When I was living in New England and, as a mountaineer, was greener than the hills of Vermont, I asked a British climber what he ate at high altitude. The Brit, who had climbed in the Alps, Andes and Himalaya, said, Don't worry, lad, if you go hungry it's good for the soul.
It hardly struck me as useful advice, but since then, I've discovered what he meant. I've endured many stove malfunctions in the mountains, and almost gone hungry enough to be one with Gandhi.
If you rely on hot food and drink for happiness, however, you need a good stove. Stoves that use cartridges, which burn liquid propane or a similar gas, are the most user friendly: Screw the canister on and you are cooking. But liquid (white gas) stoves have always outperformed cartridge stoves in cold weather ... or they did until now. New technology by JetBoil, MSR, Primus and Coleman has radically increased canister-stove performance in all conditions. I tested the Jetboil Helios, MSR Reactor, Primus ETA Power Express and Coleman Multi-Fuel Fyrestorm Ti stoves.
$140 | 20 oz including 1.7-liter pot with integral windscreen and clear Lexan lid.
An internal fuel regulator separates the Reactor from the others. The regulator keeps fuel pressure constant for consistent heat, even with a near-empty cartridge and in sub-freezing conditions. In fact, no other stand-up cartridge stove performs as well as the Reactor, and especially so in cold temperatures.
The Reactor's burner is unique. While other stoves have visible flames, the Reactor's fire looks like a branding iron, there's no flare up due to a wide flame control. The Reactor can burn hotter than the MSR liquid-gas XGK, and more quietly than the MSR Whisperlite. An integrated heat exchanger on the large cook pot further improves performance, as does a built-in windscreen.
Primus Eta Power Express
$90 | 14 oz including one-liter pot with frying-pan lid and snap-on windscreen.
The Eta Power Express also has a fin-like corrugated heat exchanger under its pot, but unlike those of the Reactor and Jet Boil, the heat exchanger does not enclose the stove. The Eta Express looks like a traditional pot/stove system, with the pot sitting exposed, on top of the stove's support arms. The system works. The Express rivals the Reactor's boiling times, breaking the magic three-minute barrier. A push-button starter makes firing it up simple. An add-on windshield snaps onto the pot's support arms and provides excellent protection. The lid is listed optimistically as doubling as a fry pan, but in reality its 4.5-inch diameter makes it impractical for frying anything other than hummingbird eggs.
$150 | 28 oz including pot and canister supports, windscreen, two-liter pot with lid and bottom cover.
The Helios, like its predecessor the Jetboil PCS, has a heat-absorbing radiator built into the pot, but differs by having a two-liter pot and an inverted canister. Inverting the canister lets gravity rather than pressure feed fuel to the burner. This virtually eliminates cold-weather performance drop and maintains full boiling power until the canister is virtually empty. The two stoves that burned the best in sub-freezing temperatures were the Jetboil and the Coleman, which also uses an inverted canister. In freezing conditions, the Helios took only a third of the boiling time of its predecessor the PCS. Heat output was consistent throughout the life of the canister, and this was the hottest stove tested, boiling water in two minutes or less, a full minute faster than any competitor.
The Helios, with twice the pot capacity of the old PCS, lets you cook real food instead of just boiling meals. This stove lit easily with a push-button ignition, though I usually had to push the button three or four times.
The fuel-cartridge support legs stabilize the cartridge, and the locking pot-support legs give the Helios an extremely stable platform. A plastic windshield snaps onto the pot support and doesn't budge even in 20 mph winds. The pot's plastic lid and its plastic bottom cover can each double as a plate. The pot's neoprene cozy allows it to be held bare-handed even when hot.
Coleman Multi-Fuel Fyrestorm Ti
$220 | 7.7 oz Comes with liquid fuel bottle, windscreen and reflector disc.
The Fyrestorm inverts the canister, so its stove power drops very little even in sub-freezing temps and with almost empty canisters. This system gravity-feeds the fuel, giving this stove as well as the Helios the best cold-weather performance. The Multi-Fuel Fyrestorm Ti does not have an integrated pot attached above the burner. The burner and cartridge each have tripod legs and are separated by a 9 -inch hose. This makes for a stable base, and you can use whatever pot you want. an advantage for cooking large meals. The Multi-Fuel Fyrestorm can burn liquid gas or cartridge fuels, making it the most versatile of all the stoves. (Note: the Fyrestorm was not tested for liquid-gas performance.)
The boiling tests were done at sea level, using MSR 8 oz. isopro fuel canisters. If you consider a stove's daily use on a mountaineering expedition in terms of a marathon, the Reactor ran the whole marathon at a sprint. It boils a quart of water in under three minutes with a full canister, and in three and a half minutes on its 24th and last boil before running out of fuel. The Reactor boiled water faster on a nearly empty canister than most stoves do with full canisters.
The Express also broke the three-minute boiling model, but ran out of gas after boiling just 14 quarts.
The lightweight Coleman Fyrestorm lived up to its name, boiling water faster than even the Reactor, averaging less than three minutes per boil for 11 quarts.
The Krakatoa of all stoves is the Jetboil Helios. Just a few years ago breaking three minutes to boil a quart of water seemed like a magical time. Now the Reactor, the Primus Express and the Coleman Fyrestorm all break it. The Jetboil Helios, however, broke two minutes! It averaged 2:04 for its first 22 quarts and 3:07 on its 23rd quart. It is also fuel efficient, boiling 23 quarts, only one less than the Reactor.
While the Primus and Coleman had the knockout power of the Reactor, they lacked its stamina. The Jetboil was even hotter and with almost the same gas stinginess. For a combination of volcanic heat and stingy fuel consumption, the Jetboil Helios gets the nod.
It's one thing to test a stove in a windless environment, but what happens when the wind blows? We blasted two fans point-blank at each stove. Wind velocity measured 10 mph.
The Primus Express's starter would not light. Once protected from the wind, it immediately lit. Placed back in the wind, the Express flew from the starting gate, boiling water in just 3:48.
The Reactor, which does not have an electric igniter, was also difficult to light. In fact, I could not get it to light in the wind. When I lit the stove out of the wind, then placed it back in the wind, it boiled in 3:20.
Even with the Fyrestorm's windscreen in place, it took 11:38 to boil water.
The Jetboil Helios lit in the wind and took 3:40 to boil.
All stoves were tested with new canisters kept in an 18-degree freezer for 48 hours. The Coleman boiled water in 3:48; the Reactor in 4:20; the Express in 4:30; and the Jet Boil Helios in 3:33.
MSR and Primus have wide flame control. You can boil or simmer. The Coleman and Jetboil's lowest simmer is the equivalent of the MSR and Primus' medium power.