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Reviews > Cook and Food Storage Gear > Stoves > MSR Reactor Stove > Test Report by Hollis Easter
MSR (Mountain Safety Research) Reactor Stove
During the Field Reporting phase, I used the MSR Reactor for a total of six field days, with several tests at home.
I used the Reactor while kayak camping and hiking near Saranac Lake, NY, from August 14–17. Saranac Lake is at about 1,660 ft (505 m) elevation, and temperatures varied from about 44 F (7 C) to 80 F (27 C). We paddled about 10 miles (16 km) and hiked 7 miles (11 km). On this trip, I was boiling water and making hot chocolate for myself and nine other people.
I also used the Reactor while backpacking in Green Mountain National Forest near Stratton, VT from August 30–September 1. We intended a section hike of the Appalachian and Long Trails, but due to an injury during the first day, we made a base camp at Stratton Pond and did day hikes from there. Total mileage was about 18 miles (29 km) at elevations from 1,700 ft (520 m) to 4,000 ft (1,200 m). I was boiling water, purifying some water, and cooking pasta for six people.
I wasn't able to assess how many boils the Reactor provided on a single canister during this period. Several other people cooked with the Reactor, and the field conditions didn't allow them to take notes (I use a portable audio recorder to take notes). During the Stratton trip, I used the Reactor to cook spaghetti for some very blood-sugar-deprived backpackers, and I chose not to spend my attention on timing the boils.
So: I can't report on how many boils I got with the canister, but I can say that it was a lot. The times I have for the other boils are accurate according to my digital watch. During field use, it wasn't possible to weigh the canister between boils, so I've omitted those results.
|Volume of water||Air temperature||Wind speed||Water temperature||Boiling time||Fuel weight|
|1 L||63 F (17 C)||69 F (20 C)||2:45|
|1 L||65 F (18 C)||22 mph (35 kph)||58 F (14 C)||3:23||.49 oz (14 g)|
|0.5 L||77 F (25 C)||4 mph (6 kph)||60 F (15 C)||1:41||5 g|
|0.25 L||77 F (25 C)||4 mph (6 kph)||60 F (15 C)||0:58||6 g|
|1 L||75 F (24 C)||18 mph (29 kph)||71 F (22 C)||2:50||10 g|
|0.5 L||45 F (7 C)||3 mph (5 kph)||1:48|
|1 L||45 F (7 C)||3 mph (5 kph)||3:20|
|1 L||45 F||8 mph (13 kph)||3:43|
|1 L||50 F (10 C)||8 mph (13 kph)||3:05|
|1.3 L||53 F (12 C)||12 mph (19 kph)||3:40|
|1.4 L||60 F (15 C)||3 mph (5 kph)||3:02|
|1.1 L||60 F (15 C)||3 mph (5 kph)||2:45|
|about 4 L||60 F (15 C)||6 mph (10 kph)||about 3:00 per liter|
|0.5 L||55 F (12 C)||8 mph (13 kph)||2:28|
|1.3 L||58 F (14 C)||8 mph (13 kph)||6:07|
|0.6 L||58 F (14 C)||10 mph (16 kph)||3:05|
|about 3 L||65 F (18 C)||10 mph (16 kph)||about 3:30 per liter|
|Change of canister from larger (now-empty) MSR to smaller MSR|
|1.2 L||50 F (10 C)||7 mph (11 kph)||4:58|
My standard procedure for using the Reactor is to unpack all the pieces onto my lap, place the Packtowl in a pocket, and start putting together the stove. When the stove is packed, the fuel valve is open about a quarter turn, so it's very important to close the fuel valve before assembling the stove. I then screw the stove onto the canister, and the system is ready to use.
MSR doesn't include documentation about what "settings" to use on the fuel valve for optimal speed or endurance, so I've been experimenting. Early in the test, I used the stove with the fuel valve opened to full-bore setting; later on, I barely cracked it open, leaving it between 45° and 90° from the closed position. It didn't seem to make too much difference in boil times, but I think it may affect endurance, since the stove sounds louder with the valve farther open.
I find the Reactor easy to light, even in windy conditions. Crack the valve open, apply flame or spark, and it's on. I began the test with matches, moved to a butane lighter, and have most recently been using a Light My Fire Firesteel. I'm happiest with the Firesteel, actually: it makes it easy to light the stove without getting my hands anywhere near the cloud of gas.
Just to note: some online advertising for the Reactor claims that it includes a piezoelectric ignition system; mine does not have this feature, so I've had to supply my own sparks.
MSR calls the Reactor windproof, and it deserves the name. I've tested it in all kinds of conditions, from hard rain to bright sun, from calm to very strong winds, and I've never used a windscreen or even a windbreak like a tree or backpack. Boiling a liter of water in 22 mph (35 kph) wind, unblocked, takes only 38 seconds longer than in calm. I am seriously impressed.
