Published at 08:18 on 26 August 2023
I have blogged about this before, but it was quite a few years ago, so I figure it’s time for a rehashing.
I prefer liquid fuel stoves. Most of the world prefers canister stoves. If you read a typical guide to camping stoves, you will see it recommend canister stoves in most cases. I do not understand most of the world. This post explains why.
You cannot safely refill canisters. There are products sold that claim to let you refill them, but they are not safe. It is too easy to get a tiny speck of dirt in the one-way valve of a canister when attempting to refill it. Then you have a gas leak on your hands. Not good.
So when a canister becomes empty, you must discard it. And since it is virtually impossible to recycle stove canisters (virtually all recycling agencies forbid them), “discarding” means throwing it in the trash.
To reiterate, canisters are not refillable (see immediately previous section). When you buy a new canister stove, you get to leave home on your first camping trip with a new, completely full, canister.
From then on, except on that rare trip where your canister usage and your outings happen by luck to align, you get to take a partly-empty canister. Or you get to add to your ever-growing collection of partly-empty canisters at home. Or you get to take multiple canisters on a trip where only one could have sufficed, adding weight and bulk.
You will virtually always be juggling multiple canisters, most of them partly full.
The Absolutely Lousy Cool-Weather Performance
Note I said “cool” not “cold” above. Canister stove fans like to act as if performance issues only kick in during wintertime conditions. Unless you limit your camping to South Florida and the coastal parts of Southern California, this is a lie.
Once a canister gets below the ¼ full mark, performance issues start kicking in around 10˚C (50˚F). A canister stove operating under such conditions can’t hold a full flame for more than about a minute. Output will then start rapidly declining, eventually reaching simmer levels.
A full canister can indeed offer acceptable performance down to about the freezing point, but see the previous section. You will almost never be operating your stove on a full canister. You will almost always be operating it on a partly-full one.
In my part of the world, overnight temperatures can drop below 10˚C pretty much any time of the year, even in the middle of the summer. In the mountains, they can drop to around 0˚C even in midsummer (yes, I have woken to frosty mornings in July and August). Cold mornings are exactly when I want my hot cup of tea and hot oatmeal most, and they are exactly when a canister stove will refuse to deliver same in a timely manner. Canister stoves disappoint, even in the summer.
The solution, of course, it to take multiple canisters on a trip, so you can switch to a full or nearly full one on such mornings. And again, you end up juggling multiple canisters in various stages of partial emptiness, and sooner and more often than simple unrefillability would dictate.
Liquid Fuel Stoves Solve All of These Problems
- Less waste. Liquid fuel is sold by the gallon in thin-walled containers that use less resources than a canister.
- Refillable. Just top off the tank before you leave on your weekend outing. No need to take extra fuel. No need to juggle partly-empty canisters.
- Cold-weather performance. A liquid-fuel stove will operate at full blast until the tank is empty, no matter how cold it gets overnight.
About High-End Canister Stoves
There are some high-end models of canister stove that solve the cool-weather issues. They do this by operating with their canisters upside-down. Effectively, they are liquid-fuel stoves that use the pressurized liquid inside a canister, instead of highly refined gasoline, as their fuel. Many of them can, in fact, operate on gasoline simply by changing tanks.
This solves the cold-weather problem. Unfortunately, you are still stuck with unrefillable canisters. Given these stoves are as complex as liquid-fuel stoves (because they are liquid-fuel stoves), they are as expensive as them. Since one is spending that sort of money anyhow, why not just spring for a refillable gasoline tank and use the stove that way?
Where I Think Canister Stoves Make Sense
All the above said, there are some situations where I think a good argument exists for canister stoves:
- Group campouts with the pyrophobic. Lighting a liquid fuel stove is not so simple as lighting a canister one. The process can intimidate some people. Many modern canister stoves even come with built-in igniters, making them even more like a kitchen stove.
- Air travel to areas where canisters are available. It is hard to completely clean all traces of fuel from a liquid-fuel stove, and if there is literally so much as the faintest whiff of gasoline on one, airport security will probably confiscate it. Not a trace of gas remains on the stove part of a canister stove more than a few minutes after use. So it is easy to take the stove, provided you can procure a canister or two after you land. (You will probably have to leave a partly-used canister behind, but that is a relatively minor loss.)
- Budget-sensitive, infrequent use. Canister stoves cost significantly less than liquid fuel ones. If you don’t go camping very often, the better performance of a liquid-fuel stove might not be worth the extra money.
They are simply not the default best choice for most as they are so often claimed to be, that is all.