Sunday, May 21, 2017

What is a Light (or Ultralight) Canister Stove?

The words "light" and "ultralight" get thrown around like so much chump change.  Marketers play fast and loose with those terms hoping to score a few more gear sales.  Is there a way we can assign real meaning to these terms?
An FMS-116T "Gnat" stove weighs less than two ounces.
Actually, there is.  We can "grade on the curve."

What the heck do I mean by that?  Well, when I was in school, some instructors would look at the scores on their tests, expecting to see a "normal" (bell shaped) curve.  If the center of the curve didn't line up with "average" performance, they might adjust the test scores.  In other words, students were judged not just on their test scores alone but on how well they did in relation to the class as a whole.  This is referred to as "grading on the curve."

So also, we can judge canister stoves not just on their weight alone but also on how their weights compare to other stoves in their class.
Some stoves today weigh under one ounce, giving new meaning to the term "ultralight."
With that in mind, take a look at the below chart.  This chart applies to upright (top mounted) canister stoves only.  Obviously "integrated" canister stoves (like a Jetboil or Reactor) and remote canister stoves (like an MSR WindPro or Kovea Spider) have to have their own categories in order for those categories to be meaningful.
Upright Canister Gas Stove
Weight Classes
(Less Than or Equal To)
Moderate< 4< 113
Light< 3< 85
Ultralight (UL)< 2< 57
Super Ultralight (SUL)< 1< 28

Upright canister stoves today weigh as little as 25 grams – less than one ounce! There are five commercially available stoves that weigh less than two ounces.

Given the light weight of stoves available today, it's reasonable to insist on that a stove be truly light in order for it to belong to the class of "ultralight" and to be even more demanding of weight savings for a stove to earn the title "super ultralight."
We give meaning to terms like "light" and "ultralight" by categorizing stoves relative to one another.
Here then are four examples:
Top row, right:  MSR Pocket Rocket, 3.1 oz (Midweight) 
Top row, left:  MSR Pocket Rocket 2, 2.6 oz (Light)
Bottom Row, left:  FMS-116T ("Gnat"), 1.7 oz (Ultralight)
Bottom Row, right:  BRS-3000T, 0.9 oz, (Super Ultralight)
In summary, based on what is available today, real meaning can be given to terms like "light" and "ultralight" by looking at a given stove's weight in relation to other stoves.  Based on those relative weights, I have created the following upright canister stove weight classes:
  • SUL:  If an upright canister stove weighs less than or equal to an ounce (28 g), it's super ultralight.
  • UL:  If a stove weighs less than or equal to two ounces (57 g) but more than one ounce, then it's ultralight.
  • Light:  If a stove weighs less than or equal to three ounces (85 g) but more than two ounces, then it's light.  
  • Moderate:  If a stove weighs less than or equal to four ounces (113 g) but more than three ounces , then it's moderate.  
  • Heavy:  If it weighs more than a quarter pound (4 oz/113 g), then, by modern standards, it's heavy.  
The above is a reasonable categorization, given the state of the art and the stoves commonly available today.

Next time you read an ad or hear a salesman say that a three (or more) ounce stove is "ultralight," just nod your head and say "unh hunh, sure," and have yourself a little chuckle.  Now, you know better.

Thanks for joining me,


For Further Reading:
The Purpose of this Post:
As a brief post script, let me just reflect for a moment.  I wrote this post with two things in mind:
1.  To let people know, particularly those less familiar with backpacking stoves, what's out there.  There are stoves being marketed as "ultralight" that are above three ounces in weight.  That's actually on the heavy end of the scale.  It's not even light let alone ultralight.  If you're shopping for a stove and trying to get your base weight down, you need to know that you can do better.
2.  ALL WEIGHT CATEGORIES ARE ARBITRARY including those that talk about total base weight. I like weight categories insofar as they give me a goal that I can challenge myself with, but I don't like weight categories if they lead to one upmanship or a loss of focus on the true bottom line:  enjoyment.  Reduced gear weight should facilitate the enjoyment of one's hiking.  Increased enjoyment of hiking is the true bottom line, not some arbitrary weight class.  


  1. good article and great assessment. I can't disagree with the weight categories as outlined, though I tend to be a bit dismissive of the "Super Ultralight" category for gear in general. I completely agree with your characterization of "a salesman saying it's super ultralight" and it even made me laugh as I've seen things like tents on Ebay listed as "ultralight" and you dig into the listing and the weight is listed as 3 or more pounds. This pretty much goes to all gear and how it's marketed.

    1. Hi, Don,

      This is just my way of trying to make sense out of madness. It's also my way of reaching out to the new hiker, the hiker who is maybe just transitioning to overnight trips. They're going to see an "ultralight" (ha, ha) stove that's actually on the heavy side and not know any better.

      If we have some objective standards, I think we can navigate through the marketing spin a whole lot better.