MSR Reactor Series - Cooking in the backcountry
In the spring of 2014, I decided that if I was going to get into backpacking in a serious way, I needed to find myself a proper cook pot and stove or else I'd be stuck hauling around that Coleman single propane burner I'd been using since I was 16. For the record, those Coleman stoves are indestructible. I've beaten that thing up time and time again and it still and it works like a charm. I have no idea why Coleman never got into making real backpacking stoves but if they did, I might be easily convinced to give one a shot. They're like the AK-47 of camping stoves. They rattle around like they're going to fall apart, they're bulky, require a fuel tank that is way to big for it's own good, but they still keep ticking after years of abuse.
· Incredibly fast to boil water
· Has the ability to have a 1L, 1.7L, or 2L pot
· At 14.7 oz., it's not the lightest stove system on the market
· The way the handle is designed can cause it to fall off if you're not careful
· Expensive: the 1L system starts around at about $189 while the 2L system is $220
Knowing I shouldn't carry that Coleman with me, I decided it was time to find a cook set and be on my way to setting myself up for some backcountry adventures. I looked primarily at the MSR Reactor line, the Jetboil, and the Snow Peak Gigapower with assorted pots. Since it takes me forever to make up my mind and because I didn't exactly want to pay full price for something, I searched Craigslist to see what was available in my area. I leaned heavily towards the MSR Reactor because I liked the idea that the flame was a protected from the wind, it was self-contained, and was quick to boil water. My visions of backpacking included going with friends so I figured I should search for the 1.7 liter pot to go with the stove because the website said this was the appropriate size for 1-3 backpackers. I luckily found an MSR Reactor stove with a 1.7 liter pot for about a hundred bucks or so on Craigslist and gladly swooped it up. I couldn't have been happier with my purchase so I headed for home and immediately boiled a pot of water. How exciting! Water…. BOILING!
So what happened? It boiled a half a liter of water in around a minute and the fun was over. Yep, it worked. It boiled the water as advertised. My excitement lasted all of the 10 minute drive home and the 1 minute of total boil time. The next chapter of my new MSR stove would include me bringing it along on a trip and when I did, I fell in love with it. At 14.7 oz., this Reactor system might be on the heavier side of the stove market, but I couldn't care less. This thing boils .5 liters of water in nearly a minute flat (roughly the amount of water I use in a Mountain House meal). The pot is stable with how it is designed to sit on the burner and is in my personal opinion, just a good-looking pot. The burner, stove, and fuel (with a lighter) fit nicely inside the pot, which is very handy.
In the summer of 2015, a friend of mine began purchasing backpacking gear and asked me what stove he should consider. I gave him the same list as above (Jetboil, MSR, and Snow Peak) and he eventually went with the Snow Peak set up. I was excited at the opportunity to see how the two stoves would do side by side during an upcoming trip. The campsite we chose was exposed to wind but it wasn't too bad with nothing more than a strong breeze from time to time so there was no need to worry about protecting the exposed flame of the Snow Peak stove. When it came time to boil water for our meals, we got right to it and I secretly monitored his stove to see how it would do. By secretly, I mean I was literally facing him and smiling the entire time while we waited for our water to boil. We had five hikers with us and two were going to be using his stove while I'd use mine for the remaining three. I had three meals rehydrating with hot water in their bags by the time the Snow Peak burner had boiled the first full pot of water. I chose to boil .5 liters of water per meal individually and it took about a minute for each to get to the boiling point (we're talking about 3 minutes of total boil time for 3 people). I don't recall how much water was put in the Snow Peak pot, but it couldn't have been more than a liter. To put it lightly, I was pleased to see that my MSR was so fast to boil but bummed for my friend when the Snow Peak took so long (he was only a minute or two behind me in boiling time).
The Snow Peak and MSR Reactor stoves are not exactly in the same family when it comes to design form. They do function the same in that they are made to boil water, but one has an exposed flame while the other does not. The Snow Peak is also lighter than the MSR so it's understandable that you're going to trade weight for performance. To some it's not much of a big deal to wait a little longer for hot water, but for me, I'll carry the extra weight if it means that I can have a hot cup of coffee or tea in a matter of a minute.
During that group trip up to St. Helens, I couldn't help but notice that I was only using a very small portion of my 1.7L pot and couldn't stop obsessing about how I was wasting space in my pack by not having the small 1L MSR Reactor pot. I soon realized that at no point would I ever want to boil more than a liter of water at one time and realistically, I think on average I'd probably only boil a half of a liter. I thought I could live with the 1.7L size but my obsession got the best of me and I soon found myself searching out the 1L pot. The great thing about the MSR Reactor is that the base remains the same while the pot can change in size. With that said, you must use the MSR Reactor pots with the matching Reactor stove, but that's fine by me. I like the design so I was up for and was able to find a 1L pot online for about $50.
My first trip with the 1L pot went well. I barely noticed the difference in holding capacity or boil time but did notice a significant benefit in the overall size of the 1L pot. It was no longer the bulbous item in middle of my pack but rather just a nice sized pot that would do the trick for me on solo trips and with groups.
For the sake of Snow Peak lovers out there, I should mention that on this last trip with 1L pot, my friend with the Snow Peak stove joined me. When we finally set up camp the weather began move in and we were force to hunker down for a while inside the tent. With nothing else better to do, we did what any grown man would when they're cold and tired from an up hill hike in the rain. We ate. He tossed his stove out in the vestibule and it seemed to me that the stove performed much better having been protected by the wind. It still didn't boil water as fast as the Reactor did, but it surely wasn't as slow as before when the flame was exposed to the wind. If I had to guess, I'd say it took him about 2-3 minutes to boil the .5 liters of water for his meal which I think is reasonable. Even though it's not as fast as the Reactor, I think the Snow Peak is still a great piece of kit. It's lightweight, very compact, and seems to be built well. It also serves as a blowtorch if you're trying to get a fire going…
The MSR Reactor serves me well in the field. As I mention in other posts, form and function are very important to me and I think the Reactor does a fine job at fulfilling both of those requirements. It's not the lightest stove on the market but it's very well built, easy to use, and with some extra dollars thrown at it, it can be small, medium, or large based on your individual needs. If you're in the market for a slick backpacking stove, take into consideration the MSR Reactor series. It's most certainly worth the down payment.