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Reader Thoughts on Stove Tests and Reviews


995060D6-959C-4479-BE31-610F9C8D8511.jpgA few members of the Trailspace Review Corps have been trading posts recently about stove testing and reviews, debating the finer points of testing and reviewing various types of stoves. Because I'm a stove junkie, I love this sort of discussion!

I realize that Trailspace readers probably have their own preferences in terms of what they seek from a good stove review, and that's something worth knowing more about. 

  • What are the basics you look for in a stove review?
  • What sorts of added insights or observations do you appreciate?
  • What are your pet peeves or frustrations with some stove reviews?
  • What are your suggestions for making stove reviews great?

I'd love to know any and all of these things, so please reply to this post to share your thoughts. Thanks, and I hope you're staying happy and healthy!

It seems like many stove reviews (and manufacturer's marketing too) focus on boil time as one of the main points to prove a stove is either good or not-so-good. 

I don't have a problem with that, but I'm actually far more interested in the design of the product than its boiling efficiency. When reading a backcountry stove review, the primary questions that I'm looking for answers to are: 

  • Is this stove easy to operate?
  • Can this stove be operated in cold weather with gloves on? 
  • Is the fuel for this stove readily available? 
  • Are there any potential design flaws that may make this stove dangerous? 
  • How well are the stove's various components? (A.k.a. Is it going to be dependable or is it at-risk to malfunction when you need it most?)

In the backcountry, the boil time to me is less important than the questions above, since I'm usually going at a casual pace and don't care how long water takes to boil. I have all day! 

Great points! Thanks, KiwiKlimber. 

I think you have a good handle on the process and picture. I’ll just add it is good to have a method to answer specific questions post review. That feature has really helped me with specifics when researching a new stove. 

  • What use did the reviewer subject the stove to (i.e. water boiler, simmer cooking, sauteing, etc).
  • Comment on pot stand stability.

Ed

More good thoughts, ghost dog and Ed! Thank you.

whomeworry said:

  • What use did the reviewer subject the stove to (i.e. water boiler, simmer cooking, sauteing, etc).
  • Comment on pot stand stability.

Ed

 

Hey Ed, I'm curious what kinds of comments you find the most helpful to determine pot stand stability. To what degree do you look for a semi-scientific approach (e.g. width of base?) compared to anecdotal observations (e.g. feels strong)? 

I agree...stability is a key factor. My go to alcohol/wood burning stove is really sturdy (close to impossible to knock over) and any other I try seems unstable to me - so it's context sensitive.  Someone who mostly uses canister stoves is going to have a different definition of stability than me.  I don't think I have ever used one I would rate highly for stability if you compared it to some other types of stoves.  For rating stability I think it would be most useful to do a comparison between similar stove types:  wood burning, alcohol, canister, white gas/multi-fuel come to mind as the categories I would use if they have similar design.

Fuel regulation as in how low can it be set without sputtering and the width of the flame pattern are most important with sautéing other than a pot with a thicker bottom which has nothing to do with the stove. If you are concerned with water boiling efficiency then a tight windscreen and a pot of wide diameter will be important. There are other variables other than the stove itself when getting the best out of a system.

My current favorite is the Kovea Spider, a remote canister stove that throws a wider flame pattern with its smaller diameter burner. It blows it out more laterally. It folds into a very flat, small footprint unlike most remote stoves. I was able to ask direct specific questions that really gave me the knowledge to buy with more confidence and it worked out seamlessly.

Thanks, ghostdog. Your point about variables other than the stove is a rabbit hole I often go down personally, testing various pot and windscreen configurations. And I love my Spider, too!

The points raised by Kiwi Climber are by far the most important to consider. This I am sure is why so many outback travelers are returning to alcohol as a fuel and seeking efficient burners of simplicity. Thus my preferences have become Trangia which has been around for over 70 years and well proven and the Super Cat which is absolutely bomb proof and so reliable in most situations. 

I've been using the Svea 123 since I started backpacking in the mid 70s. Its a good stove but needs maintenance. The seal on the cap has to be treated with vasceline periodically to keep it moist, flexible and functioning. I've never been enamored with stoves that require fuel canisters because i haven't seen one that can tell you how much fuel is in a canister, I'd hate to start a trip with just a bit of fuel in a canister and then have to schlep an empty canister in a full pack after it is replaced I also don't know if I could swap out a canister if it runs out in the middle of a cook.

