Stoves 101: How Much Fuel Should I Carry?

By Kade Krichko

It’s the age-old question answered only by backcountry experience and deep wilderness wisdom: How much fuel do I really need to carry on my next backpacking trip? Pack too little and you could go achingly hungry, to say the least. Tote too much and you’ll bear the burden of hauling extra weight, which will only slow you down.

So how do you calculate the right amount? Going beyond number of meals and number of days, we’ll look at the criteria you need to consider when thinking about your trip as a whole. Here’s what to factor into your fuel formula and why, along with some tips from backcountry veteran and MSR VP of Product Development Drew Keegan.

PC: On Location Collective
PC: On Location Collective

TRIP CRITERIA
Every adventure is different, but here are a few of the main variables to consider while packing fuel for your upcoming trip.

Know your numbers
As a baseline for fuel consumption in the backcountry, it’s important to calculate how many people will be on your trip, and how many hot meals and hot drinks the group will require. If some members take their breakfast cold, you’ll need less fuel, whereas firing up the stove for a morning cup of joe will cut into fuel consumption in the long run. This is easiest to determine by multiplying the amount of people in your party with the amount of hot meals, then adding the number of hot drinks the party is planning on. This number will give you a rough sense of about how many liters of water* you’ll need to boil.

Once you’ve made this estimate, use the chart below to determine how many ounces of fuel your stove uses to boil 1 liter of water. Then do the math for total ounces of fuel. Keep in mind that this is a rough estimate, but it gives you some scope—a place to start.

Adverse factors like low temps, melting snow, and wind can end up requiring 3-4 times as much fuel as your baseline number. So next, we’ll look those criteria and how to adjust our baseline number according to them.

PC: Kennan Harvey
PC: Kennan Harvey

Conditions affect consumption
Traditionally stoves are tested at sea level in 70-degree Fahrenheit temperatures with no wind. But these conditions are rarely the case for most of our backpacking expeditions. Seasons (and their fluctuating temperatures), altitude, and wind are big players in a stove’s overall fuel usage. In general, water temperatures reflect air temperatures, meaning the warmer the ambient temperature, the warmer the water and the quicker it can boil—and the less fuel burned.

Cold temperatures also affect the fuel canisters by causing their pressure to drop. Upright-canister stoves usually work down to about 20˚F. But the farther the mercury drops, the more the stove struggles and more fuel used. (For this reason, stove systems and liquid fuel stoves are go-to’s for winter use.)

When it comes to altitude, the higher we go, it turns out, the faster our water will boil, but raw food will actually cook slower—much slower. For every 18 degrees Fahrenheit drop in boiling point (roughly the change from sea level to 10,000 feet), cook time will double.

Finally, wind is a major consideration. For open-flame-burner stoves (like the PocketRocket), a 5 MPH wind can cause as much as three times more fuel use in a given cooking period.

Water availability
In the high alpine, melting snow often becomes our main water source. This adds another step to our water boiling process and additional stove time, which increases fuel consumption. Water from glacial streams and ponds will also increase boil time, so keep that in mind.

Cooking style
What type of backcountry chef are you? Simple boil-only meals are going to use a lot less fuel, while a multi-step gourmet meal will require more. This is another consideration when planning your number of meals before the trip.

As all these criteria change, so too does the way we approach our trip and ultimately the amount of fuel we need in the backcountry. Remember that every trip is unique and plan accordingly.

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STOVE EFFICIENCY
Now that you have a general idea about your environment, conditions and group needs, consider your stove itself. A stove’s efficiency directly impacts how much fuel you’ll need. For instance, the Reactor Stove System boils a liter of water much faster and uses less fuel than the ultralight, minimalist PocketRocket stove.

While MSR offers stoves built to meet the needs of virtually every backcountry user and scenario, there are a few constants when it comes to stove efficiency across the models.

Here are some of Drew’s tips for getting the most out of your stove.

