Hiking stove, backpacking cookstove, portable outdoor cooking system™, whatever you call it, it’s gotta be light, boil water and maybe even cook other stuff while you’re out on the trail. To help cut through the confusion we took a range of market leaders out to the field for some real world head-to-head.
Our NSW Explorer Project crew met in the Wolgan Valley, at the back of the Blue Mountains, for a weekend of off-track hikesploring and yarns ’round the campfire. In tow were offerings from Jetboil, Optimus, MSR, Soto and Biolite and as the sun dipped behind the valley walls, our cookoff kicked into gear.
Here’s what we thought:
Jetboil Mini Mo
Review by Joel Johnsson
I’ve been a long-term admirer of Jetboil stoves from afar, having borrowed friends’ units in the past and been impressed by their fuel efficiency, boil time and ease of use. However, I’ve never taken the plunge due to two key issues with the earlier models – poor simmer control and the ‘hotspot’ issue – which make cooking anything other than plain water pretty challenging. So I was very keen to try out Jetboil’s Mini Mo integrated cooking system.
It certainly retains the fuel efficiency and rapid boil times which the brand has become known for, either equalling or outperforming the MSR Windburner and the Optimus Elektra FE in our field testing. The squat shape of the Mini Mo also aids in cooking and eating meals, with the added advantage of being more stable on the ground when compared with the earlier ‘upright’ models.
The wider base also spreads out the heat patch at the bottom of the pot, and Jetboil’s improved regulator technology integrated into the Mini Mo burner is certainly an upgrade in terms of simmer control from the earlier models. The in-built piezo igniter ticks off one of my must-have boxes. This was certainly one of the favourites amongst our reviewers – it’s coming home with me!
Review by Joel Johnsson
The MSR Windburner is a popular choice amongst hikers looking for an integrated stove which combines ease of use with all-weather performance. It sported one of the largest heating elements of the stoves we tried and consequently was one of the fastest in terms of boil time performance.
As it’s name suggests, it certainly appears to be resilient to windy conditions. However it is also one of the tallest integrated systems with an upright, cup-style pot and a tall burner attachment, which makes it seem a bit top-heavy and unstable, particularly when used with small canisters or without a pot stand – a strange choice for something designed to be used in very windy conditions. Similarly, the lack of an integrated piezo ignition system is disappointing – exposed flames from matches or lighters don’t mix well with windy conditions either! We found the exposed metal grating around it’s base heats up significantly during cooking, requiring caution while handling.
If you’re looking for bomb-proof system for all-weather, the Windburner may be a good option. However, if you err on the side of ease-of-use and are happy to seek out a sheltered spot when necessary, the Jetboil’s may be more your speed.
Optimus Elektra FE
The Optimus Elektra FE nails compact design, lightweight materials and ease of set up. With the clip on windshield, you’ll have your cuppa soup (or hot toddy) brewed in no time, no matter what the weather is up to. Its design is a hybrid of fully-integrated systems and the “pocket rocket” lightweight stoves reviewed below.
The stove comes with an external piezo spark lighter, which lights the stove first time. You could also use it for fires or lighting other stoves which is pretty cool when your mate’s stove dies. It also comes with a scrubber for the after-feast clean up.
The whole system weighs 464g but if you needed to you could take the stove independently of the potset. It’s also very simple to use other pots with the system, something that’s more difficult or requires extra attachments with the fully-integrated models above.
The stability of the stove does depend on the size of the gas canister you have, if you’re able to acquire a stand it’ll make things a little easier. However, a 100g canister does a great job if the ground is level. Unfortunately there isn’t much simmer control, which is something that I think would be a great addition to this stove.
The flame really roars out of the Crux Light Stove, this unsuspecting bad boy has one hell of a kick – if you value your eyebrows I’d take a step back when you light it. We were able to boil 800ml within 2.3 minutes in calm weather without the wind shield on. The design is simpler than the fully-integrated systems (pot sits on top) so more heat was being lost out the sides, but it wasn’t drastic, especially as the pot has a heat exchange built into its base.
Not being as integrated as the Mini Mo and Windburner came with another benefit too. The stove retails at $159.95 (but often sells for much less), quite reasonable considering the build quality, materials and inclusions.
MSR Pocket Rocket 2
Review by Tim Ashelford
The MSR Pocket Rocket 2 is the second iteration of the somewhat legendary original. In fact the term “pocket rocket” has become synonymous with super lightweight gas canister backpacking stoves due to this model’s success (and catchy name).
We were eager to see how the 73 gram updated version competed with the larger and more complex systems we had with us.
The first thing you notice is its size, the Pocket Rocket is tiny. Thanks to cleverly rotating and folding pot supports the whole thing fits in the palm of your hand. It comes with a protective plastic case too, which is good for keeping dust out of the ports, but could probably be replaced by a ziplock bag or tightly sealed pot if you’re hiking light – the all metal construction is pretty bombproof. I also appreciate how MSR uses standard hexes and screws instead of rivets, allowing for field repairs.
Stoves like this are pretty straightforward to use but the firm and flat metal section where the stove attaches to the gas canister actually made it pleasurable – it provided great leverage for screwing and unscrewing and was easier to remove than any of the other gas canister stoves tested.
Ok, it’s aesthetic, but how well does it cook? We lit it up with a flint (there’s no inbuilt ignition – some may view this as a positive as it’s one less thing to break) and were quickly enveloped by an incredible roar. Goddamn. This thing is loud. The flame was shooting straight up so we chucked a litre of water on to boil.