Bob Handelsman has used a Svea 123 for  a while; I had one in in the sixties as canister stoves froze in winter. I must say that of all the stoves that I have owned the Svea 123 for liquid fuel was by far the best but maintenance is the key to reliability. Now my Trangia, second hand possibly 60 odd years old still works without any maintenance other than an occasional polish when I feel it looks too grungy. 

I think it's important to differentiate between pure water boilers at one end of the spectrum versus "culinary" stoves with wide flame and simmer capability. Where does a given stove fall on that spectrum?

Especially for UL hikers and on extended trips, fuel weight per liter boiled may be more important than boil time, also in friendly versus adverse conditions. A Norwegian magazine did an extended analysis that shows that the alcohol weight advantage wanes on longer trips because of alcohol's lower energy density.

Although I never would have thought so some years ago, for me the ease of use criterion puts me squarely in the canister stove column. I agree there may be stability issues especially with canister top stoves, and many canister stoves aren't especially culinary, but I've learned to live with those limitations to have a stove that doesn't require priming and almost zero maintenance -- just spark and go. I do have a Whitebox alky stove but haven't used it all that much. I gave my multifuel Whisperlite to my daughter.

Bob Handelsman said:

I've been using the Svea 123 since I started backpacking in the mid 70s. Its a good stove but needs maintenance. The seal on the cap has to be treated with vasceline periodically to keep it moist, flexible and functioning. I've never been enamored with stoves that require fuel canisters because i haven't seen one that can tell you how much fuel is in a canister, I'd hate to start a trip with just a bit of fuel in a canister and then have to schlep an empty canister in a full pack after it is replaced I also don't know if I could swap out a canister if it runs out in the middle of a cook.

If you are at home the canister can be weighed to determine how much fuel remains by subtracting the weight of an empty canister from the current one's weight. Low weight canisters go on short trips where carrying an extra isn't needed or a problem.

On trail, if you need to determine how much fuel is left in a canister there are several methods, but my favorite requires a little prep work at home. Using the strap on a hiking pole to hold the canister at one end and then balancing the pole on one finger you can mark the pole at the balance point for a full and empty canister. In the field you just need to see where the balance point is currently to know how much fuel is left.

The key for this to work is that you have to have the hiking pole set to the same length for measuring. The length of the pole effects the balance point so either use the poles fully collapsed or at the same length every time.

BigRed said:

I think it's important to differentiate between pure water boilers at one end of the spectrum versus "culinary" stoves with wide flame and simmer capability. Where does a given stove fall on that spectrum?

BigRed brings up an important point about a reader—whether buying his or her first or tenth stove—needing to understand what type of use it's intended for: three or four-season? Solo or groups? Cooking or boiling water? UL missions or weight-irrelevant?

The details being discussed above are going to be important to different people. So, this is a good discussion to establish what experienced users want to know when it gets down to specifics and to differentiate between similar stoves. Thank you, Bentbrook for starting it!

Providing details also lets the reader pull out the ones they care about to make an informed decision (see "Top 10 Tips"). You may think it's too heavy, but I may not care about weight. And what is heavy?

So, details and specifics are essential to support the review, but readers also need to be able to imagine if the product is right for them and how they'd use it. That means including the type of use info clearly at the beginning and in the conclusion. Saying "this stove is great for group cooking where weight doesn't matter, like paddling trips" isn't a review on its own, but having that context helps readers identify whether this product is worth considering so they can dig into the details as deeply as they like.

It's a balance to make sure a first-time buyer understands the overall info about the stove and if it would be a decent choice for their trips, while providing details an uber-user can compare and contrast more deeply.

I own three stoves and they are all MSR. One is a 20-something Whisperjet and the other two are canister stoves, 1st gen Pocket Rocket and a Wind Pro. All have proven reliable in the field and boil water fast. I’ve even done some field repairs on the Whisperjet. Delayed dinner for 30 minutes but ran like a champ. Still does. We did use a Primus (similar to a Pocket Rocket) in Scotland for two weeks. It was inexpensive and took it over new. Figured at $20 it wouldn’t kill us to leave it if we couldn’t get it clean enough to fly. We did and I’ve since given it to my son. 