  1. Be ready with your supplies— Have pouch-cook meals open and oxygen absorber taken out before the water boils.
  2. Always use a windscreen with liquid fuel stoves or the WindPro, and wrap it close to the cookware (about ½” all the way around the cookware diameter) to increase the stove’s efficiency. The screen helps direct hot exhaust gases around the sides of the pot instead of losing that heat to the air, and it protects from even light winds blowing heat away from the pot.
  3. In cold temperatures, with a WindPro or the WhisperLite Universal using canister fuel, invert the canister so that it runs on “liquid mode.”
  4.  Placing the canister in warm water before using it will also help in cold temps.
  5. Use a lid, and resist checking the water frequently (you can usually hear a difference in the sound or will see steam).
  6. For sustainability and lower fuel costs long term, a liquid fuel stove is the way to go. It might be more expensive to purchase but the fuel is more economical over time and often easier to come by if you’re traveling abroad. You also won’t have to deal with empty canister weight on long trips, and you can always top off the fuel in your bottle rather than having partial canisters sitting around.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON FUEL

There are many nuances that affect fuel use and the more time you spend in the backcountry, the more you’ll start to recognize how they impact it. Our fuel trip criteria offers a baseline to work from, but part of mastering fuel needs is experience, and a big piece of that process is trial and error.

When Drew first started working at MSR in 1999, he and a coworker embarked on a climbing trip with the then-new SuperFly stove and only one fuel canister (he admits it may not have even been full) for an overnight trip. The pair ended up camping on snow and melting snow for water, using up more fuel than expected. The result?

“Let’s just say I didn’t end up with hot breakfast,” says Drew.

He considers the trip a learning experience and a valuable lesson for anyone traveling in the backcountry.

“Even ‘experts’ can make mistakes. I believe that with fuel it’s better to come home with some extra than to run out. Maybe that’s not fast and light and it could be fine if your food is edible without hot water, but I like to eat and have fuel for going fast, not just being light on the trail.”

*If you’re cooking a meal that doesn’t require boiled water, still count that as a liter—the stove use time is likely about the same.

MSR’s Conventional
Canister Stoves
Water Boiled
(Per oz. of fuel)
MicroRocket 2L
PocketRocket 2L
SuperFly 1.8L
SuperFly with
Autostart Igniter
1.8L
WindPro II 1.8L
MSR’s Liquid
Fuel Stoves
Fuel Water Boiled
(Per oz. of fuel)
WhisperLite
Universal
White Gas 1.3L
Kerosene 1.6L
IsoPro 1.8L
WhisperLite
International
White Gas 1.3L
Kerosene 1.6L
WhisperLite White Gas 1.6L
DragonFly White Gas 1.6L
Kerosene 1.7L
Diesel 1.7L
XGK EX White Gas 1.5L
Kerosene 1.7L
Diesel 1.9L
MSR’s Stove Systems Water Boiled
(Per oz. of fuel)
WindBurner 1.0L

WindBurner 1.8L

2.3L

2.3L

Reactor 1.0L 2.5L
Reactor 1.0L 2.5L
Reactor 2.5L 2.8L
  • павло артемишин

    WindBurner 1.8L?????

    • MSR_Staff

      We will be growing the WindBurner line in 2016. Stay tuned!

      • павло артемишин

        you have corrected the article)))))))

        • павло артемишин

          )))))))

  • павло артемишин

    WindBurner 1.8L?????

    • adrienne

      We are growing the WindBurner line in 2016. Stay tuned!

    • MSR_Staff

      We will be growing the WindBurner line in 2016. Stay tuned!

      • павло артемишин

        you have corrected the article)))))))

        • павло артемишин

          )))))))

  • Toby_Archer

    It’s a bit confusing that you talk about the amount of water in liters but the weight of fuel in ounces. Probes have crashed into Mars due to imperial/metric mix ups! 😉 Of course metric is way more sensible a system, but I’m sure I can’t persuade my American friends of that. 🙂 For what its worth, I think my Pocket Rocket (now rather aged), boils a litre of water for around 10 grams of gas – this is for 3 season use, so above freezing.

    • Chris Kent

      If you are confused, please just ask, rather than adding to the confusion as you do.

      Ounces means, “fluid ounces” – a measure of volume! Nowhere in this story are oz referred to as “weight,” that is something you read into the article. A 12oz beer may ring a bell for you

      The reason ounces is used is because that’s the standard on the canister of isobutane, or container of white gas, milk, etc. Your gram measure is not helpful unless we presume to know what a fluid oz of the various fuels weigh and wish to make an unnecessary conversion.

      • Toby_Archer

        “The reason ounces is used is because that’s the standard on the canister of isobutane, or container of white gas, milk, etc” Not where I live Chris, nor where plenty of other MSR customers live. Of course Google will tell me in seconds, but off the top of my head I have no idea what a fluid ounce looks like, nor what a 12oz beer is. In fact does anywhere beyond the US use fluid ounces? I don’t think it was common even in the UK 30 odd years back before metrication. Is a 12oz beer less or more than a pint?

