cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

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Re: cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

Postby climbing_rob » Tue Dec 13, 2011 9:16 am

CO Native wrote:Here is some helpful information about canister fuels--

Butane boiling point: 31 degrees F
Isobutane boiling point: 11 degrees F
Propane boiling point : -43 degrees F

In other words pick your fuel well. A canister of pure Butane will be useless below 30 degrees.
Snow Peak Giga Power fuel only claims to work well down to 17 degrees.

The reason Propane is not a common fuel used in backpacking canisters is the pressure it creates significantly higher (nearly 5 times that of butane). This requires much thicker metal walls of the canister making the system heavy. (Think green Coleman propane canisters at Walmart.)


The only canister stoves I know that do this properly are the Jetboil helios, Primus EtaPackLite, MSR WindPro, and the SnowPeak L1 Crabstove.


I still usually tell people not to waste their time on canister stoves for winter camping though. White gas is so much more reliable in all conditions that it's all I use in winter.

Hope this is helpful.
Very nice synopsis. I have both the Helios and the SnowPeak Crab stove. I use the Helios HX pot when I use the crab stove, as I think I like the crab stove slightly better. Not much different though, really can't pick a favorite.

Well actually I can: neither. I've tried and tried to "warm up" to inverted canister stoves, and keep going back to my trusty old white gas wisperlite. Non-inverted canister stoves? Fugedaboudid. Folks claim that these work in the bitter cold, well maybe, for a liter or so until the cannister chills, which is very, very quickly due to the gas expansion. If you use them in your tent as a hanging system, this seems to work OK. Sure makes me nervous though, and I really haven't tried this system.

Anyway, I also roughed out efficiency, basically total weight of fuel/pot/stove for longer trips, and the wisperlite liquid option wins. Short trips (2-3 nights) maybe its a wash or slight advantage for the inverted canister.
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Re: cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

Postby Prairie Native » Tue Dec 13, 2011 10:44 am

Thanks for all the replies!! Its great seeing all of this information in one place!

One thing I dont understand though: why is everyone questioning methods of getting the fire started? I always throw a few lighters in my pocket and are at body temp when I need them. Even camping at the bottom of kelso ridge last year in -30ish conditions we got them to light (just not the stove).
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Re: cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

Postby TomPierce » Tue Dec 13, 2011 12:03 pm

CO Native wrote:In my mind the best all around stove is the MSR XKG Ex multi fuel.

Finally! All this talk about using cannister stoves in the winter reminds me of trying to put the proverbial square peg in a round hole. :lol: If all you can afford is one stove, sure, it's overkill. But if winter is your thing it's hard to beat an XGK. Just my opinion.

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Re: cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

Postby Scott P » Tue Dec 13, 2011 1:00 pm

I see why people have been having success with the Powermax fuel. It's 40 percent propane. So at least for 40 percent of the fuel in that one most any canister stove will work down to -43F.

In addition to fuel mix, another reason is the weighted fuel pickup line (similar in theory to the inverted canister on the Helios and other stoves):


The weighted fuel line always recieves fuel from the bottom of the cannister, therefore even in extremely cold temps, it still works.

It is unfortunate that the fuel is getting harder to find. :( Unlike white gas, you just turn the thing on and light it, without having to pumping and priming the stove in -20F temperatures.
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Re: cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

Postby martynda » Tue Dec 13, 2011 2:38 pm

This has been my personal experience, so take it with a grain of salt:

For a winter one nigher for 1-2 people, a canister stove works just fine (I use the Soto one). You will be able to make a quick meal and melt 3-4 liters of water if you keep the canister warm. After you're done cooking with it, the canister will be incredibly cold, but it still needs to go in your sleeping bag for warmth. Put the canister inside a sock and then in your sleeping bag, it will keep it from touching you and making you miserable every time. The reason I say one nighter - if the canister gets too cold or runs out, you're close enough to making out so your life is not in danger.

For long trips with many people where you're expecting to be running the stove for multiple hours a day, use liquid fuel.

