Dueling Stoves:
Coleman Apex II vs. MSR WhisperLite

As mentioned below, this article was written 14 years ago. As of the summer of 2007, Coleman is no longer selling the Apex II. They have a new more expensive line of stoves that are supposed to simmer, but we have not tested them yet in the field. We have decided to leave the review up on the TwoHikers web site, since the principles for stove evaluation are pretty much constant. Only the stoves change. My take on things is that the perfect backpacking stove for week long trips is yet to exist. Criteria have to include a) use of white gas (vastly more efficient), b) pump and stove weigh no more than 10 oz, c)rate of fuel consumption has to be no more than that of an MSR Whisperlight, d) it has to be stable, e) you need to be able to hear yourself think while the stove is running hard, and f) it has to be able to genuinely simmer, using a second fuel feed valve. But a story about searching for the Holy Grail is more Dan Brown's style. This article is about real life.

(Note: This article was written for the Sierra Club's Tennes-Sierran in 1993. As far as the author can tell, the basic facts have not changed. We have used both the Apex II for over 10 years now and the WhisperLite for over 14 years, and our impressions have not changed. However, we have updated the text where appropriate.)

On a recent trip to our 49th state, I had the opportunity to get a lot of use out of one of my new birthday presents, the Coleman Apex II stove. My wife, Susie, and I, found that bathing in streams running out of the bottom of glaciers was beyond even my relatively high tolerance for frigid water. So, in addition to cooking, we heated pot after pot of water, to make sponge bathing in our tent a rather pleasant experience. Also, I had brought my trusty MSR WhisperLite stove, so we were able to cook multi-burner meals, heat water, and generally have a high ole time as we car-camped our way across south central Alaska. About ten days into the trip, I noticed that I was refilling the fuel bottle of the Apex II nearly every morning. Now, I knew we were using the Apex for a large fraction of our cooking, taking full advantage of its true simmering capability, something that most backpacking stoves lack. (Oh sure, Will Skelton will try to tell you that his Svea can simmer, but what he means is that you can throttle it back from the full blowtorch setting to the semi-blowtorch position, and that it will simmer for about 30 seconds before you must adjust it or the stove flickers out.) It just seemed that the Apex was using a lot of fuel. I vowed that when I returned home, I would test the hypothesis, and share some other observations about the Apex II and the MSR Whisperlite stoves.

For those of you who aren't gear freaks, the Apex II is the second generation, more versatile model, of probably the most ballyhooed stove in history. I have always been a little suspicious of the Apex, since their initial advertizing contained lots of verbiage about mists and velocities that seemed to require a Ph.D. aerosol physicist to interpret. In addition, the advertizing beat the actual stove on the market place by 8 months or so. Anytime you can't buy equipment for half a year following the initial ad campaign, one wonders if several "bugs" have been found. Finally, I was somewhat leery, mainly because the Apex II is a Coleman product, and, one of my hiking buddies is on his third Peak I stove, the first two having failed him on the trail. However, another hiking buddy has been using the Apex I for several months, without a catastrophic failure.

A little about the Apex II: it has the appearance of a miniature Apollo Lunar Lander that has been stepped on by a grizzly. It has three fold-out legs, one of which has a small screw which can be adjusted in the field to make the top of the stove level, even when the ground is not. Since I have a real problem with boiled pasta sliding off the stove and on to the muddy ground, this is a feature that I can really appreciate. The tripod support system and low center of gravity makes it probably the most stable stove I have ever seen or used. (Note: At the time this article was written, the MSR Dragonfly was not on the market. It is vastly more stable than any other stove.) The WhisperLite is also a tripod design, but with a much higher center of gravity. There is no separate windscreen with the Apex II, but it does have wind baffles. In contrast, the Whisperlite has a heavy aluminum foil windscreen, and heat reflector, which wears out from repeated folding, and must be replaced every two or three years. At first blush, it looks like Coleman stole its design from MSR. Both systems have a separate fuel pump, and the fuel storage tank acts as the fuel supply tank. However, there are some important differences. Coleman mixes air with the fuel inside the tank, and sprays an aerosol out into the burner. MSR just sprays heated fuel into the burner, and does the air mixing in the burner. Coleman claims that you can pump up the stove (50??!!! strokes) and light the burner, and produce instant blue flame. In all of the times that I have used the stove, it has done that once. All of the rest of the times, I have observed a large (12 - 18" high) plume of yellow flame, which dies down to a nice blue cooking flame after a little less than a minute. Do NOT be tempted to light this thing in your tent, unless you want some extra ventilation.

