Monday, June 13, 2011

The Ultimate Head to Head: Jetboil vs. Reactor


When it comes to stoves in the wilderness, over the last few years everything has changed.  It used to be that guides almost universally used MSR Whisperlites or XGKs.  And while these are still the standard on expeditions, most guides have made the switch to canister stoves for non-expeditionary climbing trips.

There are two canister stoves that stand out as the best on the market.  They are the MSR Reactor and the Jetboil.  Each of the two has advantages and disadvantages and when choosing between the products, one must weigh these carefully in order to get the right cooking system.

I spent the last month-and-a-half comparing the two stoves to one another in the field.  Both stoves were used in both front-country camping situations as well as in backcountry camping situations.  Both stoves were used in the snow, as well as on dry ground.  This lead me to some very interesting conclusions...

Before launching into a discussion of the pros and cons of these two products, we should first list the advantages and disadvantages of canister stoves over other stoves.

Advantages of Canister Stoves:
  • --Canister stoves tend to be small and compact.  They are light and take up little room in a backpack. 
 A standard experience with a Whisperlite.
  • --These stoves do not need to be primed. Some models have a sparker that lights the stove, while others require a lighter, but none require you to burn off a bunch of fuel trying to get the stove to prime.
  • --The canister stoves discussed here are extremely efficient.
  • --Many of the standard stoves have stove repair kits and cleaning kits that have to be used regularly to keep the stoves running.  Indeed, I have personally come to the point with many of my previous stoves where they needed to be cleaned or worked on in some way for nearly every meal.
  • --While these stoves can flare up, it is not as common as it is with older style stoves.  This makes them more convenient for cooking in your vestibule.
Disadvantages of Canister Stoves:
  • --Every ounce of fuel must be carried in disposable canisters. The canisters may be recycled, but some recycling companies do not like to take these.  I usually puncture the canisters before recycling them and sometimes I even crush them with a rock.  When I do this, it seems like the recycling company is okay with them being in my recycle bin.
  • --It can be difficult to gauge how much fuel is in a given canister at the end of a trip.  This sometimes leads to carrying extra almost empty canisters which take up space and add almost useless weight.
  • --It can be difficult to "cook" real meals on canister stoves. If you're looking for something that allows for a lot of different settings for a lot of different kinds of cooking, then you should consider a Whisperlite, an XGK or a Simmerlite.
  • --If you are going to do a foreign trip, it may be difficult to find canisters in a developing country.
  • --Because these stoves are "skinny," they can definitely tip over.
  • --The biggest disadvantage of all canister stoves is their performance in the cold. None of the stoves are as effective is extreme cold.  And many of them perform poorly if they are placed directly on the snow-covered ground.  To perform more effectively, the stoves will either need a hanging kit or they will need to be placed on a "stove-board."
Advantages of the Jetboil:

