With today’s technology and lightweight materials, a trekking stove doesn’t have to be bulky and heavy. Yet with all the different styles of stoves and types of fuel that they burn, making the right choice is not an easy decision. Each type of stove has its advantages and disadvantages. My focus in this article is on what kind of stove works or doesn’t work in the Indian Himalayas. Armed with this information, you can make a purchase that’s right for your climate and trekking style.
Table Of Contents
- Fuel types
- Stove Types
- Wood Stove (Fuel - Wood)
- Canister Stove (Fuel – Propane/Butane)
- Liquid Fuel Stove (Fuel – Kerosene, Petrol, Diesel, Vodka)
- Alcohol Stove (Fuel – Methanol, Ethanol, Rubbing Alcohol)
- Solid Fuel Stove (fuel – hexamine )
- Stove for Hiking/Trekking in Himalaya
When you start to expand your trekking horizons beyond a day trek, the question of food and food preparation becomes essential. Subsisting on cold food rations over a multiple-day trek is possible, nevertheless, it is not a very pleasant experience. Cooking meals has several advantages namely -
- Comfort - Warm meals provide some heat and allows one to relax. Anyone hiking in cold weather will testify that a warm drink is nice to have on a cold day.
- Nutrition - Raw vegetables are notoriously hard to digest. Cows, typically vegetarian, chew their cud for a reason. The heat from cooking initiates the breaking down of cell walls and indigestible cellulose before we start chewing it.
- Health - Disease-causing pathogens are usually killed if we heat food items to about 70 degree Celsius.
- Hydration - When out camping, it is difficult to find clean drinking water. Boiling water before drinking it makes a good backup for the filters, chemicals and UV treatments we now commonly use.
In order to cook meals on a trekking expedition, a reliable stove system is essential. Over the years outdoor stoves have evolved from heavy and crude devices to the sleek, lightweight, high-efficiency precision instruments. In the past few years, lightweight and ultra-lightweight trekkers has put a greater emphasis on weight savings, environment-friendly nature of stoves and alternative cooking methodologies. Despite these advances, most traditional stoves still need three basic ingredients to function namely: fuel, oxygen and a fire starter. Different kinds of stoves use different kinds of fuel and the kind of fuel usually defines the stove type. Because fuel is one of the defining characteristics of a stove let us look at and understand the different kinds of fuel and their characteristics.
Before we delve into the world of stoves, let us clarify that: while it is possible to cook over an open flame, I do not support nor recommend this practice. Improperly extinguished campfires are the number one reason for forest fires worldwide. Despite the utmost care, an ignored smouldering ember may lead to a serious forest fire later.
Petroleum-based fuels refer to fuel extracted from crude oil. Petrol, diesel, aviation fuel and kerosene belong to this category. These fuels provide excellent heat to weight ratio. They are generally unhindered by cold temperature and burn hot. On the flip side, most of these fuels are corrosive and a fire hazard when spilled.
Liquefied gas vaporises at freezing temperature (0 C) and above. It also burns very hot. This fuel has one of the best heat to weight ratio. Yet this fuel does not vaporise at under freezing temperature which limits its application in sub-freezing temperature. Liquified Gas is packaged in disposable metal canisters and tends to be expensive. There is also the environmental penalty of disposing non-reusable metal canisters.
Alcohol is a low heat output fuel with about half the heat to weight ratio as compared to petroleum-based fuels. Yet it is a clean-burning fuel and does not produce soot or a residue. Alcohol does not constitute a fire hazard if you spill it.
Chemical Solid Fuels
These low toxicity fuels were developed around the second world war to provide soldiers with a smokeless, high energy fuel for heating food rations. They burn slowly and do not need a special stove. Nevertheless, no solid fuel burns completely. The byproducts of combustion are ash and a sort of soot that will cover cooking utensils. Because some of their chemical energy is trapped in ash and soot, they have a low weight to heat ratio.
Wood varies in burn-ability, toxicity and availability. Wood provides a special ambience to being in the outdoors nevertheless burning wood coats backpacking cookware with black soot.
After comparing different fuel types, we move on to the various kinds of stoves available for trekking. The discussion on fuels was essential because the type of fuel often defines the characteristics and performance of a trekking-stove. Now let’s discuss the various stove types, their pros and cons applicable to the Indian Himalaya and some stove handling tips.
