Canister Stoves vs. Liquid Fuel

Posted by & filed under Tech.

Gokyo_MSR_121019-159_PR

Photo Credit: Emily Polar

Canister Stoves vs. Liquid Fuel Stoves – Which is Right for You?

There’s no easy answer to this question – a lot of it comes down to the trips you’re planning and your own personal preference. Canister stoves have significant advantages in some situations and new, more efficient designs have made the performance differences less clear than they once were. Liquid fuel stoves remain the leaders on long trips, full winter conditions and travel where canisters may not be available.

Stove Weight
Canister stoves are the clear winner in this category – they’re almost always lighter and more compact than their liquid fuel counterparts. The numbers are easy to compare and they’re often the determining factor in a purchase decision. Unfortunately, these numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to the total weight you’ll carry in the field, including fuel and containers.

Fuel Weight
This is where the weight comparison gets interesting. A single fuel canister weighs less than a liquid fuel bottle, but a bunch of canisters can add up to significantly more weight than a liquid fuel bottle. On a short trip that only requires a little cooking, the canister is king. If you’re on a long trip or planning to run the stove a lot, carrying a large bottle of liquid fuel is the best way to go. The weight you save versus canister fuel will offset the lighter weight of the canister stove as well. Obviously we’re talking about two very distinct scenarios, and there are a lot of trips that fall between. Consider the number of times you plan on cooking, the conditions and your personal fuel usage habits. Also, remember that you’ll have to carry canisters for the remainder of your trip – even after they’re spent. 

Temperature
In most cases, liquid fuel stoves offer the best performance in cold conditions. In fact, the first remote burner liquid fuel stove, the MSR Model 9, was designed for mountaineers who needed a reliable stove at altitude.
Cold temperatures create low canister pressure, rendering most canister stoves useless in really cold conditions. Some climbers are able to use them in cold, high places by carefully managing the temperature of the canister, but these stoves still face a huge challenge. Pressure regulated canister stoves, like the MSR Reactor, offer better performance in these conditions with basic temperature management of the canister.
Read our upcoming article on cold weather performance for more info on using canister and liquid fuels in low temperatures.

Environmental Impact
There’s no question about it: liquid fuels require less energy input and offer a more environmentally friendly way to cook in the outdoors. The key is the reusable fuel bottle.

Spent fuel canisters can be recycled as mixed metal (not aluminum) but not that many recycling programs take these metals, and even fewer recognize the canisters and process them. (Read our upcoming post about recycling canisters.)

Maintenance
Canister stoves are as low-maintenance as you’ll ever want. They require practically zero maintenance to run reliably for decades.
Liquid stoves are also famous for their reliability, but require more maintenance. Depending on the conditions and the fuel you use, you might find yourself performing maintenance every couple years, or a couple times per year. Luckily, the stoves are easy to work on and the cleaning process is simple.

Economy
In most cases, canister stoves cost less than liquid fuel stoves. At the same time, canister fuel often costs considerably more than liquid fuel. For reference, one hour of cooking time on a canister fuel stove will cost you about $6.00, while an hour of cooking time on white gas is closer to $1.50 and other liquid fuels may be even less. If you’re going to use your stove a lot, the low operating cost of liquid fuel is the only way to go. Most professional guide services and outdoor programs use liquid fuel stoves exclusively. If you only use your stove on shorter trips a few times a year, canister fuel will be reasonable.

Fuel Availability
Canister fuel is available in a wide range of places, but it’s not everywhere. If you’re planning on traveling in countries and regions well off the beaten path, liquid fuel is a safer bet. No matter where you are you’ll be able to find fuel for a liquid fuel stove such as the XGK or WhisperLite International.

You can expect to find canister fuel in the following regions:

  • North America
  • Patagonia
  • Himalayas
  • Pakistan
  • Europe
  • South Africa

As you can see, the choice between a canister stove and a liquid fuel stove depends a lot on what you’re doing, where you’re going and what you prefer. It isn’t always an easy decision to make, but there are plenty of great options for anyone.

These four scenarios illustrate the functional differences between canisters and liquid fuel:

Weekend Backpacker:
Your backpacking trips are typically 2 to 3 days in length, and carrying less weight in your pack is a priority. At times your days on the trail run long and you need a stove that makes cooking quick and easy. The temperatures are almost always above freezing and the meals you prepare are usually simple – like freeze dried dinners, pasta or instant rice.

