are lightweight (ranging roughly from three to 13 ounces), compact, generally less expensive (usually $20 to $90), capable of delicate flame control, and may last your lifetime without needing maintenance. Recent innovations include push-button lighters which eliminate the need for matches, and a collapsible two-burner stove that weighs 25 ounces.
The biggest weakness of these canister stoves is diminished performance in any wind, so you need a protected cooking area. Most also sputter and die in temperatures below freezing, although some newer models correct that shortcoming by using fuel with a higher ratio of propane to butane. The smallest canister stoves are simple burners that sit atop a fuel canister, making them top-heavy and a bit tippy under a big pot, although fine if you’re cooking for only one or two. More-expensive models stand on legs and attach to the canister via a fuel line, making them more stable. In short, these lightweight, simple stoves are ideal for fair-weather outings and campsites protected from wind.
White-gas, or liquid-fuel, stoves, like the familiar Coleman brand, burn white gas, a nearly additive-free petroleum product. Some models burn other fuels like kerosene and auto gas. They typically require assembly with each use: attaching a fuel bottle to the stove and pressurizing the fuel with a pump, followed by priming, or pre-lighting the burner with a little gas. Their great advantage over butane stoves is superior heat output, especially in wind and cold. Most also have a low profile and stand on collapsible legs, providing a sturdy base under a heavy pot.
Besides requiring assembly and priming, though, white-gas stoves are heavier (13 to 19 ounces), usually more expensive than cartridge stoves ($60 to $120), and require periodic cleaning and maintenance — for which maintenance kits are available. Some have a tendency to flare up until you learn the stove’s idiosyncrasies. A few models have self-cleaning features which save you some work, or they can be cleaned in the field. While one traditional complaint about white-gas stoves was lack of flame control, some newer models simmer as well as butane stoves. Outside the United States and Canada, where white gas is not available, you need either a multi-fuel stove that will consume kerosene or other liquid fuels, or a butane stove whose fuel canisters are widely available.
In short, if you expect to encounter wind and cold, get a white-gas stove. There are differences between stoves within each category — some handle frost and wind better than others, some are lighter, some have better flame control. Last year saw the introduction of the first stove, the Primus MFS, that runs on both butane-propane canisters and several kinds of liquid fuel, including white gas. Check out gear reviews, see what your friends use, and fire up different stoves yourself outside the store before laying down the plastic for one.
Airlines prohibit the transport of any type of stove fuel in your luggage, and their regulations regarding carrying a stove on a flight vary. Consult your airline, and purchase your fuel after you land.
Measures of the so-called burn time and boiling time are available for many stoves, but don’t place much credence in them. Burn time is how long it takes to expend a full liter bottle or a canister of fuel at high power; boiling time is how fast a stove will bring a liter of water to a boil in windless, warm air at sea level. The numbers are almost meaningless, not only because they are provided by the manufacturer but mainly because they are derived under ideal conditions.
Your own cooking habits and menu, and conditions like ambient temperature and wind, will determine how long your stove takes to boil water or how long it runs on a full bottle or canister.
As for the outcome of our Guyot shelter fire, fortunately for us, white gas burns off very quickly. Seconds after I turned off the stove’s gas valve, our fossil-fuel conflagration was out, with no sign of it having ever occurred. And my cohorts and I learned a lesson nearly as old as the opposable thumb: Fire is good, but don’t stare goofy-eyed at it when it’s about to consume your shelter.
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.