The Apex II is supposed to able to use regular unleaded gasoline. I haven't tried that yet, but came close when the stove burned through nearly a gallon of Coleman fuel in two weeks. But, oh boy does the Apex simmer: like a champ. You can throttle it down so that water will no longer boil, but just stay very hot. I have never seen another stove do that. This is really nice, because so many dinners require you to heat whatever glop you're cooking to boiling, and then simmer for 10 minutes or so. I usually end up pulling my glop off of my WhisperLite after it boils, and then putting it back on the stove every few minutes, as a surrogate for simmering.

But, alas, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and such it is with the Apex II. It weighs about 3 oz more than the WhisperLite, and the manufacturer's instructions state that you must use it with a one-third empty fuel bottle. That means that you are carrying around more fuel bottle than you might need for the WhisperLite, at least for the first part of your trip. Of course, a bigger consideration is not the weight of the stove, but the weight of the fuel that you must bring to cook the meals you are going to eat. How much fuel do the two stoves use? Well, let me first describe the test: The test was designed to mimic something close to what one might actually do on the trail. I lit each stove from a cold start, got the flame to a nice usable blue color, and started heating 2100 mL of water in a 2.5 Liter pot. As soon as the first pot boiled (yes, I used the same criteria for "boiling" on each stove, and yes, the pots and the water were the same temperature), I removed it, and replaced it with a 1.5 liter pot containing 1200 mL of water. When the second pot reached full boil, I removed it from the stove, and turned the stove off. I compared the weights of the fuel bottles plus pump before and after the test to determine the fuel consumption. Note that the test was conducted with Knoxville tap water, and an ambient temperature of about 85 F. However, the test site was my garage floor, at 1060 ft. elevation. When you use these stoves in the wilderness, you will probably be using colder water, but at a higher elevation (water boils at a lower temperature) and with more wind. My guess is that you would use slightly more fuel to do the same test at the top of the Smokies, but I have been wrong before. The data from the test is listed below. (Note that the Apex was run at slightly less that full burn, in order to maximize its heating efficiency. At full burn, the flames may go outside even a relatively large pot.)

Table 1

Comparison of Stove Performance
Coleman Apex II vs. MSR WhisperLite
Activity WhisperLite Apex II
Time to achieve cooking flame, min. 1:15 0:48
Time to bring 2100 mL to boil, min. 11:23 10:22
Additional time to bring the 2nd pot (1200 mL) to boil, min. 6:48 6:06
Fuel consumption, grams 42 55

Bottom line: Is the Apex II faster? Yes, slightly. Is it more convenient? Without a doubt. Does it use more fuel? Unquestionably. About 30% more, in this particular test, and probably more under windier conditions. That kind of difference can add up. For example, suppose you are on an 8-day traverse of the Bailey Range in the Olympic Mountains (See link), and you know from experience that you will use 30 fluid oz. of fuel with your WhisperLite. (Actually, with all of the clothes washing and cooking I do on an 8-day trip, I do really go through just about 30 oz.) Such would fit very nicely in your 1 liter Sigg fuel bottle (despite what MSR says about absolutely having to use an MSR fuel bottle), and still have room for the WhisperLite pump. To do the same tasks with the Apex, you will need at least 39 oz of fuel. In addition to the 16 fluid oz that you can store in your 22 oz Coleman fuel bottle, you will need another 23 fluid oz of fuel stored in another fuel bottle. So you have added another half pound of fuel to your load (fuel has a density of about 0.85 grams/mL) plus the extra 5 oz or so that the additional fuel bottle weighs. And don't forget that the Apex II weighs about 3 oz more than the WhisperLite. So to enjoy the simmerability of the Apex II, plan on hauling an extra pound for that seven night trip. Or, in my case, since Susie usually carries the stove and fuel, I'll let her carry it.