Wood Stove (Fuel - Wood)
A wood stove works like a campfire, but in a controlled environment. It burns branches and twigs that you collect as you walk. Therefore, a trekker carries no fuel reserve and this is excellent for long multi-day treks. The stove construction is simple. There is a combustion chamber for wood and underneath the combustion chamber, there is usually a place for a commercial fire starter or some kindling like dry leaves and grass. Light the kindling, feed the wood and in a few minutes, you’re ready to start cooking. Simmering is possible by adjusting the amount of fuel (twigs) that is fed to the stove. Some modern wood-burning stoves can do much more than just providing heat and light. Stoves like Biolite Campfire 2 generate an electric current from the heat produced by the stove. This generated current can then be used to charge your electronic devices.
The biggest advantage of a wood-burning stove is that fuel is free of cost and freely available. However, this works only if you are trekking under or below the tree line, and if the weather is fair. Locating wood and lighting a wood stove in wet weather or under snow can be a harrowing experience. Using a wood fire coats your backpacking cookware with black soot. In the Himalayas, the tree cover diminishes rapidly over an elevation of 2500 metres. This makes a wood stove a poor candidate for high altitude treks.
Wood Stove Cons
- Will not work above the treeline.
- Difficult to work with during the monsoons and in inclement weather, which is when a source of heat is most essential.
- Sooty flame.
- Efficiency is variable, depends on the fuel source.
- Requires skill to ignite. Does not have a click to ignite mechanism.
- Environmental concern about removing dead wood from the forest.
Wood Stove Pros
- Simple to use.
- Does not require packed fuel.
- Quiet operation.
- No fuel spill / leakage.
- The ambience of a campfire.
Solo Stove - is an excellent wood burning stove
My Wood Stove Pick - Solo Stove Lite
Canister Stove (Fuel – Propane/Butane)
A canister stove consists of a small stove and a pressurised fuel canister. There are two types of canister stoves based on how the fuel canisters attach to the stove. In an upright stove the fuel canister screws directly to the stove via a threaded screw valve. Whereas in a low-profile stove a fuel hose connects the fuel canister to the stove which has its own independent base.
Canister stoves are small, lightweight, easy to operate and very safe. You turn on the gas, light it with a match, and you’re ready to cook. Some stoves are even equipped with a built-in piezo igniter. Regulating the gas valve gives excellent control over heat intensity and allows for simmering. Since the fuel canister is sealed, there’s no chance of spilling fuel.
The canister stove fuel is a blend of propane and either butane or iso-butane. There are two reasons for using a mix of gases.
- Butane is more stable than propane at room temperatures and this means it can be safely packed in a lightweight canister.
- Propane vaporises much below freezing temperature (-41 degree Celsius) while butane does not. This makes propane much more usable in and under freezing temperatures. Most of the proprietary fuel mixes 10 to 30 per cent propane with butane.
This discussion on fuel brings us to the biggest disadvantage of a container stove system, that they can be problematic in cold weather trekking. The fuel canister loses pressure below 0°C which means that it is difficult to light and if lit, burns with a low flame. There are plenty of workarounds to get over this poor cold-weather performance like storing the canister in your sleeping bag or inverting the canister in a low profile stove. However, none of these workarounds are very practical in an extreme weather situation and therefore we do not recommend a canister stove system for winter trekking in the Indian Himalayas. Another disadvantage of a canister stove system is that canister fuel is very expensive. It is also difficult to gauge the level of fuel in a partially used canister. Fuel canisters are environmentally unfriendly compared to alternatives as they are meant to be disposable and non-reusable.
In India, availability of fuel canisters is restricted to large metropolitan cities and bustling hill towns like Manali or Leh. Be prepared to pay a huge price premium for the right brand/size canister, if you are lucky enough to find one in the first place. Chances of procuring fuel canister in a small town are virtually nil. Therefore, carefully ration a canister stove on a multi-day trek or on multiple treks. There is no way to gauge the amount of fuel left inside a fuel container, which complicates fuel planning.
At altitudes over 3000 metres in the Himalayas, wind speed in excess of 60kmph is not uncommon. Such windy conditions adversely affect the performance of an upright canister stove because a windscreen cannot be used with this stove. Surrounding an upright canister stove with a windscreen may cause the fuel canister to heat up and explode. Integrated canister stove systems like MSR Windburner, solve this problem. An integrated system works in the same way as a canister stove, except that the cooking pot (or other optional accessories) attach directly to the stove. This results in performance that is not hindered by wind and it has high thermal efficiency. However, integrated stoves do not work with other cooking pots and they are much more expensive than simple canister stoves.