A canister stove like the MicroRocket is a great choice for this kind of use. The stove weighs very little, and you’ll only burn one or (maybe) two canisters of fuel on an average trip. The overall weight you carry into the field will be very low, far less than any liquid fuel options. As an added bonus, the stove itself is so compact it will fit in most cooksets.

Extended Backpacker:
You often spend a week or more on the trail without resupply. Reducing pack weight is a priority, but so is being prepared for the duration of the trip. The meals you cook range from simple freeze dried to more involved, multi-step dinners. At times the temperature drops below freezing, and occasionally you find yourself melting snow.

The WhisperLite was designed specifically for this kind of use. Although it is heavier than a canister stove, it offers fuel efficiency that will reduce the total weight you carry on longer trips. These stoves can also be great for larger groups of hikers who want to do more cooking with a single stove. The multi-fuel versions are ideal for traveling in regions where white gas may not be available.

Alpine Climber:
Your trips are short, fast and require good fitness. Carrying a small, lightweight pack is key to your success in the mountains. Temperatures range from summer conditions to just below freezing. When you use a stove you’re melting snow, boiling water and making very simple meals. You’re often cooking in exposed places where wind and cold can affect performance. A stove that is fast, compact and efficient is extremely important.

A stove system like the Reactor is your best choice for this kind of trip. Stove systems are fast, efficient, and very compact. They’re convenient to use and can be setup quickly for a brew up in a matter of seconds. Most important of all, the Reactor performs very well in windy conditions, so you can count on it in exposed places and nasty weather.

Stove systems are not as lightweight as conventional canister stoves like the MicroRocket, but they offer increased fuel efficiency that saves total weight. On a trip that requires melting snow and cooking in windy places, the weight savings can be significant.

Mountaineer:
You’re out climbing big mountains and making camp at higher elevations, in cold conditions. These climbs often last more than three days and you usually have three or more climbers on your rope team. Temperatures are regularly below freezing and you are using your stove to make water for the group. You may also be planning expeditions to the greater ranges, or to cold regions like Antarctica.

Liquid fuel stoves like the XGK-EX were created to function in these conditions. This stove has the speed and power to melt snow at any altitude and any temperature. Its liquid fuel efficiency makes it a weight-saver over the course of longer trips. Excellent reliability and easy field maintenance allow this stove to continue cranking out water and food on long expeditions. Like many of our liquid fuel stoves, the XGK can run on a variety of fuels, making it an ideal choice for travel to developing countries. These qualities have made the MSR XGK a mainstay for guides and mountaineers heading to Denali, South America and the Himalayas.

Sharetwittergoogleredditlinkedin

Tags: , , , , , , ,

15 Responses

  1. Liv January 5, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Very helpful thanks! Going on a 5 day camp where we will be tramping 3-9hrs each day, carrying all our tents, cooking equipment and food. Having light gear is a priority because we have to carry everything. I will be sharing the stove with two others and we will mainly be eating/cooking dehydrated foods. I can’t decide between the MSR Microrocket gas stove or the MSR Whisperlite liquid fuel stove. What do you suggest is the best option? Reply would be greatly appreciated!

    Reply
    • admin January 8, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      Hello, our MicroRocket will boil a liter of water in 3.5 minutes, and the 8oz canister will give you ~60 minutes of burn time. If you assume 3 meals a day x 3 people, then 9 meals x 3.5 minutes will use about 31.5 minutes of burn time. I would err on the side of safety and take 3, maybe 4 canisters for just that…and if you think you’re going to want to boil warm drinks or other things beyond the 3 meals a day, then add canisters accordingly.

      With the WhisperLite, you can boil a liter of water in 3.9 minutes and a 20oz bottle will get you ~136 minutes of burn time. This results in about 35 minutes of burn time per person per day. With that in mind, you would want to bring 2 or 3 20oz bottles with you on the trip.

      Both stove would perform well for the trip, so it would come down to fuel consumption and the associated weight and bulk. Also, please note that the numbers we provide are based on boiling 70-degree water in a 75-degree room at sea level. Temp and elevation will affect performance. The end result is that there are enough variables, so bring more fuel than you need.

      If you have any further questions, please feel free to email me directly at chuck.kollin@cascadedesigns.com.
      Thanks, Chuck / Customer Service

      Reply
  2. O.Bond April 17, 2014 at 11:34 am

    One thing that I didn’t see mentioned is that if you have a canister that is partially empty, you either have to buy another, or risk running out of fuel midway through your excursion. With liquid fuel stoves, you can just top off your bottle for less than a dollar and be done with it.

