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Backpacking Stoves: Five complete systems for soloists & groups

A camp during my Kings Canyon High Basin Route thru-hike, with the Cadillac Stove System

A camp during my Kings Canyon High Basin Route thru-hike, with the Cadillac Stove System

What are the backpacking stove systems that I use in 3-season and winter conditions when solo, as a couple, or in a group? In this multi-post series I will detail them, with complete gear lists and in-depth explanations of my selections.

This is not meant to be a definitive list of viable stove systems. There are literally hundreds of worthy stoves, pots, utensils, and other kitchen components that can be mixed-and-matched. But I hope that the gear lists can be a useful template for your own, and that the discussions can help you navigate the options with more insight and perspective. In that sense, this series is a bit of a buyers guide.

Comparison Chart

Depending on your exact selections, weights and prices of these systems will change. But I took measures to accurately represent the relative differences between the systems, i.e. so long as your selections are about the same, The Dirtbag will weigh and cost less than the canister stoves.

More specifically, the systems are shown in one-person configurations, since the group systems would appear heavier and more expensive even though the underlying components are similar or even the same; and I included an 8-oz canister (empty), even though for some systems I would normally use a 3.9-oz or 16-oz canister.

System Summaries

The Dirtbag

This was my go-to setup for 3-season trips between 2007 and 2015, and I have cooked hundreds of meals with it. It’s very inexpensive and lightweight, and its major flaws — notably, pot instability, susceptibility to wind, and sub-par fuel efficiency — can be worked around or overlooked. For this system to really go the distance, I recommend upgrading the pot, which would add $15-20 at least.

The Dirtbag

The Dirtbag


The Cadillac

If an alcohol stove can be made in 10 minutes for just a few bucks, you may ask, “Is it worth buying one?” That’s a personal decision, but I can confirm that The Cadillac is a much more user-friendly system than The Dirtbag: it’s more fuel efficient, especially in windy conditions; it’s very stable, with almost no tipping hazard; and it’s much more durable, though probably still not more economical in the long run. I swapped to this system earlier this year and don’t see myself going back.

The Cadillac Stove System

The Cadillac Stove System


Fast & Light

For an extra 5-ish ounces more than an alcohol stove system, an upright canister stove is more convenient, more fuel efficient, and more powerful. Canister stoves are noisy and the fuel canisters are an annoyance (expensive, limited availability, and should not be refilled by the user), but they are very fast and convenient. I reserve Fast & Light for late-season trips when I will be using my stove extensively for hot meals and drinks. For others, especially couples, this is their standard go-to.

My stove system for solo backpacking trips in the shoulder seasons, when I'm willing to carry a few extra ounces so that I can quickly heat up large amounts of water. With a larger pot and an additional eating container, mug, and utensil, this system would be suitable for couples, too.

My stove system for solo backpacking trips in the shoulder seasons, when I’m willing to carry a few extra ounces so that I can quickly heat up large amounts of water. With a larger pot and an additional eating container, mug, and utensil, this system would be suitable for couples, too.


Hot & Heavy

For casual group trips — like when Amanda and I hiked the Aspen Four Pass Loop during our anniversary weekend — gram-counting is generally trumped by convenience and comfort. With this system’s powerful stove and big pot, I can quickly and simultaneously prepare meals and hot drinks for a group of two to four. It beats waiting on an alcohol stove, which produces much less heat, or having a group eat and drink at different times, as would be the case if using a small-volume pot paired with an upright canister stove.

Hot & Heavy Stove System

Hot & Heavy Stove System


Winter Camping

When daytime and nighttime temperatures are consistently below freezing, natural water sources are non-existent or extremely difficult to access (e.g. covered by a foot of lake ice). In this situation, my stove must be capable of melting snow. Liquid fuel stoves like the classic Whisperlite are well suited for this purpose, but so long as I have reliable access to replacement fuel canisters I prefer to run a liquid feed on a remote canister stove .