My thought is that most any stove from a recognized maker will boil water in sufficient time and be reliable. Stability depends a great deal on your pot. That being said, you need to first determine what you want to eat in the backcountry. Then figure out what pot or pots you’ll need. Once you get there, then look for a stove that will not tip your pot and cooks how you want it to. If weight and space are factors those need to be considered as well. My Whisperjet will boil like a freak but it does not simmer. It makes hot water and not much else. It’s still my preferred stove for longer trips. A 20 oz bottle of fuel will last a week and takes up less space than the two canisters I’d need. There are some who consider the waste factor of canister stoves. I do since there is no way where I live to recycle them. 


Like everything else in your pack, your stove needs to be part of holistic set that works together. Any gear, no matter how “great” it is still has to work with everything else or it’s useless. 

I'm enjoying how the conversation grows richer with each new perspective or idea. Thank you all for sharing!

in addition to things already mentioned, i like to hear how the solution deals with high wind.  does the design block the wind? included wind screen? how well does the wind-stopping solution actually work?

related, how does it work in cold weather, because i'm a winter hiker.

redundant me!

leadbelly2550 said:

in addition to things already mentioned, i like to hear how the solution deals with high wind.  does the design block the wind? included wind screen? how well does the wind-stopping solution actually work?

related, how does it work in cold weather, because i'm a winter hiker.

 

Getting a stove to work under really adverse conditions is more about techniques than the stove design.

stormwalls.jpgAbove:  Cooking in the open air during a mid February High Sierra sundowner wind storm.

I have been in this kind of situation with various stoves.  In this example it was an MSR FireFly, a white gas stove from the 1980s, closely related to the MSR XKG stove series.  A second control valve was added to the Firefly to facilitate simmering; whereas the XKGs are water boilers.  The Fire fly is my favorite white gas stove, and remains my favorite snow camping stove.  My favorite warm season stove is the MSR Wind Pro.  Easy to use, stable pot stand, a good simmer cook.  But for UL any of the various over canister stove are good for soloing and modest amounts of boiling.

Most OEM windscreens are almost useless, or relatively heavy.  I like the Wind Pro's screen, but most of my other stoves had me coming up with my own screen designs.

Getting to Leadbelly's question: 
There are some stock approaches.  Most white gas stoves require priming - hard to do in a vigorous wind.  I dig a hole into the snow pack, about 24" deep, about 6" dia.  It is intersected with a second hole, bored perpendicular to the first hole.  Place the stove in the hole, Prime, ignite, then cover the opening of the horizontal hole.  When the stove is ready for use, open the side hole, feed the flame more gas, and transfer the stove to a cooking stance utilizing a similar design.  The bottom of the cook stance should have some insulating qualities - I use an old, thin, hardwood, ply wood door that was part of a gift box for some fancy pants rum product.  If the snow pack is unsuitable for tunneling cook stances, you can build a snow revetment around a stove placed on the surface of the snow.

Ed   

LoneStranger said:

Bob Handelsman said:
I've been using the Svea 123 since I started backpacking in the mid 70s. Its a good stove but needs maintenance. The seal on the cap has to be treated with vasceline periodically to keep it moist, flexible and functioning. I've never been enamored with stoves that require fuel canisters because i haven't seen one that can tell you how much fuel is in a canister, I'd hate to start a trip with just a bit of fuel in a canister and then have to schlep an empty canister in a full pack after it is replaced I also don't know if I could swap out a canister if it runs out in the middle of a cook.
If you are at home the canister can be weighed to determine how much fuel remains by subtracting the weight of an empty canister from the current one's weight. Low weight canisters go on short trips where carrying an extra isn't needed or a problem. On trail, if you need to determine how much fuel is left in a canister there are several methods, but my favorite requires a little prep work at home. Using the strap on a hiking pole to hold the canister at one end and then balancing the pole on one finger you can mark the pole at the balance point for a full and empty canister. In the field you just need to see where the balance point is currently to know how much fuel is left. The key for this to work is that you have to have the hiking pole set to the same length for measuring. The length of the pole effects the balance point so either use the poles fully collapsed or at the same length every time.

 LoneStranger, MSR has been putting float marks with a Full-Empty scale on their canisters for a quite a while now, just FYI,. But of course, for planning purposes a person would need to know what that data means to them. 


20200508_070715.jpg

I said there were other methods ;) The balance thing I described measures a can from full to empty over a bigger scale, about 4" or so the way I set it up. That gives me a more accurate idea of how much fuel I've used.

The main reason I need to know that on trail is to quiet doubts :) I know how much fuel I need per boil and have the same number of boils every day. Despite that, on some long trips, I will start to worry I'm going to run out because the canister feels too light. Being able to reliably see how much is left makes the last few days more relaxing heh.

