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Gear List || Winter backpacking stove system for 1-2 people

Melting snow for water is a necessary time- and fuel-consuming aspect of winter backpacking. In a group setting, it’s worth creating a comfortable kitchen with cooking and sitting areas.

Melting snow for water is a necessary time- and fuel-consuming aspect of winter backpacking. In a group setting, it’s worth creating a comfortable kitchen with cooking and sitting areas.


This is a multi-part series about my trail-tested backpacking stove systems. Start reading with the Introduction, or view all posts in the series.


To have water for drinking and cooking when backpacking in the winter, I use a stove system that can efficiently melt snow. My gear list:

  • Critical = A must-have, no exceptions
  • Suggested = A valuable addition, few reasons not to bring
  • Optional = Not critical, but worth consideration
  • Depends = Contingent on trip objectives, conditions, and/or other selections
  • Unnecessary = Unlikely to need and/or can be improvised
My winter backpacking stove system

My winter backpacking stove system

Relevant conditions

I pack my winter stove system when I have no or unreliable access to natural water sources — i.e. less than several times per day, and not necessarily near or at camp — due to the freezing up or freezing over of springs, creeks, and lakes.

If these conditions are not met, I may continue to use my 3-season stove system, even if the calendar says that technically it’s winter. However, I’ve learned not to underestimate the value of a more powerful stove during the coldest and shortest days of the year, especially on trips when pack weight is not a paramount concern. Such a stove more quickly and more efficiently heats water for cooking and hot drinks, which are a morale booster and an effective source for sustained warmth; and it provides the option of melting snow if that becomes necessary or convenient.

Key differences versus a 3-season stove system

  • Hotter flame
  • Operational in much colder temperatures
  • Fuel has more potential energy per weight
  • More fuel capacity, per day
  • More pot volume, per person
  • Required pot grabber
  • Heavier and less compact
  • More expensive

Additional discussion and alternatives

In addition to my remarks in the gear list, I’d like to add some additional nuance to my selections, and to comment on alternative systems.

If your canister stove can be run on liquid-feed (via the inverted gas canister), which is an option exclusive to “remote” canister models (not “upright”) and if it has a pre-heat tube (so that liquid gas is vaporized before spewing from the stove jets), then it’s winter-worthy. Otherwise, it will be less reliable and fussier in cold conditions.

If your canister stove can be run on liquid-feed (via the inverted gas canister), which is an option exclusive to “remote” canister models (not “upright”) and if it has a pre-heat tube (so that liquid gas is vaporized before spewing from the stove jets), then it’s winter-worthy. Otherwise, it will be less reliable and fussier in cold conditions.

Stove

Only remote canister stoves with a pre-heat tube are winter-worthy. Upright models like the Soto OD-1RX WindMaster and all JetBoil stoves can be used in the winter, but not as reliably and not without some degree of fuss. For instance, fuel canisters must be warmed before use — which requires keeping them inside a jacket or a sleeping bag at night — and it’s necessary to have a multi-canister rotation because the canister pressure gets too low in cold winter temperatures. More reading. Without a pre-heat tube, the stove cannot be run on a liquid-feed.

While I prefer a remote canister stove for winter use, I’ve used much more extensively liquid fuel stoves like the famed MSR Whisperlite International, which can burn gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and — ideally and sometimes exclusively — white gas, aka Coleman fuel. Why? Because fuel canisters with the EN471 valve are not widely available, whereas liquid fuels are. In addition, since liquid fuels are not under pressure, storage containers need not be as robust, which makes it a more efficient fuel source when transported in large volumes, e.g. for Himalayan base camps and polar expeditions.

A liquid fuel stove system looks very similar to the canister stove system outlined above. Simply swap out the canister stove for a liquid fuel stove, and the fuel canister for a fuel bottle. Do not forget the fuel pump.

A liquid fuel stove can run on gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and white gas. This flexibility makes it a better choice for long and remote expeditions, when specialty fuel canisters are impossible or difficult to find. Unfortunately, canisters can not be easily shipped via ground or air.

A liquid fuel stove can run on gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and white gas. This flexibility makes it a better choice for long and remote expeditions, when specialty fuel canisters are impossible or difficult to find. Unfortunately, canisters can not be easily shipped via ground or air.

