Every long bicycle trip needs a good campstove and for our journey we bought the MSR Whisperlite International ($99.95 from REI).
It was an excellent choice.
What we like:
- It runs on many fuels. You can burn Coleman Gas (White Gas) and unleaded petrol for cars as well as a variety of other fuels. With so many options, we knew we’d always be able to find fuel, even in remote places. In practice, we have mostly run our stove on standard gasoline.
- It’s easy to service in the field. On a long trip, your stove will inevitably need regular cleaning and replacement of basic parts so you need something that is simple to take apart and put back together.
- Customer service. It’s rare to find a big company that looks out for individual customers but throughout our trip, whenever we were baffled by our stove, we always got a quick and informative reply from MSR.
- Durability. Even after being fired up close to 1,000 times, knocked around in our panniers and dropped off a few tables, the stove still functions well.
We don’t have many complaints about the Whisperlite International but we would highlight the following things as potential issues. For us, these weren’t deal breakers, but you should be aware of them:
- Stability – On a flat surface it’s fine but if you can’t find a level piece of ground to cook on, be careful your dinner doesn’t slide off into the forest.
- No simmering – Because of the Whisperlite’s high cooking temperature, it is difficult to simmer anything. You get better with practice and if your stove is due to be cleaned that has the unexpected bonus of letting you cook at a more relaxed pace.
- Soot – There isn’t any way to stop the outside of the stove from being covered in soot, and that means dirty hands. If you have some priming alcohol, you can cut the soot a lot by using the priming alcohol to start the stove (instead of petrol).
- Not totally silent – Although it’s called the ‘Whisperlite’ – and it’s certainly quieter than some stoves we’ve seen – it’s not exactly silent. You can wake dozing neighbours when you fire it up early in the morning to make coffee at the campground.
The Whisperlite International stove is quite light at just 330 grams and packs down into a small black bag. It comes with two foil heat reflectors that amazingly have not yet been worn out despite quite a bit of folding and unfolding. We are still using the originals! The fuel bottle is not included with the stove and you can choose from several sizes to suit your needs. We carry a bottle that holds 20 fluid ounces or 590ml of fuel. This normally allows us to cook at least two meals a day for 5-7 days. In most places this is sufficient but if you are really going off the beaten track, consider a bigger bottle. Whenever we were concerned about fuel, we simply filled a small plastic bottle with an extra half litre of gas.
To get the stove ready to cook, take it out of the bag, expand the legs around the burner and connect the fuel line to the fuel bottle. Release a little fuel into a priming cup and light the fuel so the unit heats up to temperature. You can release more fuel a few seconds later and as the burner gets hotter the bright orange flames will settle down to a clean blue flame. This takes about 30 seconds. Now you’re ready to cook.
The heat generated by the stove is substantial and even in cold weather or at altitude you’ll have no problem boiling water quickly. We have used our stove many times in sub-zero temperatures and as high as 3,600 meters above sea level.
With a large amount of use, and depending on how dirty your fuel is, the stove will need to be cleaned. This generally involves removing the fuel line from the stove and using the cable inside the line to clear out any debris. Once you’re familiar with the task, it only takes about ten minutes but at first it can be tricky to figure out how to get the line through the legs and back on the stove. Don’t disassemble your stove for the first time when you are hungry.
MSR have various kits and replacement parts that you can carry to help clean the stove and repair it. We bought the expedition service kit ($29.95 from REI), which includes at least one double of nearly every part that may need replacement while you’re travelling. This was largely sufficient but for trips of more than six months where replacement parts may be hard to source, we would also suggest adding:
- Extra o-rings in every size. The fuel tube o-ring is the one we’ve replaced the most. (You can find these in any plumbing shop, anywhere in the world)
- Additional shaker needle. This part is quite delicate and can sometimes be damaged. Buy it before you leave because it will be difficult to source on the road.
- Another pump cap. It can become loose with wear. (A radio antenna or spare spoke is good for retrieving the pump cap if it falls off the end of the plunger)
These parts are tiny, weigh almost nothing and aren’t very expensive. They can be bought individually from specialised mountaineering shops. Paranoid cyclists could also add an additional fuel line as in theory a lot of cleaning can wear out the line but we haven’t needed to replace ours yet.