I noticed an oily film floating on the surface of my water after the first few boils, even after I'd washed the pot repeatedly with soap and water. I didn't notice any flavor from it, and it has dissipated over time.
I like the fact that the handle never gets hot. It's always been comfortable to use, even after extended use.
The Reactor tolerates sloping ground very well. The pot's heat exchanger works nicely to lock the stove and pot together, keeping things from sliding away. I haven't yet found the lunatic fringe of acceptable stove angle, but it's always been easy to find a spot that would cook easily, remaining stable.
I worried that, with the radiant burner, it might be a problem if the bottom of the pot had dirt or pine needles on it. I take care to brush them off, but I have no idea whether this is necessary.
The Reactor is definitely most useful for boiling water quickly. It really shines in that area. I had a cup of coffee less than five minutes out of exiting my hammock one morning, and that includes brewing time. I haven't yet had any really cold conditions, but the stove seems to work fine down into temperatures a bit above freezing.
Cooking on the Reactor has been a different story. It seems to have two speeds: "Lightning Fast" and "Off". The stove does not simmer—even when it's almost off, it'll hold a tumultuous boil. I cooked spaghetti in the Reactor, and I had to hold the pot 6 in (15 cm) above the burner before it would boil without flinging water everywhere.
One night, I made hot chocolate in the Reactor using real milk. I stirred it constantly during the quick heating time, and I did not allow the milk to boil. However, when I was done, I found a layer of burned-on milk on the bottom of the pot, showing the design of the heat exchanger fins. Scrubbing did nothing to remove it; only soaking overnight loosened it enough that I could get it off with elbow grease. Luckily, there were no bears nearby during the overnight soak.
I love the Reactor. It's reliable, fast, and easy to use. It's not a stove for subtle cooking, but it'll boil enough water to make tea and oatmeal for six people in under five minutes, and that's impressive when it's a cold morning.
To my Likes and Dislikes above, I would only add that I like its seemingly high endurance. With my estimated boil times included, I got 20.45 L of water boiled using a single 8 oz (227 g) canister, and that's excellent.
I look forward to continuing its use as the weather begins to cool. Check back in about two months to see how things turn out!
During the Long-Term Reporting phase, I used the MSR Reactor during four more field days, with several additional tests at home.
I used the Reactor on a day hike up Ampersand Mountain (3,352 ft / 1022 m) on September 13th to provide hot chocolate and tea for a flock of thirsty young hikers. It was cool and windy that day, with low clouds that we hiked through. The temperature was around 50 F (10 C) and I would estimate the wind speed on the summit at 17 mph (28 kph). I used the Reactor in an unprotected spot on the windward side of the peak. The boil time was consistent with my earlier use in windy conditions: about four minutes to boil.
I next used the Reactor on a three-day excursion September 25–27 in the northeastern Adirondacks, starting at Wilmington Notch and ending up near Johns Brook Lodge, with elevations up to about 2,400 ft (730 m). We intended to make a four-day circuit of several High Peaks, but it was not to be. We caught the tail of whichever hurricane was coming through the USA that week, and we were hit by the strongest rain I have ever seen on a hike. I was dry and very comfortable in my hammock, but my groundbound friends found their tents and sleeping bags quickly drenched, and we elected to bail out a day early.
I used the Reactor in several locations, ranging from a table outside Johns Brook Lodge to the flooded ground in our campsite, huddled under a tarp with three good friends. Temperatures ranged from 38 F (3 C) to around 60 F (16 C). It was sometimes calm, sometimes very windy, and I was too busy trying to stay dry and warm to really pay much attention to the speed. I would estimate that it boiled water in about four minutes, as normal. More on that later.
I also tested the Reactor in my backyard on November 2nd while testing a winter insulation system for my hammock. Temperatures went to ~22 F (-6 C) in the night, with wind blowing at 10 knots (19 kph). When I woke in the morning, the temperature had risen to about 40 F (4 C). I'd kept some water in a Nalgene bottle inside my hammock, so it was cold but not frozen; I left my fuel canister in my pack on the ground, and it was very cold in the morning. A liter of water boiled in four minutes and forty-eight seconds (4:48), which is slower than the warm-weather speeds but still respectable.
I always sought flat ground for the Reactor, but even when I couldn't find it, the pot always stayed firmly on the burner. I haven't had problems with tipping, either. A modicum of care serves one well here.
In some parts of the Adirondacks, the rangers recommend putting all cooking gear inside bear canisters. The Reactor fits fully inside my BearVault BV-400 canister, although it takes up a lot of room. Speaking of which, I have to get a new bear canister, because the Adirondack bears have figured out how to bite that one open. Bummer.
