Backpacking stoves emphasize reliability, light weight and compact size. Since they are so small, most backpacking stoves are better for just one or two people, although there are some that are sized for larger groups. The favorite fuel for backpacking stoves, in professional reviews and user reviews alike, is canister gas, which usually comes as isobutane or a mixture of isobutane and propane. Stoves using these canisters come in two versions. The lightest style mounts the burner directly atop the canister. This type is good for small cooking pots, but can be unstable with larger pots. The other type of stove -- often called a remote-cable stove -- links the canister to the burner with a flexible hose, so the burner sits on more stable legs and can be surrounded with wind protection. Reviews say this makes a huge difference in fuel efficiency, since fuel consumption can double or even triple in strong winds.
The MSR Reactor (*Est. $140), an integrated isobutane-propane stove that combines the burner and a 1.7-liter pot into one package, gets the best reviews. The stove uses a radiant burner and heat exchanger, a design that allows for greater wind shielding and improved efficiency. The MSR Reactor gets a host of recommendations from experts. It won an Editors' Choice award from Backpacker magazine in 2007, and Duane Raleigh at Rock and Ice magazine says the Reactor is "in most regards the best-performing canister stove yet." It also earns a Recommended label from TGO magazine, where a tester finds it easy to use and highly efficient. The MSR Reactor also receives extremely positive ratings in user reviews at BackpackGearTest.org and Buzzillions.com.
MSR says the Reactor can boil a liter of water in less than three minutes, a claim that is confirmed in a number of tests. Rock and Ice magazine gets just under three minutes in their test, which they conduct outdoors in a 7-mph wind. To put that in perspective, Duane Raleigh says that of the 23 stoves he has tested, "not a single one including the Jetboil could boil water in under 10 minutes in the same conditions." Raleigh's test also shows that the MSR Reactor is one of the few isobutane camping stoves that is a good choice for cold weather -- at below-freezing temperatures, the Reactor still boiled a liter of water in under six minutes. Owners also rave about the fast boiling time and reliable performance. Some drawbacks emerge in reviews however. The MSR Reactor is expensive, and at nearly 20 ounces, it certainly isn't the lightest camping stove available. Some testers say they would like to see a lighter version, while others lament the lack of a piezo igniter. Simmer control is also not the best. The Reactor camping stove only works with the included 1.7-liter pot -- which has a recommended maximum capacity of just one liter -- so it's ideal for one or two people, not groups.
If you need a camping stove for larger groups, the Jetboil Helios (*Est. $150) also gets a number of recommendations, including a Gear of the Year award from Men's Journal. This inverted isobutane-propane stove comes with a standard 2-liter pot for two to four people, but a 3-liter pot (*Est. $50) for larger groups is available as an accessory. The Jetboil Helios Guide (*Est. $160) is the same stove, but it comes with both the 2- and 3-liter pots. The Jetboil Helios is heavier (28 ounces) than the MSR Reactor, but it does include an automatic igniter. The Jetboil Helios also claims to boil a liter of water in three minutes or less, which is confirmed by most tests we saw.
Stephen Regenold, who writes the "Gear Junkie" column, brought a liter of water to a boil in 2.5 minutes, and Larry Amkraut at Rock and Ice magazine got his liter boiling in two minutes. Roger Caffin at BackpackingLight.com had a slightly different experience, as the stove took nearly five minutes to boil a liter in his test. Most reviewers say the Jetboil Helios lives up to its efficiency claims, and the inverted design works well in cold weather. There are some dissenting opinions -- Steven Leckart at Wired.com has some concerns about the flimsy-looking plastic windscreen. We also saw several reports that the piezo igniter requires several attempts before it lights. Like the MSR Reactor, the biggest downside to the Jetboil Helios seems to be price and weight.
For backpackers whose main concern is weight, the Snow Peak LiteMax (*Est. $60) is a well-reviewed choice. The LiteMax is one of the lightest camping stoves on the market, weighing less than 2 ounces, and it's also relatively inexpensive. It doesn't come with a pot or fuel canister, though, so you'll have to add that weight and cost to the total. This isobutane-propane camping stove earns several accolades this year, including a Best of Adventure gear award from National Geographic Adventure magazine. In a test of six canister stoves, Casey Lyons at Backpacker magazine picks the Snow Peak LiteMax as the best all-around camping stove. The stove has three pot supports that appear flimsy, but Lyons says they are very stable even though they don't lock into position. Roger Caffin at BackpackingLight.com agrees, saying the pot supports do fine with large pots. The Snow Peak LiteMax also posts reasonable boiling times -- around five to six minutes in two tests we saw. You don't want to cook with this stove in or near your tent, though, as Caffin's tests show that the Snow Peak LiteMax has pretty high carbon monoxide emissions.
The Snow Peak GigaPower Stove (*Est. $50) is heavier at 3.75 ounces, but it also earns a number of recommendations. If you're willing to spend more, Snow Peak also offers a titanium version (*Est. $65), which weighs only 2.5 ounces, as an alternative to the original stainless-steel stove. The GigaPower Stove has a slightly lower output than the LiteMax -- 10,000 Btu compared to 11,200 for the LiteMax. Keith Morton at Gorp.com tests the GigaPower and finds it compact and sturdy. It also gets very good ratings at Buzzillions.com, where owners say the GigaPower sets up quickly and is remarkably stable for such a small stove. We did see a few complaints that the temperature control is hard to adjust, however.
Another popular lightweight choice for backpackers is the MSR Pocket Rocket (*Est. $40). At just 3 ounces without a canister, it's just a little bit heavier than the Snow Peak LiteMax; like the LiteMax, it also uses isobutane-propane fuel canisters. The MSR Pocket Rocket is the top-rated stove on Buzzillions.com, and Casey Lyons at Backpacker magazine calls it the best bargain of the six camping stoves he tests. The Pocket Rocket excels in windy weather, thanks to an included windscreen and three-part flame. MSR claims a 3.5-minute boiling time for the Pocket Rocket, but the tests we saw indicate that four to six minutes is more realistic. In nearly 300 owner-written reviews on Buzzillions.com, the MSR Pocket Rocket gets excellent ratings. Most owners love the lightweight stove, saying it boils water fast and lights quickly (even though there's no automatic igniter). The heat control also works reasonably well, allowing you to choose between a rapid boil or simmer. The MSR Pocket Rocket has its drawbacks, namely questionable stability. Multiple reviewers say they wish for a larger pot platform or canister stand to improve the camping stove's stability. As it is, reviewers say you'll want to keep this stove on level ground and handle your pot carefully.