My winter backpacking stove system

My winter backpacking stove system

Shared selections

The core components of my stove systems — namely, the stove and pot — change, and I discuss the selection rationale in each dedicated post. Several smaller items are shared across the three systems, however, and I’ll explain the rationale once here, to avoid redundancy.

Eating containers

When solo, I eat out of my pot. When I’m with my wife, I eat out of the pot and she eats from a separate eating container. And when I’m cooking for a group, we all have personal vessel.

An eating container can be a simple plastic bowl or Tupperware container. But I prefer that everyone have a metal pot so that their meal can be simmered or warmed up. I specifically recommend the 1-liter Stanco Non-Stick Grease Pot for $10.

Pot lifter

I don’t care for pot handles: they interfere with windscreens, and the rubber/silicone coatings can catch fire. Instead, I prefer handle-less pots and a standalone pot lifter.

With some extra care and skill, some of systems can be operated successfully without a pot lifter. I recommend one for those new to The Dirtbag, since the Super Cat stove is generally unstable and has a hot, non-adjustable flame. I also pack one with Hot & Heavy and with Winter Camping, so that I can more easily manage heavy pots of boiling water.

The photographed pot lifter is from Open Country; it cost $3.75 and was 1.2 oz. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available. Instead, try the Optimus Terra Pot Lifter or similar, although I cannot attest first-hand to the quality or performance of these alternatives. It’s not a sophisticated item.

Utensil

My favorite backpacking breakfast and dinner recipes are most efficiently consumed with a spoon. I never bring a fork or knife, and I don’t try to be cute with a spork.

My favorite utensil is the GSI Outdoors Pouch Spoon, formerly the REI Campware Soup Spoon. It’s cheap, ultralight, and durable. Its handle can be easily shortened so that it fits inside my pot. And unlike metal utensils, it does not get cold to the touch.

On group trips, I pack a back-up spoon as part of my Field Repair Kit in the event that someone loses theirs. It’s a difficult item to improvise in the field.

Ignition

A book of matches weighs less, but it’s much less reliable than a lighter: limited strikes, and poor performance in wind and/or when damp or wet. Furthermore, a lighter is far superior when starting a campfire. For this application, I have always been satisfied with the standard Bic Lighter or Mini Bic Lighter. Consider packing a second one as back-up, but do not store it with your primary lighter.


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30 Responses to Backpacking Stoves: Five complete systems for soloists & groups

  1. Chris November 29, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

    Those are 3 great setups! A little off topic question. In your kings canyon camp picture you are using 2 poles in your mid. What connector do you use?

    • Andrew Skurka November 29, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

      I don’t. My poles extend to 135 cm, and if needed I add some height by placing a rock or log under my poles. Not ideal, but I think it’s better than extenders.

  2. Richard November 29, 2015 at 3:50 pm #

    Where can I find the Cadillac of stove systems.

    • Andrew Skurka November 29, 2015 at 8:19 pm #

      I’ll be posting details this week. But, generally speaking, buy this: https://www.traildesigns.com/stoves/clone-evernew-900ml-short-ul-pot-sidewinder-ti-tri-bundle. Upgrade to the Zelph stove for another $12. Pass on the wood-burning options.

      • Jim Milstein June 18, 2017 at 2:48 pm #

        Wood-burning may make sense for snow melting, but it is true you don’t need the inner cone pieces for the Ti Caldera to burn wood. In Colorado’s dead spruce forests small caliber dry sticks are far too plentiful.

        The Ti Caldera can also be used as a micro-campfire for cold evenings.

  3. Rob Collins November 30, 2015 at 8:59 pm #

    “Note that for this system to really go the distance, I recommend upgrading the pot.”

    Sound advice for any “system”.

    My ‘dirtbag’ system isn’t all that ‘dirtbag’, but it always works if I’m in the trees, even on a snow platform. Emberlit. My #2 is an MSR Whisperlight for boiling water, some have simmer adj for cooking, but trout on a stick has made the Emberlit emerge from ‘Gucci’ to ‘Dirtbag’ for me…

  4. Ed December 2, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

    Looking forward to this series…

  5. Gordon December 6, 2015 at 10:03 pm #

    Ha! I adopted the “Cadillac” over a month ago, after using the Supercat for some time on Andrew’s recommendation.