We got pretty close to the claimed 3.5 minute boil time but did notice that even a light breeze pushed the flame off course. Heat was being lost out the side too, pretty normal for this kind of stove, but a thin, vertical flame helped ensure that most of it was actually transferring to the water.
Obviously that thin flame is prone to hotspotting and baking a hard disc to the centre of your pot but hey, this is a lightweight setup. The Pocket Rocket actually had pretty good simmer control and with a bit of patience, Lauren managed to cook herself a Laksa.
The MSR Pocket Rocket 2 is a reliable and functional cookstove that’s so small and light you might forget you’ve packed it.
Review by Amy Kennett and Tim Ashelford
The Soto Windmaster stove is a minimalist’s dream and adventurer’s essential. The lightweight design and easy packing make it a great backpacking cooking companion, no matter where you end up at night.
The Windmaster is as it sounds, the perfect stove for tricky weather conditions as the slim design and easy to use piezo ignition sparks a flame even in the cold and wind, it’s a significantly more streamlined process than lighting the Pocket Rocket. It uses standard fuel canisters and controls the gas pressure with a micro regulator system to keep the flame consistently burning, so we could boil our tea even when the gas ran low and the temperatures dropped below zero!
The flame is protected from the elements by a raised wind-guard, and the bottom of the pot rests close to the burner to further block the wind and allow for even and efficient heat exchange. The small stove can be made more stable with interchangeable pot supports, which provide balance for small pots but may be less stable with much larger sizes. However we found it could be used to cook up anything we needed efficiently, with relatively good simmer control and a wide(ish) spread of flame.
At 67 grams this was the lightest stove we tested. While it doesn’t pack quite as efficiently as the MSR Pocket Rocket, with the pot support removed it will easily fit inside your pot or billy.
The Soto Windmaster challenges the compromises of other lightweight stoves by including inbuilt ignition, a microregulator and superior wind protection.
MSR Whisperlite International
Review by Tim Ashelford
Are you an apocalypse-fearing adventurer who buys hardcore gear for the end of days? The MSR Whisperlite International is right up your alley. The “international” in the name refers to its ability to burn multiple fuels including white gas (shellite), kerosene and even unleaded petrol. MSR have been making this celebrated and versatile stove for decades, so how does it compare to the no dominant canister crowd?
At 420g the Whisperlite weighs as much as some of the integrated systems, however the flame is the largest and hottest of any of the stoves tested and can easily be used to cook for groups of people. Setup is more complex than the other stoves: the legs and hoses unpack from a relatively compact storage state before the hose is inserted into a fuel bottle. The fuel bottle must then be pumped to pressurise the fuel (we chose to use shellite – a clean burning refined form of petrol) before some is let into the bottom of the stove and lit on fire to prime (heat up) the top of the stove so that the liquid fuel becomes gas and burns. If you had a Jetboil you’d probably be drinking tea by this point.
That’s if you can find a gas canister, a task that’s not so easy the further you get from cushy 1st world countries. You’ll also be better off in the snow, where liquid fuel performs far better than canisters, or at high altitudes (because you can just add more pressure to the fuel bottle by hand). This stove reminds me of using the MSR Windburner, somewhat more frustrating to use on a sunny afternoon, but the one you want in your pack when you’re getting smashed by a blizzard (a wind shield is included).
Fuel efficiency is an interesting one. While liquid fuel is generally less efficient than canisters, many environmentally conscious hikers are moving to liquid fuel to free themselves of wasteful canisters. Kind of like a Keep-cup but on fire. Financially too we worked out with some quick cowboy maths that, thanks to shellite and petrol being far cheaper than canisters, a liquid fuel system would pay for itself after about 15 hours of runtime (compared to one of the lightweight systems above.
I loved using the Whisperlite International. I used it three weekends in a row, hiking, car camping and snow-shoeing doing everything from melting copious amounts of snow to frying up a dozen sausages for the crew. It might be a bit weighty but damn, get this stove and you’ll be using it anywhere forever.
Biolite Campstove 2
Review by Adrian Mascenon
Many words spring to mind when it comes to the BioLite, ‘Peculiar’ is definitely one of them, up there with ‘rad’. Far from a lightweight hiking stove, the Biolite Campstove 2 is more of an interesting science experiment, crossed with a raging firenado.
Compact for a wood burner, size and weight wise it’s not far off a gas stove system at 935g… that’s if you include a big 450g canister. The Biolite Campstove 2 is a greatly improved version of the original Campstove, offering much higher electrical output for a negligible weight increase; though being a wood burner it will take a decent bit of getting used to in terms of lighting and sustaining a usable fire, and will need a good supply of wood to keep it running.
We found it difficult to boil water as the system’s temperature would vary greatly as fuel burned – then we would have to lift the pot off the boil to add more wood. Getting it started wasn’t easy either. It was impossible without a firelighter as the fuel has to sit in a tiny drum without much side ventilation. The fan that we felt could speed up the process only turns on automatically once a certain temperature has been reached. Frustrating.
On the techy side, phone charging was impressive with a 70% iPhone charge achieved in 45 minutes and the attachable LED light to assist cooking was pretty cool, if not strictly necessary.
It’s an awesome gadget, that’s full of potential but will it replace a dedicated hiking cook system? No. Do I want one? Absolutely.
Ultimately, choosing a hiking stove depends on your priorities and how hardcore you are. Integrated stoves are fast becoming the norm thanks to their rapid boil times, ease of use and efficient fuel burn but the lightweight stoves are refreshingly simple and in a way, remind us of why we’re getting outdoors in the first place.