Let’s go to Fuel School
There are three main types of fuel for use with all of the various types of stoves: Canister, Liquid, and Alternative. Canister fuel is simple, clean, and reliable, making it a great resource for people new to camp cooking or for just tossing in your bag for a quick over night trip with a group, however the canisters are non refillable and bulky. Liquid fuels are more efficient, cheaper per ounce, and more dependable in high altitudes and at very low temperatures, but require a more technical hand to use. Alternative fuels include solid fuel tablets, flammable gels like Sterno Gel, sunlight, and good ol’ fashioned wood, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Here’s the deal with “IsoPro”, the proprietary eponym of canister fuels: IsoPro is a trademarked (by MSR) term describing a blend of two or more Liquefied Petroleum Gases, or LPG’s.
There are three types of gases you may find in a stove canister: Propane, Isobutane, and/or N-butane. The difference between these three gases is each one’s Vapor Pressure.
Without nerding out too much, Vapor Pressure simply refers to the gas’s ability to pressurize a canister at a specific temperature. The lower the VP, the harder it is to keep the container pressurized. As fuel vaporizes to pressurize, it cools. The lower the ambient temperature, the harder it is to vaporize, creating a viscous cycle that can render low VP fuels useless in cold weather, which exacerbates the cycle by lowering the temp even more.
Propane has the lowest boiling point of the three (-44°F), and therefore the highest Vapor Pressure, and therefore is the best performing in cold weather. However, pure propane requires a much more substantial canister to handle the pressure created (think the bulky metal containers you see in the cages at propane drop offs outside gas stations). To alleviate this issue, companies began to blend in Isobutane or N-butane to the mix to lower the overall VP, thereby lessening the stress on the canister. Since the propane is cut with butane, it only performs moderately well in extreme cold.
Isobutane has a molecularly similar formula to N-butane (Normal Butane), but its molecules are shaped differently, giving it a higher VP. For that reason, Isobutane is more expensive to collect and use, making the percentage of Isobutane in an blended mixture the driving factor in quality and price in the crowed market of blended gas canister fuels. Basically, the more propane in the mix the better, and the more of the percentage of butane that is Isobutane the better.
It is worth noting that regardless of the manufacturer, stove fuel canisters have become more or less universal in design, and therefore almost any brand will work with almost any stove that uses canisters, as long as they use the standard Lindal B188 threaded nipple or 7/16″ thread.
- Extremely simple to use
- Adjustable flame
- Safer option
- Burns very clean
- Easy to procure
- Shipping and air travel restrictions
- Hard to tell how much fuel remains
- Somewhat bulky
- Non refillable
- Hard to dispose of or recycle without a special tool.
Check out Canister Fuels I’ve used here: Canister Fuel
Before the sweeping popularity of canister fuel, one of the only manufactured options was liquid fuel. Just like it sounds, liquid fuel is in liquid form. Typically you buy a half gallon or more at a time and bring only what you need in a smaller metal bottle. This makes it easy to know how much fuel you have left; you can just look in the bottle.
The liquid gas is either poured into the tank of a pump-to-prime stove like you would to a car’s gas tank, or the stove is connected, via fuel line, to the fuel bottle.
Generally, when you think of the liquid fuel used in backpacking and camping, you think of White Gas, which is available at every camping store, totally free of impurities, burns relatively clean, is crazy cheap, and performs great cold weather. White gas is the accepted standard of “liquid fuel”, though there are other forms of liquid gas.
Not all stoves are designed for it and most manufacturers would ever recommend it, there are “multi-fuel” stoves that can burn all types of fuel like kerosene, diesel engine fuel, rocket/jet fuel, and just straight up gasoline. I hiked with a guy name Duck, that I saw use engine starter fluid he was buying at Dollar Generals all across Florida in a small homemade ultralight can stove. Obviously, these fuels are all very volatile and can be dangerous if miss/over used or spilled. These are last resort options.
- Performs exceptionally well in extreme cold
- Extremely cheap
- Portion control – take only what you need
- Uses only one bottle forever
- Easy to spill
- Stoves require more technical skill to use/maintain
- Not the lightest option
- Bulky metal container
Denatured alcohol is extremely popular among the ultralight crowd, primarily because you can build tiny, lightweight stoves out of soda cans to burn it in. Denatured alcohol is not volatile and can be stored in any lightweight plastic bottle. It is easy to figure out exactly how much you need per boil, and bring only as many ounces as you need until the next resupply which can be frequent, since denatured alcohol is sold at most hardware stores and many gas stations. It is also safe to ship to yourself, should you need to. Once you get it lit, the flame is not visible, which can be a little dangerous.
- Very cheap
- Readily available
- Burns extremely clean
- Relatively lightweight
- Flame is almost invisble
- Very hard to use in windy conditions
- Hard to extinguish
- Can’t adjust flame
- Easy to spill
Check out liquid fuel sources I’ve used here: Liquid Fuel
Alternative fuels can be natural or man made. You can collect your own fuel or design a unique DIY cooking system that uses denatured alcohol or antifreeze. Super ultralight-ers, if they haven’t given up cooking all together, will forage for sticks and twigs to burn for any cooking they require. Glam campers or those hanging out at base camp for a while can lug a wood burning stove that produces electricity from the combustion process, with them. There are also systems that let you cook with sunlight, using mirrors and lenses.
There are also super lightweight alternative fuels that you can buy in the store. Solid fuel blocks are a single serving, hot-burning, super convenient option. I’ve also seen folks using the blue Sterno Gel you can find heating the bottom of trays in the buffet line at your cousin’s wedding.
- Usually very lightweight
- Some forms, like wood and sun, are free
- Create your own unique system
- Not always available (no wood above tree line; no sun on cloudy days)
- Not as fast to implement as alternatives
Check out alternative fuel sources I’ve used here: Alternative Fuel
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