Stove base

When I only need to cook and melt snow for myself, the MSR Solid Heat Reflector is an adequate stove base, so long as it’s sitting on level and consolidated snow. For group use, however, when a stove may run for an hour before all stomachs and water bottles are full, it’s beneficial to have a stove base that is larger, more rigid, less slippery base, and more insulative. Otherwise, the stove sinks slowly and unevenly into the snow, increasing the risk of a spill.

I like Paul Manganti’s DIY platform. But for those wanting a 1-click solution, try the MSR Trillium Stove Base.

The author ignites a stove sitting on Paul Magnanti's DIY platform. Note, too, the platform of consolidated snow that we stamped out with our skis.

The author ignites a stove sitting on Paul Magnanti’s DIY platform. Note, too, the platform of consolidated snow that we stamped out with our skis.

Cook pot

Snow is typically 5-15 percent water by volume. To get one liter of water, then, it’s necessary to melt 6.5-20 liters of snow! Small pots may be lighter and more compact, but they are wickedly inefficient for winter use. I plan 2L of pot capacity per person, and one cook system per two people, paired with a 1-gallon pot like the Trangia Aluminium Cook Pot.

Titanium is the ultimate cookware material: all things being equal, it’s lighter and more durable than aluminum and stainless steel. But it’s also considerably more expensive, so I’d recommend it only for backpackers who (1) expect extensive use and (2) are willing to pay for it.


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22 Responses to Gear List || Winter backpacking stove system for 1-2 people

  1. SusanITPH November 16, 2015 at 1:55 pm #

    Both stainless steel and titanium are poor heat conductors. Given aluminum conducts heat better than either of these, why not just use aluminum exclusively? I’ve always heard the “less durable” claim, but doesn’t it make more sense to use something that is more heat efficient and costs less to replace?

    • Andrew Skurka November 16, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

      Aluminum may be a better conductor of heat, but to achieve comparable durability an aluminum pot must have relatively thick walls, which offsets this superiority.

      You can find thin-walled aluminum pots, too, but they get beat up quickly. I own a half-dozen 700-ml and 1-gallon pots like this for demo/group use, and they were all warped and dented after just a season. Meanwhile, still in perfect condition is the titanium pot that I bought 5 years ago and that has hundreds of meals on it, if not one thousand.

      In my experience with both kinds of pots, I’ve never noticed a difference in fuel efficiency either, despite having read the same claims that you have. I can boil 2 cups of water with my Ti pot, Caldera Cone, and Zelph stove using just a half-ounce of fuel — Are you really going to see the impact of an aluminum pot? Probably not.

  2. Ed November 17, 2015 at 8:14 am #

    What about denatured alcohol fuel? I know people report not being able to use it very well at above tree line altitude in winter, but this appears to be mostly unfounded in winter when high altitude is not an issue.

    • Andrew Skurka November 17, 2015 at 8:32 am #

      The primary issue with an alcohol stove for winter use is that the fuel has relatively little potential energy, so a large volume of fuel must be carried in order to melt snow, which is very energy-intensive. In addition, even alcohol stoves with the hottest of flames do not rival the temperatures put out by canister and liquid fuel stoves. So the process of much more time-consuming, too.

      I’ll also add that most alcohol stoves, especially the DIY variety, are not efficient systems. In particular, they are very susceptible to wind.

  3. Mike henrick November 18, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    How much fuel do you carry per person per day with a liquid canister stove for melting snow? I have a rough idea for white gas but inverted canisters are new to me.

    • Andrew Skurka November 18, 2015 at 9:49 am #

      The general rule of thumb is 3-4 oz. It should be about the same as you get for white gas, since the fuels have very similar potential energy per weight. I tend to get the lower end of this range, but there are so many variables at play: ambient temp, stove system efficiency, snow density, access (even limited) to natural water sources, etc. Some personal experimentation is recommended.

  4. Maeglin November 22, 2015 at 1:32 am #

    Great advise and well timed, thanks! I’d love to learn about your winter shelter. Is it still the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid? It does not look like a stand alone, do you have issues with the stakes, wind or snow?

    Congratulations on finding a travel partner-ever-after.

    • Andrew Skurka November 22, 2015 at 8:03 am #

      Re my winter shelter, I’ve used the SoloMid extensively, but in the last 6 months I’ve been using a prototype Sierra Designs shelter that offers more performance for about the same weight and simplicity. It’ll be available late-spring 2016. I’ve been posting photos of it occasioally, the most recent being here.

