Fifteen years ago, when I introduced Julie to the joys and pains of backpacking, I went to the venerable Wild Iris Mountain Sports in Lander, Wyoming, and bought an Optimus Crux stove ahead of our first big trip to the Big Horn mountains.
At the time, the Crux was made by Brunton in nearby Riverton, Wyoming. Brunton – famous for their compasses and optics – has since been bought and sold by various interests over the years, and the Crux is still on the market today. The tiny Crux, a canister stove, has been a trooper on two continents for over a decade and a half, never clogging, and admirably resisting wind and moisture. It’s super light (83g), and it folds and stores neatly in the concave base of the butane canisters that the Crux requires.
But it has its limitations. Perched on top of those canisters with its small folding burner heads, your pot can get a little tippy if you’re not careful, and at only 3000W, it isn’t exactly a powerhouse. The burner heads on our Crux are starting to warp and bend after hours and hours of burn time, necessitating frequent readjustments with my Leatherman to get them to fold correctly. I worried that I would eventually snap one off, and we’d be truly stuck. It works only with butane canisters, which are not always easy to find in southern Africa.
Fifteen years is an excellent service life, and the old Optimus had seen us through some pretty amazing adventures, but it was clearly time for a new stove.
Enter the MSR WhisperLite Universal.
Why “Universal”? The WhisperLite’s claim to fame over the last 35 years is its ability to burn pretty much any fuel you can throw at it. Gasoline, diesel, paraffin (kerosene), white gas, mineral spirits, butane/propane – you name it, and the WhisperLite will cook with it.
In addition, the stove assembly is extremely simple and serviceable in the field. MSR supplies it with replacement o-rings for the fuel connectors and hoses, a dedicated tool, and a variety of brass jets to accommodate different fuel types. As opposed to a canister-style stove, the burner is much more stable, as it rests on low-slung legs on the ground or your table, rather than the canister itself. The wide burner head welcomes all pots, large and small, and it folds neatly to reduce packing space.
The beefy flexible steel-braided fuel line features easy-on, easy-off attachments to swap fuel types, and the finely-tuned fuel control valves offers a wide range of heat settings, from full afterburner for the quick boil, to a low simmer. The lowest settings are especially useful, since most thin-gauge pots designed for backpacking scorch easily. As with the butane canister receiver, the WhisperLite’s multi-fuel pump attachment is straightforward and easy to use.
Also included are a two-piece aluminum wind shield and heat reflector (which seems a bit flimsy on first touch, but has proven to be very robust), a stand for keeping butane canisters secure and angled in the optimal position for good fuel delivery, and a carry bag. All the pieces of the WhisperLite are replaceable or serviceable, and MSR stocks the tools and components to do both.
If there are any drawbacks to the stove that set the industry standard over three decades ago, they are these:
- At 430g the WhisperLite is no featherweight, especially in its fully packed configuration, compared to our Crux at 83g. Of course, on a backpacking trip, you would only bring along the fuel attachments you need for the fuel you have, so it’s possible to draw that weight down a little bit. And, in a car camping or overland context, this issue isn’t terribly relevant.
- We have found the MSR to be more susceptible to blowing out in breezy conditions than the Crux, but the included wind barrier and heat reflector help mitigate that problem.
- Even at full-tilt, the WhisperLite will never boil water as quickly as MSR’s own WindBurner stove system, or the hyper-efficient Jetboil. If you survive solely on freezedried meals and instant coffee, those two options are a no-brainer over the WhisperLite.
- The MSR multi-fuel bottle required for burning anything other than butane is not included in the $139USD price tag for the stove. Plan on another $20USD to take advantage of that versatility the WhisperLite is so famous for.
Those issues aside, if you are looking for robust versatility and durability in your portable stove, the ability to actually cook real food efficiently and accurately, not just heat up water, and the flexibility to use whatever fuel you can find, it’s hard to beat the WhisperLite. It’s longevity on the market only confirms it.
(Full disclosure: we used our own money to pay for our WhisperLite via an online retailer.)