    Reply
  3. Tom Eadie April 17, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    I find a canister stove with 454 g fuel canister is enough for a 7 day 21 meal backpacking trip. My lunches are unheated, but breakfasts (reconstituted freeze dried eggs and coffee) and dinners (reconstituted home-dehydrated meals plus tea) involve boiling 14 litres of water. I don’t simmer my dinners – just mix them into boiling water and let them sit for about 15 minutes. There’s always been a little fuel left in the canister after these trips.

    Reply
  4. Karl April 17, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    This is a very good artical. However you left out my group. People who island hop in kayaks. Camping from a kayak is a very different thing from backpacking. Size is an issue but weight often is not. My boat with me in it still can accommodate over 100lbs. But nothing big in size will fit into the tiny deck hatches.

    I personally use your mixed liquid fuel stove as I can burn gas or diesel in it if I have to. On the coast of Maine there is almost always a marine supply that will look at me funny when I pull in with my 18′ orange yak and ask for a lieter of diesel. I also like the liquid stoves because when I need to make a wood fire in drizzle or damp condissions. I can use a bit of the fuel to help light the fire. The MSR liquid fuel is supper safe and has little to no odor. I am very happy with my MSR stove. Maybe someday you guys will make one specific to paddle sports that is small and in a self contained water proof case. With all saltwater safe parts.

    I have a small light cyl stove but I don’t usually bring it as I don’t like having the spent cyls rolling around.

    Just my thoughts maybe this will help a fellow paddler.

    Reply
  5. Tom April 17, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    An additional factor to be considered is the mode of travel to ones destination. Airlines will not allow a person to pack a liquid fuel bottle that has ever contained fuel. Its presents an explosion hazard.

    Reply
    • Chris May 27, 2014 at 12:37 am

      Tom, its my understanding that there can be no “fuel residue”. I’ve had 100% success with emptying my bottles, letting them air-dry, then rinsing with clean water, and again letting them air-dry. When I pack them in my duffels I put the bottles without lids on one end of the duffel, and pack the tops separately in the other end. I’ve had the same success with my Whisperlite and XGK stoves – remove the wire in the fuel line, give them plenty of time to air dry, and I have been good to go.

      Reply
  6. Jason April 19, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    I used my Whisper Lite once for melting snow on a climb and it left a fuel taste to my water. For short, trips (less than a week), even to any of the highest elevation in the lower 48, I’ll bring the canister stove next time.

    Reply
  7. Bibs April 20, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    For the aircraft hop: How about washing out the bottle(s) w/ alcohol, and lastly hot, soapy water until completely odor free, and pack with the cap off. Contains not one molecule of gas, like an unused one. Will the airline people be okay with that, I wonder? Or confiscate the thing? Then get it filled in in the last town before the trailhead. Problem now is: can you get a small can of white gas, or are you leaving a very full gallon of Coleman Fuel somewhere? I wonder if the backpacking stores are helping out with this issue by selling it by the ounce, AND renting fuel bottles? This year I am making my first airline-linked backpack trip, but my hiking partner is at the trailhead end, so not the same problem, just partly. Folks who air travel a lot for their trips could be dropping quite a sum on fuel bottles.

    Reply
    • Tom April 26, 2014 at 4:01 pm

      Technically, you are not supposed to take fuel bottles, new or used and washed, on the airlines. At least that’s what I’ve gathered from signage at airport security. That’s not to say that I haven’t done this multiple times anyways. I wash out the fuel bottle and dry it completely so there’s no tarnishing or pitting of the inside walls that could hurt things. I duct tape over any writing that says “fuel bottle” or whatever. One trip I even wrote “Water Bottle” on the tape in both English and Spanish. I leave it uncapped so there’s no question of fuel being in there. Then I put it in a gallon zip-loc and bury it in my check in somewheres. Then I’ll either find some white gas or use unleaded gasoline with my Whisperlite International. Sometimes you’ll need to peel off the tape on the bottle to show a gas station attendant that it is indeed approved for fuel.

      Reply
  8. Craig Rowe April 21, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    A great recap, and a question that gets asked to every outdoor store employee every day.

    Tom, you can take empty fuel bottles on a plane. I have several times. Granted, each airline may approach it differently, or maybe the TSA hacks just missed mine.

    Reply
  9. Johan Forssblad July 27, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    Hi!
    I bought an MSR GK stove around 1981–1984 with the yellow plastic pump for Sigg bottles. After 30 year of use, including two long Africa expeditions, it is probably time for replacement due to deterioration of the plastic parts.
    Will the new pump for XGK EX fit my old burner and pipe?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>