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Backcountry kitchen: Canister fuel stoves

When you start overnight hiking, you’ll probably be looking at some sort of backpacking stove to cook food with. It’s not absolutely required, you could just bring packaged and dried food, but having a hot, filling meal at the end of a long day hiking is one of the best parts of the whole thing.

If stoves are so important, what kind do you get?

Walk into most outdoor stores and they’ll have 2 types of stoves. Canister and liquid fuel (often the white gas variety). Each have their pros and cons, how easy they are to light, refill, and use in cold temperatures. I’ll be writing about liquid fuel stoves soon but for this post I’ll be focusing on the canister stove.

So…what is a canister stove?

Stoves can be classified by the type of fuel they use. Canister stoves use a small metal canister of butane or iso-butane as their fuel. Basically they’re like the canister attached to your BBQ at home but much smaller and lighter. They small, light and easy to use. Attach a stove to the canister, light it and away you go.

Pros to a canister stove

Easy to light – Canister stoves are easy to light. Turn it on, put a match or a lighter near it and you’re done.

Lightweight – Many canister stoves are small and attach right to the top of the canister. Some of the remote variety are larger and have fuel lines to the canister. Remote means there is a fuel line from th stove to the canister, the canister does not screw on to the top. Remote stoves are more stable but larger.

No spills – With the self-sealing opening, you can’t spill anything out a canister. No mess.

Better simmer control – Many of the canister stoves have a nice control on them to finely control how much is coming out. If you need to simmer something, then you need better control than Off and Rocket.

Cons to a canister stove

Doesn’t work well in cold weather – Canister stoves rely on the butane to be vapor when it comes out. Cold weather throws a wrench in that so they don’t work well in cold weather or with weak pressure. Some of the new stoves are trying to correct this by having a fuel line to the canister which is kept upside-down, helping some of the pressure issues.

More expensive in the long run – You can’t refuel canisters so you have to throw them out. This is part of the reason why buying new canisters each time is more expensive than getting liquid fuel.

Can’t refill – It’s a bit of a ding to the environment to throw out the canisters every time.

Hard to tell how much you have left – You can’t open up a canister unless you are throwing it out so there’s no way to see how much is left inside. There are ways to float them in water to see how high it floats to measure what’s left. Some of the newer canisters are even coming with measurements on the side to do this easier.

Less pressure as you use them – The pressure inside the canister will drop as you use it. There’s no way to pump it back up. Your stove will slowly get weaker as the canister empties. Some new stoves, like the MSR Reactor, use pressure regulators to keep the pressure the same all the way through the canister.

No windscreen unless it’s remote – Putting a windscreen around the stove prevents the heat from being blown out the side. With stoves that attach right to the canister, you might blow yourself up if you put a windscreen around the stove and canister. Things get hot and when fuel gets hot, well you know what happens. If the stove has a fuel line to the canister to separate the two then you can put a screen just around the stove.

Obviously there’s a winner?

Now, by the sheer number of disadvantages to a canister stove, you’d think everyone would be going with liquid gas without a second thought. While the number of advantages isn’t as high as the disadvantages, the size of them outweighs other stoves in many situations. Being able to just attach your lightweight stove, quickly light it and have a hot flame in seconds is really nice at the end of the day. Sometimes weight is your number one concern. In those cases, canisters might be what you choose to go with.

Examples of Canister Fuel Stoves

We’ll end the post with some examples of canisters stoves. These aren’t the only stoves or manufacturers out there.

MSR Pocket Rocket 2

Snowpeak LiteMax

Jetboil Flash Cooking System

Primus Firestick

Primus Lite Plus

Optimus Crux Lite

Optimus Vega (remote) 

Updated August 29, 2022. Originally published August 26, 2014.

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