Choosing and using cooking equipment and lanterns

cotswold lanterns
By Paul Deegan, Cotwold Outdoors, 04 April 2011
I spent three months in the 1990s on the north side of Mount Everest. One evening, whilst camped at the North Col at an altitude of 7000 metres, the weather was so ferocious that I had no choice but to prepare a meal inside the tent with three other climbers. Suddenly, the stove – which was positioned in the centre of the tent – turned into a flame-thrower and belched out four great tongues of fire. Miraculously, none of us were set ablaze, and just as the flames began licking the walls of the tent they spontaneously retreated into the burner.

This salutary experience taught me a number of lessons, not least the importance of adhering to safety drills: these days I always cook outside or, as a last resort, in the open porch of the tent. Safe cooking practices begin with a decent stove, and this leaflet will help you make the correct choice. There are words of advice too if you wish to camp with a lantern. For guidance on individual models, chat to a member of Cotswold’s staff. They are well placed to describe the specific differences between the various designs.

Types of burner
The beating heart of any stove is the burner, and to a great extent this is what your money is buying. All burners fall into one of two categories: pressurised and unpressurised. Unpressurised stoves run on liquids such as methylated spirits and ethanol that do not need to be pressurised. They can be ignited without any preparation.

Pressurised stoves require pressure of one sort or another in order to function. Stoves which run on gas require sealed and pressurised metal canisters. The largest gas bottles (which are used in caravans and on gas-powered barbecues) can be re-filled by a qualified person. The smaller bottles favoured by campers, backpackers and mountaineers can only be used once.

Metal fuel bottles which supply liquid fuels such as unleaded petrol, paraffin (kerosene), Coleman Fuel, and the confusingly-named white gas can be re-filled by the user. These fuel bottles are designed to be manually pressurised with an integral pump. A few versatile stoves are able to run on either pressurised gas canisters or liquid fuels. The simplest type of stove runs on gel or solid fuel. These are fine for making a quick brew. However, the unadjustable flame makes simmering impossible. Note that the fumes given off by some brands of solid fuel are toxic.

The decision as to whether to opt for a pressurised or un-pressurised stove depends largely upon where you plan to use your stove. At low altitudes, unpressurised stoves are a superb hassle-free option. A pressurised stove is essential at altitudes greater than a couple of thousand metres or when a highly adjustable flame is required.  When it comes to care and maintenance, gel and solid fuel stoves, unpressurised stoves, and burners fuelled by pressurised bottled gas need little in the way of attention. Pressurised liquid fuel burners may require regular maintenance, especially if the fuel being used is not clean. Cleaner liquid fuels such as Coleman Fuel and white gas take longer to clog a burner than a dirtier fuel such as paraffin. 

Fuel types & availability:
paraffin / kerosene

  • type of stove: pressurised liquid fuel
  • available in: Asia, Africa, Himalaya
  • pros: cheap and available even in rural areas; efficient up to 6500m
  • cons: stove requires priming; fuel line clogs quickly if not cleaned; messy
petrol / unleaded petrol / benzine
  • type of stove: pressurised liquid fuel
  • available in: almost everywhere that has vehicular access
  • pros: widely available; cheaper than white gas; efficient up to 6500m
  • cons: highly volatile; stove requires priming; fuel line clogs quickly if not cleaned
white gas / benzina blanca / Coleman Fuel
  • type of stove: pressurised liquid fuel
  •  available in: North America, UK, availability improving in some other regions
  • pros: clean (which reduces stove maintenance); evaporates quickly; efficient up to 6500m
  • cons: stove requires priming; volatile
alcohol / methylated spirits / ethanol / alcool á brûler / denatured alcohol
  • type of stove: unpressurised liquid fuel
  • available in: Europe, Scandinavia, North America
  • pros: evaporates quickly if spilt
  • cons: expensive; burns quickly; low heat output; performs poorly above 3000m;
Some fuels are transparent so difficult to see flame – take care when re-filling to ensure flames have been extinguished and avoid re-filling until burner is cool to the touch.

butane and propane
type of stove: bottled gas
available in: Europe, North America, and some popular trekking regions
pros: clean; hassle-free; propane / butane mix burns well at high altitude and in cold weather cons: heavy; many types of connection available so compatibility not guaranteed; empty cartridges must be disposed of carefully; butane-only performs poorly in sub-zero temperatures; not as efficient at snow-melting as pressurised liquid fuel burner below 6500 metres

gel & solid fuel
type of stove: unpressurised solid fuel
available in: Europe, North America
pros: lightweight; usually easy to light in any weather conditions
cons: very low heat output; uncontrollable flame; fumes from some types of solid fuel are poisonous so always light and use outside (never in tent porch)

Pressurised liquid fuel stoves which run on more than one type of fuel are known as multifuel stoves. A few of these models also accept butane / propane canisters for maximum versatility. If you use a pressurised liquid fuel stove make sure that the fuel line can be removed and cleaned, and pack spares of essential parts, especially fuel jets, O-rings and jet prickers. Note that some jets can be unclogged by shaking the unlit stove. The jets on unpressurised liquid fuel stoves may also require occasional pricking.

