Start cooking light

We backpackers love our stoves. I don't think there is any item that generates as much heat (see what I did there?) among backpackers, and ultralighters especially, as a new stove. We can't get enough of them, which is just as well because there are so many to choose from: wood burning stoves, wood/alcohol combinations, esbit tabs, homemade cat cans, canister mounted, chimney/kettle designs... the list goes on. So where do we begin when we want to narrow down the choices?


Fuel efficiency, availability and weight considerations

The all time classic backpacking stove is undoubtedly the Trangia. There are many different varieties available, and they even make an "ultralight" versions out of "ultralight aluminium" that weigh in at a flighty 700g/25oz. Compare this to a its ultralight equivalent, the (not particularly light) Jetboil SolTI (USAUK), which weighs 208g/8.5oz, or the miniscule SnowPeak LiteMax (50g/1.9oz) and the Trangia is laughably heavy.

But weight alone should not be the only consideration when choosing a lighter stove. One important factor in picking a stove is the availability of the necessary fuel in the area that you'll be using it. This goes beyond the simple matter of "Can I get Primus gas cans in Guatemala?"  (although that is, of course, an important consideration if you plan on going to Guatemala).

Take wood burning stoves, for example. I love them, but I mainly hike in areas where there is ample wood or other combustible material available. There is also the issue of whether or not you are permitted to use them  because of fire or ecosystem restrictions. But if you are hiking in forested regions, not having to carry fuel with you is great way to save weight. Foraging for suitable twigs and sticks is also a nice way to wind down. Here's a tip: I like to carry a ziploc bag with me on the trail and collect as I go toward the end of the day. That way I'm ready for a nice cuppa when I make camp. With a wood burner you can ignore Backpacker's advice and make as many hot drinks as you want, providing you don't mind collecting more wood.

There are some areas where canister stoves are essential and convenient. They are perfect for anywhere that prohibits open fires, and great when you want a fast, efficient boil. In winter they are often a godsend – a no fuss way of getting warm – and while their efficiency rapidly falls in cold weather, there are ways around this (keeping your canister warm, placing it in a shallow bowl of water, using a remote canister style stove with a pre-heating tube and inverting the gas can). The downside is that the gas canisters are heavy and bulky, and that's one reason why the SolTi is exciting: small canisters, excellent fuel efficiency, light weight.

Another popular fuel source is alcohol. A simple alcohol stove can be made from an (empty!) can of beer/water can or cat food tin, and the small amount of fuel needed make it an ideal choice for longer trips – providing you can deal with poor efficiency, so make sure you carry a decent wind break.

Finland. Ultralight backpacker's paradise, or evil socialist dystopia? You decide.

Finland. Ultralight backpacker's paradise, or evil socialist dystopia? You decide.

Esbit tabs are also popular for their lightweight, compact simplicity. I've never used them myself, but many swear by them.

But how about the ultimate in ultralight: carry nothing. If you're hiking somewhere familiar that allows firemaking – either in designated places or in safely constructed, leave-no-trace compliant fireplaces – perhaps you can get away with using the natural or provided resources. Finnish laavu's, for example. often provide a supply of chopped wood. Some even have iron kettles over the fire pits. If you plan your route carefully, it's possible you could travel from camp to camp and never have to carry a pot, stove, or fuel.

However, having experienced a morning surrounded by nothing but damp twigs which refused to burn in my wood stove, I'm increasingly of the opinion that it's always good to have a plan B - and that's where multi fuel systems like the Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri shine. Through a clever combination of parts which all fit inside your pot, you can burn wood, alcohol, or Esbit tabs. It's an ideal solution and one I'm planning on trying

 

What does Backpacking North use?

For many years I got by just fine with a Primus Micron canister-mounted stove. My original version weighs a not unreasonable 98g, but the titanium version Primus released about three weeks after I bought mine (damn them!) weighed 70g. It was one of the first lightweight stoves, and has lasted well. Now it appears to have been rebranded as an Express Ti at 75g / 2.5oz.

The Primus Micron (original version) on holiday in Lofoten at a time  when it was still considered essential to carry yellow plastic bowls everywhere.

The Primus Micron (original version) on holiday in Lofoten at a time 
when it was still considered essential to carry yellow plastic bowls everywhere.

