Almost all long distance cycle tourists use a multi fuel or petrol stoves to cook with. For us they are our lifeline, whether we are cycling in a remote place where food is difficult to find or if we are in a very developed place like Japan where cooked food can be expensive to buy. A liquid fuel stove gives us a lot of freedom. Although they can be a bit heavy on the wallet as an upfront cost, there’s no doubt that using a liquid fuel stove saves us money in the long run. In this post we want to concentrate on general maintenance and fuel. If you want to know more about the three individual stoves we have had experience with click on these links for MSR Dragonfly, MSR XGK EX and MSR Whisperlite International.
There’s a lot of opinion on the internet about what is the ideal fuel to use, and before we started cooking on one of MSR’s stoves we wanted to make sure we were using the most appropriate one. White benzene gets a mention numerous times as the cleanest thing to use, it’s best described as clear petrol without any additional additives. However it's not something that is easily available world wide, and often more expensive that standard 95 or 92 petrol, that can found in a service station.
Some opinions said that the additives in petrol will degrade the seals in the stove’s pump. we don’t disagree, the seals do degrade. But in a real world situation using these stoves between 400-500 times in a year we have needed to replace certain seals just a couple of times, whilst other seals are still original after almost 2 years of intensive use. MSR provide a service kit, it’s very easy to understand how to use the service kit from videos on their website, we have included a video in each of the corresponding links above for the three different stoves.
We downloaded them on to our phone, for in the field repairs where there is a lack of internet. In the videos, they explain how to replace all the seals and perform basic maintenance. From our experience using petrol has not degraded these easily replaceable seals rapidly, and therefore we can recommend using petrol for any of their stoves. Petrol is definitely easy to find anywhere in the world, but the grade and quality does vary. If the fuel quality is low, it forces us to clean the stove regularly, and this brings me onto maintenance.
There’s definitely a time and a place for maintaining a stove. Personally I’d much rather keep on top of it and clean it regularly, than have it fail at a time when we are tired and hungry after a long days cycling. In Japan the fuel is pretty clean, hopefully all of MSR’s stoves won’t need much attention, maybe a clean once a month if the use is often, for example if you are cycle touring and cooking regularly at camp.
Although this is not the case in other parts of the world. When we were using the Dragonfly stove on our trip through Africa, there came a point when we would have to clean it daily, sometimes twice a day! This was a real ball ache, and possibly due to some really bad fuel we were using in Tanzania. At first I thought it was down to my lack of knowledge on how to clean and maintain it properly, but we can now confirm that this particular model is not suited for use in places that have low quality fuel, and without thoroughly testing we can’t say whether it is suitable in places with clean fuel either.
Maintenance is something that is best kept on top of, it doesn't take a lot of time, especially with the XGK EX and Whisperlite International. It's one less thing to stop you getting that hard earned meal, keeping both you and the stove happy.
Liquid Fuel vs Gas Cartridges
In terms of ease of use, there is no doubt that using a throw away gas cartridge is easier than liquid fuel. No mess, no maintenance and certainly cheaper as an upfront cost. But we need to be in a country where we can find them, living in South Africa we would use the small screw on gas cartridges for weekends away or multi day hikes. However the only way to check how much fuel we had left in the bottle was by knowing the weight of an empty cartridge and subtracting that from the total weight.
If we were going for a long multi day hike I would always take a full or at least half full cartridge. This ended up with us having lots of almost empty cartridges only good for car camping. Or we would end up taking two almost empty cartridges with us on a hike, not knowing how long they would last. But this is bulky and goes against the original reason for having a small stove top and cartridge in the first place.
After using a cartridge style gas stove for long periods of time, the cost started to level out or go past the cost of a liquid fuel stove. And the beauty of a liquid fuel stove is having a completely reusable fuel bottle. Burning natural gas is definitely cleaner, and most probably better for our health than sucking in Petrol fumes, but on the long term refilling petrol has got to be cheaper and easier than buying disposable camp gas.
However I have heard that those disposable camp gas cartridges can be refilled. Never trying this myself, and only reading online, I see that people use large bbq gas bottles or cheaper butane disposable cartridges to refill their camping gas cartridges. Again this is can be a long term investment of buying a large quantity of gas and buying the kit for refills.
Please understand the risks involved in refilling a bottle that was designed to be discarded after one use. We are not sure we want to take this risk, as these do it yourself experiments are playing with a potentially explosive, pressurised can of metal.
So at the moment, with our style of travel, refilling a gas cartridge just isn’t feasible. Even if we carried the adapter kit with us, we would still need access to accurate electronic scales to measure when the bottle is full and a large bottle of butane gas. I don't see the point of buying the cheaper disposable butane cans to fill up a disposable camp gas cartridge, the waste becomes the same if not more due to their size.
If you are interested butane seems to be safer than propane as it doesn’t need as much pressure but is more susceptible to freezing. In other words this is just not a practical solution for a travelling cyclist or any traveller not based out of a home and keen for a bit of do it yourself risk taking. For this reason we feel that liquid fuel stoves are the long term solution for travellers, even in countries like Japan where disposable camping gas cartridges are easily available.