Some people get a far-away look in their eyes as they expound on the virtues of tiny alcohol cookers, or DIY wood stoves. It all seems very romantic until you’re above the bush-line and there’s weather rolling in, or your hungry, thirsty family is getting a bit ‘over it’ and wants lunch now. In these situations, a liquid-fuel stove has your back.

Pumped, primed, and ready to burn some rice

Pumped, primed, and ready to burn some rice

The original WhisperLite launched in 1984, but mine is relatively new at a mere 20 years old. Its innovative baffles reduced the roar of older liquid fuel stoves (hence the ‘whisper’), and it was also relatively light (or  ‘lite’) in its day. Its days continue. It’s still in production, and very popular.

My stove’s first trip was Scotland’s West Highland Way. One hundred miles of instant mashed potatoes, instant noodles, and espresso. Since then the stove has been all around the UK and Europe, and reliably brewed cups of tea in remote places around New Zealand’s North Island. For most of its life, I’ve run it on 91 that I nicked from the lawn mower, but in more recent years, I’ve taken pity on it, and started running it on Coleman fuel.

The WhisperLite, tucked into its pot

The WhisperLite, tucked into an MSR pot

There’s nothing precarious or tentative about the MSR WhisperLite. No need to offer a quiet prayer to the fire gods; just assemble, pump, prime, ROAR. Non-pressurised stoves can’t approach the ferocity of the MSR’s blue flame, or its vicious glowing flame spreader. Litres of water, melting snow, wind, rain — it might be heavy and smelly but nothing answers back.

Everyone has used this stove at some point, and nearly everyone owns one, so I thought I’d put it up against a wood stove. Here’s how things went down.

The contenders

In the right corner wearing the red shorts and weighing in at 390g (13.7oz), the MSR WhisperLite International. The fuel bottle — about two-thirds full — is another 500g (17.6oz). In the left corner wearing the sooty shorts and weighing in at 220g (7.8oz) the Toaks Titanium wood stove. Normally it would be looking forward to a diet of dead twigs and sticks, but it’s been hosing down, so I’m treating it to some diced-up kindling.

I used the same pot to boil one litre of water, thus removing a variable from the test. The pot is steel, which maybe slowed things down a bit compared with aluminium. I got the pot at the same time as the stove, and they’ve been everywhere together. Looking at it now, 540g (19oz) is on the heavy side… The MSR was up first.

I screwed the pump assembly into the fuel bottle, greased the end of the fuel line with the special MSR lubricant (i.e. a daub of spit), and gave it 10 pumps. Priming the WhisperLite is a little sketchy. Some people prefer to squirt a few drops of meths into the priming cup, which makes for less smoke, drama and leaping flames. I just open the valve until the priming cup is half filled with fuel, turn off the valve and wave my lighter around until I hear the ‘whoompf’.

Priming the MSR

Priming the MSR

Once the resulting conflagration has died down (but not out!), I ease open the fuel valve and I’m living the life. Another couple of pumps for luck, on with the pot, and start the timer. After a couple of minutes, I realised I was literally ‘watching a pot boil’, so strolled off to tend to the chooks.

The MSR, taking care of business

The MSR, taking care of business

On turning the stove off, sooty orange flames appear again. I wait until everything is out and cold, and tip the unused fuel back into the bottle. Speaking of ‘cold’ — never try to re-light a liquid fuel stove while it’s still warm. My eyebrows have grown back, but the ‘bang’ and the smell of singed tramper are a lingering memory.

Performing the same test with the Toaks was a little different. I loaded the burning chamber with fuel (not too little, not too much), dropped in a burning fire starter, and poked it until it started to bloom. After about a minute the stove was burning cleanly, so I put a fresh pot of cold water on and started the timer. I dropped in a chunk or two of wood every couple of minutes, but other than that, I left it to it. Nothing too onerous.

The soot wiped right off. No problem at all. Hardly any scrubbing and cursing.

The results

The MSR boiled its litre of water in 8:50 (despite my lifting the lid every couple of minutes to check progress) and consumed 24g (0.8oz) of fuel to do so. The Toaks took a leisurely 16:45 to reach a rolling boil — about twice as long — and used 143g (5oz) of wood chunks. A wind shield might have helped it out a bit. I wasn’t surprised by how long the Toaks took, but I thought the MSR would be quicker.

My fuel use of 24g (or 30mL – white spirit weighs 0.79g/mL) in 8:50 equates to a fuel flow of 0.056mL/s. The MSR website says a 600mL bottle of fuel should run for 136 minutes, which equates to 0.074mL/s for the brand new stove. My old stove is delivering around 75% of this figure, but delivering only around 50% of the power. Maybe its pressure is fading in its old age.

Every few years I strip the MSR to its component pieces and give everything a good clean. It’s a satisfying process that’s increasingly rare with modern appliances. The stove shipped with a cleaning kit including lubricant, a spare ‘O’ ring, and a cleaning needle. If I can’t boil a litre of water in five minutes, I might have to hand my Seasoned Tramper Card back in. So I pulled it apart, gave everything a good scrub, reassembled it and gave it a new litre of water in an aluminium pot, and an extra couple of pumps. This time I had a rolling boil at 7:20. MSR specifies ‘3.9 minutes’, but maybe they’re burning RP1, and heating some kind of quantum black body pot.

The winner

The little engine that could

The little engine that could

In terms of time, confidence, stability and ‘fuss’, the 20-year-old MSR handily beat the Toaks. The new WhisperLite is lighter, and (according to MSR’s numbers) significantly more powerful. There’s much to be said for woodsmoke and birdsong in the backyard, but on the hill when you just want a cuppa, these aesthetic qualities do not translate into boiling water.