Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Outdoor Gear Review - MSR Whisperlite Universal Stove

When Kathy and I go camping or on canoe trips we tend to bring some pretty spectacular food that requires a double burner stove and full-sized pots/pans. However, when I go out on my own I prefer the simplicity of freeze dried backpacking type meals from Mountain House or Backpackers Pantry. Both companies have a few items in their lineups that are just plain nasty, but for the most part they are pretty good, a few are downright great. When I'm by myself I'd rather spend my time exploring, fishing or taking photos as opposed to preparing complicated meals. I will occasionally fry up a fish, but that's as ambitious as I tend to get on solo trips.

I screwed around with a cheap single burner, coleman propane bottle powered stove for a while and though it worked okay for it's purpose, both it and the bottles were way too bulky, and it was fragile. I had to repair something on it after nearly every trip....it hit the bottom of a trash bin a year ago when I purchased an MSR Whisperlite Universal Stove.

Stove shown in the Canister Fuel - Liquid configuration (explained below)

The Whisperlite Universal uses the same proven generator and burner as many other offerings from MSR but ups the versatility by being compatible with Iso/Pro (Isopropyl Alcohol/Propane) Iso/Bu (Isopropyl Alcohol/Butane) canisters offered by MSR and about 1/2-doz other manufacturers, white gas, unleaded gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel.

The capability of burning unleaded gas and kerosene/diesel in addition to canister fuel and white gas makes this stove an excellent addition to an emergency kit as you can, if need be siphon a few ounces of fuel from any vehicle and be able to cook or boil water for purification. The ability to run either canister fuel or white gas enables one to tailor the cooking system to their trip. If you are going on a longer back country adventure that requires you to make the most of your pack space then the white gas bottle makes more sense, on a quicker trip the canisters are more convenient but a bit bulkier and don't last as long.

What You Get
The Whisperlite Universal comes with the folding stove assembly, fuel hose, unions for connecting the hose to either canister fuel bottles or to an MSR gas/kerosene bottle, folding aluminum windscreen, canister fuel inversion stand, parts/maintenance kit (a few o-rings, lube, wrench), 3 jets (canister fuel, white gas/unleaded, kerosene/diesel) and a fuel bottle pressurization pump. The MSR fuel bottle (shown above) is NOT included, you have to purchase that separately and they come in various sizes.

How It Works
The stove can be used in three different configurations:
  • Canister Fuel - Vapor: In this configuration the canister is used upright, this configuration allows for better control of the flame if you need to simmer something but has slightly lower heat potential.
  • Canister Fuel - Liquid: In this configuration the canister is started upright, then using the inversion stand turned upside-down so that you are using the vapor pressure to pump liquid Iso fuel to the stove. This offers less fine control of the flame, but boils faster, works better in very cold conditions and allows full use of the fuel. 
  • Liquid Fuel Bottle: This configuration requires you to disassemble the generator on the stove and replace the canister fuel jet with either the white gas/unleaded jet or the kerosene/diesel jet and exchange the canister hose union for the liquid fuel hose union. This configuration allows significantly longer duration trips as the fuel bottle allows roughly 110 minutes (20oz bottle) of continuous burn time vs 75 minutes for each 8oz Iso fuel canister. 

Changing between vapor and liquid configurations is as easy as inverting the canister and it should be noted that doing so will allow you to completely use all of the fuel in the bottle. If you use only the vapor config you will leave a bit of liquid fuel in each canister and will lack the pressure to use the dregs. It's best in my opinion to use the inverted configuration unless you need to simmer something on a low flame for a while.

Converting to the fuel bottle to burn white gas/unleaded or kerosene/diesel fuels is a bit more work. Swapping the jets and hose unions takes less than 5min and is easy enough to do with the provided tool. I'd recommend setting the stove up for your trip on your workbench at home. It'd be a drag to drop one of the small jets or shaker needle and lose it in the duff or rocks at your campsite.

One of the nice benefits of using the Iso fuel canisters is that they burn exceptionally clean. If that is all you use there really is nothing that needs to be done other than to annually replace the o-rings to prevent leakage. If you routinely use white gas/unleaded or kerosene/diesel there will be carbon buildup on the stove. The generator assembly has a floating needle inside that by shaking the stove (unlit and cool of course) will clear most carbon deposits from the jet. You should though annually strip the stove down per the well written instructions for internal cleaning and o-ring replacement.

The canister fuel is easy to light using a firesteel. Something to keep in mind if you are purchasing a stove for an emergency survival backup. It's more difficult, and IMO a bit dangerous to try to light white gas this way as you could easily knock the stove over while striking the firesteel. If you don't have matches or a lighter, you should IMO, attempt to get some kind of fire going and use a burning stick to light the stove.....matches or a bic lighter of course work just fine, but may not be available.

