Daniel Mrgan

Some Like It Hot

Apr 8, 2022

When my trusty MSR Whisperlite International stove started sputtering in the high pampas of Ecuador, I stubbornly dug my heels in. I knew my stove so well that after years of use on multiple trips, we were like old friends. I could disassemble and reassemble it quickly, and I carried the necessary spare parts. I was convinced that this was the only stove out there for me. Eventually, I pulled my head out of the sand, accepted the end of my stove’s life, and started shopping around. 

If you’re anything like me when shopping for gear, you get paralyzed by all the good options — the quagmire of reviews — and freeze in indecision. I almost considered going stoveless (which is also an option!) but knew that wasn’t right for me long-term. At the time, I was six months into a three-year trip, and I needed a stove that would last the distance. While drinking cold instant coffee, I brainstormed on the plan for my future boiler. 

When considering a stove, we need to think about fuel type, space, and weight (always and forever!), what kind of cooking we are most likely to do, and how many people we are cooking for. We also want to think about the ecosystems we travel through and our environmental impact. Some places do not have wood to burn, like high above treeline or in the desert. One-use canisters, besides being hard to find abroad, are sometimes difficult to recycle. 

Depending on where you are headed and for how long, space and weight might be your biggest deciding factors. In that case, choose a stove that you’re comfortable using and can fit inside your cook kit. Most backpacking stoves are designed to bring water to boil quickly, so think about how you normally travel. You can go light if you’re solo, or with a bigger pot and a more powerful stove if you’re going with a group. Take a stove that simmers if you’re a more elaborate camp chef.

On a longer trip, fuel resupply will be necessary at some point, so think about what type of fuel is available along your route. Pressurized canisters and flammable liquids are not allowed on planes, so if you are flying somewhere, especially internationally, double-check that the type of fuel you need is available. Talk to other bike tourists in the Adventure Cycling forums or with backpackers and bikepackers in Facebook groups, or send an email to an outdoor shop if appropriate. 

Countries vary widely on which fuel is available and where it is sold. For example, high-proof cooking alcohol (more than 70 percent, preferably more than 90 percent alcohol) is found in U.S. pharmacies, Mexican liquor stores, and is readily available in most of South America and East Africa. It is near impossible to find it in Central Asia. White gas is easily found in Mexico’s hardware or paint stores but not in most Central or South American countries. Butane canisters can be difficult to find outside of the U.S. and Europe, especially in remote areas. Gasoline is found almost everywhere. This isn’t an extensive list, just a sample of the fun confusion that finding fuel can be.

Five Stoves by Fuel Type

Alcohol Stoves

These burn alcohol that is 70 percent pure or more. Above 90 percent is best but can be harder to find. These stoves are completely silent, and fuel is found in many but not all countries. The cleanliness of the flame depends on whether you are using isopropyl alcohol (a bit sooty), ethanol (less sooty), or methanol (very clean). There are various products with differing ratios of each of these, and high-proof alcohol is called by different names in different countries. Here is a list of the nomenclature.

There’s not much that can go wrong with these canisters, and you can even make your own, DIY-style. Sometimes in very cold weather, the alcohol needs to be warmed up by placing your hands around the canister before it will light. Alcohol stoves don’t have the most controllable flame, and there are only two that I know of that come with a simmer plate (Trangia and Solo stove), so the type of cooking you want to do will come into play here.

Canister Stoves (butane or propane)

Great for weekend trips, these are easy, speedy to use, and burn clean. However, since pressurized canisters are often unavailable in remote areas, they’re not ideal for longer trips or international adventures unless you are very certain you can find them. These stoves and the required fuel can be found in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The canisters can be recycled but not as easily as you’d think, so read up on how to do it properly

Multi-fuel Stoves

These include a reusable metal bottle, a pump, and a burner. The pump attaches to the bottle and you pressurize it yourself. They usually have good flame control for simmering rice or soups and are popular among international bike adventurers because they can burn kerosene, gasoline, and diesel, which are available worldwide. Gas and diesel burn a bit sooty, but multi-fuel stoves can also burn white gas — much cleaner.

With versatility comes specialized parts that are not easy to find, so you might want to carry spares and the necessary tools for maintenance. These stoves are sturdy but can be a bit heavier, larger, and louder than other stoves. My OG Whisperlite International fell into this category. R.I.P., stove friend.

Solid Fuel Stoves (uses a small tablet or gel)

These are popular among the minimalist crowd and are a variation on the burners you see under trays of food at catered events. They are very lightweight, can be good for emergencies, and light immediately. However, they have slower boil times, don’t hold strong against wind, and, like alcohol stoves, they  lack flame control. But if you just want to heat something up, they’ll do the job. 

Wood-burning Stoves

These are magnificent when traveling in an ecosystem that lends itself to dry, small pieces of wood, like scrubby desert or forests. These stoves also have few breakable parts. It can be more time consuming to feed tiny twigs underneath your simmering pot of lentils, but I also find it calming, and it makes me feel more connected to my surroundings.

Taking a step back in time, I do what the back of my mind is always telling me to do: slow down. That being said, be ultra-aware of burn bans, dry landscapes, and wildfire risks. The wood smoke does leave soot on the pot, so some cyclists carry an extra nylon bag to store dirty pots, so as not to get grime on everything else.

Now that you’ve thought more about stoves than you ever meant to, an almost-comprehensive stove gear index has been compiled by the folks over at bikepacking.com. It lists specific models and brands ranging in price from about $30–$200.

Remember, you do not have to commit to your stove for life — something I have to remind myself of. Don’t be afraid to have different stoves for different trips, or if something doesn’t work well for you, pass it along to someone just getting into bike travel. After all, most of us started with used, borrowed, or hand-me-down gear.

As for my stove replacement, I ended up going with a hybrid setup, combining a small alcohol canister that fits inside a wood burning stove. I can use alcohol when it’s readily available and in the mornings when I’m sleepy, then transition to using wood in suitable areas.  

Whatever stove you choose, whether you simply boil water for ramen or bring a cutting board and spice kit, enjoy it. I like to remember the late, great Anthony Bourdain, who said, “For me, the cooking life has been a long love affair, with moments both sublime and ridiculous. But like a love affair, looking back you remember the happy times best.” 


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