Canister Stove - Cons
- Problematic in sub-zero temperature.
- Finding fuel is extremely difficult in India.
- Compared to other options, fuel is expensive.
- Difficult to gauge remaining fuel.
- Heat output drops and canister empties.
- Upright models are susceptible to tip-overs.
- Environmental hazard due to non-reusable fuel canisters.
Canister Stove - Pros
- Immediate high heat output.
- Compact and lightweight.
- No priming required.
- Burns clean (no soot).
- No fuel spill risk.
- Excellent simmering and flame control.
My Canister Stove Pick - MSR Pocket Rocket 2
MSR Pocket Rocket 2 in the Wild
Liquid Fuel Stove (Fuel – Kerosene, Petrol, Diesel, Vodka)
A liquid fuel stove has three components: stove, a mechanical pump and a fuel canister. The mechanical pump goes inside the fuel bottle and a fuel hose connects the fuel bottle to a free-standing stove body.
Liquid fuel stoves typically run on white gas, also known as naphtha. Naphtha is a highly refined fuel that is processed to leave few or no impurities, however its availability is still an issue. Some liquid fuel stoves like the MSR Whisperlite International and Primus Omnifuel are classified as multi-fuel stoves. Depending on the model, these stoves may operate on almost any liquid fuel like kerosene, jet fuel, diesel or unleaded automobile petrol.
None of these fuels are as pure as naphtha or white gas. Over time the impurities in these fuels may clog stove parts. This brings us to the biggest disadvantage of a liquid fuel stove system, that they require occasional maintenance to ensure optimum performance. Liquid fuel stoves are not as user-friendly and because of the presence of a manual pump they are not as lightweight as a canister stove system.
Since these stoves use liquid fuel, they require the use of a manual plunger to create pressure that will supply the fuel to the stove burner. While at the first glance this may seem like a limitation, yet having a manual plunger pump makes the system extremely versatile. Canister stoves which lose pressure at below-freezing temperatures whereas liquid gas systems are unaffected by winter weather. This is because a manual pump can create a high pressure to compensate for lower temperature and pressure. The performance of a canister stove also decreases as the amount of the gas and therefore the pressure in the canister drops. Once again, because it is possible to regulate the pressure with manual pump a liquid fuel stove, a consistent and optimum performance can be maintained throughout the entire fuel bottle. These features make a liquid fuel stove a proven workhorse of high altitude, cold weather expeditions. On the flip side however liquid fuels require priming. Priming is the act of converting liquid fuel to vapour before it can start burning. This can be an awkward operation and may result in a small fireball if done incorrectly.
In India, the most available source of fuel is kerosene followed by unleaded automobile petrol. Kerosene or petrol can be found in the smallest village or tea shop in the Indian Himalayas. Even mountain shepherds (Gaddis) often carry a small stash of kerosene. Excellent fuel availability gives multi-fuel stoves an unparalleled usage edge in the Indian Himalayas.
Liquid Fuel Stove - Cons
- High purchase price.
- Requires priming.
- Heavier than canister stoves.
- Noisier than canister stoves.
- Sooty smoke with most easily available fuels i.e. unleaded petrol, kerosene, diesel.
- Complicated, may require field repairs.
- Possibility of severe burns as most spilt fuel is highly inflammable.
Liquid Fuel Stove - Pros
- Excellent cold-weather performance.
- Inexpensive fuel.
- Low profile design provides more stability and the ability to use a windscreen.
- Easy to gauge the fuel level.
- Reusable fuel canister.
- Most versatile. Just change the stove jet to go from Kerosene to unleaded petrol or even to Vodka.
Liquid Fuel Stove - Usage Tips
- Before packing a fuel bottle, check if its cap is tightly sealed. Spilt fuel is a fire hazard and leaves you clothes and gear smelling of fuel, which may make you nauseous.
- Do not fill your fuel bottle to the lip. Leave some airspace for the fuel to expand.
- Naptha or white gas degrades over time. The fresher the fuel, less likely are chances for a clog.
- Perform periodic maintenance of your stove. Especially the ‘O’ rings and the fuel hose.
- Empty the fuel tank when storing your stove for several months. Petroleum-based fuels are corrosive and may corrode the rubber parts in the stove.
