Cartridge stoves tend to be the best choice for backpackers and other outdoor cooks concerned about bulk and weight.
There was a time when the typical camp stove had a tendency to clog, flare up or go out at the most inopportune moments. Thank goodness, however, those days are in the past. Push-button ignitions, flame-control adjustments, self-cleaning fuel jets and sophisticated mixtures of fuel make modern stoves as reliable and easy to use as the gas barbecue in your back yard. But the wider variety of stoves available in the marketplace means you may want to take more time to determine which stove best meets your needs.
PERFORMANCE AND EFFICIENCY
Before taking other considerations into account, you should understand two measurements that will tell you more about the operating ability of a particular stove.
The first of these is "performance," which is typically measured in "boil time" -- the time it takes to boil one quart of water using the ideal fuel for the stove at full throttle at 70 degrees F at sea level. Performance may range from 2-1/2 minutes to 10 minutes or more. A good range to look for is 3 to 5 minutes. Remember, however, that cooler temperatures and higher altitudes may reduce the stove's performance value. A stove that can boil a quart of water quickly will have an easier time cooking larger portions of food, while a stove that takes 10 minutes to boil water may not be able to heat large portions to acceptable temperatures.
The second value, "efficiency," typically measures how long a stove can run at full throttle on a full fuel tank or cartridge. It's important to know this value, because a stove may have a 60-minute burn time, but it also may have a 32-ounce fuel tank, making it a very inefficient stove. A good formula to look for is about 10 minutes of burning time per 1 ounce of fuel. For backpacking, assume 4 ounces of fuel per day to cook three quick meals. For larger groups or more elaborate meals, you may need more.
Today's camp stoves can be divided into two basic categories: cartridge stoves and liquid gas stoves. Both have their pros and cons. Before making a purchase decision, consider the information that follows.
Stoves that connect the canister to the burner via a hose tend to be more stable than models where the burner sits atop the canister.
Cartridge stoves are so named because they burn fuel contained in pressurized cartridges. These tend to be the best selection for backpackers and other outdoor cooks who must be concerned about bulk and weight. Most cartridge stoves are small, lightweight, easy to use, dependable and relatively maintenance free. They don't require priming, and the fuels they use are clean burning. The fuel cartridges usually can be detached after use and then reattached later if they are not empty. Most cartridges are designed to be discarded when empty, but some can be crushed and/or recycled.
Some cartridge stoves are nothing more than a small burner that screws directly onto the top of the fuel cartridge. Others are connected by a hose or tube to the cartridge. The former type, because it has fewer parts, is lighter and less likely to break down in the field. Those stoves that connect via hoses or tubes, however, aren't as prone to tip over because the burner can sit right on the ground instead of atop the canister. Both types usually have self-cleaning flow jets, which make them almost maintenance free.
Fuel canisters come in all shapes and sizes, but all contain some type of pressurized fuel -- usually some type of butane, propane or a butane/propane mix -- that is released as burnable gas. Unfortunately, because the compressed gas in the canisters needs to expand to burn, cold weather can hinder stove performance. Pure butane won't vaporize in below-freezing conditions. Prepackaged butane/propane mixtures perform better, but as a rule, compressed gas is not as efficient for cold temperatures as the white gas used in most liquid fuel stoves.
A windscreen will improve a canister stove's efficiency in windy conditions.
One way to reduce cold-weather problems is to buy a heat exchanger (generally a copper tube in which the gas is heated) from the manufacturer. If the temperature plummets and you don't have a heat exchanger, try carrying a cartridge inside your coat so your body temperature keeps it warm enough to perform, or keep a spare cartridge in a warm place while cooking. If the one you're using gets cold and quits working, simply switch cartridges and continue with the spare. Remember, however, this will only work with resealable canisters.
Cartridge stoves have a tendency to lose their flame when it's windy. So if you're using one, be sure to set it up in a sheltered area or use a windscreen.
The following types of fuel are used in most stove cartridges:
Blended fuel. This is usually a blend of propane and butane. Isobutane is sometimes added to improve efficiency as the pressure in the cartridge drops. Blended fuel is usually more reliable than straight butane or isobutane, but like its gas cousins, its performance drops with the outside temperature, and it generally shouldn't be used below 30 degrees F.
Butane. Straight butane doesn't burn as hot as other cartridge fuels, thus the practice of blending it with other fuels. While butane generally works well in mild weather, it is undependable when the temperature falls below 50 degrees.
