best backpacking stove

Excellent engineering: Trail Designs Caldera, the best alcohol stove system, and the JetBoil, the best canister stove system. What makes these systems “best” is that they are fuel efficient, wind-resistant, stable and stow into a small package.

To keep things short and simple, here are the two best backpacking stove systems:
The best alcohol stove system, Trail Designs Caldera, and the best canister stove system, JetBoil. What makes both these systems “best” is that the stove, pot and windscreen/heat exchanger are an integrated unit, thoughtfully engineered for:

  • Fuel efficiency (they both have heat exchangers to increase the percentage of heat actually transferred to the pot to boil water). For JetBoil this is a ring of fins on the bottom of the pot, FluxRing®. This increases the surface area for heat transfer—similar to a car radiator operated in reverse. For the TD Caldera, the entire pot and stove are enclosed in the heated Caldera cone. Thus the whole surface area of the pot, including the sides transfer heat. The cone also reduces convective heat loss (chimney effect) by trapping the heated air in the cone and a slowing the heated air from rising away from the pot.
  • Stability (you can’t knock the pot off the stove, or easily knock the whole shebang over). Both systems lock the pot to the stove system so it can’t be knocked off the stove (a big problem with standard canister stoves). The wide base of the Caldera cone, and low height makes the entire system almost impossible to knock over. JetBoil provides a plastic “stabilizer tripod” that fits onto the base of the fuel canister, making it harder but not impossible to knock the the whole system over.
  • Wind resistance The TD Caldera is the most wind resistant. The stove is completely protected by the Caldera cone. The JetBoil stove burner is partially protected by the FluxRing and a metal shroud at the base of the stove burner. In a strong wind it will loose efficiency.
  • Compact Storage both neatly nest into a small compact unit for storage

Best Backpacking Stove – Comparison Trail Designs Caldera vs. JetBoil

Below are the essential Pros and Cons for each system. While I clearly prefer the Trail Designs Caldera alcohol system, there’s no wrong choice. They are both good cooking systems. Systems compared are for two people for a long weekend. See below for all the gritty details.

caldera-toaks900

Trail Designs Caldera Cone system. The entire pot and stove are enclosed in the extremely wind-resistant and heated Caldera cone. Thus the whole surface area of the pot, including the sides transfer heat. The cone also reduces convective heat loss (chimney effect) by trapping the heated air in the cone and slowing the heated air from rising away from the pot. Clockwise from bottom left: Zelph “StarLyte Burner with lid,” fuel bottle with measuring cup, 900 ml titanium pot sitting on the Caldera cone, camp spoon and matches.

Trail Designs Caldera – alcohol stove  JetBoil Zip – canister stove
  • 9.7 oz – $120 tested – *options to $55 available
  • Pros: light, exceptionally stable & wind resistant, fuel efficient, can easily get cheap alcohol fuel almost everywhere in the world, take only the fuel you need, no canister disposal in waste, wide pot easy to cook in and easy to clean. Ti cone has option to burn wood.
  • Cons: more fiddling to set up, slower boils than canister stoves, initial learning curve, not available at major retailers.
  • Comments: Personal favorite for almost 10 years
  • Note: although the TD “12-10 burners” are good, the ideal stove/burner for this system is the Zelph “StarLyte Burner only with lid.” See below for more Caldera options.
  • 19.5 oz – $80
  • Pros: ease of use, much faster boils, appealing slim form factor, built-in insulating pot sleeve—no handle or gloves needed, less expensive, french press option for coffee. Available at major retailers like REI
  • Cons: 2x heavier, not as wind resistant as the TD Caldera, fuel canisters not readily available in remoter areas of the lower 48 or worldwide, end-up taking more fuel than needed since canisters are fixed amounts, disposal of partially used canisters a pain*, deep pot hard to clean
  • Comments: not as “efficient” as claimed when canister weight is considered. About 50% of of the canister weight is the metal can and not fuel.

*  Lower cost Caldera systems with similar weight and performance are available. The system above is the titanium Ti-Tri Sidewinder Cone, which supports alcohol, Esbit, and burning wood fuel. The pot is also titanium. An aluminum dual fuel (alcohol & Esbit) cone and aluminum pot option costs $55 Caldera Sidewinder Solo. If you already have the pot the titanium Ti-Tri Sidewinder Cone is $80 without the pot.

jetboil-zip-big

JetBoil Zip: The JetBoil is the best selling backpacking stove of all time. Most people just take a liking to it at first glance and never look back. It’s easy to use, boils water fast, has an appealing slim form, and has that wow-cool-gizmo! factor going for it. Clockwise from lower left, french press option; JetBoil pot, burner, canister, and stabilizing tripod (orange); pot base cap/cup (black), CrunchIt canister recycling tool.

used-canisters

A friend’s stash of partially used fuel canisters that do not have enough fuel for another trip. It will take hours of outdoor fuel burning and then canister puncturing to keep these out of hazardous waste.

*Note: Dealing with partially used fuel canisters is a pain. And if you use a JetBoil you will likely end up with a boxful of partially filled canisters that do not have enough fuel for another trip. Disposing of the canisters is a  big production. One option is to put them in hazardous waste. The other option, per JetBoil, is to first a) burn all the unused fuel, and then b)  use a CrunchIt tool to puncture the “empty” container. This renders the canister suitable for metal recycle. (Both burning the unused fuel, and puncturing the canister must be done outside.)

stoves-stowe

Both stove systems stow into a small and compact package. The Trail Designs Caldera on the left; the cone is rolled up in a white sleeve and has the fuel bottle stored inside. Stove (green), lighter, spoon and fuel measuring cup all fit in the pot.