I've heard that some elite mountaineers use canister stoves for alpine style Himalayan trips and most mere mortals think that it will work for them too. However, these guys like Steve House or David Gottlieb also survive on 1L of water and a handful of Gu gels per day.
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Re: cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

Postby hotrod » Wed Dec 14, 2011 11:14 am

I guess I'm living in the dark ages. In winter I still use my trusty Svea. Sounds like a jet engine but has never failed me.
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Re: cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

Postby coloradokevin » Wed Dec 14, 2011 11:32 am

Prairie Native wrote:I recently got a jet boil because in my last few trips my whisper lite has just been a peice. Its ruined a few trips where we have set up a high camp and wanted to melt snow for food/drinking water. I've recently heard that cannisters are terrible with cold and altitude. So am I just s.o.l.?

Out of curiosity, what was wrong with your Whisperlite?

I've used the MSR stove line for the last 20 years, with either the XGK, Whisperlite, or Dragonfly. I've generally found these stoves to be reliable, albeit more of a pain to setup and prime when compared with a canister stove. for melting snow in Colorado winter conditions, the MSR lineup is really pretty hard to beat. I've used them below -20F in the past, and they'll beat a canister stove hands-down in those conditions. For me, the one problem I've run across was that some of the plastic pumps weren't designed very well. Two of these have broken on me in the course of a few hundred nights with these stoves, and one of the breaks put the stove totally out of commission (the other break allowed me to keep using the pump until it cold be replaced). I should also mention that someone else was setting up the stove both times that they broke. MSR has a replacement pump part, and it appears to have been beefed up. No problems since I got the replacement.

Anyway, I know some people have used the Jetboil in winter. I haven't used that stove at all, so I can't speak to its ability to work in those conditions. I will say that my one backcountry canister stove experience was less than spectacular. I have a Snowpeak Giga stove that I bought probably ten years ago. That thing is all but worthless once the temps start to get near/below freezing. I've tried running the stove on MSR iso/pro fuel for colder weather, and it would simply flame out on this blend. As such, I haven't been very happy with canister stove performance in winter, though my experience has been isolated to a couple of stoves, and it does sound like the designs have been evolving to improve cold-weather performance. Regardless, the liquid fueled stoves (ie: MSR Whisperlite) are still going to perform better in the conditions that you'd encounter in a Colorado winter.

Prairie Native wrote:I do maintain the whisper lite. It wasnt pressurizing and I was using white gas. It also takes up 4 times the space in my pack that the cannister does. Such a pain to lug around the stove, gas bottle and cookware just to boil a few cups of water for food and water. As long as I can get enough for a dehydrated meal and some drinking water im good. So even a brand new gas cannister every time I go wont fire up in cold above treeline?

Did you try troubleshooting this problem to see what was causing the stove to not pressurize? This problem can occur if the part of the pump plunger that forms the seal has dried out (called the "pump cup" --- it should be described in your instruction manaul). On my older stoves I believe this part was composed of leather, which could dry out over time. The newer stove appears to be made with some sort of synthetic material (either that, or it is a newer and smoother leather).

Anyway, while it doesn't really provide a great winter snow melting solution, I can recommend that you try an alcohol stove for perfect warm weather reliability, and ease of use. After growing tired of the weight/bulk of my MSR stoves in the summer months, and due to my general disdain for the canister stove, I've switched to a Trangia Westwind for summer use. After using this stove for about 6 seasons, I really have come to love it. It isn't the fanciest stove, and it doesn't boil the fastest. But, it has nothing to break, it always lights for me, and it gets the job done at a very light weight. Stove manufacturers always seem to compete based on boil times. For winter snow melting ability, I'd consider that an important trait. For summer hiking/climbing, not so much. I typically light the Trangia, set up camp, and my water is boiling by the time I have the tent up. I don't think it is really suitable for trips where snow melting is going to be an obvious requirement, but I will say that I was able to boil water with this stove in below zero temperatures on top of Cameron Pass one winter -- so, winter emergency use is not out of the question with it.

If you are interested in trying that option, it is only a $25 gamble, and gives you another piece of gear to play with:

TomPierce wrote:Finally! All this talk about using cannister stoves in the winter reminds me of trying to put the proverbial square peg in a round hole. :lol: If all you can afford is one stove, sure, it's overkill. But if winter is your thing it's hard to beat an XGK. Just my opinion.


