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The author brewing up on the Death Bivi on the North Face of the Eiger, using the old style JetBoil When I first saw a JetBoil back in 2004 I remember being highly cynical, too specialised and very limited in terms in its uses. Maybe I was right, but in the 10 years that have followed I have used my own JetBoil countless times and in a variety of different situations from Big Walls to North Faces, not to mention brewing up in car parks of innumerable rock climbing destinations around the UK.
Since then several contenders have emerged to compete, maybe even improve, on the original JetBoil design. The MSR Reactor and the Primus ETA Lite in particutlar both provide their own list of pros and cons - here I attempt to provide a breakdown of all three.
Part of the appeal of using a compact stove system such as the JetBoil, MSR Reactor, or Primus ETA Lite is the added fuel efficiency. Due to the additional design features the quantity of gas used is a fraction of what it would have been from a standard canister stove. This makes them first choice for long routes, particularly in cold environments, where gas is a precious commodity.
Secondly comes the factor of convenience, each of the stoves reviewed here comes in a neat, compact and solid form – simply put it in your bag and go – there’s nothing to forget. In short, compact stove systems couldn’t be more stress free than a multi-fuel stove if they actively tried and are a fraction of the weight, hassle and noise (although I do miss that load morning roar of the MSR XGK a little…).
Finally, leading on from efficiency there is the obvious bonus of a rapid boil time. This often shocks people on first acquaintance, leading to water going everywhere as someone has filled it to the brim only to remember it as boiling water blows the lid sky high. It also means for impatient tea/coffee addicts such as myself that you get your brew asap!
JetBoil Flash PCS (Personal Cooking System) - £105
The Flash is the most recent incarnation of the original Jetboil and features a number of upgrades and well thought out improvements.
Being 1L it provides a good balance between size/weight. The neoprene outer keeps it nicely insulated, allowing you to hold it whilst brewing up without burning your hands/gloves (useful on small alpine ledges) and doubles as a cup (good weight saving). There is also a pot stabiliser available separately, meaning that when you’re wanting to go gourmet you don’t have to use the 1L pot provided and can instead use any standard wide base pan – this makes it a far more versatile ‘take anywhere’ stove. For those that haven’t used a JetBoil before be warned – things burn fast! If you’re looking at doing anything much more complicated than boil water or make soup/cous cous then take heed.
Whilst the addition of the colour change heat sleeve – which turns from clear to yellow whilst boiling - may have good shelf appeal I am skeptical of its practical value whilst in use. Nonetheless, I can’t really complain as it looks nice, doesn’t add much (if any) weight, as is all-in-all a useful feature.
The Flash features a piezo igniter, something of which I am a great fan. It always feels like a faff to carry/rely soley on a lighter and the convenience of a single push button is unbeatable. The downside is when they don’t work and this was something the previous version had issues with – the igniter flimsy and prone to breaking (it did on me half way up El Cap). Fortunately a lot of thought has clearly been put into its design, it looks/feels much more robust and is recessed to prevent accidental damage. That said, I’d always carry a lighter just in case.
The second upgrade is the adjustment dial, which has been changed from a small knob to a much larger – and more usuable – wire, therefore making it much easier to use with gloves on (and more easy to adjust accurately in general). This has a positive impact for those looking to actually ‘cook’ in the JetBoil as it allows something close to simmering to be attained.
Whilst it is an additional sale, it is worth mentioning that there is a specially designed hanging kit available for the JetBoil. Whilst being a fundamentally mass-market product it is great that JetBoil have kept this specialist product going. Little things such as this and the hole in the lid to tie cord through so you don’t drop it/lose it show that a mountaineer still has influence over its design. Simple, yet great.
On a far less techy note the Flash PCS was by far the nicest of the three stoves to drink from, being designed so that you can hold it with your hands (without getting burnt) and drink it (also without getting burned or spilling it down you) – double bonus.
