Professional explorer Mike Libecki has burned through a lot of gear on the 85 expeditions he’s done to some of the world’s most remote places. He’s experienced the harshest conditions Mama Nature deals out, like minus 67 degree temperatures in Siberia and blazing-hot jungles in Bhutan. In those situations, he can’t count on unreliable products.
Over the past ten years, he’s taken the same two MSR XGK stoves ($160) on every single expedition. (Libecki is sponsored by MSR.) “You can take a hammer and beat an ice casing off of it, then fire that thing right up,” he says. “It’s always the workhorse that gets stuff done.”
Libecki says the XGK is “what matters most” during his trips to extremely cold environments. “Bottom line is—you go out to Antarctica or Greenland—if your stoves fail, your trip is done, but maybe your life, too,” he says. “You’re melting every single drop that you’re drinking, because you’re living in a freezer.”
The reason he’s entrusted his life to the same two stoves for the past decade? The XGK always works.
I spoke with Owen Mesdag, senior product developer at MSR, to find out why. It turns out that the stove’s reliability is a result of simple design. You pour liquid fuel into your bottle, pressurize it by pumping, and just open the valve to deliver the fuel to the burner. “If you could somehow swim through the fuel channel, you would be able to go from the fuel bottle through the pump, down the hose, through the generator loop, and out the hole in the fuel jet,” Mesdag says. “It’s completely open.”
That open channel makes it remarkably easy to repair in the field, and it also cuts down possible mechanical failures over the life of the stove, unlike more complicated canister versions. “If you were to run water through your garden hose, your hose isn’t going to break from running water through it,” Mesdag says. “It’s just a delivery system. It’s how to control liquid fuel from a pressurized vessel and release it in a usable form.”
Libecki has not only used the XGK on dozens of expeditions, but sometimes for hundreds of hours per trip, due to how much time it takes to melt water. And that requires a lot of fuel. Luckily, the stove can run on just about anything combustible. “You go to all of these places around the world, and fuel options are usually limited,” he says. “You might have benzene, you might have diesel fuel, you might even have jet fuel, but you could put Bacardi 151 in this thing.”
And if that combustible fuel has serious contamination that gums up the stove? The XGK has an inner lining built specifically to be removed, and used as a pipe cleaner for the main hose. Additionally, a hair-thin shaker needle lives inside the jet and actively cleans the jet when the stove moves around (for example, while you’re walking to base camp and it’s moving from side to side in your pack).
Finally, its physical durability is the result of the simple metal three-leg, three-arm stand surrounding the stove itself. Libecki regularly swings the stove like a weapon into a rock or hits it with an ice ax to remove ice from the exterior. “You can just beat up the outside. The worst you are going to do is dent it,” Mesdag says. “We machine and bend all of our parts together in-house, so we know how strong they are.”
For all its simplicity, though, the XGK is not an easy stove to learn how to use. You need to know how to pressurize it and preheat it before you can get it fired up, which takes some time. Canister stoves—like the WindBurner from MSR or most of Jetboil’s offerings—can be taken right out of the box, connected to fuel, and get you cooking with the click of a button.
Mesdag likens this to driving a stick-shift vehicle. “If you get in an automatic, you can just go, which is great until it breaks,” Mesdag says. When it comes to stoves, that payoff is arguable for a weekend summer backpacking trip, where a broken stove means cold ramen for dinner. It absolutely isn’t OK for polar explorers like Libecki.