Here’s a common question: “It’s cold; will my gas stove work OK?” Well, it depends. The most common gas stove out there is the “upright” canister stove. This is the type of gas stove that screws directly into the top of a standard threaded gas canister. Common examples of upright canister stoves would include the MSR Pocket Rocket, the Optimus Crux, and the Jetboil PCS.
They’re light, they’re compact, and… they don’t handle cold weather well. So, am I out of luck if I’ve got an upright canister stove? Maybe not — if you use a couple of “tricks.” First off, sleep with the canister in your bag. Yeah, sounds weird I know, but think about it. Cold fuel = doesn’t work = cold breakfast. That would be bad. Warm fuel = does work = hot breakfast. That would be good. Your choice, but I’ll take a hot breakfast on a cold morning every time — and I sleep with the canister. For the evening meal, put the canister inside your jacket an hour or so before supper.
OK, great, but isn’t the canister going to get cold as I use it? Yep, so it’s time for trick two: with your first bit of gas warm up some water in a spare pan and then put the gas canister in the pan of warm water. Slightly warm, not hot. It shouldn’t hurt when you stick your finger in the water. Truthfully, any water will improve things so long as it remains liquid, but warm water works better than cold. Do your cooking while you’ve got the canister in the warm water, and you should have pressure throughout. Stick a foam pad or something insulating underneath the pan of water so the ground (or snow) doesn’t suck all the heat out. It also helps if you start your trip with a fresh canister and you get a canister with as little regular butane as possible. Regular butane liquefies at 31F. If you have a gas stove, you don’t want your fuel to turn into a liquid. In cold weather, avoid regular butane. Look for canisters that are a blend of propane and isobutane. Isobutane is a different form of butane that works better in the cold.
How well are these two tricks (along with a fresh canister of good gas) going to work? Well, a lot depends on the exact mix of gas you buy, the altitude, how much wind there is, etc, but just for a working number, I wouldn’t try to go lower than 20F with an upright canister stove and even then you may still struggle. Oh, and before you place yourself in harm’s way, practice these tricks on a trip where there’s less at stake. Don’t rely on an untested technique deep in the backcountry.
If you’d like to know a little more about what’s going on with gas in cold weather and what types of stoves will work well in what weather, check out the following post on my blog: How gas works and winter choices.
Going lower than 20F? Well, in that case, you’re pretty much going to have to give up on the idea of using an upright canister stove; you’re going to need something a bit more robust. Again, I’ll refer you to the above post on my blog for general information. You may want to check out some my other blog posts for specific recommendations for stoves for cold weather use
One final note: If you’re new to cold weather backpacking, don’t just rely on this article before you head out into cold country. There’s a lot more to it than just having a good stove. It’s best to go with someone who’s got experience, and always leave a trip plan with someone you can depend on. Let ‘em know where you’re headed, when you’ll be back, who you’re with, and all that sort of thing.
Now, get on out there and have some fun, would you?