While in Finland last year, I needed to pick up a cheap alternative stove as my Micron was in the Minneapolis. I found an Edelrid Kiro ST (84g) which performs just as well as the Micron. To be honest, while there are differences between canister-mounted stoves, they all boil water reasonably quickly, and for short trips any one of them will suffice. If I had to buy a new one today, I'd be looking at the Monatauk Gnat – currently the lightest available at 1.6oz (45g), and apparently also sold as the GoSystem Fly – or the Soto OD-1R Micro Regulator (2.6oz / 73g), which claims to have some clever technology that regulates the flow of gas when the canister is getting empty. Its effectiveness has been questioned and largely proven to be a false claim byBackpacking Light, in its merely average review.


Incidentally, Backpacking Light has an exhaustive analysis of gas canisters (membership required), and the effect that the proportions of the blend of gases contained in various brands has on boil times in different temperatures. This is most relevant for use at altitude or in winter, at which point it makes more sense to use a remote stove (one that is connected to the gas canister via a tube) so that the canister can be used inverted. I use a Primus Express Spider in winter for exactly that reason. As we're dealing with three-season trips in these articles, I'll leave it to wintercampers.com to provide more info on why inversion is useful. Recently, I picked up a JetBoil SolTi for a trip above treeline in Lapland where I expected wood to be sparsely available. While it's still a touch on the heavy side, it compares well as a completed system for trips of up to 10 days, and really does boil water extremely quickly (2 to 3 minutes).

Carrying gas canisters is a bit of a drag though. I always end up playing safe and carrying too much, and then accumulating a small collection of canisters in various states of emptiness. All that changed when I ordered aBushBuddy Ultra – a handmade, lightweight (139g), highly efficient wood burning stove made by Fritz Handel in Canada (and licensed to BushCooker in the EU– but let's be honest, it's not as cool as the original).My first impressions were noted here, and I still maintain that its sculpted flames are a joyful sight to behold.

BushBuddy in action. Note that the pot is black from soot, not Rust-Oleum.

BushBuddy in action. Note that the pot is black from soot, not Rust-Oleum.

Once everything settles down after I get back to Finland in a few weeks, I'm thinking about getting a Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri, mainly because of the built in windscreen and multi-fuel flexibility.

 

What do others use?

Maybe it's just the idea of playing with fire, but stoves seem to be one object that we love to purchase over and over again, in various forms, just for the sheer hedonistic fun involved in boiling a pot of water.


Stove trends make their way around the blogosphere like memes. The current hot item (ho ho ho) is the...

 

JetBoil Sol Ti
The ultralight version of the JetBoil Flash, the Sol Ti's  weighs a skimpy 240g (338g with all the trinkets), and boils fast (around 2 minutes in good conditions). The only downside is it's $149.99 price. Backpacking Light gave it a Highly Recommended rating. Ryan Jordan is a "huge fan". Hendrik likes it (at least I think he does – the review is alive!), but has some environmental reservations. I'm almost certain Phil liked it, and Roger sounds like he's switched to using one. There have been a few reports of corrosion around where the heat exchanger connects to the rest of the unit. It remains to be seen whether this will be a long-term problem, but at present it doesn't appear to affect the unit's functionality.

Before the Sol Ti hit the shelves, everyone was all ablaze (ho ho ho again) over the...

 

Courtesy & © Boilerwerks

Boilerwerks Backcountry Boiler
As an example of community-funded product development, the Backcountry Boiler is, perhaps, the piece de resistance of the stove world. Hiking in Finland has a great guest article by Boilerwerks founder Devin Montgomery on the development of the stove. Weighing 9.7oz (227g), the boiler is constructed of a container vessel built around a central chimney, which is placed on a stove bottom. Wood can be dropped into the chimney, and the excellent wind protection ensures a fiery burn and a rapid boil. Devin he recently released a FireFelt alcohol wick which fits inside the burner section, extending the usefulness of the stove. Lightpack has a review, as does Trail Savvy, and the aptly-named Burning Little Sticks has a nice write-up. The Kickstarter-funded project has now closed (with massive success), but you'll soon be able to order one online from Boilerwerks.

There is also a spurious knock-off version of the Backcountry Boiler sold, I'm ashamed to say, in the UK, but it's name will not be mentioned in these pages, as such tomfoolery should be frowned upon.

 

 

BushBuddy Ultra
If there's one stove that's achieved a cult status among ultralight backpackers, it's the BushBuddy. The list of its advocates is as long as my arm (and my arms are pretty long). Nearly all of the Nordic Lightpackers have one, and if Hendrik's two reviews don't convince you, check out the thoughts of Jason KlassHiking LightPaddling Light. or the multiple 5/5 reviews on BPL.

