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MSR XGK-EX Stove Review

Were there ever a line of MSR stoves that needed no introduction, it might just be the MSR XGK EX Liquid Fuel Stove.  When Larry Penberthy introduced his Model 9 stove, the first in the XGK line, he revolutionized stoves and ushered in the modern mountaineering/backpacking stove era.

Specs at a Glance:

  • Manufacturer: MSR, a division of Cascade Designs.
  • MSRP:$159.95 (USD)
  • Stated Weight: 490 g/17 ounces
  • Measured Weight: 489 g/17.2 ounces
    • Stove: 320 g/11.3 oz
    • Pump: 66 g/2.3 oz
    • Windscreen: 58 g / 2.0 oz
    • Toolkit: 18 g / 0.6
    • Bag: 18 g / 0.6 oz
    • Heat Reflector: 9 g/0.3 oz
  • Materials: Burner:  Steel with brass fittings; Pump:  Plastic with brass fittings.
  • Burner Dimensions: 8.5 cm/3.5″ tall, 8.5 cm/3.1″ x 8 cm/3.8” wide. (Folded, not incl. fuel hose)
  • Pot support Span: 10 cm/3.9” (from center of burner to tip)
  • Size/Model tested: XGK-EX (only one size/model).
  • Requirements: A standard threaded liquid fuel bottle (sold separately).

The History Making Nature of the XGK

For a long period of time, backcountry stoves were “upright” style stoves with the burner mounted directly on top of the tank or with the tank in very close proximity to the burner.  The heat from burner was used in part to pressurize the fuel tank.  Indeed, many small stoves had no pump at all and worked on thermal feedback alone.

An MSR XGK-EX stove in use. Note how the windscreen separates the burner from the fuel bottle (far right).An MSR XGK-EX stove in use. Note how the windscreen separates the burner from the fuel bottle (far right).

The disadvantages of the upright style of stoves were twofold:

  • The tank was small, and a separate fuel bottle had to be carried for refilling.
  • Upright stoves were very vulnerable to wind. Since the burner was right near the tank, you couldn’t enclose the burner in a windscreen for fear that you might overheat the tank and BOOM!  Exploding stoves tend to put a damper on backcountry trips.

Mr. Penberthy, an engineer with a passion for mountaineering, learned that many mountaineering emergencies such as hypothermia could be traced back to dehydration.  Why dehydration?  The stoves of the day were heavy affairs and quite vulnerable to wind.  Many mountaineers simply refused to carry a stove, and, lacking a stove to melt snow, ran out of water.  Penberthy decided to design a new generation of stoves.

The fuel bottles of the day were typically Sigg aluminum fuel bottles.  Mr. Penberthy, an engineer, realized that the Sigg bottle itself was plenty strong enough to withstand the pressure used to operate a stove.  He got rid of the fuel tank attached directly to the burner.  Instead, he used the Sigg fuel bottle as the tank and moved it away from the burner.  With the tank well away from the burner, a windscreen could be placed around the burner without fear of overheating the tank.  Indeed, using a windscreen actually made the stove safer. The end result was a stove that was lighter, safer, and less vulnerable to wind.

Mr. Penberthy introduced what was then called the Model 9 in 1973, and it garnered adoption quickly in the mountaineering community.  To this day, the XGK has a reputation among mountaineers as a reliable workhorse for snow melting and water boiling.  The latest incarnation of the XGK is the XGK-EX.  The “X” in “XGK” stands for Expedition.  The “G” and the “K” stand for Gasoline and Kerosene, respectively, and indicate the primary fuels the stove was designed for.  “EX” was added to the name of the stove to emphasize its nature as a stove for expeditions.  If one were to fully spell out the name of the stove, it would be the Expedition Gasoline/Kerosene Expedition stove, which is a bit redundant, but, as I say, MSR was quite keen to emphasize the expedition worthiness of the stove.

An MSR XGK-EX deployed and ready for use.An MSR XGK-EX deployed and ready for use.

