I’ve always used MSR stoves; my XGK has always proved reliable. When MSR announced the Reactor I was keen to try it. The Jetboil, which is similar to the Reactor, has gained popularity among climbers over the years and most people have probably seen one in action by now. The Reactor clearly is MSR’s answer to the Jetboil. MSR calls the Reactor “state of the art cookware and revolutionary stove design [that] combine to create the fastest, most fuel efficient stove system ever.” So does it live up to the hype?
This winter wasn’t kind to those of us that try to climb in the Cascades. I got out for a few trips towards the end of the season in an attempt to put the stove through its paces, but serious climbing didn’t really happen. A couple of winter overnighters while trying to get out in the hills was pretty much all I had to show for this season, but it was enough to get some experience with the stove in winter conditions: cold weather and melting snow.
As a winter climbing stove the Reactor has a lot to offer. It has all the convenience of a cartridge stove with none of the drawbacks usually associated with winter use; namely poor performance in cold temperatures. I’ve used a modified MSR Pocket Rocket on winter climbs before with somewhat unsatisfactory results, including at least one long cold night after we burnt through all the fuel. In cold temperatures you need to use gas cartridges with blended mixtures and even then the gases can separate and reducing performance as the cartridge runs low. MSR say that the Reactor has a special valve that regulates pressure giving constant output even when the canister is running low on gas.
Superficially the Reactor looks like a bigger, heavier Jetboil. The Jetboil is a “personal cooking system” whereas the Reactor’s larger pot was obviously designed with two people and melting snow in mind. The narrow deep pot means a spoon with a longish handle helps if you’re planning to eat from the pot. Another justification for the larger pot seems to be that MSR can attach a massive warning label to remind you of all the horrible things that will happen if you do anything remotely out of line with the manufacturer’s instructions.
The stove packs inside the pot with room for the burner and an 8oz cartridge. You can squeeze a lighter and a few small food items in too but that’s about it. The pot feels very solid and, if anything, slightly over engineered although improving heat transfer between the burner unit and pot adds weight. The pot lid is Lexan and has a neat hole in it so it doesn’t jump off the pot when the water boils. The burner fits into a recess in the base of the pot.
A couple of things are really noticeable over any other stove I’ve ever used. With the Reactor, you don’t really have to worry about the wind because you can’t see the flame. Even at night the stove seems pretty much dark as the heat gets funneled up from the burner and around the sides of the pot. The burner is completely enclosed so all the heat gets trapped and there’s no visible flame to blow out. In fact, when the stove is on, the burner glows red hot with no flames at all. After some initial flames during priming, the burner looks more like an electric bar fire than a stove.
The Reactor’s indifference to wind combined with its easy setup make it great for quick rehydration brew breaks while on route. This means you can start to do quick rehydration brews during short breaks during the day and potentially carry less water with you on the route.
MSR’s other big claims for the Reactor center around fuel economy and boil times. I’ve not done extensive testing on this but in winter conditions I thought the Reactor was comparable with the XGK EX in terms of boil times. Overnight in the Cascades, melting snow for evening meals and brews, the Reactor used 50g (1¾oz) of fuel, which seems in line with MSR’s published data. MSR doesn’t say it but I suspect you can improve the fuel economy by running the burner on a very low setting, rather than flat out. Doing some basic math with MSR’s performance data suggests that the increased fuel efficiency pays off at the end a short alpine route.
The biggest drawbacks of the Reactor are cost and weight. At $139.95 (MSRP) it’s only ten bucks cheaper than an XGK EX. By the time you add a pot to the XGK the two stoves weight about the same, about twice that of the Pocket Rocket. You can’t have cheap, light and durable. Unlike the Jetboil, the Reactor’s burner unit doesn’t actually attach to the pot, although the stove is still pretty stable. This lack of attachment, however, would make converting it into a hanging stove difficult and MSR don’t make a hanging kit for it. I’ve not figured out my own hack for this yet, but I’m sure you could turn it into a hanging stove with some ingenuity.
I’d definitely recommend the Reactor for cold weather climbing for two or more person teams, especially if a lot of snow melting is expected. It’s roughly the same weight as an XGK and a lot more convenient to use. The larger pot seems a key differentiator between the Reactor and the Jetboil, but I’ve not done any head-to-head comparisons on stove performance. I don’t consider smaller stoves like the Pocket Rocket to be serious contenders for winter climbing. I’ve tried and it wasn’t fun. For warmer summer routes you’re probably better off with a lighter stove, as many of the Reactor’s advantages aren’t as great in warmer, calmer weather.