Recently I led a team on a 2 day trek to Scafel Pike in the Lake District before we set up camp. The weather was horrendous. People were tired, wet and cold. Once the tents were up the priority was to get a hot brew on the go. In these conditions whilst boiling water and then cooking dinner I pondered the importance of owning a good, reliable camping stove … Here we look at what makes for a good backpacking camping stove.

Cooking dinner for a team of clients on a wild camping trek in the Lake District

What are you using your stove for and where will you be using it?

This is really important. If I’m heading out to a big sanitised campsite with my family, with one of those tents that needs its own trailer, then a big double hob gas stove will do the job nicely. But this article isn’t about those experiences. Here we’re looking at what an individual might use for a solo experience or for a small group of campers such as a Duke of Edinburgh Award team on expedition.

If I’m going to be camping out of my car all the time, weight, bulk and efficiency might not be so important to me. If I’m only ever going to be purely boiling water then cooking control won’t be an issue. In these instances price is probably going to be a major factor.  If on the other end of the spectrum I am headed to cold environments at altitude then a key factor will be what fuel I can burn and how I will maintain pressure. Availability of fuel overseas is also a factor to consider – you can’t fly with gas canisters!

What to look for in a camping stove …

1. Weight

When buying your stove consider how heavy it is. The heavier your pack when out trekking or hiking the less fun you will have. It is easy too pack to much – not so easy to carry it all. Consider weight of the stove but also consider what will be the weight of the pans you can use with it and of course of the fuel that you’ll need to carry.

2. Efficiency 

How is the stove designed to be efficient? The more efficient it directs the heat to the pan the faster the boil time, the less fuel you’ll need, the less weight you’ll carry. Is the stove designed to focus the heat source onto the pan and the pan only? Is the stove equipped with a pan that is insulated with a neoprene case? Is there a wind guard? All these make for a better, more efficient stove.

3. Fuel

Stoves are fueled with gas or liquid fuel. Gas is dead simple to use and is easily bought in any camping or outdoor shop in the UK and western world. You have to be careful to invest in good fuel if you’re headed to altitude or to a cold environment. Also gas canisters can be difficult to dispose of responsibly and can prove to be expensive. Liquid fuel (eg ‘white gas’, petrol or Coleman fuel) is more faff to use and takes longer to boil a litre of water but is reliable to use in all environments and can be accessed virtually anywhere in the world.

4. Bulk

If you’re looking to go fast and light then you will want to keep things simple. How does your stove, pan and fuel pack away? Can it all fit into one neat pan or are there are going to be lots of components to find a home for in your pack?

5. Stability

There’s nothing worse than waiting for your water to reach boiling point only for it all to fall over. In the old days I used to dig my stove in, to prevent this happening. Nowadays a good stove will come with a stand for the gas canister or will be designed to have the burner and fuel bottle sit separately thus keeping the centre of gravity low.

6. Cooking control

This is a personal thing. When I head out I tend to go for one or two nights only. In turn I resist the easy option of buying a boil in the bag or just add water (noodles) type rations. I like to cook! (What else have you  got to do with your night?) To that end, being able to control the heat to some degree is helpful.

The Trangia camping stove. Simple and bombproof but heavy and slow.

image of a Trangia Camping Stove

The Trangia Camping Stove

If you see a group of kids on their Duke of Edinburgh’s award camping, then you can bet that this will be the stove they’re using. This particular one dates back to 1986 when I was sixteen. It’s fair to say that with so few working parts to break that it’s bomb-proof. My children will inherit this! (And probably theirs too). Modern day Trangias however come with a gas option making them a safer option. These stoves offer stability, ease of use, and will last beyond mankind! They’re not particularly light however. If you use the one pictured that needs methylated spirits, they also have a slow boil time (get your book out and read a chapter whilst you wait). Overseas use is limited since finding meths can be really hard. Also they’re not very clean burning and your pans will very quickly blacken over time. If I were sixteen now, this would not be the stove of my choice.

