How To Choose the Best Backpacking Stove

Photo: Jason Wilde/

The Best Backpacking Stoves: How To Choose the Right One

For backpacking, you want a stove that’s light, compact, fast, efficient, adjustable, and durable. Oh, and affordable. That’s a lot to ask of one stove, but today’s most versatile models come close to doing it all. Others are designed to address a specific need, like performing well in winter, burning a variety of fuels, or minimizing weight. Use this guide to narrow your search.

Types of Stoves  

Liquid-fuel stoves: These stoves, known for their durability and performance in cold weather and at high altitude, can last for decades. Every part can be replaced or repaired. How it works: The stove connects with a hose to a separate, pressurized fuel bottle.

  • Pros: has stable supports for large pots; burns efficiently; works well in cold weather (great for melting snow); durable; cheaper fuel; versatile fuel quantities; refillable fuel bottles; compatible with multiple fuel types; flame intensity is moderately controllable
  • Cons: heavier than other stoves; requires priming (pumping or pressurizing the fuel bottle and preparing the burner); requires cleaning and maintenance 

Canister stoves: These are easy to use and lightweight. Simply connect one of these stoves directly to a fuel canister and start cooking. Most sit right on top of the canister. How it works: Canisters are filled with pressurized gas, so you just turn the stove on and light it.  

  • Pros: boils water fast; packs light and compact; little-to-no maintenance; easy to control (great at simmering); relatively affordable
  • Cons: can be vulnerable to wind; performance weakens in low temperatures; more expensive fuel (due to cost of non-refillable canisters); most models are best for small pots; hard to repair; less compatible with multiple fuel types

Integrated stoves: This is a subset of canister stoves. The same process is at work (stove attached to a pressurized fuel canister), but these stoves have an integrated pot with a heat diffuser that improves speed and efficiency. How it works: The pot/stove connection maximizes efficiency and protects the flame from wind. Some integrated stoves use what’s called a radiant burner to improve performance in cold temps and maximize efficiency. 

  • Pros: boils fast; easy to control flame output; OK at simmering; among the more efficient stoves; compact
  • Cons: not very versatile (needs an adapter to work with other pots); must purchase entire pot-stove system; hard to repair

Alcohol stoves: Minimalists will like this ultralight option. Alcohol stoves are popular among thru-hikers and anyone who counts grams. How it works: A small metal cylinder (like the bottom third of a soda can) holds a few ounces of alcohol, which acts as liquid fuel.

  • Pros: cheap; ultralight; minimal maintenance 
  • Cons: slower to boil water (5-7 minutes per liter; about half the speed of a canister stove); can’t control the flame; vulnerable to wind; sometimes banned when fire risk is high

Biofuel stoves: Think of this as a high-tech way of cooking on a campfire; you feed in sticks or wood scraps as fuel. How it works: The design enhances airflow for efficient burning.

  • Pros: eliminates the need to carry fuel; mid-range boil time (4-5 minutes for 1 liter
  • Cons: bulkier than other stoves; heavier than most stoves (added weight is offset by not carrying fuel canisters); relies on organic materials in the field (fuel can be sparse or wet); can be banned when fire risk is high

Choosing the right burner depends on your adventure scope and priorities. Ask yourself the following questions.

Backpacking with a large group of people (4+)? Pack along a liquid-fuel stove if you know you’ll be spending a lot of time in the camp kitchen (and can get your friends to help distribute the weight of shared group-gear). With a range of fuel bottle sizes, customizing exactly how much fuel you bring is easy; the pressurized pump systems keep flames going for many meals and typically come paired with stable pot stands and windshields that facilitate sauteing fresh foods on larger cookware.

Backpacking solo or just for the weekend? Canister stoves are the way to go. Quick and easy to use, set up a pot or pan to cook on the minimalist screw-in tripod stoves, which are generally good for both boiling and simmering. If all you need is hot water for your meals or morning coffee, look toward an integrated canister stove for its quick, efficient boil.

Backpacking in cold weather? Go with a radiant burner stove system. The interlocking burner and pot system creates a closed environment that remains efficient even when temperatures drop. You may be sacrificing weight (and your budget) for the promise of consistency, but if you care for this stove, it’ll last for years of adventures. 

Backpacking long distances with variable resupply opportunities? Check out alcohol stoves. Lightweight and cheap, their simple design hardly ever requires maintenance and won’t break your back (nor your bank) along the trail. Just don’t plan on cooking gourmet anything with these stoves; they’re good for boiling water and not much else. 

Fuel types

Liquid fuel (white gas, kerosene, isobutane and propane blends, unleaded auto gas, jet fuel)

  • Pros: great in cold weather; great for longer trips or larger groups of people; easy to customize the amount of fuel you carry; refillable bottles
  • Cons: can leak

Canister fuel (isobutane)

  • Pros: great for shorter trips, smaller groups and solo camping 
  • Cons: less reliable in cold temperatures; not refillable

Alcohol (HEET, denatured alcohol, everclear or grain alcohol, Isopropyl alcohol) 

  • Pros: various sourcing options (hardware store, pharmacy, etc.); cheap
  • Cons: some alcohol fuels are toxic (like HEET); less reliable in cold temperatures

Biofuel (sticks, wood scraps, pellets)

  • Pros: “weightless” (harvest the fuel at your campsite) 
  • Cons: requires biomass (not guaranteed in alpine or winter settings)

Pairing the right fuel with the right stove is critical, but mostly easy. The type of stove will dictate the type of fuel you need (or vice versa), so pick one or the other as your starting point and go from there. 

Best fuel on a budget? Over time, refilling a liquid-fuel bottle will be cheaper than buying fuel that comes in canisters. Depending on what alcohol you choose for an alcohol stove, it could be the cheapest option, though such stoves are less versatile overall. 

Best fuel for the environment? This’ll depend on what metrics you care about. Liquid fuel bottles are refillable; biofuel stoves are the most organic; canister fuels can be the most efficient. 

Buying fuel in other countries? Heads up: While you can fly with a stove, you can’t fly with fuel. If you’re doing an international backpacking trip, you’ll have to purchase fuel for your stove upon arrival in the foreign lands. International outdoor stores will likely carry liquid fuel and canisters, but if you can't find fuel there, try gas stations or hardware stores.