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
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.
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.
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.
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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