Characteristics of the MSR XGK-EX

Well, enough history lesson, let’s take a look at the stove, shall we?

The XGK-EX is a large stove, suitable for the size of pots used for groups or snow melting.  I don’t normally use such a large pot, but the XGK-EX could reasonably support a pot up to five liters in size were it employed on stable, level ground.  The XGK-EX’s pot supports are an improvement over previous generations of the XGK in terms of stability and the ability to support larger pots.

Fuel Bottle

The XGK-EX is fed liquid fuel from a standard MSR fuel bottle (sold separately).  MSR sells 11 (325 ml), 20 (590 ml), and 30 (887 ml) fluid ounce sized bottles.  The bottles will actually hold a bit more than the stated amount for storage, but for use in operating the stove, one must be careful not to overfill the bottle beyond the stated capacity.  A certain amount of air space is required in the bottle so that the pump does not over-pressurize the fuel bottle.

MSR specifies that only MSR fuel bottles should be used with MSR stoves, and of course, the only way MSR can 100% guarantee that a fuel bottle will be safe to use with an MSR stove is to have bottle manufactured to their specifications.  However, in actual practice, many brands of fuel bottles use the same thread and can be used with MSR stoves with reasonable safety.

The best way to pack the windscreen is to roll it around the fuel bottle. Note the large size paper clip holding it in place. When using the windscreen while cooking, the paper clip gives one a high degree of adjustability.The best way to pack the windscreen is to roll it around the fuel bottle. Note the large size paper clip holding it in place. When using the windscreen while cooking, the paper clip gives one a high degree of adjustability.

Recall that originally MSR did not make their own bottles but rather used Sigg bottles.  I myself have used MSR stoves with good results with Sigg, Snow Peak, Optimus, and Kovea fuel bottles.  The only bottles I’ve had trouble with are the ones from Primus.  The threads are the right size and pitch, but the threads are further recessed into the neck of the bottle, and the MSR pump cannot engage.  Note that some other brands of bottles may not be a good fit with the pump collar of the MSR fuel pump.  Generally, your best bet is an MSR fuel bottle, but other brands may suffice in a pinch.

I would not use no-name, knock-off fuel bottles.  Cheap knock off bottles may not be able to withstand the pressure needed to operate the stove.  A failure (typically in the neck area of the bottle) would spill highly flammable fuel near a lit stove.  This might not be in your best interests.

Fuel Pump

The latest MSR fuel pump is what I refer to as the duraseal pump.  Gone is the rubber “O” ring that used to seal the pump to the bottle.  This “O” ring had a tendency to crack with age which could cause dangerous fuel leaks.  The duraseal pump has a red “collar” that screws down over the mouth of the fuel bottle.  At one time, I believe MSR was actually calling this pump the duraseal pump, but their website currently just calls it a fuel pump.

The MSR duraseal fuel pump?Forget any bad things you may have heard about MSR pumps in the past; this one’s a winner.The MSR duraseal fuel pump?Forget any bad things you may have heard about MSR pumps in the past; this one’s a winner.

Other improvements over earlier versions include a standard fuel filter on the fuel intake, a solid, non-deforming air supply tube, a reinforced valve assembly (the old ones would crack if you tightened the valve too much), and a more reliable means of pump shaft retention (the old ones would often crack, leaving the pump shaft free to pull out of the pump body).  Overall, this is the best pump MSR has produced in decades.

In addition, an “arctic” version of the pump (with a blue collar instead of the standard red one) is available for use in temperatures below 32 F/O C.

Note that MSR fuel pumps designed for the Dragonfly stove are not compatible with an XGK-EX.

Priming an MSR XGK-EX with denatured alcoholPriming an MSR XGK-EX with denatured alcohol

Stove Priming

With liquid-fueled stoves, the stove has to be hot enough to vaporize the fuel before it reaches the burner.  If the fuel isn’t fully vaporized, you’ll get a sooty yellow flame instead of a nice, clean blue flame.  In order to get the stove up to operating temperature, one has to “prime” the stove.  One primes the stove by burning a bit of fuel underneath the burner.