You make a good point though. Unless you know how much fuel you need you don't know how much to carry or how long what you have will last.

We relegate our near empties to car camping.

As far as cold weather stove performance, the Kovea Spider remote stove allows inverting the canister to burn liquid fuel if it is too cold. The reason MSR mixes propane in is it has a boiling point of -43F. Isobutane has a boiling point of 11F. Since one is lighter than the other and may separate we shake up the canister before use, better fuel performance throughout the canister life that way.

In the wind we do what Ed does, find a sheltered placement or make one. Rocks are a great method if you can’t drop down into a gully or depression.

I finally gave away all of my white gas stoves a couple years ago and don’t use the alcohol stove anymore. We find a good canister stove very convenient and excellent performance in our travels. I can still see other stove being useful for extreme winter travel but that’s not my thing.

I sort of agree with Ed. Winter camping actually makes dealing with wind more straightforward because there's often snow - you can dig in or cut a few blocks to shield the stove.  

without snow, i think it's part technique and part wind screen. i have an old, robust aluminum screen that's foil-like, bendy, but fairly heavy gauge.  with one or two well-placed rocks, it works pretty well until it's so windy that you need to be leeward of a good-sized pile of rocks or boulder to even get the stove lit.

though i have used canister stoves over the years, i almost always use the same white gas stove, an optimus nova.  properly maintained, seals replaced and lubed from time to time, it's outstanding and can adjust the burner volume, the reason i replaced my old XGK.  (i still own the base of that old XGK, brass-colored bottom, vintage mid-80s, worked fine as a water boiler until i lost the pump a few years back).  

ghostdog said:

I can still see other (non-canister) stove being useful for extreme winter travel but that’s not my thing.

And the reason in my case is sh_t happens. 

I have a friend who every gear testing corps person needs to keep in mind: he managed to burn a hole in a aluminum pot with water treatment chemicals, when he forgot to stir the crystals into solution.  He is absent minded, clumsy and a hazard around gear.  Trips over tent lines, so now all my guys are those reflective types.  Showers candle lantern wax all over sleeping bags, so we no longer use a candle when sharing a tent.  Most of my older gear has been redesigned by me with this person in mind, and/or has survived with scars from his moments of chaos.  He stumbles over items under foot, spills coffee (the agony of it!) and sabotages stoves.  Yep, he's an expert camp saboteur, and a specialist at ruining anything related to cooking. 

My friend has disabled various white gas stoves over the years, but they could  always be addressed in the field.  He has managed to destroy two canister stoves, however.  He spilled soup on an over canister stove.  It barely functioned the next morning and was useless forever thereafter.  I did a forensic inspection to determine the failure mode.  The soup had made its way into the fuel supply passage in the stove body, where it cooked, concentrating under heat until it became a tar that blocked fuel flow.  The other stove was an remote canister model.  In this case the spilled item made its way into the fuel line, where it froze while we were dealing with the mess.  We didn't know it was just frozen - we could remedy that had we known - but since the failure mode would not become apparent until it was defrosted, all we knew was we had to cook by Plan B.  While white gas stoves are more prone to mal-function, due to their design, my problem is the vulnerability of canister stoves in the presence of someone who is all thumbs.  

Ed

After reading a lot of stove tests, both articles and forum threads, I have learned a lot about various types of stoves - and cooking vessels.

1. Seems a Caldera Cone type stove stand is most efficient for alcohol and ESBIT fuel, and with wood the Inferno insert in a Trail Designs titanium Caldera Cone being more efficient than the Canadian Bush Buddy, both being "gassifier" stoves that recirculate and burn initial unburned combustion gasses.

2. Iso-butane canister stoves with wider flame areas are more efficient as is also true with liquid fuel stoves.

3. Inverted iso-butane canister stoves are better in colder weather (but still not good in sub-zero F. weather)

4. Tests that report CO2 production should be taken seriously for winter campers who often are forced to cook inside a tent vestibule.Some stoves produce a lot more CO2 than others.

5. Pots with a wide bottom and shorter sides are more efficient than tall mug-types.

6. Aluminum pots/skillets (anodized please) are more efficient conductors of heat than than titanium pots. or skillets

Finally I trust the stove reviews and and experiments off Roger Caffin on Backpacking Light. He's the most knowledgable of all the testers and has designed many stoves to determine efficiency and safety.

What have you learned? 

Eric B.

October 27, 2021
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