As regular readers will know, I'm a big fan of the BushBuddy Ultra stove. It's simple to use, light weight, and providing you can find (and are permitted to collect) twigs or other combustible gifts of nature, you don't need to carry any additional fuel.
Except, that is, when you do.
In some locations, wood, brush, or dried moose droppings are hard to find. In such circumstances, a backup stove is a good idea, but what self-respecting, miserly, gram-counting ultralighter wants to carry extra anything? What we BushBuddy lovers need is a some kind of companion.
A trustworthy and reliable companion. The kind that doesn't steal your chocolate.
Enter the Zelph BushBuddy Companion Burner:
I've been looking into multi-fuel stoves for a while, and was all set to get a Ti-Tri Sidewinder when I remembered the Zelph Companion. While the Sidewinder burns wood, alcohol, and Esbit tabs and, most importantly is very well designed around a built-in windscreen, the Zelph – which is designed for use with a Bushbuddy, BushCooker, Woodgaz, or other wood burning stoves – costs just $12 compared to the Sidewinder + Inferno's $124.95 (although, to be fair, you do need the BushBuddy at 128 CAD).
So what is it then? Essentially, it's a pimped-up alcohol stove that's been designed to complement the BushBuddy, giving you a alcohol-fuelled backup for those awkward moments when you can't get wood.
There are some very clever –dare I say it? – innovations, with the Companion. As you can see in the image above, the latest design of the stove features a copper pre-heating strip which helps to light the stove quicker in temperatures below freezing.
The stove holds up to 85g / 3 oz. of fuel, and burns up to 35 minutes when full, the main purpose of this (and the copper pre-heater) is to allow the melting of snow in winter. It's a good idea, but to be honest, I probably wouldn't rely upon a wood or alcohol stove in winter; I prefer the speed and power of my Primus Spider or Jetboil SolTi.
One thing I really do appreciate is that when filled with fuel you can turn it upside-down and nothing comes out! It's like that "indistinguishable from magic" thing.
Zelph achieves this through the material inside the stove that soaks up the fuel (one of Zelph's other creation's apparently uses the same material as Swedish marine alcohol stoves). This absorbs the fuel thus preventing spills. It's clever.
The stove weighs 41g / 1.4 oz and is designed to sit on the grate in the BushBuddy. You still use the pot stand which maintains the appropriate distance from stove to pot, maximizing the convection abilities of the BushBuddy.
I took the BushBuddy and Companion Burner along for a few day hikes to give it a good testing. It's designed to be used with denatured alcohol, which meant I had to figure out what that was in Finland. Fortunately, there's a helpful website for global fuel types.
I picked up some Marinol, which is recommended for non-pressurised stoves (i.e. Trangia) and is suppsed to burn cleaner.
I found it was adequate for testing, but I was a little disappointed in the results.
I filled the pot with 0.6 l / 3 cups water, which is more than I would typically be boiling while hiking (I find 2 to 2.5 cups (400-500ml) to be enough for food and a cuppa), but I wanted to put the stove through it's paces.
For these initial tests I used 1 fl. oz. / 23g) of Marinol, and the stove took around 9m25s to get to a not-quite-rolling boil in calm conditions, using a windscreen, before the fuel expired.
I have to say I wasn't overly happy with this, seeing as it was unusually calm, whereas real conditions in the fells are not likely to be. Admittedly, my windscreen was woefully inadequate, but the fuel seemed to be burning quite yellow, suggesting the possible a presence of sooty compounds (maybe from the red colouring in the fuel). This suspicion was backed up after inspecting the base of the pot after the boil. The sooty deposits led me to believe that Marinol was a dirty fuel. However, as we shall see, this may not have been the case.
Even if the process wasn't perfect, the end result was at least rewarding.
Back at home, I decided to conduct more tests using different fuels.
Before continuing, I should point out that these tests are incredibly unscientific. Fuel was measured in a medicine cup. The weather conditions were varied; my balcony is far from a pristine testing environment; I wasn't even wearing a white lab coat.
Nonetheless, the results are interesting (if not exactly ground-breaking or New Scientist-worthy).
For the first tests I attempted to repeat the original attempts on the trail, boiling 0.6l (about 3 cups) using 1 fl. oz (about 23g) of fuel. It was calm weather, the leaves of the birch trees barely moving.
There are three stove fuels (denatured alcohol) available in Finland: Marinol, Sinol, and Hyvä Tuli. It has taken me a great deal of effort to find out what the difference is between the three, so you will enjoy the following breakdown!
- Developed mainly for pressurised alcohol burners, it can also be used in non-pressurised stoves. Contents: Ethanol (80-100%), Propane-2 (1-5%), Methyl ethyl ketone (2%), Methyl isobutyl ketone (2%).
- The all-rounder general stove fuel, works well in Primus stoves, and can also be used in indoor fireplaces. Burns clean and doorless without producing carbon monoxide. When diluted makes excellent window cleaner(!). Contents: Ethanol (90-100%), Propane-2 (1-5%), Methyl ethyl ketone (2%), Methyl isobutyl ketone (2%).
- a "purer" alcohol intended for use with fondue/raclette sets, also claims to be soot free. Contents: Ethanol (80-100%), Methyl ethyl ketone (4%), Methyl isobutyl ketone (2%).