  5. tommyluke November 23, 2015 at 2:19 pm #

    What about your current setup do you prefer over an upright that is intended for cold-weather performance (e.g. MSR Reactor)?

    • Andrew Skurka November 23, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

      The Reactor is less reliable in cold weather because the fuel canister must somehow be kept warm, e.g. keep it warm overnight in your sleeping bag, keep it next-to-skin for the last hour of the day before you pull into camp, etc. If it’s not warm, there is not enough pressure inside the canister for the fuel to boil off (from a liquid to a gas) and so the stove will either putter along well below peak performance, or it can be choked off completely.

      An upright canister stove works okay for short periods, especially in non-frigid temperatures — to make a dinner and hot drink, for example. But if you need to run it for an extended period of time, which you will if you must melt snow for water, and it’s really cold out, you’ll want a remote canister model that offers reliable cold-weather performance so long as there is still fuel in the canister.

  6. Kate December 6, 2015 at 5:08 am #

    Was wondering if the windpro II could be left set up over night inside my snow shelter and then rifled up in the morning if temps get down to -20. Would I need to sleep with the canister? I’ve always used a whisper lite international (for many reasons) but so I don’t have to disassemble the stove between dinner and breakfast saving fingers a bit.

    • Andrew Skurka December 6, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

      So long as you operate the stove with a liquid feed (inverted canister), you need not dissemble the stove so that you can keep the canister warm overnight. Even if the canister is ambient air temperature, the stove will still operate — unlike when in an upright position, the pressure inside the canister is irrelevant.

  7. Marcel December 13, 2015 at 11:51 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for an interesting (as always) article!

    Could you please comment on Ti pots vs Alu pots with radiator (e.g., Primus Power Pot)?

    I did some comparisons on efficiency and the radiators seems to be quite effective. Yet, haven’t seen Ti pot with a radiator.

    • Andrew Skurka December 13, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

      The radiators will definitely improve fuel efficiency. I do not know for sure why, but I suspect you do not see them on Ti pots because of cost — the Ti pots are already expensive, so adding a radiator might make them prohibitive.

  8. Patrick Podenski December 25, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

    The pot in the photo looks to be a trusty old MSR Titan 2L pot. 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka December 25, 2015 at 6:46 pm #

      Sure is. Wonder why they no longer make it.

  9. Bret October 27, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

    What’s the largest size pot you’d use on that Windpro?
    Will it handle a 4Q pot almost full of water?

    Trying to decide between WindPro or Whisperlite Universal for Philmont crew of 10.
    Fyi they now REQUIRE patrol style re-hydrating in 8Q pot, but we can boil in 4Q.

    p.s. I bought your book with your Philmont packing list.

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka October 27, 2016 at 9:08 pm #

      I have put a 4Q pot on it numerous times. No problem. I don’t own any 8Q pots because they are huge and I’m not sure any of my backpacks could actually fit one. But I can’t imagine that the Windpro would have any issues with it.

      BTW, the Windpro and Whisperlite share some of the same components, including the legs, which is the main source of its strength.

  10. John Brown January 4, 2017 at 1:42 pm #

    has WindPro II had sufficient power to melt snow in the 4Q pot in a timely way? Recently took a Kovea Spider on a 3 person trip, and it was just too slow. Looking at WindPro II, but wondering if it’s a power jump, or if I should just get w/ white gas…

    • Andrew Skurka January 4, 2017 at 2:00 pm #

      You mean like this? (center-left setup)

      Done it lots of times, including multiple occasions with a liquid gas stove next to it. I would use the Windpro every time, given the option. I don’t recall why in this photo we’re running three liquid gas stoves and only one canister stove. It does not accurately represent my preference.

      The Windpro is a more powerful stove than the Spider. I can’t find comparable specs for both models, but the consensus in reviews is that the Spider is a bit under-powered and that the Windpro is faster.

  11. Sven January 25, 2017 at 2:20 am #

    How long does it actually take to turn snow into a liter of boiling water (rolling boil) with your setup?

    • Andrew Skurka January 25, 2017 at 6:21 am #

      Depends on the pot volume and the snow density: longer if more volume and lighter density snow (because you have to fill it so many times).

      I’ve never timed it, but the process takes a while. Maybe 20 minutes. I’m going out early next month. I’ll try to remember to put a timer on it.

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