There are some challenges associated with priming:

  • Add too much priming fuel, and you’ll have a huge fire-ball.
  • Priming with white gasoline produces a lot of soot that dirties the stove. Kerosene is even worse.

One of the ways around these challenges is to bring along a small bottle of ethyl, methyl, or denatured alcohol.  Do not use isopropyl (“rubbing”) alcohol for priming!  Isopropyl alcohol does not burn cleanly.

Alcohol has several advantages over using white gasoline or kerosene for priming:

  • Alcohol burns cleanly and doesn’t leave a lot of soot.
  • Alcohol is less volatile than gasoline and doesn’t tend to fireball the way gasoline does
  • It’s far easier to control the amount of priming fuel used when using a little alcohol squeeze bottle.

Alcohol works great as a priming fuel in decent weather.  In really cold or windy weather, one must be prepared to double prime with alcohol.  Great care should be taken when double priming since the stove will already be hot from the first prime and could ignite the alcohol.  In actual practice, I’ve not had a problem with such premature ignitions, but one should take care.  Another, safer, option is to crack the valve a bit add some gasoline the normal way (from the fuel tank) during the priming process.

A small alcohol squeeze bottle of the type commonly used for priming can be seen at right. At left is a Bunsen burner pad. The Bunsen burner pad can be used as a heat diffuser. At top is the small parts kit that comes with each XGK-EXA small alcohol squeeze bottle of the type commonly used for priming can be seen at right.
At left is a Bunsen burner pad. The Bunsen burner pad can be used as a heat diffuser.
At top is the small parts kit that comes with each XGK-EX

Stove Burner

The MSR XGK-EX uses a simple “roarer” (vortex) type burner.  This is the simplest type of burner design.  With little to go wrong, it’s reliable and relatively easy to maintain.  However, as one might gather from the name “roarer,” it isn’t exactly quiet.  If one is bothered by loud noise, another stove might make a better choice.  Indeed, the MSR Whisperlite was developed at least in part to give backpackers an alternative to the rather loud XGK.

The XGK’s burner is extremely robust and can burn pretty much any type of fuel.  The best fuels are white gasoline and kerosene, but automotive gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, and other fuels may be burned.  Automotive gasoline, aviation gasoline, and especially diesel #2 make poor choices for stove fuel and may shorten the life of the stove if used extensively.  Diesel #1 isn’t a bad fuel, but 1-K grade (US designation, designations elsewhere may vary) kerosene is the better choice.  “Bunker” fuel of the type used in the maritime industry should be avoided.

The other downside to the XGK’s burner (other than the noise level) is the lack of good flame control.  The joke is that the XGK has but two settings:  “Off” and “Blazing Inferno.”  The reality is a bit more nuanced, but suffice it to say that the XGK is not a true cook’s stove.  While the XGK excels at snow melting and water boiling, if one wanted to do more complex forms of cooking, the XGK would not be a good choice.  One can get a lower flame than “blazing inferno” by using a half-empty (or more) fuel bottle and only using 5 pump strokes instead of the normal 20 to 30 strokes.  I wouldn’t call the resultant flame good for simmering, but it is quite a bit lower than a full-on blazing inferno.

An MSR XGK-EX running on reduced flame. Not as low as a true simmer, but not a full roiling boil either.An MSR XGK-EX running on reduced flame. Not as low as a true simmer, but not a full roiling boil either.

I’ve found that I can cook instant rice, instant noodles, etc. on an XGK-EX reasonably well, without sticking or burning, using my reduced pressure technique as described above and doing a lot of stirring.  One can also use some type of flame diffuser to lower the intensity of the flame.

Even with reduced pressure, a lot of stirring, and a flame diffuser of some sort, I still would not say that an MSR XGK-EX is a good stove for sophisticated cooking.

