Although cooking over a campfire is a classic and very enjoyable way of preparing your meals in the outdoors, there are many situations where it simply isn't possible. Lack of firewood, burn bans, high altitude, wet environments... the list goes on. For all of these situations, and for a quick and reliable method, camp stoves are your go-to item.
Liquid fuel offers excellent cold weather operations, numerous inexpensive fuel options, the ability to take only the fuel you need, reusable containers, and generally a more stable cooking base. However, these stoves are more prone to leaking, are a bit heavier, and require priming.
Another thing to note with liquid fuel stoves is the availability of kerosene internationally as an easy fuel source, so these work out better for the international traveller.
Canister style stoves are the preferred tool for warm season backpackers, ultra-lightists, and anyone else looking for weight savings. These stoves have a very low chance of leaking in your bag, burn very cleanly, have excellent flame control, and need no priming. The biggest drawback is that because the canister is pre-pressurized, it will lose its power in low temperatures around 32 degree F or less. This can be combated by keeping your canister warm in your jacket, but ideally this system is for warmer weather. The other problem is that these canisters cannot be recycled, so you have to purchase a new canister each time.
Multi-burner stoves come in varieties from one to four burners. These stove are reserved for front country use only because of their weight and size. All multi-burner stoves have excellent stability and run off detached propane fuel tanks. The size of the propane tank can vary depending on the size of your group and the length of your trip.
If you are cooking for groups in the front country- this is the stove you want!
Jetboil changed the game when they first introduced integrated stoves. These stoves use a fuel canister, stove, and pot all designed to nest together for high efficiency cooking, and space efficient packing. Integrated stoves can only use their specific pot, so they lack versatility.
For two person pot cooking, melting snow, or brewing the morning coffee, these stoves absolutely are the best.
Denatured alcohol stoves are really tiny cups to hold liquid or solid fuel, with small pot supports. These stove are TINY! The stove itself often weighs less than 4 ounces. These stoves don't burn very hot, so it takes some time to cook a meal. Having to cook for more than two people makes these stoves worthless. For the ultralight backpacker, these stoves might be the best option for an occasional hot meal.
Natural fuel stoves come in two forms. "Stoves" that actually just encase the fire, and fancy gadgets that use fans to increase heat output and even recharge electronic gadgets. Natural fuel stoves are overall heavier than all their counterparts, but make up for this by not needing fuel bottles.
These stoves are truly 100% natural because they only require found materials; and don't rely on petrol, propane, or alcohols as fuel. One important note is that these stoves cannot be used during burn bans, or in areas that don't have twigs. They are more time intensive, but if you want an all-natural cooking alternative, or are long distance hiking and don't want to carry fuel, these are good stoves to try out.
The biggest debate for stoves is deciding what type of fuel you will be burning.
Liquid Fuel (white gas, kerosene) Pros: Excellent cold weather use, stable cooking base, reusable bottles. Cons: Heavy, fuel bottles can leak, can be dangerous if not used properly.
Canisters (Propane, Isobutane) Pros: No priming required, lightweight, good flame control. Cons: Less stable cooking base, one time use, cannot be used in cold weather.
Denatured Alcohol Pros: Ultralight, very small, instant flame. Cons: Low heat output, cannot cook for more than two people.
Natural Fuels Pros: 100% natural, unlimited fuel (depending on location), can recharge batteries. Cons: Heavy, cannot use during fire bans, more time intensive
Perhaps the easiest way to decide what type of stove to buy is based on the size of your cook groups.
For large groups in the front country, absolutely get a two or four burner stove.
For large groups in the backcountry, it is good practice to break into "cook groups" of 3-5 people. Each cookgroup then is responsible for their own stove, fuel, food, and cookset. Liquid fuel stoves offer the most versatility for cooking. Canister stoves can also be used in this group size, but be careful about tipping hazards if using larger pot and pans.
An integrated stove works very well for one or two person travel, especially if you are in rough conditions.
Denatured alcohol is also good for one or two people if you are trying to shave off ounces.
Generally when shopping for stoves you will find two different specs on heat output. The first will be measured in British Thermal Units (btu) and the second will be how long it takes to boil one liter of water (starting at 70 degrees).
High heat output is a valuable ability when cooking in cold weather or at high altitude. Another spec to consider is liters of water boiled per 100g of fuel. This number is basically a mpg rating for your stove and is a great way to compare efficiency between models.
A weight-mile is a calculation of your cooking package weight per day based on length of travel. It is the best way to compare total weight for a stove over the entire trip.
We are working on building a comprehensize Weight-Miles calculator, but for now check out this page that does a good job of covering stoves! Check back soon!
Liquid fuel stoves are generally more stable because the fuel bottom is detached, which lowers the cooking base towards the ground. Of course, if you are really looking for stability a 2-4 burner stove won't be in danger of tipping.
Liquid fuel stoves excel in cold weather. If you know that cold weather cooking, below 32 degrees fahrenheit, is in your future it would be smart to get a liquid fuel stove. Unless you are sleeping with your stove canisters, they cannot operate at those low temperatures.
The ability to simmer is one thing most canister stoves do very well. With the canister already pressurized, you have a lot of control over the heat and efficiency of the stove. For many liquid fuel stoves there is really only an on or off. Simmering can be achieved by turning the stove off, depressurizing it, and then only using 2-3 pumps. However, using this method requires a watchful eye to make sure the flame doesn't go out, and care to not burn yourself on the hot metal.