Which Stove is Best for You?

Alison and I and most backpackers we know prefer the the Trail Designs Caldera alcohol system. It’s half the weight of the JetBoil and greener with no partially used fuel canisters ending up in waste. Alcohol fuel is readily available worldwide. We have no difficulty using the Caldera. One of the advantages of the Trail Designs Caldera is that I can light it and leave it unattended to boil water while I perform camp chores. It is near impossible to kick over. It is almost impervious to wind—remaining fuel efficient even unprotected from strong wind. In about 7 minutes, when I’m done setting up camp, I come back to boiling water for dinner.

But my guess is that many readers will still end up getting the JetBoil canister system. It is the best selling backpacking stove of all time. Most people just take a liking to it at first glance and never look back. It’s easy to use, boils water fast, has an appealing slim form, and has that wow-cool-gizmo! factor going for it.

Unless you are a details maven, you need read no further. You have all the information you need.


The gritty details for those that care

Cooking for a long weekend for two people

Total weight is: stove, cookset and fuel container + fuel to boil 8 pints. Enough for a long weekend trip for two people. A long weekend trip is three days and two nights = cooking for two dinners and two breakfasts. (90% of backpackers take 90% of their trips for 3 days or less.)

2 dinners @ 16 oz water to hydrate meal + 4x @12 oz for hot drink = 5 pints water boiled
2 breakfasts @ 2×12 oz water for coffee or tea = 48 oz boiled water = 3 pints water boiled
Trip total for two people = 8 pints water boiled

Basic System specs

Trail Designs Caldera – alcohol stove  JetBoil – canister stove
9.7 oz – $120 tested – options to $55 available
Boil time for a pint = ~7 min
Stove/pot/cone = 5.4 oz
Fuel specs: 4.3 oz container and fuel = 0.8 oz plastic fuel bottle  + 3.5 oz-wt alcohol fuel
(efficiency ~0.4 oz-wt alcohol fuel to boil a pint)
19.5 oz – $80
Boil time for a pint = ~3-4 min
Weight: Stove/pot = 12.5 oz
Fuel specs: 7.0 oz container and fuel = 3.5 oz metal can + 3.5 oz-wt isopropane/butane fuel (100g)
(*efficiency ~0.2 oz-wt fuel to boil a pint – but doesn’t include wt of canister)

*Note: ~0.4 oz-wt alcohol vs. ~0.2 oz-wt propane/butane fuel for a boil. This is because alcohol has 1/2 the energy per weight of propane/butane. So it takes twice the weight of alcohol to boil a pint vs. propane/butane. Alcohol does not require a heavy metal canister for fuel storage, and has a lighter stove. So in the end, alcohol is the lighter overall system.

Options for the Trail Designs Caldera

zelph

Zelph “StarLyte Burner only with lid”

Zelph burner The best stove/burner for the Caldera system is the Zelph “StarLyte Burner only with lid.” This burner eliminates most of the drawback of alcohol stoves:

  • No need to “estimate” how much alcohol fuel to use for a boil. Use a bit more (20-30%) than you’ll need & when the pot boils, blow the stove out & cap it (when cool) to save unused fuel. Brilliant!
  • BTW the Caldera boils a pint on about 15 ml of alcohol fuel
  • Burner will not spill lit fuel if it is knocked over, so safer than the burners without the fibrous fillers
  • Its more compact and fits inside the pot with the Caldera cone
  • It doesn’t require the use of titanium tent pegs that are needed to raise the pot when you use the Trail Designs 12-10 burner

Optional Fuel Container This Twin Neck Alcohol Fuel Bottle both stores and measures fuel.

kleen-strip

Standard quart container of Denatured Alcohol. Available in the paint section of most hardware stores, Home Depot, WalMart, etc.

Alcohol Fuel Sources/Options Denatured Alcohol (aka clean burning marine stove fuel, methylated spirits, shellac thinner,  liquid fondue fuel, chafing dish fuel). It is available world-wide in hardware stores (and in the US at Walmart or similar stores). In many countries like France it is sold in grocery stores as a fondue or chafing dish fuel. First choice in US is Klean-Strip Brand, likely labeled S-L-X “Clean burning fuel for marine stoves.” But I have used many other brands of denatured alcohol with no problems.

In a pinch, you can use HEET (Yellow label, not the Red label HEET) which is sold at all auto-supply stores and many gas stations and convenience stores like 7-11. HEET works fine, but has more residue than plain alcohol fuel.

 

 

pot-cozyPot Cozy Anti-Gravity-Gear Pot Cozys are lightweight and efficient cookpot insulators which allow you to save fuel. The cozy traps heat, so food continues to cook long after you have taken the pot off the stove and will keep it warm for nearly an hour. Especially useful for hydrating meals.

 

 

 

 

td-keg-f

Trail Designs KEG-F. In an essential/stripped-down mode, the whole setup weighs around 3 ounces.

 

For Going Really Light! For soloing I take a stripped down version of the Caldera Keg-F Stove System. The stove, windscreen and pot are around 3 ounces!