The MSR XGK-EX’s burner is most definitely an expedition stove burner.  A small, compact burner for an individual it is not.  It’s designed for groups and large pots.  Still, in a 1.3 L Evernew pot, I was able to pack in the stove, parts kit, and some utensils reasonably well.  I typically keep the pump in the bottle while out on the trail.  This is generally the best protection for the most sensitive parts of the pump, and it’s an efficient use of space.  Note that I do not keep the fuel bottle pressurized while in transit.  I only keep the fuel bottle pressurized when I intend to use the stove.

A Bunsen burner pad in use as a flame diffuser on an MSR XGK-EX.A Bunsen burner pad in use as a flame diffuser on an MSR XGK-EX.

Suggestions for improvement

The fuel hose is too freaking stiff and should be replaced with a more flexible hose.  I mean it really makes the stove far more bulky than it needs to be.  No other manufacturer uses the gawd-awful stiff fuel hoses that MSR does.  Primus, Optimus, etc. all have nice, supple fuel hoses that pack away so easily.  MSR certainly has the technology.  Their old Simmerlite stove (the canister gas version of which is still in production as the WindPro) had a wonderfully flexible fuel line.  Why they went back to these stiff, pain-in-the-neck fuel hoses, I will never know.  Yes, I get it that a stiff fuel hose forces the fuel bottle away from the burner which does make the stove safer, but the stiff fuel hose just is not practical.  I value space in my pack just about as much as I do as light weight and reliability, and the difficult-to-pack XGK-EX baffles me.  Why MSR would put themselves at a competitive disadvantage I just do not know.

Another really nice improvement would be to add the ability to burn canister gas.  Canister gas is becoming more and more widely available and would give one the ability to precisely control the flame that the XGK-EX now lacks.  I’m not sure how cost-effective a redesign would be, but I do note that more and more stoves are coming out with dual liquid fuel and canister gas capability.  MSR itself produces the Whisperlite Universal which can burn both liquid and canister gas fuels.]

An MSR XGK-EX all packed up and ready to go.An MSR XGK-EX all packed up and ready to go.

MSR XGK-EX Stove: Highly Recommended

What’s good about it?

  • Simple, reliable, effective.
  • Supports large pots well.  Excellent pot stability.
  • High heat output.  Excellent reputation as a snow melter.
  • High quality pump.
  • Arctic pump available for extreme cold weather
  • Burns a wide variety of fuels – valuable in remote areas where fuel availability is uncertain.
  • Relatively easy basic field maintenance (such as clearing a blocked jet).

What’s not so good about it?

  • It’s a bit on the bulky size (it is after all an expedition stove).
  • Loud.
  • The fuel hose is particularly stiff which makes packing up difficult.
  • Poor flame control; lack of simmering ability.

Disclosure: The stove in this review was provided at no cost to me by Section Hiker with the understanding that I would review the stove as I saw fit, in other words, with no restrictions or preconditions.  I have reviewed the stove accordingly.  Neither I nor Adventures in Stoving have any financial relationship with MSR, the manufacturer of the equipment reviewed.  In addition, I receive no remuneration for the writing of this review nor do I receive any benefit from the sale of any stove discussed in this review.  However, if MSR wanted to cut me in for a piece of the action, I’d be most amenable (fat chance of that ever happening).  They could at least ship me a free case of canister gas, don’t you think?

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Last updated: 2020-05-25 21:53:00

About the author

About Hikin’ Jim

Hikin’ Jim is an avid hiker and backpacker residing in Southern California.  Jim is something of a backpacking stove aficionado, owning well over a hundred backpacking stoves.   You can find him most any weekend out field testing stove related gear in the local mountains or, in the summer, wandering the Sierra Nevada.  Hikin’ Jim has a blog,Adventures in Stoving, devoted almost exclusively to backpacking stoves, including reviews, general stove tips, and other articles pertaining to the use of stoves in the backcountry.

Check out all of Hikin’ Jim’s Stove Reviews

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