The best thing about canister fuel is how simple it is to use; just screw your canister stove on to the canister, open the regulator valve, and apply flame. Another great feature is that the cans come in multiple sizes, usually 4, 6, 8, and 16 ounce, which allows you to bring more or less fuel depending on the length of your trip.
Unfortunately, canister fuel is not the perfect solution for every camping situation, as there are quite a few drawbacks. First, and probably the biggest, is that it under performs in cold weather.
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.
These are the claimed percentages of fuel mixtures from a few of the most popular manufacturers:
Peak1: 70% n-butane, 0% isobutane, 30% propane
Snow Peak: 0% n-butane, 65% isobutane, 35% propane
Primus: 70% n-butane, 10% isobutane , 20 % propane
MSR IsoPro: 0% n-butane, 80% isobutane, 20% propane
Coleman: 60% n-butane, 0% isobutane, 40% propane
Brunton/Kovea: 0% n-butane, 70% isobutane, 30% propane
Second, since the canisters are opaque, it is impossible to get an accurate reading on how much fuel remains, though it is possible to closely predict, using a digital scale or the water float method.
Third, because the fuel comes in a predetermined amount, you are forced to bring one or more somewhat bulky, non-malleable canisters with you on extended trips. Who cares how light your tiny canister stove is, if you have to bring along 3 or 4 fuel canisters, weighing easily over a pound together. For this reason alone, I no longer bring canister stoves and fuel with me on ultralight thru hikes; there are way more lightweight and efficient options out there.
Last, there are shipping restrictions on fuel canisters as well as airline restrictions (you aren’t supposed to pack these in checked bags or carry-ons). This can make planning for that thru hike on the other side of the country a pain. However, canister fuel is still readily available on most long trails, so shipping might not be an issue after all.
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.
The following are some of the canister fuels I’ve used and liked (or not) on the trail:
MSR claims its IsoPro blend is “top-shelf”, using a higher quality and percentage of Isobutane in the recipe than some competitors:
“MSR IsoPro fuel is a mix of 20% propane and 80% isobutane. (Manufacturing tolerances allow up to 6% n-butane, but this is minimized as much as possible and typically falls below 2%.) Because we use isobutane (instead of the cheaper n-butane), and a higher-than-average proportion of propane, IsoPro fuel is undoubtedly top-shelf.” – https://thesummitregister.com/ins-outs-canister-fuels/
There other certainly cheaper options than the MSR canister, but they may have a higher percentage of N-butane, causing them to under perform and burn fuel less efficiently.
The Jetboil “Jetpower” Isopro mixture was the only major manufacturer that I could not find fuel blend statistics for. It is marketed as “Four Season Mix” and only states “Isobutane/Propane Fuel Mix” on the package, leading one to believe there is 0% n-butane in the blend, putting it at least on the level with MSR.
Coleman offers huge canisters, best for running the multi-burner stove or powering your light source at your tailgate or car camping set up. The size of these cans absolutely rules them out for hiking, but they certainly fill a niche for long term use. Coleman’s fuel blend is definitely at the bottom of the pack though (60% n-butane, 0% isobutane, 40% propane).
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