The best camping stove for hitchhikers

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Food is all you need before you crush exhausted after a long day thumbing crooked roads, all you need when you wake up stiff under the unforgiving morning sun, it’s your comfort during long waiting hours, it’s what you carry and what you share. Food can make you walk for miles, because you are happily fed or because you are hungry. And you know that you can do with bread and tomatoes for days in a row, that a few hundred grams of cheese is a luxury in certain parts of the world, and a bar of chocolate the treat of the week. You know that cooked and warm food is what you long for when you set your tent for an evening in a nice spot. A camping stove is really useful when backpacking. For hitchhikers it may prove an irreplaceable companion, and knowing well how crucial it is to choose wisely one’s travel mates, we will try to review the pros and cons of each sort of camping stove.

Kazakhstan-Almaty-Green market
Almaty. Green market. Kazakhstan.

Cooking is simple, is joyful and is part of everyday life. At home or on the move, we have found out that cooking our own food is sometimes all we need to feel good. Our cooking gear is one of the most precious things we carry in our backpacks and, having tried stoves of all sorts, we have compiled a little review to make your way easier when it comes to choosing your travelling kitchen. There are a million sites comparing with absolute precision the seconds it takes for each brand and model of every type of stove to boil a litre of water under “normal” weather conditions. We know because we almost when crazy when chosing a stove: “this one takes 2.36 minutes to make a cup of tea” “but this one comes with incorporated maga-wind-proof shield” and “oh! this other one with a bunny-pattern bag”. Yes, everything is available in the market, and the options can drive you mad. So, in simple words, we have gathered the results of our very personal experiences cooking with different stoves while we hitchhike and camp.

Camping-stove-breakfast-recipe
Breakfast time in Thailand. Roving recipe: quinoa, papaya, banana delight.

1. The canister stove (a.k.a camping gas)

We always used a small canister stove during our travels around Europe, north and south. A small foldable stove that we could attach and detach from the gas bottle in a blink. We carried two medium-sized containers that we could both cook in and eat from. And we would enjoy our noodles, instant soups, warm milk or tea with biscuits anywhere along the road. When waiting times were long we would often unpack our cooking gear and set it by the road-side, although it happened a couple of times that then a car would stop and we would rush towards it with a cup of boiling soup in our hands. Because it was so easy to use and carry we did not really want to substitute it for anything in the world, but we realized that it was too small to cook proper meals for both during a longer travel and that gas bottles are not always easy to find.

Advantages

  • Cook simple and easy meals. Having our noodles or instant soup by the roadside in Finland is a sort of pleasure we have never been able to enjoy again with any other stove.

  • Compact and light. Ours could be folded and carried in a case that did not take much room in the backpack. The bottles were a bit bulky but pretty light.

  • Clean. Gas does not smell bad, it does not turn your pots black and the stove requires minimal maintenance, if any at all.

  • Easy to use. We would click the bottle in, open the stove, light the flame and use it anywhere.

Disadvantages

  • A bit slow. It takes longer for a canister stove to boil water, because it does not keep heat as good as good as other kinds. If you are not in a rush it is perfect for simple meals, but may take ages to cook complicated ones (although often, time is what we have, so who cares).

  • Expensive fuel. The camping experts on the net claim that one hour of cooking with a canister stove costs around 4 or 5 times more than with liquid fuel. How long a canister lasts largely depends on the kind of stove you have and, of course, the weather conditions (windy days require extra gas).

  • Difficult to find fuel bottles. This is actually the only real disadvantage of the camping gas. Replacements can usually be found in mountain shops, and a few petrol stations, but not all around, and not always of the kind your stove requires.

Our opinion is that a canister stove is great for short to medium hitchhiking trips (maybe from a 1 week to a 1 month). I you are not really into cooking and can do with simple noodles and soups along the way, or if you do not mind eating sandwiches half of the time, or, of course, if street food is good and cheap at your destination (i.e. South East Asia, India), a camping gas comes in really handy . In any case it would be smart to carry at least one extra gas bottle for longer trips, specially if going off the beaten track to places where mountaineering shops might not be easy to find.

Hitchhiking-Finland-Lapland-roadside
Fast meal cooked with Campingaz canister stove, by the roadside in Finland. Roving recipe: instant noodles.

2. Multifuel stove

We must admit that getting a multifuel stove felt like buying a new fridge or a washing machine for our wandering home. We carried the stove, and a set of cooking pot and pan. And we cooked anything, from dahl to rice, wherever the night caught us. It’s a powerful cooker that made us feel we could cook anything anytime anywhere. It was a big investment but, we believed, one for a life-time. Unfortunately, it was stolen along the way, together with a large bunch of other stuff. Shit happens.

Advantages

  • Powerful and fast. You can cook anything you want. We cooked rice, dahl or pasta, boiled eggs in a blink and, for the non-vegetarians, we have a friend who uses this stove to cook duck every night. It won’t be your grandma’s food, but once you master the flame, you can become a camping-chef.