Fuel types & availability chart reproduced with permission from the BMC’s ‘The Mountain Traveller’s Handbook’.

Stove features

Some of the stove features you may want to consider before purchasing include:

liquid fuel tank
Most pressurised liquid fuel stoves connect directly to an external fuel bottle that is
designed to be pressurised manually with a pump. This system enables you to take a smaller bottle on weekend trips or several larger bottles for extended adventures. It is critical that you use the brand of fuel bottle recommended by the stove manufacturer otherwise the seal between stove and bottle may fail with potentially disastrous results.

pan supports
These keep your pot from tipping over. Some stoves have fold-out pan supports which reduce the bulk of the stove when packed in your rucksack. Ultralight burners which sit on top of gas canisters may struggle with anything larger than a 1 litre pan, so it is worth considering what volume of food or water you want to heat at any one time. Other gas stoves connect via a hose. One advantage of this hose concept is that the stove is likely to be supplied with relatively large and stable fold-out legs that are better able to support large pots. Make sure that the hose cannot come into contact with the burner or any hot part of the assembly.

fuel attachment point
Most modern stoves can be safely disconnected from the tank or self-sealing gas canister before the fuel has been completely used up. This makes packing and dividing the kit between several people easy. However, older gas burners that puncture the gas bottle when first inserted (such as the famous Bleuet 206) must not be detached until the gas bottle is completely empty.

fuel pre-heater
Pressurised liquid fuel stoves work by turning the liquid fuel into a vapour. In order to achieve this, the majority of stoves in this genre are fitted with a fuel line that passes over or near the burner. This ensures that the fuel is heated and turned to a gas prior to being released through the jet. To prime the stove, a tiny amount of liquid fuel usually needs to be released through the jet and ignited. This liquid fuel needs to almost completely burn out before the stove can be lit in the usual way.

Care needs to be taken when priming a stove as excessive flaring can occur. Keep the stove away from flammable materials (including tent porches). Do not lean or step over the stove.

Always follow the lighting instructions supplied with your stove.

Improving stove performance 

Radiator-style attachments are available which can fit on most pot diameters. Wrapped around the exterior of the pan, with the lower lip extending below the base of the pot in order to catch the heat that would otherwise escape around the sides, this heat exchanger can reduce the amount of time it takes to boil a pan of water and decrease the amount of fuel required on your trip.

Ultralight foil windshields can be used with some types of camping stove that attach to a fuel bottle or gas canister via a hose. Windshields prevent the wind from snuffing out the burner whilst it is alight, and also help to concentrate heat around the pan. When used in conjunction with a heat exchanger, these windshields can greatly improve the performance of a stove. Some stoves come fitted with windshields and / or heat exchangers to create an integral system to maximise heat output and minimise fuel consumption. Take care to ensure that no part of the stove assembly or windshield is able to come into contact with the hose.

When camping in winter conditions, it is important to insulate your stove from the snow. Otherwise, the whole assembly will melt into the ice and finally be snuffed out or fall over. Anything from a proprietary stove support (made from aluminium with holes drilled throughout to reduce weight) to a metal snow shovel can be employed to help prevent the stove from sinking into the surface of the snow.

Wraparound windshields should not be used with burners that are screwed onto the top of gas canisters. This is because the concentrated level of heat inside the windshield can cause the canister to overheat and explode. Check the instructions supplied with your stove for specific operating instructions.

Pots & utensils
Pots are generally made from steel, aluminium or titanium. Titanium is the lightest and most expensive material, and is stronger than aluminium. Aluminium finds favour with backpackers who want lightweight gear but without the steep financial penalty associated with titanium. Aluminium is also an excellent conductor of heat. (Anodised aluminium pots are also available.) Steel is very durable, making it a popular choice on expeditions and group treks. Non-stick pans and pots are also available. Just as in the kitchen, non-stick requires the use of non-metal, heat-resistant utensils.

Whatever pots you buy, make sure they have close-fitting lids. Placing a lid on a pan of water is the most effective method of decreasing boiling time. Some lids double up as frying pans or serving plates.

A decent pot gripper is vital. Make sure that yours is strong enough to hold your pan when it is full of water and food. Trying to drain pasta with a flimsy gripper can result in dinner being eaten off the ground. If the meals you cook result in dirty pans, then you might want to consider carrying a kettle for boiling water. A kettle also makes filling water bottles, mugs and flasks straightforward. At high altitudes, pressure cookers have a useful role to play: most organised treks to places like the Himalaya are staffed by local cooks who use pressure cookers in order to turn out vast quantities of fluffy rice for hungry trekkers, climbers and porters.

Carry several boxes of matches and lighters, and keep them in different places in your rucksack inside waterproof containers or ziplock bags. That way, if one set becomes lost, wet or broken, you’ll have some back-ups. Some stoves are fitted with a Piezo ignition system. This gadget removes the need to hold a flame to the stove to ignite the burner.