  • --The Jetboil collapses within itself.  The system is completely integrated and every part of it, including the fuel canister, fits inside the pot.
  • --When cooking, the pot attaches to the stove, which is attached to the canister.  This makes it very easy to move the entire thing around.
  • --I have used the Jetboil for cooking in my tent extensively.  The fact that it is easy to move around means that I can actually cook pretty much anywhere.  I often hold the entire fixture between my thighs, which also helps keep the fuel warm, making it burn more effectively.  Please note that cooking in a tent does hold some danger, both of burning down the tent and of suffocating on carbon monoxide. If you elect to do this, be sure to keep your tent well-ventilated.
  • --The Jetboil pot has been designed to be used as a mug as well as a pot.  This does provide for the ability to cut a little bit more weight.
  • --Jetboil sells a hanging kit for the stove. It is also very easy to build a kit for the stove.  The nice thing about hanging the stove is that it gets it up off the snow, which allows the canister to work more effectively.
  • --A specialized and very light-weight frying pan is available for other types of cooking.
  • --Jetboil sells a larger pot that can be used to cook or melt water for groups.
  • --There is some limited ability to control the heat (i.e. to turn it down). This makes it easier to "cook" in the system.
  • --The Jetboil has a "clicker" which sparks and automatically lights the stove.
  • --The newest version of the Jetboil has a regulator that is supposed to allow it to work better in cold temperatures.  I do not have the newest version, so this hasn't been tested.
Disadvantages of the Jetboil:
  • --This is a very small system.  If you are melting snow for more than one person, it can be taxing.  If you want to cook or melt snow for more people, you need to purchase an extra pot...
  • --The fact that the pot that comes with the system is small, makes it difficult to cook in.
  • --The optional frying pan may be slightly too light. With repeated use, I've had the pan become damaged by heat.  It is also very difficult to control the heat to a point where you can effectively make frying pan type things like pancakes or quesadillas.
  • --The Jetboil doesn't work well in the wind. This is okay if you have a tent and are willing to cook in it, but this makes it difficult for bivies.
  • --When trying to make a lot of water, the Jetboil commonly boils over.  There is a marker line inside the pot which shows the most you can put in without boil-over, but I often want more hot water than that.  In order to keep it from boiling over, you have to watch it very closely.
  • --The knob on the Jetboil which controls heat is under the body of the pot, so when it does boil over you often have to put your fingers through a waterfall of boiling liquid to turn it off.
  • --While cooking noodles in the pot, I constantly have to stir them, or they will get burned at the bottom. This is a function of the size of the pot.  It's a bit too small to ignore.
  • --The "clicker" which lights the stove broke days after I got the Jetboil. I have been lighting it with a lighter ever since.
Advantages of the Reactor:

  • --Like the Jetboil, the Reactor is an integrated cooking system.  It is compact and easy to travel with.  The stove and the fuel canister both fit snugly inside the cooking pot.
  • --The pot is not attached to the stove.  There are disadvantages to this, but one advantage is that in a boil-over, it's easy to remove the pot prior to turning off the stove.
  • --The cooking pot that comes with the Reactor is large, which allows for easier cooking, more space to melt snow, and more volume for food or drink.  The fact that there is more volume makes it easier to keep things from burning in the pot.
  • --The larger pot and greater volume allows more liquid to boil without boiling over.
  • --And the larger pot also makes it easier to cook for more people than just one or two.  Some people have complained about the volume of this stove, but those that have, haven't compared it to the Jetboil.
  • --And lastly, the larger pot is certainly easier to clean than the smaller profile pot on the Jetboil.
  • --This thing boils water fast.  I mean really fast.  I don't think I've ever used a stove that boiled water so quickly.
  • The Reactor is far better in the wind than the Jetboil.  I intentionally used both next to one another at a windy front-country campground and the Jetboil blew out immediately.  The Reactor continued to work effectively.
Disadvantages of the Reactor:
  • --The Reactor pot does not connect to the stove surface.  This leads to all kinds of problems, like an inability to hang the system to keep it out of the snow, and less convenience when cooking inside a vestibule or tent. While using this in the field, I placed the stove on a snowshoe and it seemed to work okay, but it would have been better if I could have hung it.
  • --There isn't really any ability to control the heat levels. This makes it difficult to cook anything that requires finesse.
  • --An early version of the Reactor emmitted a high and potentially dangerous volume of carbon monoxide. This was attributed to the fact that the jets were improperly set-up in the prototype model. That said, the problem delayed the release of the stove for some time. This background makes me hesitant to do anything with the Reactor inside the tent.  I still cooked with it in the vestibule, but kept the vestibule completely open.
  • --The Reactor is a bit of a fuel hog. The surface of the stove heats evenly over a large surface area. This allows for a very quick boil, but also a very quick use of the fuel in the canister.  I never really figured out how much fuel I would need for demanding activities like melting snow. This caused me to bring a lot of extra fuel on backcountry trips.
  • --The fuel hog element of the stove made it hard to melt snow. I was constantly worried about how much fuel I was using while trying to fill up my water bottles.
  • --At this point there are no accessories, like frying pans or different sized pots.
  • --It would be nice if there were some type of rubber top or other protective cover, so that -- like the Jetboil -- the pot could be used as a mug without burning one's lips.
In a nutshell, this is how I felt about the two systems:  I liked the Reactor more for backpacking applications.  I liked the reactor more for simple water heating tasks.  I liked the fact that it wouldn't blow out so easily in the wind.  And I liked it more for it's speed at bringing water to a boil.  But I liked the Jetboil more for it's integrated systems.  I liked the Jetboil more for mountaineering and cold weather because of the fact that it could be hung or be used inside the tent more effectively.  And I liked the Jetboil more because of the fact that it seemed to use fuel more efficiently.

