Guide to Choosing the Right Backpacking Stove Fuel

MSR stove and Coleman fuel canister

Whether you are new to backpacking, looking for an ultralight stove fuel option, or wondering which fuel is best for cold-weather camping, this guide is your go-to source on backpacking stove fuel. 

It’s essential to choose the right type of backpacking stove fuel for your stove. Using the wrong kind of fuel could damage your stove or potentially cause injury. Because backpacking stoves and fuel can be dangerous if used improperly, the more you know about them, the safer you will be. 

Backpacking Stove Fuel Types

The types of camp stove fuel are:

  • Gas canisters
  • Liquid fuel
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Wood/twigs 
  • Solid fuel cubes

Gas Canisters

Gas canisters are by far the most popular camping fuel. They are simple for anyone to use without a learning curve. You have probably seen these canisters at the local grocery or outdoor store. They come in a variety of sizes and can be easily threaded onto your backpacking stove.

There are two types of gas canister stove fuel – propane and isobutane. They both have their pros and cons. Propane burns well in all types of weather and altitudes, but it’s heavier than isobutane. Isobutane is lighter and burns more efficiently than propane by volume in normal conditions. You can also buy backpacking stove fuel canisters that use a blend of propane and isobutane to maximize the advantages of both types. 

Not ready to choose between camp stove butane vs propane fuel? A butane-to-propane adapter lets you use both types of fuel with your butane backpacking stove. 

Liquid Fuel

Liquid camp stove fuel is sometimes called white gas. It comes in refillable fuel bottles. This fuel works in extreme conditions and is ideal for backpackers who have their sights set on peaks like Denali, K2, and Everest. It’s also the most traditional of all the camp stove fuel types making it a go-to for old-school backpackers. 

A major downside of white gas backpacking stoves is that they have to be primed. Some users also complain that their fuel bottle leaks or emits an unpleasant odor in their backpack.

Liquid fuel camping stove

Denatured Alcohol

Denatured alcohol is a liquid made of ethanol. This type of alcohol is not safe to drink but has many advantages as a backpacking stove fuel. It’s very cheap to purchase and has excellent fuel stability. That means it can be safely transported in a lightweight plastic bottle rather than a bulky metal canister or bottle. 

Denatured alchohol backpacking stove

Some people make their own denatured alcohol backpacking stoves out of empty soda cans. This is popular among ultralight backpackers. However, extreme caution is required when using this backpacking stove fuel type. There is no on/off switch, so be extra careful in dry and/or windy conditions. 

Add the Trail Wolf Survival Spork to your camp kitchen for the ultimate ultralight set up. It includes a spoon, fork, knife, can opener, and bottle opener all in one compact tool. 

Wood/Twigs 

There are now wood burning backpacking stoves on the market. These stoves are small and can only burn small twigs. The most obvious benefit of this type of stove fuel is that you do not have to carry any fuel weight. When you are ready to cook, you can gather fuel from around your campsite. However, gathering firewood and/or having an open flame fire are prohibited in many natural areas, so you may be limited in where you can use this type of backpacking stove. The popular brands are:

BioLite woodburning camp stove

Solid Fuel Cubes

Fuel cubes or tablets are not commonly used by backpackers. They are simple to use and lightweight, but they have a low heat output which means longer cooking/boiling times. Fuel cube stoves also do not have an on/off switch, so you will have to wait for the cube to completely burn before putting your stove away. The original and most common brand for fuel tablets is Esbit. One of their 14 gram tablets will burn for approximately 12 minutes.

How to Choose Backpacking Stove Fuel

The kind of fuel you should use depends on the type of stove you are using. If you already bought a backpacking stove, you need to purchase compatible fuel. Not sure what type of fuel it takes? Check the stove’s manual for more information. 

If you have not bought a backpacking stove yet or are planning to upgrade, you can be strategic about what type of stove you get based on fuel type. The type of fuel you choose will determine how complex you can get in your backcountry cooking and affect the weight and size of your kitchen set.

When deciding which type of camp fuel and stove is best for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you want to be able to refill the fuel canister or bottle? Go with an alcohol or liquid fuel stove. 
  • Is counting ounces a concern for you? Go with an alcohol or fuel cube stove.
  • Do you want to be able to use your backpacking stove at extremely high elevations (14,000 feet and above) and in extremely low temperatures? A white gas camp stove is best for you.
  • Do you want to be able to purchase extra fuel replacements easily on long trips? Go with gas canister fuel. It’s the most ubiquitous at outdoor stores and resupply locations.
  • Do you want to cook food on your backpacking stove or just boil water? A liquid fuel or gas canister stove is best for cooking because you can adjust the flame.
  • Does the boiling time of the fuel type matter to you? For the fastest boiling times, consider an isobutane canister stove. 

How Much Camp Fuel Should I Bring?

Understanding your backpacking stove fuel consumption will help you determine how much fuel you need to bring on your next backpacking trip. One of the worst experiences is when your backpacking stove fuel canister runs out of fuel while you are in the backcountry.

It’s a good idea to test your stove and fuel at home before using it in the backcountry for the first time to make sure everything works properly. Time how long it takes to bring water to a boil and measure how much fuel was used. Then, multiply that by how many times you will need to cook or boil water on your backpacking trip and add a little bit of extra fuel in case of emergency.  

Camping Stove Fuel Tips

Are you buying your very first backpacking stove? Most beginner backpackers will likely start with a canister stove due to their ease of use, safety, and the prevalence of fuel options. My first backpacking stove was an MSR Pocket Rocket. MSR makes their own MSR Isopro Fuel out of an 80/20 blend of isobutane and propane, but the great thing about these stoves is that they can use any propane/isobutane fuel blend canister. Other common brands for portable stoves that use gas fuel include:

Coleman makes mostly propane canisters, but they also have propane/isobutane blends. Gas fuel canisters are the best option for beginners because they require no preparation or maintenance. You can throw them in your garage or closet for years, and they will still work. Just keep them out of prolonged direct sunlight or extreme heat. 

Some downsides of gas canisters are that they are not very environmentally friendly and cannot be easily disposed of. It’s not recommended to throw them in the trash, and some recycling programs will not accept them unless they have been completely emptied and punctured first. You cannot refill the canisters, and people often discard canisters before they are 100% empty because bringing a mostly empty canister on a multi-day trip is a waste of space.

Advanced Backpacking Stove Fuel Tips

Liquid camp stove fuel used to be the only decent option for mountaineers. While there are now all-season canister blends that work pretty well at high altitude, white gas is still the superior choice for its effective burning power even in the worst conditions. For even better burning efficiency, loosely wrap your backpacking stove in foil. This will protect it from the wind and allow your water or food to heat faster. 

Many ultralight hikers swear by alcohol stoves, but they simply can’t hold up to the elements at high elevations. If you are not planning to hike higher than the 14ers of the contiguous US and just want a stove to boil water, consider upgrading to a denatured alcohol stove. You will save weight and space in your pack. Just make sure to bring a small snuffer in case you need to quickly put out your stove fire.

Wrap Up on Backpacking Stove Fuel Types

If you want a camp stove fuel that’s easy to use and find in stores, go with a gas canister stove. A blend of isobutane and propane is ideal for the best burning efficiency and use in cold temperatures. For more extreme conditions and greater control over your stove flame, go with a liquid fuel camp stove. And, lastly, if you are an ultralight fanatic, you will probably prefer a collapsible wood burning backpacking stove or a denatured alcohol stove. No matter which type of stove and fuel you choose, make sure to follow all manufacturer directions to ensure your safety and the longevity of your gear. 

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