Tuesday, April 16, 2013

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 usedMSR 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


Jim Prager said...

Both of these are good stoves. I use the Jetboil on trips where I only need to heat water, not melt snow. On trips where I need to melt snow, the Jetboil pot is a good size (1.5 L). I like this pot since it has a simple and lightweight heat exchanger. On winter trips I pair this pot with the MSR Windpro, since I can invert the canister, which improves performance in cold weather over upright canister stoves.

Thanks for your review!

Jason Martin said...

MSR has made a quick response to two of the criticisms that I had of their stove. Here is the material that I received:

Re: CO
All of MSR's production units fall well inside regulatory requirements for emissions and safety. We work with a number of agencies, including CSA in Canada, ANSI in US, CE in Europe, AGA in Australia, and KGS in Korea. The CO in the Reactor is actually lower than other stove systems on the market especially at full output (where most people run them).

Re: Fuel Efficiency
The Reactor's burner is a 9000 btu/h burner—twice that of the Jetboil Flash's 4500 btu/h burner and 45 percent greater than the JetBoil Sol's burner. As a result, yes, the Reactor will use fuel faster. But since both stoves operate at about the same efficiency in still conditions—and the Reactor is significantly more efficient in windy conditions—the Reactor actually consumes less fuel overall for most trips. If you're burning fuel too quickly, I would try turning the Reactor down slightly, as that slight adjustment will further increase the stove's efficiency.

Graham said...

Yo, you know that there's been a hanging kit for the reactor for almost a year? http://cascadedesigns.com/msr/stoves/stove-systems/reactor-hanging-kit/product

Works really well. Also, either of the large pots for the reactor work well.

Personally, I've never had a huge problem moderating the temperature on a reactor...

Anonymous said...

I hang my reactor using a jetboil hang kit without issues. It grabs between the burner and the canister while the wires keep the pot upright. No problems after dozens of trips with it.

Anonymous said...

How can this be an alpine climbing review without mention of weights? And msr recently put out a video claiming the reactor is far more effecient boiling water than a JB when there is any wind... So maybe less fuel weight even though the stove looks much heavier?

Hikin' Jim said...

Nice post.

The Reactor does now have multiple pots available for it: 1.0L, 1.7L, and 2.5L. And as someone else noted, they do have a hanging kit.

The new 1.0L pot is a lot lighter than the original 1.7L pot, more than just its smaller size would account for. I've got the weights listed out on my blog if you're interested: The New Lighter 1.0L MSR Reactor


Gear:30 said...

Jetboil for cold weather and alpine climbing over Reactor? I've used the Jetboil in cold, alpine climbing conditions and it took forever to melt snow and bring it to a boil (like 15-20 minutes with a mostly full canister). I even used two canisters, swapping them out when one got really cold for the warm canister in my jacket. As for the Reactor, I have melted and then boiled much more snow/water (like twice the water) in half the time as the Jetboil. I will never us a Jetboil in cold conditions again. The Reactor is the best thing I have found for cold conditions other than white gas stoves.
As for efficiency, on a previous backpacking trip with the family, my wife and I were using the Reactor and the sister and brother-in-law were using a Jetboil. We were cooking the same amount and our canister (for the Reactor) lasted 2 days longer than the Jetboil. Instead of a fuel hog, I thought it sipped the fuel.
It's funny how one person can have a totally different experience than somebody else with the same products.
The hanging kit for the Reactor has worked flawlessly for me as well.