As the Great Cornholio put it, “Heh heh, fire!”.
There are plenty of backpackers that hate cooking, and will go to great lengths never to have to heat up a meal. Some adventure racers looking to save weight will bring nothing but energy bars, trailmix, dried fruits, and candy so they don’t need to bring a stove. There are even some Breatharians out there that eschew food entirely, but the technical term for these folks on extended camping trips is “dying”. For most of us though, we don’t just want energy bars, we want a nice warm meal, and to get that meal warm, we’re going to need some fire.
The oldest method of cooking in the backcountry is simply to build a fire and cook over it. In places that have a good supply of wood, a campfire is a great option. All you need is a pocketknife and some sort of firestarter, and in most wooded places you can gather enough tinder, kindling, and fuel to get a fire going even in the pouring rain. Now, nothing beats a campfire for elevating your mood and warming your bones, but it’s not always a viable option. If you’re nowhere near trees, fires are banned, or you’re simply too tired to go through the rigamorole of finding wood, some sort of stove is the only way to get some hot food.
Solid fuel stoves:
The most common solid fuel option is the Esbit stove, which runs on fuel tablets. I think these are better used as tinder or emergency stoves, personally, as they take quite a long time to heat up, and the flame has no pressurization. They are, however, very inexpensive and lightweight. great for a backup or emergency survival kit.
The darling of the long-distance through-hiker, you’ll see more of these stoves being used by AT and PCT finishers than anything else. There are literally of hundreds of designs, both commercially available from companies like Trangia and Vargo, and in many DIY iterations made from cans. These stoves are not nearly as fast-boiling as other stove types, but for the patient they are the lightest option available. If you’re looking to go on the cheap, as light as possible, and you’re ok with long wait times, alcohol stoves are great. For large groups, cold weather camping, or for rare weekend use, they’re not ideal.
Canister stoves are by far the most common commercially available stoves on the market, and are available in three different varieties. The first and most basic type screws onto a pre-filled and non-reusable canister filled with a mix of isobutane and propane, and sit directly on top of the stove. These are generally inexpensive and very lightweight, and have great flame control. They’re often not quite as wind-resistant as some other stove options, but designs with a flat burner tend to be more susceptible to being blown out than others. The newest crop of these stoves have built-in regulators to work even in cold temperatures. The biggest drawback to these stoves is the cost of the canisters and that most of them don’t perform well in the cold. The two reigning champions of quality are the Soto Micro Regulator and the Snowpeak Gigapower.
The second type of canister stove is the remote canister stove, which uses a fuel line to separate the canister and the stove itself. These are usually much better for larger pots, more stable, and if they’re designed to use an inverted canister they solve the problem of using the canisters in the cold. The best right now are the MSR Whisperlite Universal and the Primus Express Spider.
The third type includes the Primus Etapower/EtaSolo, the Jetboil, and the MSR Reactor. Each of these stoves uses some sort of metal heat exchanger in the bottom of a pot that is specific to the stove for rapid boiling times and efficient fuel usage. These tend to cook fairly poorly for complex meals, but if all you need is hot liquid, they’re absolutely phenomenal and are the fastest method of boiling water around–they’ll make your home microwave look like a slowpoke. They’re all excellent, while slightly different, and the heat exchanger technology is so excellent it’s amazing we have yet to see this technology adapted for home use! I love my EtaSolo so much I make tea with it at the office rather than use a microwave.
Liquid fuel Stoves
Liquid fuel stoves run for the most part on white gas, sometimes called naptha. They come in many different shapes and sizes; some have remote fuel canisters, some have the fuel tanks integrated, but no matter what, you have to pump up the fuel tank yourself to pressurize it. Because you can always add more pressure to the tank when the temperature drops, these are usually the most reliable choice when it’s particularly cold. The best liquid fuel stoves run on alternative fuels like unleaded gas and kerosene as well (although you should still use white gas when available), offer adjustable flame control, and use a large generator tube for greater efficiency. These stoves tend to be the most expensive in the short-term and are heavy, but in the long run they can be cheaper to use because white gas is so inexpensive, and they’re very reliable. The best examples are the Primus Omnifuel and the Soto Muka.