Backpacking stove fuels play such a large part on the existence of backpacking stoves that they are classified and named by the kind of fuel that powers them.
A fuel canister stove is called such because it is attached to a canister that houses a liquid form of isobutane or butane and propane. Liquid-fuel stoves, on the other hand, are so named because their fuel bottle can be refilled with white gas, kerosene, diesel, or petrol—all of which are liquid gasoline. Then you have denatured alcohol stoves that combust denatured alcohol, wood-burning stoves that burn wood, and solid-fuel stoves that consume Hexamine fuel tablets.
What Else Do We Need to Know About These Backpacking Stove Fuels?
Let’s discuss their different types, sectioned according to the backpacking stove they run.
For Fuel Canister Stove:
- Canister Fuel. Packaged in self-sealing cans, canister fuels contain a liquid form of isobutane or butane and propane. Once screwed onto the canister stove and the canister stove is turned on, the can releases gas vapors of isobutane or butane and propane, which combust when lighted.
Canister fuel is very easy to use because it does not require priming. You don’t also have to worry about spills and leaks because the canister seals itself when detached from the stove. It’s also lightweight and burns clean.
There are a few downsides to canister fuels though. One, it may explode when subjected to excessive heat. So, if you’re using an on-canister fuel stove, you cannot surround it with a windscreen which traps heat. Two, not all canister fuels perform well in cold weather. Third, it costs more than liquid fuel. Fourth, it’s not refillable. Fifth, they are less available than liquid fuel. Lastly, you cannot know how much fuel is left inside the canister.
Still, many hikers choose this fuel over the others. In cases of fire bans, canister fuels are the least likely to be prohibited to use. Alcohol and wood are first to go, then followed by liquid fuel.
For Liquid-Fuel Stove:
Liquid fuel, like the ones listed below, is poured into a dedicated pump bottle for liquid-fuel stoves. Generally speaking, advantages to using liquid fuels are: one, you can tell exactly how much fuel you have and you just need to refill if you’re running low on gas; two, they are more readily available than canister fuel; three, they are the best option for hiking at high elevations and cold temperatures; and four, liquid fuels are cheaper than canister fuels, which make them ideal for cooking for large groups.
As with all the rest, they have their share of disadvantages, too. First, they require preheating or priming. Second, fuel spills are possible and dangerous. You also wouldn’t want liquid fuel on your skin in an exceptionally cold temperature since it can cause frostbite. Third, impurities from liquid fuels may clog stove parts. Thus, it’s very important to empty the fuel tank if you’re not going to use it for a long time to prevent damage.
Lastly, using liquid fuels will entail maintenance for your stove. How often is dictated by the kind of liquid fuel you are using and its quality. Below are some of the liquid fuels:
- White Gas. It is also known as “naphtha” or “Coleman fuel”. Among all liquid fuels, this burns the cleanest. And because it vaporizes at a lower temperature, it makes priming your stove easier.
It is best purchased in smaller containers, especially if you only have short hikes since it degrades once its container is opened. When that happens, the risk of shellac build-up is increased; shellac clogs stoves and pump filters. Once white gas shows a tint of color, it means it’s already past its prime.
It is the most ubiquitous kind of liquid fuel in the world. While it is cheap, it is not easy to use since it’s difficult to light. And because it is also dirty, your stove might require more maintenance than it would if it used white gas.
This liquid-fuel stove refill is dirtier, stinkier, and more difficult to light than kerosene. Moreover, it’s more likely to cause flare-ups. On the bright side, it is also inexpensive as well as more environment-friendly since it requires less energy to refine. Not all multi-fuel stove fuels though are compatible with diesel.
- Automotive Gasoline. Using automotive gasoline, also known as petrol, should be considered as a desperate move. Compared to white gas, gasoline emits more smoke and fumes.
The real reason though to steer clear of this type of fuel is its additives, which can be damaging to your stove’s fuel line and stove pump seals. Moreover, ethanol in petrol can be corrosive to your aluminum fuel bottle. So, if push comes to shove and you have to use automotive gasoline, don’t let it stay in your refillable fuel bottle.
And if you have the option between premium and the lowest grade of autogas, choose the lowest since it contains fewer additives.
For Alternative Stoves:
- Denatured alcohol. This fuel works with denatured alcohol stoves. Many ultra-light backpackers swear by it. It’s inexpensive, efficient, clean and quiet. In the US, it is also relatively easy to find.
Some downsides to denatured alcohol as a fuel are: one, it’s not as hot as canister fuel or liquid gas so it takes twice longer to boil water; two, it performs poorly in windy conditions and not your go-to fuel for winter trips; three, its blue flame can be hard to see; and four, it’s one of the first types of fuel to be prohibited in the area during fire bans.
- It is the most abundant fuel there is if you’re on a mountain trail. These are the twigs and leaves you’d find along the way. On a good weather, they are in abundance. So, if you’re using a wood-burning stove, there’s little need to bring fuel with you.
But if you don’t want to put your 100% trust on weather reports, wood pellets or fuel cells, which are a combination of wood and wax, would make a good backup plan. These though could be expensive. And among all fuels, it is the least efficient. It takes around twice longer than the already-slow denatured alcohol to boil water.
And in both types of biomass fuel, wood and fuel cells, they leave your pots black. They are also not ideal for winter trips.
- Hexamine fuel tablets. These white fuel tabs power solid-fuel tablet stoves. Each tab burns eight to ten minutes. They are lightweight and can be extinguished and save up for later use.
In terms of performance, solid fuel tabs lag a little behind denatured alcohol. They also produce a chemical smell and leave pots black. Plus, they are difficult to come by in other parts of the world.
Looking at the efficiency, availability, price, ease of use, cold weather and high altitude performance, and limitations of the different backpacking stove fuels are great ways to determine what matches the kind of hikes you’re doing and the kind of backpacking stove to get.