  • Easy to refill. In any petrol station with appropriate (unleaded) fuel or parafin.

  • Cheap in the long-term. Despite the raising price of petrol, it’s still more affordable than other types of fuel. With one litre we could cook for 5 to 7 days (depending on the meals).

Disadvantages

  • The scent of petrol. The fuel bottle is airtight and safe to carry, but when refilling or de-presurizing the bottle after each use a bit of fuel always comes out. We used baby wipes to clean it off, but still remember the scent of petrol always lingering around. Also, whenever the stove gets a bit blocked or dirty, get your best metal scrub ready for very (very) dirty pots.

  • Difficult to handle. One does not need a PhD to cook on it but it takes a while to know your stove and use it right. In the long run, though, this is no problem at all.

  • Bulky. The multifuel stove and bottle definitely take more space and weight more than other ones.

  • Expensive investment. Despite any other minor disadvantages, the main issue when considering to buy a multifuel stove is its cost (min. 100 Euros). If you are just trying out whether you enjoy cooking on the road, you may want to think it twice.

We believe that a good multifuel stove is a great piece of equipment, and would recommend it for longer travels, when the cost can be maximized, and specially for the sort of journeys when one needs hearty food, but also wants to cook it fast. There are many brands and models but, just like with photographers, travellers are often divided between PRIMUS and MSR, with supporters of one or the other disputing for durability, reliability, efficiency, and noise (yes, some stoves are pretty noisy). We had a pretty new model of MSR, Whisperlite, and were totally satisfied with its efficiency and silence Our only complain was that when good fuel (like unleaded petrol) was hard to find in middle eastern gas-stations, the stove got blocked and dirty quite often and that meant having to wash black pots.

Camping-stove-recipe-rice
Results of cooking with MSR Whisperlite by the seaside. Roving recipe: nettles and veg rice / fried tomatoes and eggs
MSR-multifuel-stove-in-use
Cooking with MSR Whisperlite in an Armenian train station. Roving recipee: unknown

3. Alcohol stove

After our MSR was stolen, we went to search for camping pots to cook on fire by the Caspian Sea and miraculously came across an alcohol stove. We had heard loads about a home-made version, called the penny-stove, that we had always wanted to try, but also remembered a German guy struggling to boil his simple noodles by the seaside in Turkey while we speedily cooked our full meal with the powerful multifuel stove. Also, at that time we did not even want to consider any substitutes to our MSR, but with a hinsight we realize that often misfortunes have a bright side, and when we realized that for just ten dollars extra we could get a small Trangia alcohol stove from a camping shop in Tehran, we decided to give it a try )although still remembering the painful patience of the German guy…)

That was the beginning of our love affair with spirit cooking. This little stove has been so useful and good to us that, despite some of its inconveniences, it made us doubt whether we would like to buy a multifuel stove again, if given the chance.

Advantages

  • You can still cook anything you want. Maybe a thick bean or lentils soup would be a challenge, but we have cooked rice, pasta, dahl and even pizza!

  • Compact and light. Our stove and a metal stand fit perfectly inside the cooking pot. We carry the bottle of alcohol in a separate place, though.

  • Clean and not-smelly. Burning alcohol actually smells pretty good, and you can say good-bye to petrol fumes, black pots and dirty hands.

  • Cheap device. As said, the Trangia stove was pretty affordable. And a DIY alcohol stove will only cost you two cans of beer.

  • Easy to refill. Ethanol 90º can be found in all pharmacies of most (or better said many) countries, but check the disadvantages for a comment on this point. Apart from ethanol there are many other types of alcohol  that can be found in mechanic garages, marine shops and paint stores.

Disadvantages

  • Slow. Yes, we must admit it’s slower, maybe even more so than a camping gas. But so has become our travel, so we do not care much.

  • Fuel can be expensive. It takes us about 30 to 50 ml of Ethanol 90º to cook one meal, and in some countries (i.e. Kyrgyzstan) this type of alcohol be pretty expensive. 

  • Difficult to refill in certain countries, like India or Thailand, where health and safety regulations prevent the sale of spirit above 70º (and we even have tried cooking with that, but no, it would not light). As we said above, there are other kinds of fuels, and we suppose one only needs a bit of patience to explain somewhere in the mechanic store out of town what she is looking for…so far we only unsuccessfully tried in India a couple of times.

Our opinion is that an alcohol stove is ideal for mid-term travels, in warm climates, when one moves at a slow pace and does not mind taking a while to boil water, or when one has the chance to cook indoors. It’s useless, though, in places when alcohol is not available and, given the impossibility to find fuel in some parts of the world, whenever we found anywhere one-littre bottles, we bought two (but beware of crossing borders with too much of it).