While it's not expressly designed for multi-fuel use, Zelph makes a nice little Companion alcohol burner that works with the BushBuddy. It works very well, although it is a little thirsty on fuel to get to a rolling boil. You also need a solid windscreen to make it truly effective.

The Bearable Lightness has a post about other multi-fuel possibilities, and another on using the BushBuddy above treeline.

For the ultimate in ultralight multi-fuel stovery, we need to turn to...

Trail Designs Ti-Tri Caldera Cones & Sidewinders
The original Trail Designs Ti-Tri stove was a bit hit when it appeared a few years ago, but many complained that while the stove was great, the packing system – a plastic tube – was less efficient. Trail Designs listened to their customers and released the TiTri ULC, which could be custom ordered to fit your pot (hence the lack of weights here – but you can get the specs from their site; all you need to know is "it's light"). For reviews, check out Hiking in FinlandAndy Howell,

 

Their latest refinement of the design is the Sidewinder Ti-Tri, which offers a full-sized caldera cone fitted to your pot. It has proven most popular, as the following blog posts illustrate: Jolly Green GiantJourneyman Traveller, Nielsen Brown OutdoorsSelf Powered, and Pig Monkey.

The secret to Trail Designs success is the flexibility of the system. The caldera stoves come ready to burn wood (and the "Inferno" optional extra, transforms the stoves into a stick-eating furnaces comparable to the BushBuddy – as Roger illustrates), alcohol (via a small burner) and esbit tabs (via the included miniscule Gram Cracker stovelet).

Which brings us neatly to...

Esbit Tabs
I've already admitted to never having used an Esbit tab, and my feelings about them are pretty much summed up by Brian Green and the subsequent comments on his post "I really want to like Esbit tabs." I feel I should like them more, but they seem a bit messy. However, I expect to be damned by the Esbit loving hoards, and therefore I encourage you to make your own esbit stove, read about cooking with this "lightest, most efficient fuel", and make sure you buy square tabs and not round ones. The rest is up to you.

Last but not least, we must briefly cover...

Alcohol Stoves
It's almost a rite of passage in ultralightdom to make your own alcohol stove. They are easy to makecome in multiple forms, and, in the right hands, make an excellent choice for long distance travel. The excellent hands I have in mind which prove this point would be those belonging to Andrew Skurka, who provides instructions for making a stove out of a cat food can. He used it for seven months on his Great Western Loop hike andother adventures, which, I think, is enough proof that a little goes a long way, and brings us to the end of this post. Almost.

 

Footnote: paint it black

Interestingly, Backpacker had some advice for newbie ultralighters, informing us that we can "reduce fuel consumption by [...] painting the bottom of all silver pots with flat black Rust-Oleum stove paint, which boosts efficiency by 30-40%". I had to read the line about painting the bottom of your pots black a couple of times to let the astounding nature of this tip sink in.  In all the years I've been backpacking, both traditional and ultralight, I had never once seen or heard of anyone doing this. Could it be that backpackers light and heavy had somehow missed out on a crucial concept that could significantly affect fuel consumption?

Something about it sounded fishy. For one thing, pots are heated by conduction – the direct contact of a heat source (the stove's flame) with another object (the pot). As far as I'm aware, the colour of an object makes no difference to conductive heat transfer, and adding a layer of paint between the metallic surface of the pot and the flame, I thought, could theoretically increase resistance and actually reduce efficiency.

Of course, heat transfer through radiation is another matter – we all know that black objects get hotter in the sun than white ones. Had Backpacker got their elementary physics confused?

I turned to the internet to get to the bottom of this, and discovered I was not alone in my skepticism. I found several rebuttals to Backpacker's claims on YouTube, and a couple of tests by Hiram Cook to prove them wrong. Here is his second test, which, while not 100% scientific, clearly provesBackpacker's claims to be wildly inaccurate and misleading.

Frankly, it astounds me that a magazine, in an era in which their publication model is under threat, would print such erroneous advice. While Hiram's tests do show a slight improvement in boil times, this could equally be due to inconsistent testing conditions. I can only hope that hoards of budding ultralight backpackers didn't run out the the hardware store and coat their pots.



Further Reading
More information than you can throw a cat can stove at about integrated stoves (BPL membership required)

Links to Manufacturers
Boilerwerks
BushBuddy
Edelrid US  (oder Deutschland - mit Flash, das is nicht gut)
JetBoil
Monatauk
Primus
Soto
Trail Designs
Zelph