    Seems like i R an xpert, now! 😉

  6. Uke February 15, 2016 at 10:36 am #

    I went with the Tri-ti Sidewinder, 900ml Toaks pot and the 12-10 stove. First test over valentine’s day weekend, in 26 F weather, for two people, it worked well but I found the stakes kind of fiddly and the stove did not want to light using a flint & steel. It lit with a Bic after one or two tries.

    I made a DIY fancee feast stove that works amazingly well. I’m experimenting with using that and the sidewinder cone– No stakes, cone fits pot perfectly. The only fiddly part is to make sure that the stove is in contact with the bottom of the pot, easy enough to do with a little pile of dirt under the stove.

    If I go with this I will store the stove in a twist-lock container which doubles as a bowl (with lid!). I already have to carry the 12-10 stove in a similar container, so no huge diff.

  7. Fred Kelly April 9, 2016 at 2:26 pm #

    Great article. Is the shelter in the top photo a MLD Solomid in cuben using two trekking poles?

    • Andrew Skurka April 10, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

      Yes

  8. RJ April 15, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

    Do you recommend the Jetboil or similar MSR products for heating food, coffee…etc? I don’t see you mention it. Is your system cheaper? Lighter? More reliable?…etc Cheers RJ

    • Andrew Skurka April 17, 2016 at 6:24 pm #

      If you have not done so already, you should peruse these pages more in-depth — all of your questions are answered.

      • RJ April 17, 2016 at 8:58 pm #

        Will do, thank you for your reply.

  9. Pier-Alexandre Aubé April 18, 2016 at 6:42 pm #

    Why pass on the burning wood options of the Sidewinder Ti-tri ?

    • Andrew Skurka April 18, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

      Smoky
      Soot-covered pot
      Time-consuming

      • Pier-Alexandre Aubé April 18, 2016 at 8:24 pm #

        Yeah, also, fire bans make that option unreliable.

        Thanks for your answer.

  10. MarkL September 20, 2016 at 11:16 am #

    My son and I did a science fair project on liquid vs canister fuel stoves using the MSR Pocket Rocket and a venerable Whisperlite. The original idea was to find how much burn time (at full burn) it would take for the weight efficiency of carrying fuel in a bottle to be better than the light weight of the canister stove. In other words, when would the weight of the number of necessary canisters overcome the initial weight advantage of the super light stove?

    The results were not what I expected. In our backyard testing the liquid fuel NEVER became more weight efficient. What was the real enemy was volume; the canisters for the number of meals took up so much more space! Secondary were fuel cost and environmental considerations. My conclusion was what i expected: canister stoves are better suited for short trips (3-7 days dempending on cooking style). But the reason liquid stoves are better for longer trips has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with other factors.

    My writeup, including caveats, is here: https://langleybackcountry.com/2016/05/09/backcountry-science-fair-white-gas-vs-isobutane/

    • MarkL September 20, 2016 at 11:18 am #

      To clarify, we actually based the effiency on the number of meals cooked to account for the fact the stoves don’t boil water at the same rate.

  11. MarkL September 20, 2016 at 11:38 am #

    A couple other comments about the wood burning stoves I see pop up:
    -Leave No Trace says you shouldn’t scavenge wood from the landscape. Maybe they use such small pieces it isn’t a big deal, but it should be considered.
    -Above timberline you are SOL.

    • Phil October 1, 2016 at 8:16 am #

      I follow LNT principles, but do bend a little for the wood burning option on the Caldera Ti tri. It uses a small handful of twigs to boil a couple of cups of water. Also I carry the alcohol stove for quick start mornings and above tree line camps. A fantastic combination for me that provides enjoyment in the evening. ..where fires are allowed or Rangers OK the stove. Soot is taken care of by a ziploc gallon size.