The Reactor pot's quantity markings agree with those on my kitchen measuring cups. This makes it possible to estimate quantities of water for dehydrated foods. The Reactor works fine even when filled to the 1.7-liter mark, despite the stern warnings never to put more than a liter of water in the pot.
MSR recommends against packing the stove while wet, which makes me wonder whether the included Packtowl should be used for drying. My usual procedure is to shake the pot dry, then finish the job with the Packtowl before packing up the stove. I haven't noticed rust anywhere on the stove or pot, nor have I noticed any reduced function so far.
Speaking of packing, I want to point out that the flame adjuster, when packed, leaves the valve slightly open. This means that one should unfold the adjuster and then close the valve fully before screwing the burner onto a fuel canister.
Due to the vagaries of international commerce, I was not able to use MSR fuel canisters exclusively; they weren't always available. I also used an old Primus canister and a new Coleman canister. They functioned very well with the stove, although I did note a slight propensity for the Coleman canisters to "whoosh" while lighting the stove. I wonder whether the Coleman canisters have a higher vapor pressure or something, causing quicker dispersal in air. In any case, this was not a problem since I'm not in the habit of standing over the stove while I light it.
For reference, the MSR IsoPro canisters are a mixture of isobutane and propane; the Coleman canister is a mixture of butane and propane. Neither canister specifies percentages. I no longer have the Primus canister to check its fuel composition.
Except when using the other canisters (which were not authorized by the manufacturer), I have never found the Reactor to flare or engage in any of the other common forms of stove malfeasance. It's basically bombproof: lights easily in rain and wind, stays lit, and behaves well.
I have not done any significant maintenance on the Reactor, because it hasn't needed it. I keep its Lindal valve assembly out of the dirt, and do not let food spill on the stove. I have noticed some discoloration of the Reactor pot and the grillework on the burner head, but it's quite minor.
In general terms, the Reactor performs identically in windy conditions and in calm ones. I don't notice any wind noise when I'm using the stove, and I have never seen the Reactor be blown out by the wind. Even when the stove is still in its preheat stage, it seems to be immune to wind. I've never seen it blow out, and the preheat stage never takes more than about 20 seconds.
I like the fact that it's really easy to teach other hikers how to use the Reactor. I've had some friends whose understanding of priming methods was spotty; it's nice to be able to say "Screw it together, turn on the gas, light it, go."
The Reactor continues to be thrifty with its fuel usage. I haven't had enough really cold weather to comment on how sub-freezing temperatures affect the stove, but the Reactor performs solidly in all the temperatures I've experienced so far.
One nice thing about the efficiency of the Reactor's total system is that it gives off very little heat to the surrounding air. At Johns Brook Lodge, space was very tight in our cooking area, and I was busily boiling water for pasta and beverages. I sat on a bear canister, put the Reactor between my feet, and set up my liquid-fuel stove off to the side. Neither my feet nor my legs felt any heat until I took the pot off the stove.
When I first got the Reactor, I planned to use it for cooking all sorts of delicacies. In truth, I've mostly used it to boil water, because it excels at that task. I tried cooking a few things in it, but I found that the high heat output made controlled cooking very difficult.
And honestly, that's fine with me. In my movement toward lighter packing, I've been doing a lot with made-at-home dehydrated foods that just need boiling water. I've also specialized: I've been the chef during our last few trips, so I've brought the Reactor and a liquid-fuel stove that simmers well. I make the fondue on the liquid-fuel stove; I boil water for soups and beverages and oatmeal and pasta and other uses on the Reactor. I have found that this is a very easy system to work with. Having a canister stove and a liquid-fuel stove adds redundancy, which was nice when my liquid-fuel stove started malfunctioning in Vermont due to old fuel.
Reliability is really important for a stove, and I glimpsed the reason why during this test. As we pulled into camp at Johns Brook Lodge, it had been raining increasingly hard for several hours, and we were all soaked and cold underneath our rain shells. We chose to set up our shelters during the fading daylight, saving dinner for afterwards. As the cook in the group, I was going through our list of food options, figuring out what could be made quickly without much fuss.
I also started worrying about hypothermia among our team. I was starting to see significant shivering, poorer muscle coordination, and a general lack of energy. We needed something warm, now.
With the Reactor, I didn't even worry about the stove. I knew from experience that it would light easily on the first try, and that we'd be drinking hot chocolate very quickly. I put up the cooking tarp, unpacked the stove, and made drinks. Words like "flawless" and "perfect" come to mind in describing how easy the stove was to work with that day. It earned my praise.
Will I keep using it? Absolutely. If I'm working with a group, I'll probably keep bringing two stoves for increased versatility and capacity, but for myself, the Reactor is great. MSR deserves praise for building a bomber piece of gear.
I thank BackpackGearTest and Mountain Safety Research for allowing me to test the MSR Reactor. I love it.
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