- Don’t spill fuel on bare skin. In extreme cold, this can cause frostbite due to the rapid evaporation of fuel.
My Liquid Stove Pick - Primus Omnifuel
My very own Primus Omnifuel. 8 years old and still going strong
Alcohol Stove (Fuel – Methanol, Ethanol, Rubbing Alcohol)
Alcohol stoves come in many forms and are often “Do It Yourself” (DIY). Homemade alcohol stoves are generally made of aluminium or tin cans and may weigh less than 30 grams. Commercial alcohol stoves like Trangia have been available for a while now but they weigh more than their homemade cousins. Alcohol stoves burn a variety of fuels: denatured/grain/methyl alcohol, and gelled fuel. Most stoves operate simply by adding fuel, lighting it and covering the stove to extinguish the fuel. A homemade alcohol stove is the cheapest, simplest and the most lightweight cooking system. The disadvantages of an aluminium stove are inherent to the fuel it uses, namely alcohol. Alcohol has a half the heat potential of petroleum-based fuels and therefore aluminium stoves tend to be slow to cook with and use up more fuel than other stoves. This makes them a poor choice for a large group of trekkers or for a really long trip because of the weight of additional fuel. Since they do not have a way to control heat or to simmer alcohol stoves are best used for rehydrating meals by boiling water. These stoves are not very good for winter trekking, since alcohol doesn’t vaporise well below freezing temperature.
Alcohol Stove - Cons
- Cannot be turned off. Shuts only when alcohol is exhausted.
- Low heat output, therefore longer cooking time.
- Fuel may contain toxic adhesives.
- Does not work in high altitude, cold temperature.
- Cannot be used to melt snow.
- Lightweight may be offset with heavy fuel requirement, especially for a large trekking group.
- Requires trial and error to get it right.
Alcohol Stove - Pros
- Simplest. No moving parts or gaskets. Nothing to break.
- No priming required.
- Do It Yourself (DIY).
- Cheapest to build and operate.
- Clean burning, leaves no residue.
My Pick - DIY Fancy Feast Homemade Stove
Solid Fuel Stove (fuel – hexamine )
Solid fuel tablets were developed around the second world war to provide soldiers with a smokeless, high energy fuel for heating food rations. The most popular solid fuel is called ESBIT (hexamine). ESBIT comes packaged in 15-gram tablets that burn for 12 minutes and provide enough heat energy to boil half a litre of water. Solid fuel tablets require a very simple stove to use, just a stable base and a wind screen to improve fuel efficiency. Usage is as simple as lighting a fuel tablet and cooking. Many alcohol stoves double as solid fuel stoves.
One major drawback of hexamine (ESBIT) is that it produces a noticeable odour and leaves a sticky brown residue on cooking pots. Like alcohol, solid fuel is best used for boiling water to rehydrate dried foods, although some stoves provide you with the ability to simmer or even bake with Esbit tablets. The downside of solid fuel tablets is that they can be difficult to resupply in small towns. In India Esbit tablets are virtually impossible to come by. Some trekkers in India have experimented with Camphor and Paraffin wax tablets. Such tablets are used by catering companies in India for outdoor catering and are readily available. Nevertheless, since the quality, volatility and toxicity of such solid fuel tablets vary between brands and providers, we so not recommend using such tablets without a comprehensive test.
Solid Fuel Stove - Cons
- Slow cooking.
- No simmer control.
- Brown sticky residue.
- Poor to non-existent fuel availability in India.
- Some fuels don’t extinguish well so must be burned completely.
Solid Fuel Stove - Pros
- Extremely lightweight and compact.
- Cheap Fuel.
- Low cost.
- Easy storage of fuel.
My Pick - Futaba Foldable Stove
Futaba stove folds flat and takes standard sized fuel tablets
Stove for Hiking/Trekking in Himalaya
Having covered stove fuel and the different types of let’s move on to stove usage. There is no one size that fits all when it comes to trekking stoves. Different hikers have different requirements for trekking stoves. In essence, the choice for a stove, boils down (pun intended) to the following factors
- Spring-summer to winter use
- Group size
- Simmering / Gourmet vs boiling water
Cheap. No melting snow. Individual or small trekking group. Boiling
An alcohol stove fits the bill. It costs next to nothing if you have some DIY skill and have a cola or a tuna can lying around. Fuel is relatively cheap and denatured alcohol is available in any shop that sells surgical supplies. In New Delhi there is a wholesale market for surgical supplies near Chawri Bazaar metro station. In a pinch you can procure rubbing alcohol from a chemist shop and use that as fuel. Do note that the rubbing alcohol available in India does not burn clean and it will cover your cooking utensils in soot. Experiment with different types of alcohol available and choose the one that fits the bill.