        • Chris Kent

          I prefer the metric system myself, having learned it in US schools almost 50 years ago. But even given metric values, a logical analogy for your criticism would still not be grams, but a volume measure (cc or milliliters,) as a container for hiking stove fuel is a volume measure device as I point out in my reply. As the various fuels have differing densities, a weight measure would introduce pointless complexity where volume remains consistent. ( Example: although an aircraft takes on fuel measured as weight due to the importance of weight when flying, an auto does not. Small amounts of expendable liquids are generally measured as a volume.)

          So you may in hindsight agree the article is not confusing, unless one introduces the confusion by switching the measure from volume to weight as you did. You seem to have had no confusion in your closing; a pint is a volume measure! You did not refer to 500g, which it would be of course as it is primarily water. (Guinness may weigh more.)

          • Stuart Lloyd Adams

            Try working out how much volume is left in a patially full gas canister? You cannot, without weighing it. If we use weight to measure how much gas is in a canister then we can take partially empty canisters and work out how much is left simply by weighing the canister and looking to see how heavy it was when full. So I disagree I think they are referring to the weight in gas. 28 grams is 1 oz

          • Chris Kent

            Actually it’s 28.4g to the oz, any party animal knows that from college. 😉

            So, what would knowing the exact amount of fuel do for you, presuming you are not on a life raft adrift at sea? You can’t plan how much you will use, because you don’t know the variables you will encounter boiling water. As this article teaches, you can only ballpark what you will likely need, then take extra. You have to use what you need, and when you run out it’s gone. So with canned gas, you bring more than you likely will need. Hence “knowing exactly how much you have” is a picayune issue that does not really matter in the real world at least for my trips. You do like to know ABOUT how much you have, which you learn to do from experience with the cans.

            I find the volume by giving a shake and guessing, which I do before I go on a hike. I don’t cut it close on canned fuel because partial cans have poor performance generally anyway. Unless you bring scale you are going to be shaking cans too. If you are talking white gas in bottles, you simple tap the side to listen for the level. Easy.

            If you need to be very precise and/or it’s a survival issue, you should be using some variation of white gas not isobutane. And to your point, you can’t weigh it out in the field unless you pack a scale which nobody does.

            When they ref oz in this site it is “fl oz,” just like it says on the can I am holding as I write. The can is also marked in grams for people who like that. BTW -The original observation for this thread was, “It’s a bit confusing that you talk about the amount of water in liters but the weight of fuel in ounces.” This of course is not true as fluid oz is a volume measure.

          • Stuart Lloyd Adams

            You are one angry fellow. Full of science facts then when it comes down to it, to try and dismiss my point about weighing your gas (clearly more accurate) before you go you say you just shake yours ha ha ha adios amigos.

          • Chris Kent

            The personal attack is innapropriate, and innarcurate. As the MSR article states, “Adverse factors like low temps, melting snow, and wind can end up requiring 3-4 times as much fuel as your baseline number.” This is why your tedious interest in weighing fuel is worthless – you have to carry plenty of fuel, a gram more or less is bs. And for the record they are referring to fluid oz.

          • Stuart Lloyd Adams

            Yawn; there was no personal attack ha ha. You dismissed my and other peoples opinion about weighing. Then decided shaking was better which it clearly isn’t. Now leave it there, you do seem to be getting angry which was just an observation based on how you worded your response to others questions.

          • Chris Kent

            I carefully attended to other people’s opinions, in detail, so you are wrong there. I am happy to be corrected, that’s what this forum is for, you are who has not contributed anything! I agree with you on one thing, “You are on angry fellow” is not much of an attack, it’s just gay.

          • Rizwan Razak

            “It’s just gay?” you’re clearly not just an angry fellow. Perhaps a discriminatory angry fellow. Way to talk Science!

          • Chris Kent

            I’m happy as a meadowlark.
            I don’t play PC games and kowtow to word tyrants like yourself, save your attempted slights for your peers. I had gay friends before you were born judging by your photo. And while my science is correct, your PC cuts are just limp-wristed.

          • White gas is measured in fluid ounces, butane/propane mixes are measured in ounces (mass). That’s why it’s measured in grams for the metric for the canisters, in milliliters for the white gas, that and the amount of actually usable gas in a given volume being very dependent on the pressure and temperature. And those 4 ounce canisters clearly have a much larger volume than 4 fluid ounces, because the density of liquid butane is about 0.6 oz./fl. oz., liquid propane is 0.5 oz./fl. oz. For a more straightforward comparison, look at an 8 oz. canister and a measuring cup. Do they look the same size to you?