MSR provides data on fuel consumption rates and water boil times for the various configurations. I've found the fuel consumption rates to be fairly accurate but the boil times to be rather optimistic. They list the following times to boil 1 liter of water:
  • Canister Fuel - Liquid: 3.75min
  • White Gas/Unleaded: 3.5min
  • Kerosene/Diesel: 4.4min
My testing did not produce the same results. I didn't test the stove using kerosene/diesel, mainly because I didn't feel like purchasing another fuel bottle just to do so, but I also didn't feel like fouling the stove with soot. I know it will work in an emergency, and under those conditions the fact that it DOES work is far more important than how quickly it works. I did however test boil times for 1 liter and 1.5cups (the most common quantity of water needed for a single dehydrated backpacking meal) for each of the three configurations listed above:
  • Canister Fuel - Vapor: 1 Liter - 5:14, 1.5 cups - 1:50
  • Canister Fuel - Liquid: 1 Liter - 4:05, 1.5 cups - 1:10
  • White Gas/Unleaded: 1 Liter - 7:00, 1.5 cups - 2:15
I think it's safe to assume that MSR's data represents testing done under ideal conditions, using the wind screen, probably indoors, and likely to an exact measured temperature of 212 degrees F a scenario that is unlikely to be repeated on a back country adventure, let alone an emergency survival situation. Because of that I collected my data outdoors with a fairly stiff breeze. Also, rather than simply heating to 212 I allowed the water to reach a full, rolling boil from a starting temp of 50 degrees  F. The reason I did so is that if I'm attempting to purify water I'm going to keep the water at as high a temperature as I can achieve for at least 3min to ensure any microbial nasties are killed. Hence I went with the time to full boil over simply reaching 212...besides, I don't carry a digital thermometer with me into the back country. As my data reflects, I found that the White Gas/Unleaded configuration was more profoundly impacted by the wind, not sure why, but it just was. I also found that MSR's stated fuel consumption rates for white gas/unleaded were more accurate than those for the canister fuels. This is perhaps due to variations in how completely (or incompletely) filled the canisters are during manufacturing or slight leakage from the canisters over time.

Photo taken indoors to illustrate the intensity of the heat output.

Though mainly used for boiling water for dehydrated foods, I have used the stove to cook a few things and it does maintain a controllable lower temp flame fairly well in the Canister Fuel - Vapor configuration. Less so in Canister - Liquid and in the Liquid Fuel Bottle configurations. I've cooked mac & cheese without scorching the bottom of the pot and fried up a few trout as well. The stove performed great in both cases though as stated above, this is not my primary use case for this stove.

In using other stoves, and reading professional reviews online it seems that there are many single configuration, single fuel stoves that perform better than the Whisperlite Universal. Heck, even other offerings from MSR do so. However, if you own something like a MSR Superfly you are locked into that one fuel type and vapor only operation. Similarly, if you own a classic MSR Whisperlite (a great stove by the way) you are locked into just white gas/unleaded, although the Whisperlite International will allow white gas/unleaded and kerosene/diesel but of course not canister fuels. While compact and light, I tend to dislike stoves like the Superfly or Pocket Rocket where the stove sits atop the fuel canister. I don't like the high center of gravity and tippy-ness of them. They do work well, I just prefer a more stable platform.

In any device that is built to be very versatile there are compromises that have to be made. You have to give up ultimate performance in one use case to allow the device to operate within many use cases. That seems to be at play here with the Whisperlite Universal. In order to make it work reasonably well in so many configurations with three different fuels they had to compromise here and there. I'm ok with that. I prefer tools that can do more than one thing and if the compromises aren't too great I prefer broad versatility over focused ultimate performance. Besides, I can have one stove on the shelf in my garage rather than many.

If your use case requires an extreme low-weight, compact stove to simply boil water you are probably better off with something like the Superfly or Pocket Rocket. If your use case requires boiling power/speed, you can spare a little extra room in your pack, and you have no intention of cooking actual food you are probably better off with a Jetboil system. If your use case involves longer trips that favor longer lasting gas bottles over shorter duration (and somewhat bulky) fuel canisters you are probably better off with a classic Whisperlite or Whisperlite International. However, if you see yourself with more than one of those use cases in your future, if you are looking for a stove that does all of those things, and provides backup for emergency survival while taking up relatively little space in your garage and/or pack then I'd feel good about recommending the Whisperlite Universal. It's a multi-task tool that is compact enough to live with, it's easy to use, easy to reconfigure, easy to maintain and achieves each of those use cases reasonably well.


  1. Great review, thanks.


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