The most common thing we have to do with our stove is clean it. Even though we have almost always run our stove on inexpensive petrol (instead of the cleaner but pricier white gas), we barely needed to clean it in places like Europe where the quality of unleaded fuel is high. In places like Iran and Central Asia where petrol is dirtier we had to clean it once or twice a month.
Very occasionally our stove develops a more serious problem when one of the parts wears out. Then we have to diagnose the issue and replace the relevant part. Over the course of two years, we have had the following issues:
- The plunger on the pump moved freely and didn’t pressurise the fuel bottle. The issue in this case was the pump cap, which had become too loose and fallen off the plunger. We retrieved it using the end of a radio antenna and replaced it with a new one.
- The flame on the stove remained a dirty orange and didn’t settle down to a clean, blue flame. There are two possible solutions here. First, the filter can be clogged or may have fallen off into the fuel bottle. Take a look and replace it. If that doesn’t work, examine the top of the burner. You can remove the screw and the underlying plates. After burning dirty fuel for a while the plates may be filled with soot. Clean them (a toothbrush works well) and put back together.
- The fuel only escapes for an initial burst while starting the stove, then cuts out completely. The bottle stays pressurised and there is fuel in the line but it doesn’t reach the stove. This could be a problem either with the jet or the shaker needle. Try replacing the jet. If that doesn’t help, check to see that the needle is straight and not damaged and clean the weight attached to the needle. Replace it if you suspect any damage. If you don’t have a replacement, take the shaker needle out entirely. This may affect how the stove operates but should let you determine if it’s the jet or the needle that’s causing the problem.
If you are having trouble with your Whisperlite stove and not sure what to try next, try asking yourself these questions, provided by an expert at MSR. They may provide some insight.
If you are having problems with fuel flow:
- Did you thoroughly clean the cable? Wipe it down, reinsert and scour the generator loop, then repeat.
- Did you flow fuel through the line with the cable but no jet to flush the line?
- Can you easily see through the jet orifice?
- Did you try removing the shaker needle altogether? This may affect the stove in other ways but will help you diagnose if it’s a needle or a jet problem.
- Do you get any fuel flow through the jet when not burning it? Is it a strong stream of fuel? One way to check this is to put the mixer tube over the jet elbow and watch the fuel stream on an unlit stove. If it’s hitting the wall of the mixer tube there’s a problem. If it appears to go straight and washes back down after it hits the burner it should be fine.
- Does the fuel have debris in it?
- Is the pickup tube in the fuel bottle clogged with something? Pull it out and check to see if it’s clear as well as the area where it plugs into the pump.
- Try pulling out the control valve in the pump and making sure that it is clear of debris that might be restricting the flow of fuel to the stove.
- Try the other jets provided with the Whisperlite Internationale.
If the stove is burning uncleanly:
- Is the gas dirty? This can be an issue in less developed countries. Take a look and get a new supply if you’re in doubt
- Are you using the correct jet? Using a G jet when you need a K jet can cause problems.
- Do you need a new jet from wear (if the stove has been heavily used or aggressively cleaned)?
- Is the jet clogged on the inside creating poor flow through the jet orifice?
- Can you see the shaker needle when pushing it into the jet from below (it should poke out into the recess at the tip of the jet)?
- Is there anything blocking the mixer tube holes? They can get blocked with soot.
- Are the flat and wavey rings that make the burner ports in good shape or are they flattened and very, very dark (heat affected)? This is more rare but can cause problems.
- Are the flat and wavey rings clogged up with soot? They can be taken apart and cleaned.
- Is the bottle over pressurized? Too much pressure can cause flare ups. Try about 10 to 20 pumps in a full bottle of fuel or twice that for a half full bottle.
All in all, although we have had to service the stove a few times to keep it running properly, we’re still very happy with it and we can’t praise the help of the kind people at MSR enough. Thanks Tina and Drew! We don’t feel the problems we’ve had with our stove are unrealistic given how much we have used it and each time a solution was quickly found.