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Liquid fuel backpacking stoves: Pros and Cons

While you’re out in the woods on a hike, you don’t want to be carrying more weight than you absolutely have to. Your backpacking stove is one thing where you can save some weight by buying a lighter one. Out of the two popular types of stoves, canister and liquid fuel, canisters tend to be lighter. So if you always want the lightest weight why would you take a liquid fuel stove? Well there are trade-offs to that light weight. Read on to see why you would want a liquid fuel stove instead.

What is a liquid fuel stove?

Liquid fuel stoves are stoves that have a fuel bottle with fuel in it instead of a canister with compressed gas. When you attach the fuel bottle, you pump it up to pressurize the fuel inside. This forces the gas out when you open nozzle and fuel comes shooting out.

They’re a little finicky to light because the fuel in the bottle is liquid, it needs to be vaporized before it can be lit. To do that, you put a tiny bit of fuel in a little bowl on the stove. You light the liquid fuel and, after letting the (sometimes large) fireball die down, open the nozzle to let more fuel out. Lighting the fireball first heats up the hose the fuel goes through vaporizing it and letting it go through the stove and ignite.

You don’t need to know the exact details but just know they are a little harder to light than canister stoves. Practice in your backyard to get just enough fuel in the little bowl to light but still save your eyebrows on the trail.

So if they are hard to light, why would you want a liquid gas stove?Well, they do have some redeeming features.

Liquid fuel stove advantages

Good in the cold – Liquid fuel stoves are good in the cold. You manually pump to keep the pressure up so you are not relying on the pressure in the canister. The stove itself is vaporizing the fuel so it burns. Canisters have issues in cold weather when the gas turns to liquid in the canisters and loses pressure. Running the canisters upside down has helped run them in cold temperatures but liquid fuel still takes the prize on these ones.

Refillable – Just open the lid and pour more in. Liquid fuel bottles are easy to refill.

Easy to see how much fuel you have – Open up the lid and take a look. Canisters are just a guess to figure out how much is left. Liquid fuel, you just open it up.

Multi-Fuel (they can travel well) – Some of the liquid fuel models are able to take many different kinds of fuel. White gas (also called naptha) is the best and burns the cleanest but it may not be available where you are. Some models will burn kerosene, jet fuel or even unleaded gasoline which is nice for travelling. There is a downside though. Dirty fuel means cleaning clogs more often.

Liquid fuel stove disadvantages

Liquid fuel stoves aren’t all rainbows and unicorns. They still do have some downsides to keep in mind.

Heavy  – The stoves and liquid fuel are heavier than the canister equivalents. If you are going for fast and light, liquid fuel may not be the way to go.

Can be messy – Don’t spill the fuel. It’s messy, flammable and smells terrible. Watch out for this when you are connecting your stove or refilling the fuel bottles. You never have to worry about this with canisters.

Hard to light – Try to keep your eyebrows when you light your stove. Use just enough fuel to get it hot and going. It’s an art to lighting these things and takes some practice. Definitely more work than the canister stoves which are just turn on, light, done.

Have to pump – The fuel bottles aren’t pressurized to begin with so you have to pump it up. This means you can take the lids on and off which leads to the advantages of being able to refill it and see how much is left. On the flip side you have to pump it once in a while.

Liquid fuel stove examples

These are some quick examples of liquid fuel stoves from a couple popular manufacturers

MSR Whisperlite

MSR Whisperlite Universal

MSR Dragonfly

Optimus Nova+

Primus OmniFuel

Updated August 29, 2022. Originally published September 2, 2014.

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