BACKPACKER Editors' Choice 2007: MSR Reactor and Primus EtaPower

These cooking systems offer remarkable power, efficiency, and wind resistance to gourmet cooks and noodle boilers alike.
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These cooking systems offer remarkable power, efficiency, and wind resistance to gourmet cooks and noodle boilers alike.

As Oregon's weather pounded us, all went well in the kitchen, thanks to two excellent new stoves that advance the integrated burner/pot/heat exchanger system pioneered several years ago by Jetboil.

The MSR Reactor and Primus EtaPower are virtually immune to wind, and their near-total heat capture makes for unprecedented boil times and fuel efficiency. Side by side, these two stoves churned out a succession of fast gourmet meals in challenging conditions. The devotees of speedy, no-brainer, add-water-and-eat meals voted for the Reactor. Those of us with families to feed and more demanding tastes preferred the versatile EtaPower. After much debate, we decided to honor them both.

For weight-minded alpinists and simple eaters looking for a two-person cook kit to whip up one-pot meals in even a stiff gale, the MSR Reactor offers a whole new level of convenience, speed, and trailworthiness. The tall, 1.7-liter pot has molded aluminum heat-exchange fins on the bottom.A full-circle flange around the perimeter protects the fins, forms a stable pot support, and creates a fully sealed chamber, so barely a BTU gets lost due to wind or radiation.

Staff foodies were disappointed by the lack of a low-simmer setting, but they loved the secure foldover handle, the half-liter volume markings, and the clear lid that let them examine the rice without losing heat and steam. In the field, the Reactor was eerily silent; we kept lifting the pot to check on the glowing heat element. But it burned hot—its 1-liter boil time hovered at a blisteringly fast 3:30. At pack-up time, the burner and attached canister drop neatly into the cookpot (albeit with a bit of rattling), and a sturdy metal handle folds over the lid, locking the system into a well-armored 5×6" cylinder that fits seamlessly into most ultralight packs.

The Primus, by contrast, uses separate burner and canister attachments connected by a flexible fuel tube. The wide-footed burner sits directly on the ground, completely surrounded by a removable windscreen that looks like a large bottomless pan. The broad footprint makes for foolproof stability and means it'll take most any pot, even an Outback Oven. The system currently comes with a 2.1-liter pot with integrated heat exchanger and a frying-pan lid; this combination posted the fastest boil times our testers have ever seen (2:40 for a room-temp liter of water in summer at sea level).

Gourmets will be impressed by its delicate simmer, which can handle the most finicky Alfredo sauce, and penny pinchers will appreciate that it costs $30 less than the Reactor. Our test EtaPower emanated a moderately loud hiss, though we had no problem carrying on camp conversations. Its long, flexible hose lets you invert the fuel canister upside down to burn liquid fuel first, then drain every last gasp of fuel vapor. In cold weather, the EtaPower burned hotter when the cartridge was upside down, but also sputtered briefly whenever the canister was tipped back and forth.

The system makes for a bulky package (9×5¼"), but comes with a padded zip case to corral the contents and act as an insulated pot cover. A 1.7-liter heat-exchange pot is available separately ($37).

MSR Reactor $140; 1 lb. 2 oz. (800) 531-9531; msrgear.com.

Primus EtaPower $110; 1 lb. 14 oz. (307) 332-0901; primuscamping.com.