User Review: MSR WhisperLite
Source: bought via a "pro deal"
A well designed but now dated stove that uses toxic fuel and is filthy to maintain.
- Fairly light — until you consider the fuel
- Well-designed pump
- Toxic, messy fuel
- Requires regular maintenance on long trips
- Wants to tip on rough surfaces
I've owned a Whisperlite now for 30 years and figured it deserved a review.
I worked as an Outward Bound instructor and a backcountry ranger with the National Park Service for 15 years, typically logging about 200 nights a year "under the stars". For the last eight years I've been the field equipment manager at a small college that emphasizes field work and experiential learning (lots of stove use).
We've been using Whisperlites here for 25 years. I maintain about 200 Whipserlites (as well as many isobutane and alcohol stove systems) that see consistent, hard use by students and staff. So there: I've tooted my horn a bit. The point is, I've lived with Whisperlites for a while.
The Whisperlite design has been around the block. It has a reputation, both with individuals and with institutions, as the standard for general purpose use. It is nicely engineered, and has received continued attention by the clever people at MSR. Generally, the evolutionary changes have helped the stove (though some would argue otherwise). It continues to set the standard for lightweight, packable, serviceable stoves.
That's odd, because frankly it suffers from a variety of maladies. Some are unique to this design, others are shared within the class of whitegas (naphtha) stoves. The pumps are fairly complex and delicate. I continue to get back stoves whose pumps have broken during normal use. Despite careful servicing (during which we change out the O-rings and check, clean and lubricate the valve and plunger mechanism) Whisperlites routinely fail shortly after leaving our facility.
The wire frame is easily bent and difficult and fussy to repair. The generator tubes clog regularly and even with good care have a limited life. Compared to almost any isobutane stove, the Whisperlite is clumsy, cumbersome and a pain in the neck to live with for extended periods (say 2 weeks or more...).
So why has this stove proven so popular? Why do NOLS, Outward Bound and a number of other outdoor institutions continue to use the Whipserlite as a foundational piece of equipment? I'm not sure honestly. My own experience as a logistician has been that it is hard to change institutionally. People think they understand Whisperlites pretty well (rarely) and that they are "rugged" (not really), easy to maintain (hardly) and economical (not at all). Why move away from a time tested piece of equipment? Here's why:
- White gas is an inherently volatile, messy fuel. 20 years ago it was about the only game in town. But not today. I can't think of any reason to carry around this toxic liquid when there are now such viable, easy to use and arguably "greener" fuels and fuels delivery systems out there.
- The new wave of Isobutane stoves are more efficient and more easily controlled than most high-end white gas stoves. The MSR Windpro is an excellent example. Hardly any moving parts, excellent serviceability, great harsh conditions performance.
- Alcohol stove systems, both commercial and homemade, are finally receiving the attention they deserve. Unlike white gas and isobutane, alcohol is cleaner to produce and can be manufactured using sustainable technologies. If you don't need to boil water in less than a minute then consider an alcohol stove. (What's the deal with "boil time" comparisons anyway? 99% of my cook time is spent in beautiful places, under spectacular conditions. What difference does it make if it takes me 5 minutes to boil a couple cups of water?). The Trangia is an example of a top of the line alcohol stove system.
I'll own up to the fact that the kind of use we impose on these stoves is outside of the normal parameters that most "weekend warriors" operate within. What we put these stoves through can be pretty grim: novice users who don't read or remember instructions, big pots of food, stoves dropped in sand, dust and streams then shoved into poorly packed backpacks. Every stove designer's nightmare. It's a lot to ask of any stove. But we do the same to our isobutane and alcohol stoves. And in the end, the Whisperlite fails to match up.
I still have the Whisperlite I purchased 29 years ago. But it's on my shelf, next to a Svea 123, an Optimus Hiker and my venerable MSR XGK. Whenever I gaze fondly upon it I remember good times, with good friends in amazing places. But when I venture out now, I do so with an alcohol stove system tucked in my pack. The Trangia is what I use now on almost every expedition and road trip.