  12. Jon EO October 13, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    Hello, I just bought a Caldera Cone Sidewinder Duo as I was thinking that the 2 liter pot would be a good choice for two people to boil enough water at once for two Mountain House type meals and two hot cups of liquid simultaneously (tea, coffee, etc)- about 6 cups.

    Is getting this much water to boil at once impractical with this alcohol stove system? Would it be better to go with two separate boils of half this amount of water? If so perhaps the Sidewinder Solo (with 1 liter pot) would be better in order to shave more weight since I would have to refill the pot anyway?
    Thank You!

    p.s. love your book!

    • Andrew Skurka October 13, 2016 at 3:24 pm #

      The Caldera system works for two people, but it’s a sacrifice of weight-savings for speed.

      When I heat up 2 cups of water for a dinner with my solo kit, I get it going and walk away and complete some other camp chores. I swear it takes longer if you sit there and look at it. With a 2-person system you’re probably looking at boil times of 10-ish minutes for 6 cups, maybe more. Is that worth it to you? Only you can answer that.

      A 1-person kit will be faster than a 2-person kit, but not by 2x, due to the stove assembly time at the start. With a less efficient system, I would also say that the 2-person version absorbs more heat because of the wider stove base, but I’m not sure that’s the case with the Sidewinder — it’s super efficient and you can barely feel heat escaping up the sides.

  13. Jon EO October 13, 2016 at 4:04 pm #

    Awesome information. I do realize that boil times vary depending on a number of conditions, but it’s good to know that this setup should work, even if it means a little bit longer to get there. Thank you very much!

  14. David October 23, 2016 at 8:26 am #

    Dear all,
    Obviously in any fuel burning system placed on the ground some heat will be lost to the ground. How much I don’t know. Has anyone done comparative boil time test with a reflective foil placed on the ground under the cooking apparatus?

    • MarkL October 23, 2016 at 11:50 am #

      Part of the design of system stoves (Jet Boil, Reactor, etc.) is to maximize heat directed to the pot using heat exchangers and the like. That is a significant part of what makes them so efficient.

    • Andrew Skurka October 23, 2016 at 7:59 pm #

      I have not. But I can tell you that a cold ground impacts the firepower of the stove. If the Super Cat is sitting on frozen ground or snow, it may not even get hot enough to bloom.

      Presumably, too, cold ground saps some of the heat produced by the stove, which is heat that can not be directed at the pot.

      This would only be an issue with cold ground. In 3-season conditions, it’s probably a rounding error of a difference.

      • David October 23, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

        Yep, it will take some control tests in different conditions to assess the impact of varying conditions. Thanks for confirming that cold and wet conditions do significantly effect the efficiency of a low BTU system, I strongly suspected that it would, just as I strongly suspect that an insulate and reflective membrane will greatly improve efficiency, especially in the aforementioned conditions.
        I am used to assessing the efficiency of passive solar housing designs. These are low BTU systems that are very sensitive to humidity, temperature, etc. Conduction, convection and radiation efficiencies-inefficiencies, have not been adequately assessed. On damp ground with a temperature of 5-10C and 80% humidity, that the inclusion of a insulate and reflective membrane to the ground, (which will cost and weigh practically nothing), should increase the fuel efficiency by around 20%.
        Someone please attempt to prove me wrong. Lets make progress 🙂

  15. David October 23, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    Hi MarkL

    But the weaker, much lower BTU systems such as DirtBag and Cadillac, would presumably benefit from not loosing heat to the ground far more than a stronger system such as a Jet Boil.
    I theorize that the ambient temperature in the chamber, (the area under the pot and surrounding the little burner), would increase significantly with an insulating – reflective barrier at the bottom. If the increase in ambient temperature is significant enough it should shorten the boil times, but by how much I don’t know. It should make a difference in colder weather and particularly if the ground is cold and wet. Please someone give it a go and let us know.

  16. Packman Pete December 13, 2016 at 10:07 am #

    I’m surprised you don’t use a cozy. Especially with multiple pots, or the need to “simmer” after an alcohol burn.

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