Comes with: Tripod Base, Ring Top Adaptor
Add-ons available: Coffee Press, Hanging Kit, Pot Support
Summary: Best all-rounder
See this UKC Video Review of the orginal JetBoil from 2010
MSR Reactor - £150
The MSR Reactor is a different beast altogether.
Firstly, it is bigger. At 1.7l it has a larger capacity than the Flash. This obviously has a knock-on effect to the weight, but has a huge impact when it comes to the quantity of snow that can be melted in a single sitting. Rather than you each getting half a Nalgene’s worth, you get a respectable amount of much needed water – something which I valued greatly at the time (irrespective of the meager 56g weight gain).
It lacks some of the creature comforts of the JetBoil Flash, but doesn’t really try to compete on these grounds. This is a product designed with a single purpose: to boil, melt, attack and destroy snow… And that it does, with 1L being boiled within 3 minutes. Even at altitude, or in strong winds, this thing continued to roar away at a pace unlike any stove I have ever witnessed.
The Reactor has a solid handle that allows it to be held stable. The pot rests on top of the burner unit, but is not fixable in this position so the handle really is a key factor here. Whilst I have never had them disconnect whilst cooking I have always been a little paranoid this might occur, you’ve got to be a little more careful with it than the JetBoil which locks into place bottom to top.
The Reactor doesn’t feature a piezo igniter, instead favouring a large (huge!) burner – an igniter simply wouldn’t fit. It also wouldn’t fit in with the ethos of the product, where all but the essentials have been stripped away. Lighting this has never been a problem seeing as one flick of even an empty lighter will start the inferno.
The adjustment comes from a large, easy to use rubber dial/wire, suitable for use with cold numb hands and a large pair of gloves on. As with many stoves of this nature, simmering is a problem but not impossible given due care.
It is worth mentioning that 1l and 2.5l pans are available for the Reactor, useful for either going fast/light or for a more sizable base camp pan (which due to its greater surface area is much better for cooking on).
Summary: Best stove for cold conditions + long alpine routes
For a chance to win an MSR Reactor keep an eye out for this weeks COMPETITON.
See this UKC Video Review of the MSR Reactor from 2013
Primus ETA Lite - £110
The final stove featured is the Primus ETA Lite.
This stove is the lightest and smallest within the test, arguably making it the best choice for summer alpinism or for those simply wishing for a crag stove to brew up with throughout the winter months (the ultimate luxury).
It is also extremely well made, with the burner being something of a work of art. Whilst I’m not suggesting that any of the three in the review looks flimsy, what I would say is that this looks the most solid! It also features a neatly recessed piezo ignitor and - for the sake of review completeness - I should probably mention that it interlocks with the upper unit for added security.
Due to its low profile it is also the most stable within the test. One issue with these compact stove systems is that they’re often quite top heavy/unstable and therefore a bit of a risk to leave unattended. The JetBoil and Reactor get around this by either supplying, or having available as an additional sale, a rest that fits on the bottom to add stability, but obviously these aren’t always desirable or practical to take on route (why carry something extra?). Primus call this their 'Laminar Flow Burning Technology'…make what you will of that…
Another plus to the ETA Lite is its simple solution to the hanging kit, which consists of the easily modified handle switching to a cradle for the hanging cord supplied. Whilst I rate the stability of the JetBoil/Reactor hanging kits, you've got to give Primus credit for such an obvious solution. The same ingenuity has been used to answer the question of how to use pots/pans other than the one provided (which is obviously limiting whilst actually cooking) and for this three small screw-in rods have been provided that fit neatly into the burner unit.
Originally the only drawback I could offer was that the ETA Lite was very difficult to drink out of, then someone highlighted that the lid doubles as a cup and I felt pretty silly. Amazing that you can use a product so many times and still not spot the obvious.
Comes with: Hanging Kit, Tripod Base.
Add-ons available: Coffee Press
Summary: Best for fast/light summer alpinism, most additional extras included.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Rob Greenwood - UKC: