So…we’ve all been there. Pinching a penny to save a dime, thinking, well…this is just as good as that, I’m not staking my life on it…etc.
That’s been my approach to camping stoves for pretty much my entire life. Even hanging out on the AT in my early twenties, I never really embraced picking up a camping stove. I always carried canned food or an MRE that I picked up from the local milsurp store, never really heating them up, just looking for the calories. In the Army, the only thing I ever used an MRE heater for was stuffing into a water bottle with Tabasco and tossing into a porta-shitter just to see who was in there. A hot meal just wasn’t a big deal for me- its a luxury you just learn to do without, much like sleeping on the ground or in an improvised shelter. Learn to be comfortable in discomfort.
But that said I started getting into the freeze-dried stuff when I left the Army. Since more often than not I’m not grazing out of my cargo pocket, I have a chance to sit down and actually eat decent food. Well that and the fact that all MREs pretty much taste the same after you’ve had a crate of them left for your detachment in the sun for about a month, really bringing out that preservative taste. Freeze dried at least tastes like real food when re-hydrated and boiling water is a must.
I’ve had a handful of stoves since I left the Army and its kinda followed my evolution in thinking through my personal kit over the years. The first foray was a Coleman Peak stove, which I still have, but it’s big. It works fine, as long as there’s no breeze, and it’ll do everything you want it to, as long as there’s not so much as a fart in its direction. Since I wanted to go ultralight (because ounces equals pounds, pounds equal pain) I picked up a cheap Amazon version of a rocket stove. It was like $10, and while it worked well for a while, as Jesse James noted when he watched it quit on me, “now we know why it was $10”.
I don’t like things that fail, so I threw it in the trash. Right after that I picked up the real deal- an MSR Pocket Rocket 2. It uses the same IsoButane fuel canister which is pretty much universal in the camping and backpacking world. Right off the bat I knew this was a thing of quality- it was far better built that the others that I had in the past. A few tests and a couple of meals it boiled water faster and with what seemed like less fuel than the others. The MSR got hot in a hurry. But the real test was yet to come.
My whole cook kit is the stove, a fuel can, and my tried-and-true Stanley pot. Most of North Carolina is 500ft above sea level or below- it goes up sharply in the Blue Ridge, jumping to between 3-4,000 feet, but that’s still relatively low when compared to the high altitudes you experience elsewhere. I took my whole kit out West for the Redoubt Communications Course (as per my usual MO- I show up everywhere ready to live off-grid). That part of Wyoming is between 6-7k feet above sea level, changing the boiling times and fuel consumption for the same amount of water.
I can say that I was extremely impressed. Right after being boots on ground in Jackson Hole, I hit the local outfitter shop for an 8oz fuel canister to boil water for the week. The canister didn’t just last me the whole week, it felt like I barely used the fuel. I handed it off to a student who had set his Coleman white gas stove on fire the second to last night of the course (it was well-worn and probably time to replace it anyway by his admission) and he remarked that the can still felt nearly full to him. But when it takes less than two minutes to boil water, that’s what I call efficiency. I wasn’t sure if one can would last the week, but after seeing that, one can probably would have lasted over two.
In short, buy once, cry once. MSR is the way to go if you’re going off-grid.