The Stove Debate: Canister vs. Liquid Fuel

Stoves are a vital piece of equipment for any camping, backpacking, or paddling trip. There are a variety of options available, including those that operate with propane, isobutane, white gas, alcohol, solid fuel, or wood. So, how do you determine which one is best for your purposes? In comparing the two most common options, isobutane-powered canister and liquid fuel-powered camp stoves, we’ve put together a list to help you narrow down your choices:

Courtesy: MSR
Courtesy: MSR

Canister Stoves

Examples: MSR PocketRocket 2, MSR SuperFlyJetboil MightyMo

Pros:

  • Size: Canister stoves are very small and are often just the right size to pack within a pot, sometimes along with their canister.
  • Weight: These stoves are extremely lightweight. The PocketRocket weighs in at 2.6 ounces—more than four times less than the liquid-fuel WhisperLite.
  • Convenience: Canister stoves are simple to use. There are only two components: the stove itself and the fuel canister. Screw them together, turn the fuel valve, ignite, and cook!
  • Minimal maintenance: These stoves operate for years without needing much maintenance.
  • Energy efficiency: Generally speaking, with all things equal, a canister stove is more efficient than a liquid fuel stove.

Cons:

  • Temperature: Canisters come with “four season” mixes, but their effectiveness drops significantly when temperatures go below freezing. Inverted canister designs, however, mitigate this issue somewhat.
  • Stability: Most canister stoves are top heavy. However, many use only the canister as the base, which raises a stability concern when boiling a heavy pot of water. Stands are available, such as the MSR Universal Canister Stand, to increase stability. Others, like the MSR WindPro, use an inverted canister design that is inherently more stable.
  • Volume: Aside from selecting canisters in a few different sizes, you’re stuck with a set amount and can’t customize it based on the trip. As well, if one canister is almost empty, you’ll need to supplement it with another full one.
Courtesy: MSR
Courtesy: MSR

Liquid Fuel Stoves

Examples: MSR WhisperLite, MSR XGK EX, MSR Dragonfly

Pros:

  • Temperature: These stoves operate well in a wide temperature range, including well below freezing.
  • Fuel sources: Many liquid fuel stoves are able to utilize multiple fuel types, depending on the model. The standard is white gas, but some can also operate on gasoline, kerosene, and diesel. This adaptability makes this stove ideal for travel in foreign countries, where canisters are not readily available.
  • Stability: Liquid fuel stove designs are inherently more stable than conventional canister ones, with the exception of inverted canisters.
  • Fuel cost: Liquid fuel stoves often have higher upfront costs but will use less fuel, and thus cost less, with time. For example, using MSR’s efficiency measures and MSR fuels as price points (canister and liquid), $1 of canister fuel will boil 2.7L, while $1 of liquid fuel will boil 3.2L.
  • Less waste: Liquid fuel bottles are reusable. So, even though canisters are recyclable, liquid fuel’s waste tends to be less pervasive.

Cons:

  • Size: Liquid fuel stoves are much larger than their canister competitors.
  • Weight: These stoves are also significantly heavier.
  • Maintenance: Liquid fuel stoves have moving parts and O-rings that require oiling and occasional replacement. Maintenance is not demanding, but it is something you don’t have to worry about with canister stoves.
  • Set-up: When you start them up, these stoves require “priming,” a process that is more involved than simply screwing a canister onto a stove.

The Middle Ground

Compared to the MSR WindPro, which combines a canister stove’s benefits with a liquid fuel stove’s low profile, the MSR WhisperLite Universal is a hybrid. It allows you to plug in an inverted canister or a bottle of liquid fuel, adding even more versatility to your meal preparation.

The Bottom Line

Many experienced backpackers use a canister stove for short trips in warm weather (i.e., above freezing), especially when they only plan to boil water for meals. However, they’ll use liquid fuel stoves for any journeys that are longer than three days, take place below freezing, or demand cooking beyond boiling water.

Courtesy: MSR
Courtesy: MSR