Trangia-stove-travel
Trangia alcohol stove burner. Roving recipe: camping rice
Trangia-camping-stove-recipe-eggs
Cooking in a Chinese guesthouse. Roving recipe: deconstructed Spanish omelette (“tortilla de pacotilla”)

4. Electric boiler or kettle

This has been a recent discovery for us, and although boilers or kettles can hardly count as camping stoves, they can be a great ally for hitchhikers that plan to move in between urban areas, from guest house to guesthouse or, in general, anywhere with steady access to electricity. When lacking any other sort of stove, or in combination with any of the above, it can prove to be a convenient device.

A fellow traveller, Roman, who travels the world in 1000 ways, told us that he survived Hong Kong pennyless thanks to boiling noodles in the toilets of some public place where there were plugs. And now that we travel with one, we can easily see ourselves kindly asking for ten minutes of electricity in any petrol pump.

There are several types of devices: boiler (a pot that heats up and that stays connected to the current for as long as you want), kettle (it that automatically switches off when reaching boiling point, and sometimes has a resistence inside, so it’s mostly used for water or tea) and coffee warmer (spiral-shaped resistance that one can intriduce in his cooking pot). Since we have very bad experiences with the last one, and have no conclusive experience on carrying a kettle on the way, we shall focus on analyzing the boiler, which we currently have and use.

Advantages

  • Good for fast and easy meals. We have used it for cooking oats, tea, noodles, instant soup or potato puree and have even boiled eggs once and believe we could even use it for broccoli. It´s definitely better than nothing.

  • Clean. And easy to clean after use, just wash and dry the pot.

  • Easy to handle. Plug, switch on, let boil, switch off.

  • Cheap to buy and use. It’s not an expensive investment, and using it comes at no extra cost (at least for you).

Disadvantages.

  • Forget about cooking your favourite travellers meals. No nettle’s rice, no pasta with white sauce and definitely no pizza on the go.

  • Dependence on electricity. Which you won’t easily find while camping by the roadside. And beware of electricity cuts, sometimes your meal might get delayed for hours.

  • Beware of cheap models. We have seen a cheap coffee warmer melt in our hands, and our boiler, which is not of the highest quality, starts smelling funny if we keep it working for longer than three minutes. Make sure you try it properly before buying.

As we have said, this simple device which one has in almost every home, has proven quite useful in the places where we could not find spirit for our stove. If you are planning a hitchhiking trip to India or to South East Asia where you may turn more often to hostels than to wild camping, it might be a useful thing to have.

Travel-kettle-boiler
Our boiler is great for afternoon tea, when we prefer green tea over milky chai (provided there is no electricity cut)

5. Other stoves: solid fuel and wood burners

There are other options we have not had the luck to try yet. A friend of ours had a combined solid fuel and wood burner and claimed it is a brilliant option for outdoor trips. It was compact and easy to carry, although a little heavy for its small size. We are not sure how it would be when cooking anywhere indoors (i.e. train station, staff room in petrol station), but we would definitely like to take one of these when camping.  Since one can use fuel tablets or little sticks to cook, we suppose it may turn out to be budget-friendly, but only a few months of travel use could tell if it is a convenient option, so our judgement remains open till then.

If you have experience and tips on using a solid fuel and/or wood burner, please comment below for the benefit of all.

Conclusions (from camping-cooking aficionados)

In our opinion the best camping stove is always the one you’ve got. If you are about to buy one, the type of stove and fuel of choice totally depends on each hitchhiker, on the length of the journey and each traveller’s budget. We were happy to hitchhike for a month in Scandinavia with a little canister stove, and a multi-fuel one proved a great companion for long winter travels in Anatolia and the Caucasus, but also when we had nothing else around we cooked the tastiest meals with a tiny alcohol stove and did not miss having anything fancier. With a clear mind and an overall idea of your journey, you can now go on to check all the technical details, brands and models. We would recommend getting the best cooking equipment you can afford that fits with your travel, and not spend a hundred bucks in something fancy that will be used once. 

Stoves are to travel cooking what transport is to hitchhiking, if there is – better, if there isn’t – bad luck, and whichever way you reach your destination (i.e. lunch) is the best ride ever possible (i.e. whichever stove we have, always feels like the best one). If you do not happen to have a super-stove at hand, or if you need to choose between cooking gear and shoes or cannot even afford the simplest one, do not let that stop you from walking to the end of town on a sunny morning and starting to hitchhike. In any case, try to carry a pot you can cook on, the road, in its own way and time, will provide. There is always someone ready to pour hot water over that delicious instant noodles you are planning to have for dinner tonight…

Happy (and tasty) travels!

Camping-recipe-dalh
We are off to cook some dahl
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Boris, Marta and Burma roam the world at a speed of a snail. Two humans and one cat that found their way to India overland.

2 Responses

  1. Mattie
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    • Roving Snails
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      Hi Mattie! Thanks for passing by and commenting! Right now we prefer to write our content ourselves, as we are re-defining our blog and have a lot of work to do. But you can leave us a link to your blog and we will check if we can do some collaboration later on. Thanks again!

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