Isobutane. Isobutane is used to make aviation fuel and burns more efficiently than butane. It also takes the cold a little better and can be used when the mercury is 40 degrees F or above. This is a good choice for three-season camping (spring/summer/fall).
Propane. Propane is a clear gas that probably runs your barbeque grill. It produces a hot steady flame and burns cleanly and efficiently. It performs moderately well in cold weather. It's a good choice for three-season camping, but not good in cold conditions.
LIQUID GAS STOVES
Liquid gas stoves, which are fueled via a refillable fuel tank, are usually less expensive, more environmentally friendly and hotter burning in all types of weather-even in subzero temperatures-than cartridge stoves. They tend to be more difficult to operate than cartridge stoves, however, and are also generally heavier and bulkier and require more cleaning. Nevertheless, for maximum heat output, a flame that will stand up to gusty winds and all-season use, this is probably the best type of stove.
Liquid gas stoves are usually less expensive and hotter burning than cartridge stoves; however, weight and bulk make them impractical for backpackers and minimalist campers.
A big plus of liquid gas stoves is the variety of fuels they will burn, a definite advantage if you plan to travel to a Third World country where compressed gas canisters may be difficult to find. Among the fuels used are:
White gas. This inexpensive fuel, widely available in North America, produces a hot, clean flame. It will burn at almost any temperature or altitude. Of all the liquid gas options, this is probably the best.
Alcohol. Alcohol is safe, stable and clean burning, but it burns with a cool flame so it's not very efficient for cooking. Also, when alcohol burns, there is a barely visible flame, which adds a minor risk of a fire accidentally spreading.
Automobile gas. Obviously, this isn't the type of fuel you'd use for everyday stove use in the U.S., but it may be all you can find in a foreign country. Expect lots of smoke and soot. Cook in a well-ventilated area because the fumes produced can be toxic. Cover food as it cooks to exclude soot. Select the lowest octane level available.
Kerosene. If you are traveling internationally, this may be the fuel for you because kerosene generally is available in most parts of the world. Be prepared, however, for smoke, fumes and clogged fuel lines.
If you decide a liquid gas stove is best for you, it's wise to practice breaking down, cleaning and reassembling it before you go camping. Before each use, check the seal of the fuel pump, and check the generator tube and jet for blockages. When burning fuels other than white gas, black carbon residue from the burner can build up on the jet and in the fuel line, preventing the stove from working efficiently (or at all). Occasionally unscrew and remove the jet, soak it in white gas and rub it clean. Do the same with the fuel line. If your stove doesn't have a built-in jet cleaner, use a wire to clean hard to reach parts.
To prevent pressure and fuel leaks, routinely check the seal on the primer pump (a rubber or leather O-ring), which sometimes dries out and cracks. Replace if necessary, or in a pinch, try restoring a dry O-ring to working condition with a dab of oil.
Liquid gas stoves are notorious for boiling when you'd like them to simmer, so learn to be an attentive cook. These stoves also tend to be bigger and heavier than cartridge stoves, so for packing convenience, look for one with a removable fuel tank. Ideally, you'll have a second tank ready to go when the first one is empty; otherwise you need to fumble with a funnel to refill the main tank.
Before you spend your hard-earned dollars on a stove, ask yourself these questions:
"In what camp environment will I be using my stove?"
If you'll be in a "drive to" camp, you won't have to worry about weight or bulk, and a multi-burner liquid gas stove may be the best option. If you're backpacking or hiking into camp, however, you may do best with a small, lightweight canister stove that will meet your cooking needs. Keep in mind that the weight of the stove provided by the manufacturer generally includes only the stove itself and not the fuel.
"Where will I be traveling?"
If you're planning to visit remote areas, investigate what particular types of fuel canisters and liquid fuel are readily available, and then buy your stove accordingly.
"What do I plan to cook?"
If you're simply boiling water for coffee or tea, a canister stove may be all you need. If gourmet trail meals are part of the plan, you may require a multi-burner liquid gas stove that will allow you to simultaneously cook several dishes.
"How cold is it likely to be?"
If temperatures are frigid, canister stoves just won't perform well. Avoid them if you can.
"What accessories might I need?"
Useful items that may or may not be available for a particular stove include windscreens, repair/cleaning kits, carrying cases and push-button ignition systems.
The answers to these questions, and the information provided in the sections above, should help you select a stove just right for you.
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