Wasn't that edifying? Some comments on forums I had roughly translated by Google seen to favour Marinol, and Hyvä Tuli was rarely mentioned, probably because it's a little more expensive.
Here are the boil times for all three:
- Marinol (original test): 9:25 for a not-quite rolling boil in exposed conditions. fuel expired before full boil.
- Hyvä Tuli: 9:30 for a rolling boil, fuel expired around 14:30
- Sinol: 8:38 for a rolling boil, fuel expired at 12:00
Hyvä Tuli burned the bluest of the three fuels, but all three showed plenty of yellow. In fact the flame was quite beautiful, a yellow pillar wrapped in blue. Hyvä Tuli also had a stronger aroma – a not altogether unpleasant one.
The colour of flames is affected by fuel type and oxygen (among other things), but orange flames can are also produced by the presence of soot particles. After examining the base of the pot after each boil, I was surprised to find a fairly consistent sooty residue. So much for soot-free then.
I was surprised, and not a little sceptical at Sinol's apparently better performance. It was clear from each test that the stove, even when encased by the BushBuddy, is extremely susceptible to the slightest breeze. I suspected that the Sinol test was just a fluke (even though, at the time, it seemed as if it was windier during the Sinol test), but in any case, a repeat round was needed! Could it really be that Sinol boils faster?
It was clear that the BushBuddy and Zelph Companion Burner would benefit from a good windshield, but the BushBuddy is quite tall, and I didn't have anything handy (I've never been very happy with my attempts at a foil windscreen). As the weather was again calm, I decided testing on the balcony would provide enough shielding from any slight breezes.
This time I tried boiling 2 cups of water (0.4 l) using just .5 fl.oz of fuel.
- Marinol: 6:15 rolling boil - fuel expired around same time
- Sinol: 6:10 rolling boil - fuel expired around same time
- Hyva Tuli: 7:30 - did not boil - fuel expired - but an ever so slight breeze might have affected this. It definitely burned bluer - more "pure" perhaps, but not necessarily more efficient
So, although Sinol didn't repeat quite the same benefits, it does seem to be the slightly better option. And the window cleaning ability makes it a multi-use item (for when you're struck by the urge to do a bit of spring cleaning out int he wilderness).
I was still a little perturbed by the sooty residue though, so I decided to conduct a further experiment. How would my MYOG cat food stove fare with the fuels? Would there be any benefit (in speed, fuel use etc.) to using that instead of the Zelph Companion? Let's see...
Cat Food Can Comparison
As the cat can stove burns fuel a little faster, and some is wasted during priming, I filled my it with .75 fl. oz (19g) of Sinol, and added my foil windscreen to help it along.
The little stove almost brought the two cups to a boil, but crapped out at around 7:36. I probably should have used around 1fl.oz / 28g of fuel My windscreen was not the most effective, as it benefits from a totally enclosed screen – it is extremely susceptible to the slightest breeze, and pretty much useless without one.
To tell the truth, in the limited experience I have with my cat can, I have yet to actually bring a pot of water to a full boil. Something always causes a problem: a crappy, lightweight windscreen, slightly too little fuel, poor flame dispersion. I find this unpredictability a little annoying. At the end of a long day's hiking I want food, not hassle. Getting a guaranteed boil with one takes a lot of trial, error, and guesswork. I know a lot of people swear by them, so I'll probably give it a few more goes. I feel like I should like it –that it's a requirement: I'm not a serious ultralighter if I don't use one. But I'm losing patience, and I'm not yet completely sold on their weight benefits. Look at this exciting table for example:
Don't get me wrong, I'm not coming out against cat can stoves – they clearly have their place and uses on long distance hikes, especially when combined with heating via camp fires. As long as you don't need to carry all the fuel, they remain a very light option. But alcohol isn't weightless. Perhaps most interestingly from the above calculations, is that the JetBoil SolTi starts to look like a very attractive option for up to 10-day hikes.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand...
The cat can stove seemed to be burning cleaner, as evidenced by the mainly blue flames (coronal mass ejections aside) and
total lack of soot on the bottom of the pot after the almost-boil. This was very interesting; but I suspect the reason for is that flames emitted from the cat can stove curl around the bottom rim of the pot, dispersing upwards over the sides.
In ideal conditions, .5 fl oz. is barely enough to get bring 2 cups of water to a boil with the Zelph Companion Burner. Probably around .75fl oz / 19g should be the minimum when used in the field to allow for exposed use and higher winds.
A good windscreen is absolutely essential.
Although the stove takes 3fl oz (69g) of fuel which could be good for melting snow, but the amount of fuel you would need to carry still makes a canister stove such as the Spider or Jetboil a superior choice in winter. For example, on a two-day hike, boiling 3 fl. oz. twice a day, means you'd have to carry around 276g of fuel. A Jetboil canister weighs 198g, lasts a lot longer, and boils faster (and with a roar), even when melting snow. I prefer the lion in winter over the companion.
Neverthless, the Companion does make an attractive backup stove for BushBuddy users. By using the BushBuddy primarily with wood, it's possible to just carry a little fuel (I have a small Nalgene bottle with 105g in it - enough for four or five 500ml / 2.5 cup boils) as a contingency plan. It fits perfectly in the BushBuddy, weighs very little, and burns fast and efficiently, especially with a decent windscreen.
All I need now is that decent windscreen!