A lightweight, compact backpacking stove fueled by white gas
Minimum Weight: 11 oz. (305 g)
Packed Weight: 14.5 oz. (410 g)
Burn time (white gas) per 20 oz. (600ml) of fuel: 136 minutes
Boil time (white gas), 1 quart/liter): 3.9 minutes
Water boiled (white gas) per 1 oz. (33ml) of fuel: 1.5 liters
The MSR WhisperLite is a lightweight, compact backpacking stove fueled by white gas, intended for boiling, simmering, and other simple cooking. Introduced nearly 20 years ago and remaining largely unchanged since then, is the WhisperLite an obsolete design or a ‘classic’ campstove?
NOTE: This review is of the older WhisperLite, which has now been improved by the addition of a Shaker Jet, intended to eliminate the need to occasionally clean the burner jet. All other features and specs remain essentially unchanged.
According to Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, our most basic physiological need for survival—after air and water—is food. And, unless you’re one of those rare wilderness travellers who can happily keep their furnaces stoked with PowerBars and pemmican, you’ll probably want a campstove to prepare hot meals at both ends of your paddling day.
The WhisperLite arrives folded and packed in the included stuff sack along with the fuel pump, windscreen, heat reflector, a small-parts kit, and instruction sheet. All this fits inside a 1.5-liter cookpot for efficient packing. The required aluminum fuel bottle is not included, but an 11-ounce bottle will indeed fit inside the stuff sack, even when attached to the stove, but this assembled arrangement will not fit inside the pot. Following the included instructions to assemble the fuel pump into the bottle and attach to the fuel line is straightforward. The three legs unfold and swivel around to snap into place, and the result is a simple and stable cooking unit.
Packed in its bag, the compact WhisperLite is easily stowed in any sea kayak along with your other camping gear. Once settled in camp and ready to cook, the WhisperLite is quickly assembled, and about 20 strokes of the integrated pump pressurizes the fuel tank/bottle. The instructions recommend slightly opening the fuel control valve to release a bit of fuel into the stove’s integrated priming cup just below the burner, closing the valve, and igniting this fuel to prime the stove. While this simple technique certainly works, it leaves a lot of sooty black deposits on the upper half of the stove, making a mess of things and requiring frequent cleaning.
Instead, I’ve taken to carrying a tiny squirt bottle of methanol (methyl alcohol)—commonly available as HEET brand auto-fuel-line antifreeze—for this purpose. The methanol performs the same function, but burns clean and leaves no such mess. Once lit, the WhisperLite typically flares up for a minute or so while the stove preheats, then quickly settles down to a steady blue flame for cooking.
Using a quality, aluminum cookpot under typical weather conditions, the WhisperLite will bring a quart of water to a boil in less than 4 minutes. If especially cold or windy, the included aluminum windscreen and reflector should be installed prior to lighting, as these significantly preserve heat and reduce cooking times. Though some campers feel the WhisperLite has difficulty simmering food, I typically have no such trouble, and find that if one allows the fuel-tank pressure to fall a bit and moderates the main valve, an easy simmer is indeed possible.
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I’m no backwoods gourmet, and typically eat pretty simply: instant oatmeal and coffee in the morning and a pot of pasta or rice in the evening, with cold sandwiches and GORP in between. At this rate, I find that the WhisperLite burns about one ounce of fuel per meal. In addition to the primary 11-oz fuel bottle, I usually pack an additional 22-oz. bottle of spare fuel, and together these provide over two solid weeks of such light-duty cooking.
Compared to similar compressed-gas-fuel stoves (butane, propane, etc.), a white-gas stove like the WhisperLite is more affordable per heating unit, burns hotter, lights more easily in cold or freezing temperatures, produces no empty canisters to be recycled or disposed of, and is easier to carry only the amount of fuel required for a given trip. Conversely, its drawbacks are that it is typically heavier, has a somewhat finicky lighting procedure, and may require annual cleaning of the fuel line and burner jet. And, though I’ve never suffered such a mishap, should the fuel bottle ever leak, the white gas could leave a mess inside your kayak.
White gas, otherwise known as Coleman fuel, is quite readily available in North America at all camping and sporting-goods stores, many hardware stores and national retailers, and even some general grocery and convenience stores. It is certainly more common than butane and other canister fuels. Still, it can become increasingly difficult to find as you venture further into the hinterlands, so it’s generally wise to stock up when you can. Though I have no experience with it, the WhisperLite has a multi-fuel sister, the International, capable of burning white gas, kerosene, or unleaded auto fuel.
In The Long Run
I bought my WhisperLite from a rock-climbing friend who had used it a few years, and I have now been using it steadily for another fifteen years, for backpacking and paddling trips. Aside from occasionally clearing carbon deposits from the burner jet, I’ve only had to periodically oil the pump plunger and replace a couple of O-rings in the fuel line and bottle. MSR’s maintenance kit (sold separately) easily fits inside the stuff sack, along with the stove, windscreen, instructions, a small bottle of methanol priming fluid and a couple of butane lighters, and the WhisperLite can readily be field stripped in camp, though I’ve never needed to.
For lightweight backcountry cooking for one to three hungry campers, this stove will provide many years of dependable and economical service. With its compact size, ease-of-use, and efficient fuel consumption, the MSR WhisperLite is a sturdy bit of vital lightweight camping equipment.
Hits: compact, lightweight, adjustable, fuel-efficient, field-maintainable, ecological (no empty fuel canisters)
Misses: fuel line and burner jet require periodic cleaning, requires some finessing to simmer, only uses one fuel