Stoves are yet another item with a huge variety of prices and corresponding qualities. But there are also many very different designs that are designed to do radically different things. Some are designed to be as light as possible, some are designed to be able to cook a much more versatile range of food, and some are designed to boil water extremely fast and efficiently.
General Buying Advice:
Don’t just buy the most expensive stove, the extra expense may be giving you features you don’t want.
Many stoves from different brands may look very similar, but be radically different in price. Usually, what you get for more money is better efficiency (which can save you money in the long run) and a longer lifetime; cheaper stoves tend to wear out faster or break.
Be VERY WARY of old stoves, almost all stoves have parts that wear out over time (even without use) and can be very dangerous; always get an old stove checked out by someone who knows their stuff before using it.
Work out what you’ll want to be using your stove for most of the time. If you mainly use rehydrated meals, consider a stove that just boils water. On the other hand, if you like to make gourmet meals while tramping, consider a stove with a wider flame and good simmer control.
Stoves can be divided into four types based on the fuel they use (some stoves can use more than one kind):
Alcohol burners – stoves that either use some form of spirits where the fuel is lit directly (for example Trangia Stoves)
Pros – Cheapest to run and buy, fuel is easy to come by, can also be extremely lightweight.
Cons – Can’t vary the temperature, can’t get a very high temperature so can’t cook things very fast, easier to burn yourself or others, not so user friendly.
Best for: Ultra lightweight enthusiasts.
Solid fuel stoves – burn fuel like wood (twigs) or maybe coal.
Pros – reasonably cheap, free to run, some will even charge your electronics for you, quite light (especially considering you don’t have to carry fuel).
Cons – very difficult to get a high temperature, so boiling + cooking things takes ages, hard to find fuel sometimes, can’t vary temperature.
Best for: Hikers doing long trips where you don’t want to carry fuel and where there is plenty of wood to burn.
Liquid Fuel Stoves – the grown up version of alcohol burners, will burn almost any combustible liquid and uses a pressure system to feed the fuel through a more elaborate stove, allowing finer control of the temperature, much higher temperatures and more efficient use of fuel.
Pros – Very easy to find fuel for and consequently cheap to run, will work in lower temperatures than gas stoves, much more environmentally friendly (because you don’t keep throwing out empty canisters).
Cons - usually quite expensive, not many cheap options, more complicated to use, less design options (not inherently, but not many companies make them), no lightweight options.
Best for: Longer trips (over a longer period liquid fuel is lighter than canister fuel), alpine trips where you are expecting very low temperatures.
Canister (Propane/Butane) stoves – burn compressed gas from specialist gas canisters, allows good control of temperature and can achieve high temperatures. The vast majority of trampers in NZ use this type.
Pros – lots of available designs and options around price, low maintenance, good availability of canisters (in NZ, U.S., most countries where hiking is a big thing), very easy to use.
Cons – over longer trips carrying lots of canisters is heavier than all the other options, doesn’t perform well at hight altitudes or in cold weather, if you tramp a lot buying canisters gets expensive.
Best for: trampers on short-medium trips where the temperature is not going to drop much below freezing.
Pots are one of those things that most trampers will buy eventually. There isn't a whole lot to buying one, but you often have a choice of materials and there are some general things to look out for.
Cons - heavy, doesn't conduct heat overly effectively, so can result in hot spots in the pan which make it easier to burn food.
Pros - very lightweight and strong.
Cons - doesn't conduct heat uniformly so results in hot spots, expensive.
So what does all that mean? If you are looking for a pot for fast and light expeditions where you are mainly just cooking water or simple things like pasta in a smaller pot, go for titanium. If you are cooking more elaborate meals, and want a bigger pot that is easier to clean, go for aluminium with a non-stick coating. Don't buy stainless steel unless you are on a serious budget.
General Buying Advice
I don't think much of those mini pot sets that you find in many places. They are usually cheap, and have lots of useful looking things in them, so may look attractive. However, what I find is that you never end up using half the stuff in there because it's too small to be useful. I think a single, good quality non-stick aluminium pot around 1-2.5L depending on how many people you cook for is a good option. I have a 2.5L pot that is brilliant for cooking for people or just myself if I want to make something elaborate. If you routinely just use boiling water to cook, I suggest getting a cooking system that is specifically designed with that in mind, like a Jetboil or similar. The advantage with that kind of stove is that it is a lot faster and more efficient at boiling water than a standard stove and pot. Or, if you want to go really light, use an alcohol burner like the one Andrew Skurka used, made out of a tin of cat food. This has the advantage of being very cheap to make, and very cheap to run, as well as being a lot more environmentally friendly.
Some Suggested Cooking Systems
Taking into consideration the information above, here are some examples of cooking systems I use. The type I take is dependent on two things: what am I cooking, and who am I cooking for?
Firstly, what am I cooking? I essence, for me, this question means am I just boiling water, or do I need to do something more elaborate like frying, simmering etc...? If I'm cooking solo, or even sometimes with groups, I prefer to have dinners that just require boiling water. Sometimes this is dehydrated meals, or boil-in-a-bags (e.g. Kaweka Meals), or Freezer Bag Meals. The advantages of this is last kind is no cleanup, no fuss.
Secondly, who am I cooking for? If I'm cooking just for myself, I don't need capacity to boil large amounts of water at once. If I'm cooking for a group, then I need a cooking system that can accomodate that amount of people. If I'm just boiling water, then I need a larger pot and ability to boil a lot of water at once. If I'm making more traditional meals, then I need a large enough pot for this as well as a cooker big enough to support it.
So, here are four different cooking systems to deal with four different situations. Note, the products here are ones I actually own. There are other products out there that are possibly just as good, and there are certainly cheaper ones, but here I'm discussing the ones I know and own because I know they work well.
Knife/fork/spoon and plate/bowl
You do not need all of these things. You need something to eat off if your having group food, and something to eat with. I recommend a spork, or as some like to call it, a foon. For a more hard wearing option, consider something similar made of titanium.
This very much comes down to personal preference. You basically have a choice between a water reservoir, or water bottle. The advantage of a reservoir is that it is very easy to drink from as you walk, and it can store a large volume of water. The disadvantage of them is that you don't know how much you've drunk (can't see how much you have left), they often break, and they are difficult to clean. The advantage of water bottles is that you can see how much you've drunk, easy to clean, easy to refill and are usually much cheaper and more robust. The downside is, unless you have some form of front pack, they can be hard to get to. You will also have to carry more than one if you want to carry more than a litre.
One warning, NEVER put purification tablets in a reservoir, you will NEVER get the taste of them out of it.