I received an email from one of our readers Nikhil’s blog). Quick updates from Bhrigu experience – We made the stove and tried it out. Since we couldn’t get Ethanol, we used turpentine oil. It worked. The flames were a bit low hence it took its sweet time to boil. But it came as enlightenment. We cooked MTR stuff, soup, rice, etc…
Fuel storage is not a problem as alcohol does not degrade over time. Storing alcohol in an airtight bottle away from direct heat or sunlight alcohol keeps it from vaporising in the Indian summer. Use a squeeze bottle with a pointy nozzle (like sewing machine oil bottles) for trekking trips. These bottles make it easier to pour just the right amount of alcohol in a stove and minimise spillage. I own many types of stoves but, for my spring-summer treks I reach out for an alcohol stove. If you have to buy rather than build your own alcohol stove I recommend, buying the Trangia System. It is stable, robust with an excellent build quality and Trangia has been making these stoves since 1925.
High initial cost. Spring-summer and winter trekking. For big groups. Boiling and a limited simmering ability
Come winter or high altitude treks and I take the wraps off my trusty Primus Omnifuel. A quick inspection later, I have a stove that will go with me on all my winter treks. At 200 euros it is the most expensive stove I own. Yet, I’ve used mine for 6 years now and it has never let him down. A multi-fuel stove puts out a huge amount of heat and it is the best bet for winter treks where you have to melt snow for drinking water. It also significantly cuts down cooking time for a large group.
In 2012-13 I was on a dog sledge trek North of Kiruna (Sweden). Kiruna lies with the Arctic Circle, and temperatures usually dip to as low as -30 Degrees Centigrade without windchill. In such extreme conditions, a Primus Omnifuel stove running on White Gas / Naphtha kept a group of four hydrated and fed for a week without a single hiccup. When I reached back home the first thing I did was go out and buy a Primus Omnifuel.
One caveat with a multi-fuel stove is that it requires maintenance, and I recommend investing in a field repair kit when you buy a multi-fuel stove. Big fuel manufactures like MSR and Primus also supply field repair kits.
Most multi-fuel stoves make an eerily loud roar. If your idea of a morning breakfast is a quiet commune with nature and hearing the birds chirp then this is not the stove for you. In India, I prefer running my multi-fuel stove on unleaded petrol rather than kerosene. Unleaded petrol produces noticeably less soot and is almost as readily available as kerosene in the remotest Himalayan village. However, for treks longer than a week I do keep the kerosene jet with me, just in case (it weighs 10 grammes). I have tried running this stove with Old Monk rum and Smirnoff vodka as fuel and to my pleasant surprise, the stove works with both. In conclusion, if you need a stove that offers extreme reliability and performance in any weather condition over any elevation then look no further than a multi-fuel stove.
My favourite - the Primus Omnifuel stove is not easily available in India. In such a case we recommend settling for MSR Whisperlite international which is 90% as good as the Primus.
Have money, want no hassle. Spring-summer trekking and a little winter trekking. Small to a large group. Gourmet meals
If you value time and convenience and you can afford to pay for it the Canister Stove is the right choice for you. Canister stoves are the simplest to use and have the best simmer control mechanism. This makes them an ideal choice for the discerning gourmet chef. An excellent flame control means that anything that can be home-cooked on a gas range can be cooked outdoors. Moreover, this is the simplest stove to use. If you are new to cooking on treks and do not want to clean soot from your cooking gear this is the stove to use. Fuel availability is a mixed bag.
In conclusion, trekking stoves are light, reliable and support the Leave No Trace ethic. If you are in the market for a trekking stove you need to ask yourself a few questions
- How much do I want to spend on a stove?
- How much do I want to spend on fuel?
- Where am I going backpacking?
- How cold will it get where I am going?
- How many people am I cooking for?
- How available is the fuel that I need?
Based on the answers to these questions my stove recommendations are
- Lightweight three-season trekking: Home made alcohol stove Fancy Feast cat food stove.
- Three season camping with minimum hassle - Integrated canister stove.
- Winter trekking: Multi-fuel stove.