I prefer to use eating bowls and insulated mugs that have lids. Lids help to reduce the chance of spillage and can also help to keep food and beverages warm if you need to dash out midway through a meal to secure a guyline. Producing meals that can be eaten with a spoon helps to reduce the amount of cutlery that needs to be carried. Carrying a water bottle or other container with volume markings can be useful when measuring out quantities of ingredients.

Lanterns have always been popular with family camping and caravan enthusiasts. The recent introduction of light emitting diode (LED) technology into lanterns is now making them small and light enough for backpackers as well. Durable LEDs last for thousands of hours and consume far less energy than conventional bulbs.

The main choices to be made when selecting a lantern revolve around deciding how much light (measured in lumens) you want, how many hours the lantern will be in use on a typical trip, and what type of fuel supply you want to use.

Battery operated or wind-up LED lanterns fitted with plastic globes are the safest types of lantern, and can be used inside a tent. Traditional lanterns powered by gas, candles or liquid fuel need to be intelligently sited away from flammable materials such as tents. Many of the safety precautions pertaining to stoves apply to these types of lantern. Take special care during the lighting phase, as excessive flaring can occur. If you decide to opt for a bottled gas or liquid fuel lantern (which are usually more powerful and brighter than batterypowered LED models) then it’s a good idea to choose one that runs on the same fuel as your stove. That way, if you start to run low on fuel for cooking, you can siphon some from your lantern. You will also need to carry several spare mantles. These items are fragile and can be easily damaged during the ignition phase.

Some traditional lanterns are fitted with glass globes. These are likely to shatter if subjected to any sort of stress. This design is not ideal if you plan to carry your lantern inside a rucksack all day long.

Safety advice

It is unlikely that you will have anything more hazardous in your arsenal of outdoor
equipment than your stove or non-battery lantern. It is vital to follow all instructions
supplied by the manufacturer. It is also important to practice using new products before setting off on a trip.

Most outdoor gear – including tents, sleeping bags and fleece clothing – is flammable. Constant attention needs to be paid to stoves and gas or liquid fuel lanterns when they are alight to ensure that no combustible materials come into contact with these devices.

Inspect fuel lines, valves, seals, threads and other connection points for leaks prior to lighting your stove or lantern. Particular vigilance is required during the lighting process when excessive flaring can occur. This is especially true with pressurised liquid fuel stoves that require pre-heating or priming. This process can result in flames being shot several feet or more in all directions. For this reason ignition must always take place outside, even if the stove has to be subsequently placed in a tent porch in order to cook during periods of bad weather. Never lean or step over a stove when it is alight.

Re-filling fuel tanks also requires a great deal of attention to detail. Critically, stoves must be fully extinguished before re-fuelling commences. This might sound obvious, but with some stoves – most notably unpressurised liquid fuel models – it is possible to re-fill the burner whilst the stove is alight. This is an extremely dangerous thing to do and should never be attempted. Always double-check that the burner really is extinguished before refilling as the flames can sometimes be virtually invisible. With pressurised liquid fuel stoves, leave a quarter to a third of the fuel bottle empty so that manual pressurisation with the pump can take place. Take note of any maximum fill lines on the bottle.

Eventually, parts on your stove will wear out and need replacing. It is worth purchasing a small pack of spare parts so that repairs can be made in the field. If your stove is fieldmaintainable, practice stripping, cleaning and re-assembling your stove before your first trip.

All stoves release carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is an odourless, colourless and deadly poisonous gas that consumes oxygen. Always use a camping stove in a wellventilated place.

Environmental considerations
It is common in some countries for fuel to be contaminated. For this reason it’s a good idea to carry a fuel filter to minimise the number of agents that could clog up the stove’s fuel line.

Take steps to ensure that your stove does not scorch the ground or set fire to the local flora. It’s also worth taking a moment to think about the fuel you are using, and how you will safely dispose of excess fuel or empty gas canisters at the end of your trip.

It is illegal to carry flammable liquids on passenger aircraft. Consider distributing any remaining fuel to your trekking staff or local families rather than pouring toxic liquid away and contaminating the local environment and water sources.

If your stove runs on pressurised gas canisters, then you will need to leave room in your rucksack to carry out empty cylinders. Puncture-style metal canisters can be recycled when empty as the hole in the top means that there is no chance of gas remaining inside. However, it is possible for pockets of gas to remain in cylinders with self-sealing valves. Keep the burner alight until the stove self-extinguishes to minimise the chance of any fuel being left inside the cartridge. As with liquid fuel, it is illegal to take gas canisters on a passenger aircraft.
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This guide is part of the series from The Knowledge and you can read more from this series within The Active Guide or alternatively watch The Knowledge videos online at

Paul is the author of the award-winning ‘The Mountain Traveller’s Handbook’, and is under licence to Cotswold Outdoor Ltd.

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