An overview of both canister fuel and liquid fuel backpacking stoves along with a comparison of the pros and cons of both fuel types.
Choosing a backpacking stove comes with a number of questions. What type of fuel do you want to use? How versatile is the stove?
Canister fuel and liquid fuel stoves run on pressure. In a canister stove, this is provided by the pre-pressurized canister, which comes from the factory at about 60 psi. However, as the temperature and volume of the fuel drops, the performance of the stove will be affected as the canister loses pressure. Fuel volume and outdoor temperature also affect liquid fuel stoves, but liquid fuel stoves can offset those effects with the pump. If the pressure gets too low, just pump it to get that stable driving force and consistent operation in many weather conditions.
Another aspect to consider is the fuel availability and fuel types that a stove can use. A canister fuel stove requires finding compatible canisters, so your options may be limited by vendor, thread count of the attachment point, and compatibility with your specific stove. With a liquid fuel stove, you can refill and reuse the canister. Many different fuel stoves, such as the MSR WhisperLite International, DragonFly, and EGK will burn fuels of multiple types, even kerosene or diesel. That versatility is priceless for international travel where you may have limited choices.
The next thing to consider with a stove is its efficiency. A good measure of efficiency is how much fuel is required to boil water or do the cooking you need to do. Canister stoves tend to lose efficiency because their design, having the stove sit atop the fuel canister, exposes the burner to wind and weather. Even a 5 mph breeze can carry away some of that heat.
Liquid fuel stoves, on the other hand, allow you to separate the burner and fuel bottle. This allows you to add accessories to your stove to increase the efficiency. One accessory is called a heat reflector. This is essentially a lightweight foil that sits underneath the stove and reflects heat. Another accessory is a windscreen, which sits around the stove and shields the burner from wind, allowing you to keep the heat right where you want it—cooking your food or boiling your water.
It is very important not to use a windscreen like the one in the video above with a canister fuel stove, as it would trap the heat around the fuel canister and could cause it to explode.
To summarize, canister fuel stoves tend to be less expensive and easier to use than a liquid fuel stove, but do not offer the same versatility in weather conditions and fuel variety. Canister stoves, in most cases, are also not compatible with windscreens or heat reflectors. Liquid fuel stoves tend to be a bit more expensive and a little more difficult to use due to the priming and maintenance needed. However, the extra cost and effort may prove worth it as a liquid fuel stove can perform in various conditions.