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
- Contingent: Depends 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 (scroll down to FAQ, “Does Jetboil work on cold weather?”) 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.
I like Paul Manganti’s DIY platform. But for those wanting a 1-click solution, try the MSR Trillium Stove Base.
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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Tags: Backpacking Stove System Gear Lists
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?
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.
That’s why anodized is great! Very durable.
If your priority is efficiency then get a Jetboil style pot since little difference between TI and AL, but you pay for that efficiency in weight. I usually bring TI pot for weight, but Jetboil is nice for colder or when may need larger canister if using TI pot since Jetboil is more fuel efficient.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What about your current setup do you prefer over an upright that is intended for cold-weather performance (e.g. MSR Reactor)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Titanium pots with finned heat conductors were tried, by JetBoil. I believe Roger Caffin over on backpackinglight.com stated that the process of welding Al fins to the Ti pot body was problematic for the manufacturer. Further, the Al fins seemed to absorb heat from the burner faster than they could dump it into the Ti pot, resulting in excessive heat buildup and a literal meltdown of the aluminum fins.
As a consequence, I think the JetBoil Sol Ti was withdrawn from the market. Too bad. Hope they overcome the technical hurdles involved.
The pot in the photo looks to be a trusty old MSR Titan 2L pot. 🙂
Sure is. Wonder why they no longer make it.
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.
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.
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…
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.
How long does it actually take to turn snow into a liter of boiling water (rolling boil) with your setup?
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.
Every gas canister can be put upside down or just this with the preheat system?
Canisters can be physically inverted with any remote gas stove. However, the liquid gas will only convert to vapor gas if the stove has a pre-heat tube. Without the pre-heat tube, the liquid gas won’t vaporize, and the stove won’t work.
The “more reading” link in the below copied paragraph is dead. I thought you might like to know.
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.
Thanks for the heads-up. They re-org’d their website and added this material as an FAQ.
I currently use a Whisperlite for winter trips requiring snow-melting on winter trips in Colorado Rockies (temps typically ~10F, but sometimes colder). I’ve come around recently to the “novelty” of hot food. The times that I’ve tried cooking things like oatmeal with the Whisperlite, it’s proved waaayyy to powerful and just burns the oatmeal in the milk/water mixture.
I’m interested in an inverted canister stove, hoping that it will provide the ability to adjust the flame for simmering (as required for oatmeal and your beans/rice recipe) but also have the power required for efficient snow melting. The Windpro 2 looked like the stove for me but after watching the video on msr’s website (see video tab: https://www.msrgear.com/stoves/windpro-ii) I’m not so sure. It looks like simmering is only really possible with the canister upright which seems at odds with best cold weather performance.
Am I missing something?
Oatmeal the way I prepare it doesn’t require a simmer option. Boiling the water first, remove pot from stove and then adding whatever dry mix, should solve the burned oatmeal problem.
do you have thoughts on why the incredibly convenient rolled titanium windscreens like those offered by Trail Designs for their alcohol stoves (https://www.traildesigns.com/products/sidewinder-ti-tri) haven’t caught on for this type of stove?
A windscreen and heat reflector are considered standard components for a deep winter camping stove system. The marriage of the two seems so obvious…
Look at the MSR Windburner or Primus PrimeTech.
The ‘best’ stove for melting snow, bar none, is probably no longer made. That honor goes to the old Mountain Safety Research FIREFLY stove which was made by MSR BEFORE the company was purchased by REI in 1985/6. The Firefly was a ‘hanging XGK’ model and could be hung via a suspension system (remote bottle and all). I used one extensively winter camping in Northern Idaho inside of a Bible ‘I” tent. Best t stove I ever owned for melting snow. Horribly loud but horribly efficient. Those were the days my friends.
hi andrew! thanks so much for providing all this great info. a friend and i will be traversing the wrangells in march, and we are curious about the benefits of a wind pro II over a whisperlite. we’ve used whisperlites extensively, but I was thinking the wind pro would give us weight savings. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, do you have any thoughts? you mention in this post that you prefer the canister stove to the whisperlite, but i’m not sure you expand on WHY you prefer it 🙂 thanks in advance!!
In the scheme of things, the weight difference is probably negligible.