Tower gas stove great for boiling water fast

image of a stacked gas camping stove system

all-in-one tower-style canister stove system

There are a variety of these on the market these days and they’re not cheap. These stoves offer you an all-in-one option for fast efficient boil times. These stoves combine a burner that has a universal attachment for screwing onto a gas canister, a heat exchanger, a wind shield of sorts, and a pan that screws down onto the stove top. If you’re looking for a boil in the bag / noodles type diet, then these are the go-to stove for you. Prices range from £45 to £180.

When buying one of these look to see if it comes with a stand (they topple over really easily without one). See if there are a different options for the size of pan. What are the handles on the pan like? Will they rust and snap off one day? Will they get so hot that you can’t use them? Look at the boil times. The faster one of these can bring half a litre of water to the boil, the less gas you will need to carry/buy.

A great look at four systems available on the market (July 2019) can be read here on UKC.com.

Multi-fuel stoves, tricky to use but hugely versatile

image of the MSR Whisperlite camping stove

MSR Whisper Lite multi-fuel stove

This is my go-to stove. Amongst my friends and colleagues in the outdoors I notice that I am unique in this, so accept that these words are a tad subjective. The way this stove works is that you pump the fuel bottle in order to build up the pressure. You light the stove and then wait a minute or so for the primer to warm up, and only then do you open up the valve and start cooking on it. As far as stoves go it’s not simple. To add insult to injury, you also need to give these stoves some TLC from time to time, cleaning them out and replacing washers etc. But, the stove pictured is 17 years old and is still going strong!

I love this stove. It’s incredibly versatile. I normally pay for (the cleaner) Coleman fuel for it, but if I need to, I can equally spend 65p on half a litre of unleaded petrol in the forecourt. This means I can travel anywhere in the world and know I will find cheap fuel for it. It burns hot and fast in almost all weathers, (no good in the rain), regardless of how cold it is. It is fuel efficient and so I don’t have to carry more than 600ml at any one time. (600ml will last me about a week if I’m on my own). It has a low centre of gravity so it’s incredibly stable, and I can use a variety of pots and pans with it. The valve offers me some variation in power supply and so I have easily managed to cook a proper meal on this for groups of 8 in one sitting.

It’s not the lightest nor the smallest, there’s no way you can use them in a tent, but for me, the fuel efficiency combined with it’s versatile nature, makes this my favourite stove! Primus and Coleman also offer excellent multi-fuel stoves that will compare with my MSR pictured.

simple gas stove – classic chocolate tea pot

Image of Coleman Pocket Rocket camping stove

The Pocket Rocket Camping Stove

From hero to zero … If you’re off to a music festival for a weekend, and it’s not going to be raining, and there won’t be so much as a whiff of a breeze, then this might conceivably have a place in your box of camping tricks. It’s essentially a burner that will screw onto a gas canister. If you’re going to use this, make sure the ground is level and that you’re in some sort of bunker with absolutely no wind otherwise all the heat will be lost off up the side of the pan.

What’s it got going for it? This type of stove is cheap, simple to use, clean and very light. But given that you’d need winning-lottery-ticket luck for it actually to be of any use, it’s not a stove I would choose to use.

If you had to choose just one stove: my final verdict …

If you’re going to be heading overseas and beyond the western world, without a doubt buy a multi-fuel stove like the MSR listed above. If you’re only going to be using a stove in the UK (where it is known to rain), invest in a stacked tower system. Be sure to buy a stove with a built in igniter since matches won’t work so well in the UK on a rainy day.

Finally, look for a bargain

Lastly, when buying any outdoor equipment, you ought to be able to find a reasonable deal on most items – I would always hope to be able to get at least 10 – 15% or so off the RRP of outdoor kit (the base price in the likes of Cotswold Outdoor is very expensive). I wouldn’t encourage trying kit in a specialist store, and then buying the item at a cheap price online (or we’ll lose the few remaining good outdoor shops) – but equally you don’t want to be ripped off.

Various stores (eg Cotswold Outdoors, Go Outdoors, ) and outlets will offer discount schemes: it’s always worth asking what’s available. Also being a member of a mountaineering club such as the BMC or Austrian Alpine Club for example might allow you to use a discount code. Ask about – but never begrudge paying a store the premium price if actually their service and advice has been worth it!