Formidable Field Stoves

Before you try to stow, go, stop and cook, learn the valuable lesson that all portable field stoves are not created equal.

A hot cup of coffee or soup on a cold morning can raise a camper’s spirits quickly. Using different kinds of field stoves over the decades, particularly ultra-light backpacking stoves, has been instructive, yielding knowledge, broken fingernails and perfected profanity. The following are high-level descriptions of basic stove types grouped by the fuel they burn. Whether you’re backpacking or car camping, the right stove can save the day or save your life.

Current field stove offerings are numerous enough to require hours of pre-purchase research. Go online for comprehensive information regarding backpacking and large camp stoves and take notes. Visit the informative and incomparable zenstoves.net for useful charts and great photos. Then visit a store to handle a few stoves and ask questions about them. Because field stoves can be a critical component when in the wild, look at them as investments.

Liquid Fuels

White-gas-burning Svea and Optimus stoves dominated the backpacking market in the 1960s. Made of brass, the Swedish stoves preheat the fuel before it reaches the burner, which increases heat output. Before the fuel becomes fully preheated, however, can be a time of prayer. As Americans began invading the wilderness in the 1970s, other liquid-fuel stove manufacturers began competing with different designs. Most liquid-fuel stoves produce excellent heat and sound like miniature jet engines. Priming, pumping and fiddling are mandatory. Alcohol stoves provide less heat per unit of measure and have a small market-share.

Liquefied (Pressurized) Gas

Propane, butane and iso-butane gas cylinders, cartridges and canisters are an alternative fuel source to liquid fuels and enjoy a good share of the backpacking market. Butane is recommended only for mild climates and lower altitudes—when the temperature dives propane thrives. Iso-butane is a blended, compressed liquid fuel that burns at temperatures down to 17 degrees Fahrenheit. Iso-butane canisters are compact and lighter weight because the lower pressure of the gas enables thinner walls to be used. Cylinders, cartridges and canisters screw into the burner, which is smaller than the fuel container. This pressurized gas system simplifies stoves and eliminates the fiddle factor—the stove either works or it doesn’t. Larger camp-stoves can use standard 20- and 40-pound propane tanks: the size used in barbeque grills and RVs. Propane should not be used indoors. If you have had a liquid fuel container leak the contents into your pack, you’ll know why pressurized gas has a faithful following.

Solid Fuel

This is a lightweight, dead-simple option for backpackers not wanting to carry bottles of liquid fuel or pressurized gas containers. Most solid fuel is packaged as a small rectangular block; some are scored for cutting so a user can have a smaller flame or less burn time. Solid fuel can be used in stoves or as a fire starter for wet kindling. The major benefit is that after you’ve used the solid fuel there’s nothing left to carry out but a bit of packaging. When kept in an airtight container solid fuel can be stored for years without degrading. Keep it stored safely because a tab or bar can fit in a child’s mouth. Cold temperatures make solid fuel harder to light so try warming the packaged product in a pocket before using. Burn time depends on ambient temperature, wind speed and elevation, but as elevation increases, heat output decreases. Solid fuel burns hot and is virtually smokeless, but it emits noxious, toxic fumes so don’t use it in a tent or confined space. An adjustable stove is necessary if food needs to be simmered. Two solid fuels dominate the market: trioxane and hexamine. Not being a chemist, I cannot explain the differences between the two. Use both types and form your own conclusions based on your experience.

Trioxane solid-fuel bars are military- proven and are 3.5-by-1.5 inches. The G.I. variety comes in a 30-gram bar, but know that puncturing the airtight packaging can result in loss of the contents. By scraping the tablet and leaving the scrapings in place, a good spark can ignite it. Depending on temperature, a one-third tab usually can heat a cup of liquid at sea level. Military surplus trioxane bars vary widely in price and can be found online and at most brick-and-mortar surplus stores; the newer the bars the better.

Hexamine solid-fuel tabs are dense and produce almost no ash. They smell like fish so must be kept in an airtight container or will stink up anything they come in contact with. Esbit fuel tabs are about one half the size of G.I. trioxane bars. Esbit makes an Emergency Stove (no moving parts) and a folding pocket stove, which exemplify the German passion for engineering and industrial design. High winds can blow the fuel out, so if the wind is blowing use a deflector (rock, log or store-bought). Third- World wannabe stoves look like the Esbit, but I don’t recommend them.

Found Fuel

My term for twigs, leaves, grass and whatever else you can find that’ll burn in a field stove is “found fuel”–all you need for rocket stoves. They produce higher heat than open campfires because the convection chimney increases airflow, which increases heat. I prefer the Grover, a substantial heavy-duty model that’s handmade in the U.S.A. from cold-rolled steel and weighs 17 pounds. The insulated stove retails for $160 (5-year warranty) and a stainless steel model is available for $235 (10- year warranty). The number of rocket stove manufacturers is large. Like most other kinds of equipment, rocket stoves benefit from few moving parts. All are not created equal: imported stoves with doors and exposed insulation are inferior. If you know how to weld, stove plans are an option.

Keep It Simple

While backpacking with a friend some years ago, he took his new stove along. Weather at 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies that July weekend was raw and cloudy, so after deciding where to camp, he took out his compact stove to brew a cup while I pitched the tent. A few minutes later my friend was read- ing a small book. Walking over I saw that the book contained instructions for his stove! After teasing him mercilessly, I looked over his shoulder at the list of instructions. The needlessly complex directions caused me to go and gather firewood. Being resourceful (and stubborn) we fiddled with Satan’s stove for hours but couldn’t get the thing to work. The lesson learned was to keep stoves simple.