Canisters are more user-friendly than gas. But if you’re going to be out for a while, it may be more efficient to carry white gas, because you can carry quarts of it, versus a max of 16 oz for canisters. Also, it’s easier to get gas; canisters are a specialty outdoor retail thing only.
Hi, Andrew! Very helpful article here, indeed a very helpful series. Do you recommend this setup strictly for overnight winter camping trips? Or would it also be suitable to carry as part of my emergency kit for day hiking? Or, in an unexpected emergency, could a lighter weight upright canister system like the Soto Windmaster or the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe be depended on to melt enough snow to survive? I estimate the weight difference between the two systems would be ~7-8 oz., which is perhaps negligible for the greater reliability of carrying the Windpro 2. Thanks!!!
If you felt like you needed an emergency winter day-hiking stove, an upright canister would be fine in most cases. Save some weight, you probably already own one, and unlikely to need it so futzing with the canister isn’t the end of the world.
Thanks, Andrew! I currently use a hefty 7 oz Primus Classic Trail upright canister stove which, I’m assuming, has ample flame (much more than, say, a Pocket Rocket) for melting snow, at least in an unexpected day hike emergency. Would that also be sufficient (though, obviously, not optimal) to get the job done on an overnight camping trip in Rocky Mountain National Park this coming March. Eventually, I intend to upgrade to something a bit more winter-worthy, but not likely before the upcoming trip.
The Primus classic does not have preheat tube like Windpro 2. I’ve used various stoves and MSR remotes punch hard for their weight. We used one Whisperlite universal for 9. The MSRs are twice as fast as my Primus Spider.
Regarding the DIY stove platform, what’s wrong with using a square of Reflectix?
Good point about the pre-heat tube, Bret! I should be able to borrow a more winter-worthy stove stove for my upcoming trip in March (just a few weeks out now). Assuming that I don’t freeze to death or otherwise have a miserable experience, I can wait until the Windpro 2 goes on sale BEFORE picking one up for next year’s season.
Changing topics: Is it possible to pack the Windpro, my gas canister, and other required accessories in my 2L cookpot?
Hi Andrew! Do I need to worry about my water taste like my food if I’m also eating out of the pot I’m using to melt snow with? Trying to see if I can get away from eating my meals out of a freezer bag.
So long as you clean the pot decently well, you’re unlikely to have much/any food taste in your water. Plus, melted snow has its own distinct taste. Personally, I almost always throw a tea bag in my water bottle just to help take the edge off.
Cleaning your pot can be a challenge in really cold temps, since food scraps will start freezing to the pot. A little plastic edge is helpful here, like the little Lodge Plan Scraper.
Hi Andrew. Thanks for the great article.
I really like the setup and will probably copy it for our snowshoeing trips as I don’t want to pull a pulk (swapping the Windpro with an Omnifuel 2 since it’s what I have).
In the last paragraph, you said you plan for a 2L pot per person, 1 cook system per couple and paired with a gallon pot.
What is the gallon pot used for in that setup?
Hi, Andrew! So, taking advantage of Labor Day discounts, I finally sprung for the MSR Windpro II and plan to test it on an overnight backpack in a couple of weeks.
1. The instruction manual states that one should “use extreme caution” when operating the stove in below freezing temperatures because the O-rings can stiffen and leak fuel? Any experience with or thoughts on this issue? That seems like like a red–or at least yellow–flag in regards to winter-worthiness.
2. The Windpro came with a small multitool–similar to the “jet & cable tool” included in the Whisperlite annual maintenance kit. My understanding, however, is that the Windpro–like other canister stoves–is maintenance free? Am I wrong about that? Oddly enough, the instruction manual makes no mention of the fact that I multitool is included or what it should be used for. Perhaps it was included my mistake?
By the way, I enjoyed your backpacking webinar with Colorado Mountain Club several months back. Great stuff! I greatly appreciate your efforts (webinars, blog, etc.) to share your extensive knowledge and experience with the rest of us.
Really appreciate the comments above. I know this is an old thread but curious if you’ve seen the GSI Pinnacle 4 Season. It has the remote ability to invert the canister and comes in WAY below the price of MSR units, it seems. Any reason not to try it out?
I have not seen it, sorry.