Of course, fuel consumption is not the only consideration. An additional factor when considering any backpacking stove is the ease with which one can repair the thing under field conditions. Even the best designed systems eventually fail when subjected to the rigors of being squeezed into the last remaining cubic inches of an overstuffed backpack, or allowing yesterday's boiled-over oatmeal to bake into the orifices while heating tomorrow's coffee. Since I haven't owned the Apex II for very long, I called another hiking buddy of mine who has had one for several months. When I asked George what he thought about field repair of the stove, the first words out of his mouth were "BIG PROBLEM!" This immediately caught my attention, since George is an engineer, and while I have been called many things in my life (especially by my ex-wives), engineer has never been one of them. To make a long story short, and in language which will make it past the editor of this newsletter, let's just say that the pump, which provides the pressure to make the Apex's aerosol cloud emanate from the burner orifice, seems to have been constructed by the inventor of the Jack-in-the Box. Once you begin to disassemble it, it is likely to "explode," with the tiny spring headed south, and the ball valve, about the size of the ball on a ballpoint pen, headed for the arctic. George recommends carrying a gallon size zip-lock bag in which to disassemble the pump, so when the parts do become airborne, they will be captured by the bag. Sounds like fun in the rain, huh. In addition, both George and I have noticed that a day or two squashed in a pack or duffel bag results in some bent windscreen/pot support fins on the Apex. The amount of re-straightening required makes you wonder how long the spot welds will survive. Oh yes, one practical field tip: Do not leave the Apex II out in the rain. No, it won't melt like the Wicked Witch of the North, but the jets do get water in them, and starting the stove with water-soaked jets will first result in a frenzy of sputtering, followed by a flame that make the 18-incher present under normal start-up seem like a mere flicker.

Lest you think that I consider the WhisperLite the saint of field repair, let me state unequivocally that the reputation of the original WhisperLite's clogging in nothing short of notorious. Unless you carried a small bottle of alcohol to use as start-up juice for the WhisperLite, there would be a lot of carbon deposit, which could crap things up. In addition, the tiny jet which spits the fuel vapor into the burner ports typically gets obstructed with carbon, slowing the rate at which fuel vapors are fed to the burner ports. So the bad news was that every five or six days, the burner jet needed cleaning. The good news was that because of the design of the stove, the operation is/was very easy to perform. Just screw off the bottom plate, pop out the jet holder, and clean the jet with the tiny wire provided with the stove. If you are slow, like me, it will take you four minutes. The stove's pump is very easy to disassemble, repair if necessary, and re-assemble. However, The clogging problem has been solved with the introduction of the ShakerJet version of the WhisperLite. We have now used one for nearly 7 years, and there has never been problem with clogging. And the stove is still easy to field maintain. Just make sure that every few trips, you oil the pump leather.

Now about this time, Will Skelton will interject some remark about the Svea not coming with a repair kit, because it doesn't need one. Well, perhaps. But I do remember a time when he blew a 10 year old fuel tank gasket, and was treated to a real conflagration before he finally got a new one from another hiker. If you have ever carbonized the wick inside that type of burner assembly (and I have), you will know what a delight the wick is to change. And anyone who has ever overheated their Svea and been treated to flaming hair or a singed arm as the pressure relief valve does its thing by releasing a huge cloud of heated vapor adjacent to the flame will attest to the fact that no stove is perfect. And of course, as I sit around the communal cooking area, I always look forward to the Sveas being turned off, so that we can all hear ourselves talk. There is a reason why they call the MSR the WhisperLite. And as far as fuel consumption goes, based on a similar test which I conducted several years ago, the Svea and the WhisperLite use about the same amount.

So what kind of choices are there? Well, it depends on what on what's important to you. If you are into loud noises, you can always buy a Svea. As for me: Do I like the Apex II? You bet. Will I take it on all of those weekend trips in the Smokies? No doubt. Will it be in Susie's pack when we do that 8 day traverse of the Bailey Range? What do you think?

Roger A. Jenkins, 1993, 1998, 2006, 2007