This week’s review of the Mountain Safety Research (MSR) Reactor Stove System continues the Alpenglow Sports “Light is Right” thread for summer 2011. The third topic in a summer-long series of in-depth outdoor equipment reviews, the hope is to educate and motivate on anything and everything light and trend setting.

MSR has always been a trendsetter in the world of backpacking equipment. In addition to well-known stoves such as the Pocket Rocket, Whisperlite and XGK, the list of innovations includes ultra-light tents, cookware, water filters, and snowshoes.

However, it is still their innovations in the stove genre that keep the MSR name at the forefront of the industry. With the advent of their Reactor Stove System in 2007, they up’ed the ante yet again. A revolutionary design, the Reactor is an integrated state-of-the-art “system” with unmatched wind protection, unrivaled boil time, and maximum fuel efficiency.

Covered in our Jetboil Sol Cooking System last week, it is well known that canister stoves excel in some areas and falter in others. Traditionally canister stoves have come under criticism for longer trips and bigger groups due to increased fuel requirements and/or functionality in cold temperatures. Other sticking points include canister refuse and storage and a lack of simmering capability. Their pros are obvious: ease of use, featherweight, compact size, and fast boil times.

Most importantly for this review, however, is to recall that there is a loss of traditional canister stove efficiency with successive boils due to a decrease in pressure within the canister itself. The result of this is a continual increase in boil times for a given volume of water. The Reactor, like the Jetboil Sol, is an exception to this rule.

MSR bills their Reactor as the fastest, most fuel-efficient stove system ever built. A bold statement, but one which can be validated by in-the-field tests AND a clear understanding of how traditional fuel canister stoves function. MSR achieves this fuel-efficiency through a patent-pending radiant burner enclosed by a unique heat exchanger for unmatched performance.

In lay terms, the stove and pot are combined into one compact unit, complete with a built in windscreen.  Add to this an advanced pressure regulator that provides optimal heat output over the lifetime of the canister and they have indeed created the first and most optimal boiling efficiency in the outdoor industry. The boil time on the Reactor hovers right around 3 minutes for a single liter of water. Mentioned earlier, the closest competitor to the MSR Reactor is the Jetboil Sol, which boils 16 ounces of water in 2.25 minutes. This makes it obvious that the Reactor’s power blows everything completely out of the water.

Some detractors argue that a packed weight of 18.8 ounces is too heavy for a canister stove. This common misperception is easily debunked when one compares the specific burn time of the Reactor to other stoves. For instance, the MSR Pocket Rocket (3oz.) yields 60 minutes of burn time and 16 liters of water per 8 oz. fuel canister.  The Reactor, on the other hand, yields 80 minutes of burn time and 22 liters of water. Notice that this might not seem like a huge difference on paper, especially when one considers the $160 price tag on the Reactor.

However, remember that this is a “best case” scenario for the Pocket Rocket and if there is any wind in the equation that separation will increase exponentially due to the built-in windscreen of the Reactor. Also, consider how many less fuel canisters one must take when using the Reactor – 20 minutes of burn time and 6 additional liters of water is HUGE on a longer trip. Less canisters = less weight, less trash, and less allocated pack space. Additionally, the Reactor maintains efficiency even at higher and consequently colder altitudes. Ultimately, if one does the math of heavier stove (Reactor or Jetboil Sol) versus increased fuel weight, the heavier stove always nets out ahead. Put simply, the Reactor is heavier than most traditional canister stoves, but with the tiny amount of fuel needed, it comes out ahead for medium to long trips.

We should interject here and say that there is a time and place for the Pocket Rocket, Jetboil, and Reactor. For your light, fast and short missions, where cooking consists mostly of boiling water, the previous two are the go-to setups. For longer trips, windier environments, higher altitudes, or larger groups, the Reactor is the ticket. As most of us will never own more than one backpacking stove, the choice is yours to make!

In addition to efficiency and power, ancillary features of the Reactor also stand out. First, the stove unit and fuel canister stow inside of the 1.7 L pot, making it good for everything from solo missions to large groups. Second, a collapsible, stay-cool flip handle locks the BPA-free, heat-resistant see-thru lid in place for safe and easy transport.  Third, a glove friendly flame adjuster allows the user to employ the stove in colder environments and actually cook with the system.

MSR also offers a separate 2.5 L hard-anodized aluminum pot with an integrated heat exchanger ($90). This allows the system to used as a water making and cooking powerhouse for larger groups, especially when combined with the regular 1.7L pot. Weighing in at 13.8 ounces, it’s a tad heavy but is great for base camp operations, melting water, and gourmet cooking. Physical attributes include a modular, quick release Talon pot handle, and a BPA-free strainer lid.

Top all of that off with the fact that it is made in the USA and we see that overall, it’s just a damn sexy creation.

If you are in need of an efficient stove that burns well for large groups and/or at higher altitudes, we can strongly recommend MSR’s Reactor. Don’t believe the hype? Come in to Alpenglow Sports and you can borrow one for free!

Alpenglow Sports is Northern California’s go-to resource for all things outdoor. Summer specialties include trail running, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing. Come see us for the friendliest most knowledgeable specialty service in town!


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