That is true! Actually, the XGK was my first backpacking stove :) And, it was complete overkill for my first five years or so using it. Eventually I put it through its paces in much colder and harsher conditions, and it never did fail me. Sadly, it left me in my stolen vehicle in 2003 or so, right after I moved to CO :(
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Re: cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

Postby shaunster_co » Wed Dec 14, 2011 8:48 pm

Having some trial and error experience with Jetboil, I can point out a few things about the fuel, and a few things that have worked for me. First, not all canister fuel is created equal. Here are a few for comparison, each with the relative temp values of each fuel – canister fuels are generally a mixture, and they are different ratios.

Brunton/Kovea: 0% n-butane,70% isobutane, 30% propane
Coleman: 60% n-butane, 0% isobutane, 40% propane
Primus: 70% n-butane, 10% isobutane, 20% propane
Peak1: 70% n-butane, 0% isobutane, 30% propane
MSR IsoPro: 0% n-butane, 80% isobutane, 20% propane
JetPower (Jetboil): 0% n-butane, 80% isobutane, 20% propane
Snow Peak: 0% n-butane, 65% isobutane, 35% propane

This is important since all fuels vaporize at different temps. Without some fuel left in the canister that is vaporized – it will leave no pressure to feed fuel to the stove. As CO Native pointed out earlier, n-Butane vaporizes at 31 degrees F. Isobutane vaporizes at 11 degrees F. Propane vaporizes at -43 degrees F. Essentially what that means is that n-Butane will not vaporize below 31 degrees F, while the other mixtures do and leave useless liquid n-butane in the canister. At 11 degrees the same phenomenon happens with Isobutane.
So.. A low (or no) n-Butane mixture, and higher propane mixture are more suitable for colder temps.

There are a few work arounds to this problem;
1. use a higher propane mixture (SnowPeak silver can) in colder temps.
2. Keep the canister warm against your body heat in your jacket or sleeping bag. Also warm water or, yes, urinate on it (heard of that, never tried it).
3. I know some extreme alpinist (likely a few here) use a candle flame to gently heat canisters – but unless you are savvy doing this, I would not attempt it – the result of exceeding 50C can mean a bomb on your hands (or.. hand).
4. Another method I have seen is to use a heat exchanger, basically a piece of copper wire that wraps from the flame around the gas cylinder which draws heat to the cylinder (again see #3 above, if not savvy – best not to attempt).
5. A method I have used that has worked well into the -10 – 15F range is to use an old drink cozy or similar foam and keep the gas cylinder in it (insulation). In extreme cold temps or windchill, a chemical hand warmer at the base of the cozy works awesome. It is just enough heat to provide optimum warmth to efficiently keep the gas vaporized, but they do not generate enough heat to endanger the cylinder.

In the winter I use the SnowPeak fuel, and in the summer I use JetPower (jetboil) or MSR – whichever I find cheaper, because essentially they are the same fuel mixture. Again, the SnowPeak fuel contains the highest propane mixture, so note this fuel will burn [much] faster. If you are in milder temps you will get more mileage from the MSR or Jetboil fuels.

The principles of inverted canister stoves; allow the heavier gases to settle near the valve and the propane toward the top which forces the other gases out prior to propane so you are not left with zero vaporized gases – hence no pressure.

A final word: whichever method you use, keep in mind the fuel canisters have a concave bottom for a reason. If the pressurized gas over-expands (overheats), this concave design theoretically allows the canister to ‘pop’ out prior to exploding. Personally I am not brave enough to use a candle to preheat the fuel, but the #5 cozy idea combined with the SnowPeak fuel I listed above has worked for me quite well.
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Re: cannister stoves in winter/high altitude

Postby shaunster_co » Thu Dec 15, 2011 8:36 am

I should have added (or edited above). The SnowPeak fuel comes in a gold and silver. The silver has the higher propane value, but it has been illusive to find this year. Jax had it for a short time, but I haven't seen it there lately. I hope they haven't changed their recipe.

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