          • Rizwan Razak

            Toby never said grams Mr.Kent. He was rightly pointing to Litres. (although Grams- Grammes to the rest of the world- is also acceptable way of measuring given the same pressure) The measures in your canister and your milk cartons is in fact in ounces because US refuses logic over the imperialistic system. Funny enough is the rest of the world have to comprehend with all these weird standards to keep the US happy. For example 230g for a canister instead of 250g- which is the logical (for us)- 330ml for a beer instead of 350ml or 500ml (or Toby’s Pint), and 225g for a stick of butter instead of 250.
            Now I see that you’re adamant on defending the imperialistic system, which is although difficult but fine by itself. But that does not negate the fact that it is thoroughly confusing to mix the two systems.

  • Toby_Archer

    It’s a bit confusing that you talk about the amount of water in liters but the weight of fuel in ounces. Probes have crashed into Mars due to imperial/metric mix ups! 😉 Of course metric is way more sensible a system, but I’m sure I can’t persuade my American friends of that. 🙂 For what its worth, I think my Pocket Rocket (now rather aged), boils a litre of water for around 10 grams of gas – this is for 3 season use, so above freezing.

  • el jefe

    I figure 10g of fuel for a 4min boil time of 0.75L of water @ 11,500′ elevation. That’s 23, 4min uses (92min) out of a 230g canister & I’ve always brought a bit of fuel back, solo usage. I only use my stove @ high altitude whereas your situation might be different. Lower elevation means faster boil time resulting in a more efficient use of fuel.

    • Marcus

      You are correct that the time to boil decreases with altitude, but I must also point out that that the temperature at which water boils also decreases with increased altitude (Ideal Gas Law; PV=T).
      While you may use less fuel to reach boiling point, you will use additional fuel getting it to temperature. Thus, the difference in fuel volume to thoroughly cook your food at various elevations is relatively negligible…

      • Chris Kent

        He states: “Lower elevation means faster boil time resulting in a more efficient use of fuel.”

        Your urge to criticize prevented you from grapsing his post.

  • el jefe

    I figure 10g of fuel for a 4min burn of 1/2 liter of water @ 11,500′ elevation. That’s 23 uses out of a 230g canister & I’ve always brought a bit of fuel back. Your situation is probably different so lower in elevation means faster boil time resulting in more efficient fuel usage.

  • Alex Geary

    I’m planning to buy the Reactor with 1.7L pot for a trip to climb the Cassin Ridge on Denali this spring, and I’m trying to figure out how many canisters to bring (we’ll use whisperlites for most of the trip and only take the reactor on the Cassin for 3-4 nights). I’m estimating we’ll need about 5x normal amount of fuel due to the altitude and cold temps, but I’d love to hear from someone with experience using one at 12,000′ to 17,000′ in cold temps?

    • MSR_Staff

      The amount of fuel needed will depend on the group size/number of meals & drinks, but low temps and any kind of snow melting can require 3-4 times more fuel. At higher altitudes water will actually boil faster, but it’s the cold that will be your biggest enemy so be sure to keep the canisters as warm as possible. A good idea is to put them in the bottom of your sleeping bag at night or in your jacket next to use body heat to your advantage.

  • Vondermeister

    I love my Dragonfly stove. I pair it with a 22 oz fuel bottle (white gas) and it usually lasts for a week. I mostly make rice, pasta maybe once or twice a day, and espresso for friends and I. And I’ve yet to run out, as long as I remember to fill up the fuel bottle.

  • Chris Kent

    To you, sure. But who are you? Nobody.

  • Russ

    Not sure what his is, but I recommend an AeroPress – compact and makes a fantastic espresso. I use it even when I’m not camping.

    • Jim Wood

      Agreed. Aeropress is great and indestructable.

  • AG Videos

    This video may help with burn time estimates. This is the MSR whisperlite universal on an 11oz fuel bottle timed burn test.
    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=op0Zy1XRIp4&w=560&h=315%5D

  • Max Neale

    What’s the volume of water boiled per oz fuel for the XGK with white gas? That’s missing from the table.

    • MSR_Staff

      Hey Max,

      Using white gas the XGK EX boils 1.5L per oz of fuel.

  • Laurent

    I find your estimate to be quite accurate. I just boiled 1L of cold water in a 1.3L Evernew titanium pot using white gas and my WhisperLite International. I used 25g of fuel, the equivalent of 0.88oz for 1L which gives 1.1oz/1.3L. A hair above your 1.0oz estimate. Thanks for this page, it’s pretty useful!