Full disclosure: In 2012, Cascade Designs sent me a WhisperLite Universal for testing, review and feedback. As with all such arrangements, I reserve the right to write honestly. If a product is crap, I’ll tell you why.
We are already spoilt for choice with camping stoves, but MSR have recently brought out a hybrid-fuel version of the classic Whisperlite, which burns propane-butane canister fuel as happily as the unleaded petrol/gasoline/benzine/diesel/kerosene/white gas we’ve come to rely on as cycle-tourists. This is interesting.
Who is the MSR Whisperlite Universal for?
Why would you want to burn canister fuel? It’s more expensive, the canisters themselves are bulkier, and it’s more difficult to come by.
On the other hand, gas is intrinsically more suited to open-flame cooking. That’s why every professional kitchen is built around gas burners. Of the many advantages:
- Butane-propane gas canisters require no priming or pumping,
- The canisters are less likely to leak,
- Flame adjustment is more precise,
- The delivery and burning mechanisms are simpler,
- It’s less messy,
- It burns more cleanly,
- It gives you more heat per fuel unit,
- Canisters are widely available throughout the Western world.
For these reasons, if I were going on a lightweight European or North American or similar tour, I’d probably take a simple canister burner (like the Pocket Rocket* or Superfly*). Multi-fuel stoves have an air of importance about them, but they’re not always necessary.
Where I can see the Whisperlite Universal fitting in is wherever canister availability is likely to be sporadic — sometimes plentiful, sometimes absent. This means trans-Europe rides heading into Asia, North to Central/South America rides, Australia and South-East Asia combinations, and the like. Enjoy the benefits of canister fuel whenever it’s available, and switch over to multi-fuel when it’s not.
The original Whisperlite Internationale has been around for two decades. A product in a niche such as multi-fuel stoves doesn’t last long unless it delivers the kind of performance & ruggedness demanded by people taking it into the most arduous of conditions.
I can vouch for MSR quality, having used a Dragonfly for the last five years which still runs as well as it did when it was brand new (even though it’s now caked in soot and crap from all the terrible-quality petrol and diesel available in the world today). And I’ve met plenty of Whisperlite owners who’ve been running their stoves for much longer than half a decade.
In 2012 I used the Whisperlite Universal daily for two months of touring in the States, burning a mixture of canister fuel and unleaded gasoline, cooking some seriously elaborate meals — and once again it seems that MSR have stuck to their guns and produced a top-quality stove that shows no sign of being any less durable than their existing tried-and-tested range.
Switching fuels is simple – the stove’s bag has a toolkit pocket sewn into it, and it’s as simple as using the supplied tools to unthread and swap out the fuel line connector, change the fuel jet in the stove’s base, and fire it back up.
In performance terms, users of this stove are more likely to be interested in the stove’s aptitude for cookery than timing boils down to the second. (Get the XKG for maximum noodle-incineration.) Even fuel efficiency is not that important a consideration for cycle touring – there are lighter and more efficient ways of boiling water than this, whatever the fuel, if weight is top priority. In these respects, though, canister fuel is second only to white gas for rapidity of boiling, and outstrips all liquid fuels in terms of water boiled per ounce/gram of fuel.
What impressed me about the Universal is that I got Dragonfly-style flame control from the single-valved stove when burning canister fuel, and (although nowhere near as sensitive) a greater degree of adjustability than I expected through liquid fuel too.
Cooking over liquid fuel is essentially a hack; the fuel has to be vapourised before it will produce an even flame, meaning that some element of the fuel line has to remain above a certain temperature for the vapourisation to take place.
The result is that a liquid fuel flame can not be effectively reduced beyond a certain minimum, as the temperature would drop below that needed for vapourisation.
So, while impressive, the Whisperlite on liquid fuel is never going to match its adjustability on canisters, simply due to the nature of the fuel itself.
Innovative backpackers and campers have come up with their own hacks to get a nice simmer out of a Whisperlite, including my favourite, which is to bend the windshield into a three-pointed star shape (the points of the star corresponding to the stove’s legs), and positioning the pot atop this makeshift windshield/pot-stand. It works extremely well.
Cranked up to maximum, the stove blasts out a ridiculous amount of heat, as you’d expect, surpassing the maximum output of the Dragonfly by a noticeable margin, and creating a larger and more evenly-spread hotspot as a result of the larger and flatter burner and heat-spreader design. Even heat distribution is important given the necessarily thin metal used in lightweight camping cookware.
The built-in pot stand is sturdier than the previous design’s wiry legs, and weighs less into the bargain. Some have complained that certain parts are no longer interchangeable between the new and old designs, but that’s only likely to be an issue if you’re a serial stove hoarder…
My only issue with this stove is the same issue I had with the Dragonfly: the windshield and heat-reflective base are so flimsy that they almost deserve to be classified as consumable items. It’s difficult to think of a more robust solution that wouldn’t involve considerably more complication, bulk and weight, though — a relatively minor quibble, when all’s said and done.
If the classic Whisperlite was previously on your shopping list, and you’re planning on travelling for at least a few weeks in parts of the world where canisters are available, it would be silly not to look at the Universal and enjoy the numerous benefits of canister cookery while you can, because this already-award-winning Universal version of the Whisperlite is at the top of its game.
If you’re more of the gourmet cook and want a reliable simmer, consider the good old Dragonfly, but be aware that it comes with its own limitations, and that Whisperlite hacks can achieve similar results.