Despite what the movies would have you believe, cooking outdoors doesn't always involve skewering meat on a stick and roasting it over an open campfire. Several different types of lightweight cooking stoves exist for camping or backpacking, but choosing from such a variety can sometimes be tricky.
One advantage of all types of lightweight cooking stoves is the possibility of adding more variety to your diet while camping, rather than eating just trail mix and jerky. Plus, they provide a convenient way to boil water for drinking and washing up.
You're no less "roughing it" by using a lightweight cooking stove instead of an open campfire. These convenient stoves stash securely into your backpack and are easy to use, but which one is best for you? Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each type will help you make an educated purchase.
Collapsible Wood Stove Frame
You'll need to source the fuel for this lightweight stove, which is one of the reasons why it's so easy to carry around in the first place. Made of sturdy but light metal, a collapsible wood stove frame folds flat when not in use, but otherwise morphs into a square that sits in a fire pit. Add wood to the inside just like you would when building an open campfire.
The bottom of the frame has open walls to allow you to add more fuel easily without disturbing the food as it cooks on the top, and also draws in oxygen to feed the fire. The tall perforated walls also let in oxygen while simultaneously blocking breezes that could skew your flame away from the cooking area.
One major disadvantage of using a collapsible wood stove frame is the unreliability of finding suitable firewood in any given area, because the best-burning wood needs to be dry all the way through. This outdoor cooking method also requires a lot of attention: if the flame doesn't reach the pot, nothing will cook or boil. You must nurture the fire to maintain a high and strong flame for adequate cooking.
Alcohol Burning Stove
An alcohol burning stove is essentially a small canister that you pour alcohol into, and then ignite. This means it's very easy to use, but some drawbacks do exist. For one, the stove itself is lightweight, but the alcohol is not. Second, because the stove is so lightweight and small, it can easily be knocked over during the cooking process, which can pose a danger.
However, this outdoor cooking method is very easy to "hack" or do yourself without buying a special stove or fuel, which means it's incredibly cheap and convenient. In fact, all you really need is a beer can, so there's no problem sourcing fuel for this particular type of lightweight cooking stove.
Getting a steady and useful flame from an alcohol burning stove requires redesigning the beer can and takes practice, however. Beyond how you choose to create your do-it-yourself alcohol burning stove, you don't have much control over the height or intensity of the flame, which means it may take a while for your water to boil or food to cook.
Liquid Fuel Stoves
Either kerosene or white gas power liquid fuel stoves, and the fuel comes in a bottle that you attach to the stove via a tube. The fuel remains in a liquid state in the bottle, but when it passes through a heated coil, it converts into a combustible gas. Liquid fuel stoves provide a strong flame and a stable cooking surface so your food is likely to get cooked, which some of the other types of lightweight cooking stoves can't always guarantee.
However, these fuel bottles aren't the textbook definition of "lightweight." You won't break your back by carrying them on the trail, but the main disadvantage of liquid fuel stoves is that they're the heaviest option available for outdoor cooking.
There's a small learning curve associated with using a liquid fuel stove. Some stove assembly may be required, and you'll need to use a pump to to pressurize the fuel bottle so that fuel flows through it and into the stove coils when you turn the knob. The stove also needs to be primed in order to heat the coils that will ultimately allow the stove to operate efficiently. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for your specific model of liquid fuel stove in order to use it safely and effectively.
Solid Fuel Stoves Pros and Cons
Solid fuel stove pros and cons include the ease of starting them and the difficulty in controlling them. These stoves work very simply: clear away a little fire-safe area just like you would for any other campfire, set up the cook frame, put a fuel block in the bottom and use a lighter or match to start the fire. Then, put your pot on top of the frame.
Easy, right? There's no need to collect firewood or to carry a bulkier fuel source, so it's both quick to use and super streamlined for minimalist packing. However, once the fuel pack is lit, there isn't much you can do to convince the flame to grow higher or stronger other than to add another fuel pack to the mix. That means it might take a long time for your food to cook, if it does cook at all.
The advantages and disadvantages of solid fuel stoves don't make it easy to fall solidly in favor or disfavor of this particular outdoor cooking method. The only way to know if it will work well for you is to give it a try.
The Lightest Stove of All?
Now that you've gone through the various options for lightweight stoves for camping and backpacking, it's time to talk about the lightest cooker you can take with you: no stove at all. However, this also comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. First of all, you have to know how to build, light and nurture a fire, which takes some practice. Plus, the success of your venture depends on the availability of proper tinder — if there was recent rainfall, for example, all the wood in the area is likely too damp to burn.
Second, you still need to carry some way to elevate your pots and pans above the stove. You can place cast iron directly into the fire, but no one wants to lug cast iron around on the trail. Strategically placing large rocks on, around or in the fire can provide a heat source, but it may not be powerful enough to boil water.
However, knowing how to light a fire and cook with it represents a great skill to have before venturing out into the wilderness. You never know when an emergency situation may arise. But in terms of convenience, try out the various lightweight stoves on this list to find your perfect match.