Friday 24 August 2018

Stoves I've used for long-distance walking over the decades - updated June 1, 2020

In the Grand Canyon on the Arizona Trail. Stove: Optimus Nova

Back in the spring I posted pieces about the packs and shelters I’ve used on long-distance walks. I’ve been meaning to follow these with ones on stoves, sleeping bags, footwear and more but it’s taken a while to find the time. Here’s the first of those: stoves.

Unlike with other items choosing a stove for a long-distance walk is partly dependent on an external factor – what fuel can you buy along the way. This has changed over the years but is still an important consideration. When I began backpacking in the 1970s the fuel choices were almost the same as today – cartridges, meths/alcohol, paraffin, and petrol/white gas. The big difference was that cartridges were butane only, which was less efficient, especially in the cold, than today’s butane/propane mixes. Cartridge stoves have another disadvantage, which remains today. Most can’t be easily repaired in the field. Combined with fuel availability that’s the reason I’ve only used cartridge stoves on one long-distance walk. As it is my stove choice has gone full circle from meths/alcohol ones through various petrol/paraffin pressure stoves with one diversion into cartridges and back to meths/alcohol.

My original Trangia
On my first long distance walks, the Pennine Way in 1976 and Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1978 I used a Trangia methylated spirits stove. I couldn’t find out if cartridges were available along the way (this was long before the Internet of course) and anyway didn’t like the cartridge stoves I’d tried. Petrol or paraffin pressure stoves were an option, but I’d never used one of these and was a little nervous of them. As it was, while heavy and bulky, the Trangia worked fine in all conditions. I still have it.

With the Svea123 on the Continental Divide Trail

For the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide walks in 1982 and 1985 I used a Svea 123 white gas stove, as this was the model recommended by Colin Fletcher in his superb The Complete Walker, which I read to learn about backpacking in the Western USA.  Alcohol stoves hadn’t yet caught on in the USA – that was to come two decades later – and general advice was that white gas in various forms – gasoline, Coleman Fuel, generic white gas – was the only fuel I’d find everywhere. The Svea, an upright brass tin can in appearance, worked well, once I’d got used to priming it with liquid fuel and realised I needed a separate windshield for strong winds, though using it with leaded petrol, which I did a few times, was always a little unnerving as it flared badly. 

In the Richardson Mountains in the Yukon Territory with the MSR Whisperlite

I stayed with white gas  but changed stoves for my 1988 Canadian Rockies and Yukon walks. MSR had brought out the Whisperlite Internationale, which was lighter than the Svea and came with an encircling windshield and a separate fuel tank attached by a long hose. Again it worked really well.

In the Jotunheimen on the Scandinavian Mountains Walk with the MSR X-GK

For my Scandinavian Mountains Walk in 1992 I changed to a different MSR stove, the X-GK II, because the only fuel available everywhere was paraffin in various forms and the X-GK ran well on this relatively dirty fuel and was easy to clean. Mostly I used lamp oil, a clean type of paraffin, but I did use some paraffin that smoked badly and clogged up the stove so being able to strip it down and clean it quickly was a boon.

All these stoves were quite heavy and I wanted something lighter for my next walk, the Munros and Tops, as this would involve a great deal of ascent. This was the first walk when I really tried to keep the overall weight down. I reckoned a cartridge stove would be okay in Scotland as it would be easy to replace if it failed and I’d manage for a few days on cold food if I had to. Cartridge stoves were a bit heavier than today back then but still very light compared to the stoves I had been using. I took one of the lightest then available, the Coleman Micro, a simple screw-in burner. The first one of these did fail. The second was fine. 

A chilly camp on the Arizona Trail with the Optimus Nova

I really liked the light weight and ease of use of a cartridge stove but the failure had confirmed my views that relying on one on a remote walk wasn’t a good idea so for the Arizona Trail in 2000 I went back to a pressure stove, the Optimus Nova. This was a bit easier to use than the MSR models, so I used it again on my 500-mile circular walk through the High Sierra two years later.

The Caldera Ti-Tri at a wet camp on the Pacific Northwest Trail

During the 2000s the ultralight backpacking movement took off in the USA and with it came a wealth of alcohol stoves made from drinks cans. People also realised that various forms of alcohol suitable for stove use could be found in hardware stores and gas stations and that this availability made it an excellent fuel for long-distance walks. I tried a few of these little stoves and really liked the Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri, which was like an ultralight version of the Trangia but could also be run on solid fuel tablets or natural fuel.  

In the NW Highlands on the Scottish Watershed with the Ti-Tri
In 2010 I took the Ti-Tri on the Pacific Northwest Trail and was so delighted with it that I used it on my next two long-distance walks, the Scottish Watershed and Yosemite Valley to Death Valley. I’ll almost certainly use it on the next one too, though with the new Kojin burner rather than the 12-10 one as the Kojin is more durable and can retain unused fuel. I think I’ve finally found the ideal stove for long-distance walks. 

Ti-Tri at a desert camp on the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk

Update, June 1, 2020. I did indeed use the Ti-Tri with the Kojin burner on my next long walk, the GR5 Through the Alps in 2018, and it performed really well. I didn't use it on my long walk the year after that though.

The Ti-Tri on the GR5

The summer I walked the GR5 in the Alps I had planned on hiking the Continental Divide Trail in the Southern Colorado Rockies, following the high route I'd been forced to abandon for a lower one due to snow on my CDT thru-hike in 1985. But wildfires meant much of the route was closed early in the summer so I changed plans and went to the Alps instead. Those wildfires also meant that stoves without on/off controls were banned. The Ti-Tri doesn't have an on/off control.

The MSR Pocket Rocket 2 in use in the Colorado Rockies

Last year late snow meant the Colorado Rockies were wet and wildfires were not a threat. However knowing regulations might ban stoves like the Ti-Tri if conditions changed I decided to take a gas canister stove, the little MSR Pocket Rocket 2. Since the only other time I'd used such a stove on a long walk, the Coleman Micro on the Munros and Tops walk in 1996, fuel efficiency had been improved enormously. In the Rockies I got eleven days out of a 250 gram canister. In 1996 it was around five days. The Pocket Rocket was much lighter than the Micro too. It worked really well.

For my next long walk? It depends!


  1. I'm really enjoying this series of articles for their proper history and for the memories you have brought back of my start in backpackpacking.

    Apart from the gear, Svea 123 photo has a great 19th Century vibe.

    1. Thanks John. That Svea photo is a print taken by my cousin that was on my mother's mantelpiece until she died when I inherited it. I could have played with the discolouration digitally but decided to simply scan it and leave it alone.

  2. Great article, thanks for sharing !!!

  3. Lots of good memories return when I use my SVEA 123 for short winter trips these days. Alcohol or canister I use for longer adventures.