So there you have it.  In my humble opinion, these similar systems are different enough that one is better than the other in different backcountry applications...in the broadest of strokes, the Reactor is better for backpacking and the Jetboil is better for mountaineering and backcountry skiing.

Whatever stove system you choose, be sure that it is right for you.  None of these systems are exactly cheap...and while it would be nice to own both a Jetboil and a Reactor, such a thing is not realistic for most people.  These are both very good products and I believe that most will be pleased with either of them in both backpacking and mountaineering endeavors...

--Jason D. Martin

14 comments:

Rondo said...

Just wanted to note that I use a Jetboil hanging kit (http://shop.jetboil.com/index.php/hanging-kit.html) to hang my Reactor. It hangs the stove from between the canister and the burner so it doesn't matter that the pot isn't attached to the stove. The cables keep the pot from falling off. You can literally smack the pot, swing it, and let any amount of wind blow it and it will very effectively resist falling off. And unlike the Jetboil, you can take the pot off the hanging stove to pour easily, where you have to hold the (hot) stove and untwist the pot on the Jetboil.

You noted that the Reactor burns fuel faster, but it also cooks water faster so it will be burning fuel faster for less time. It all works out in the end. I haven't noticed any significant difference between the two stoves.

Mauro Ayala said...

Thank you for your post, it was really useful

Kurt Hicks said...

Just a note about the Jetboil that you tested vs. the newest model.

1. The knob has been replaced with a larger wire to regulate the gas. it is much easier to use and makes turning the stove off easier in the event of a boil over.

2. the peizo igniter has been redesigned and made smaller. I too broke my old Jetboil's igniter on the first day, but the smaller version in the new Jetboils seem to to stand up to more abuse since they are no longer the tallest piece of the stove assembly.

Mark Rickert said...

Thanks for the very useful review! Much appreciated

Kevin J said...

I wanted reinvigorate this conversation. Of the two, which did you all feel has the best cold weather performance? I've been using a Jetboil at around 6K and down to 10degrees F and have noticed a significant difference in performance even when warming the canister.

Kevin J said...

Which of the two stoves did you feel performed best in cold (<20F) high places (>6K')?

Jeremy G said...

Great article. I just watched this video and it looks like the Reactor uses considerably more fuel to accomplish the same water boiling task. 6g vs 10g of fuel. The time difference to reach rolling boil was negligible in my opinion at 15 seconds difference.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YC8hl9vHjMA

Anonymous said...

Reactor actually burns 10 grams per 500ml boil. Jet boil burns 9 grams and is only 15 seconds slower. You get one more boil per 100 gram canister

Charles Coughlan said...

My MSR Reactor stove has just failed, it does not emit gas any longer, replaced the canister also, is there some kind of safety valve in this unit.?

Smith E said...

JetBoil is my favorite one when go camping. It's small, strong and durable. Never miss it on my checklist

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Reactor has a thermal overload safety that can brick it. Contact MSR for addl info. RCxRC

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Julie Smith said...

Well, there have been great improvements in campfire cooking. When I was a kid my dad used firewood for cooking when we were out camping, fishing, or hiking. Currently, we have canister stoves, which are small, compact, lightweight, and highly resourceful. This is a great review, thanks for sharing. I also found great products here: http://wildernessmastery.com/camping-and-hiking/best-camping-stove.html

Andrew@Best Diamondback Response Mountain Bike Reviews said...

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