Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Stoves, it's not just white gas anymore
My first stove was an MSR XGK II, a white gas monstrosity that weighed 14 oz. not including the weight of the fuel bottle. Each time I used it, it had to be pressurized and primed. When I lit it, if I was too slow, I lost the prime. Too fast, and a flaming geyser ensued. For my A.T. thruhike, I did some research, found some options, and haven't used my XGK since.
This table shows current stove types and some of their pros and cons. There is further discussion of stoves below the table.
On my Appalachian Trail thruhike, I used an Esbit brand stove and tablets. The expense of Esbit tablets ($.25-.50/tablet) however makes many people balk. Each ˝ ounce tablet burns for 15 minutes, making them perfect for preparing the ubiquitous Liptons that many hikers eat. Two cups of water boil in about 7 minutes. Once cooking is finished, Esbit tablets can be blown out and the remaining fuel used again for future cooking. As with alcohol stoves, homemade and manufactured stoves are an option. Esbit, Wing, and Coughlins are all manufactured stoves for Esbit tablets. My homemade version, an inch or so cut off the bottom of a soda can and turned upside down weighs a lot less than the manufactured variety.
Alcohol stoves, in wide use in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, are gaining in popularity here in the U.S. They have gotten lighter, smaller, and more powerful. These stoves, whether homemade for pennies with instructions found on-line, or manufactured, have no moving parts that require maintenance and provide a great option for those hikers out for an overnight or a week. Alcohol burns at a lower temperature than white gas so hot spots are rarely an issue. Simmer rings, available on some stoves, can help regulate temperature for those into fancier cooking. Vargo, Brasslite, and Trangia are all manufacturers of alcohol stoves. It takes me about an ounce of fuel to boil two cups of water with denatured alcohol.
Denatured alcohol is best carried in plastic bottles. A reused beverage bottle works well for alcohol. I highly recommend making sure this bottle is shaped differently than any bottle you'll be using for any on-trail beverages.
Soda can stoves, whether for Esbit or alcohol, usually require the use of a pot stand. I find a strip of hardware cloth (wire mesh) works well when bent into a cylinder around the stove.
I have only ever seen one pair of hikers using a Zip stove. This stove uses fuel from the forest such as twigs and pine cones for fuel. It means that other than the battery which powers the fan, there is no additional need to carry fuel weight. Knowing how to find dry fuel after rain may be necessary if using this stove. Collecting fuel around well used campsites is frowned upon. If heading for an established site, please collect fuel along the way.
An empty canister weighs more than an alcohol stove. If you're heading out and you have a partially used canister, do you toss it and bring a new one or carry two? If you're out for a long time, you're going to end up carrying empty canisters around with you. They can neither be reused nor recycled. As an environmentally aware hiker, I don't like the idea that these canisters go straight to our landfills.
I've been pleasantly suprised to find that I've been able to use both Esbit tablets and alcohol at temperatures well below freezing. While it takes more fuel to warm the water at low temperatures, that would be true for all fuel types. If, however, you may be melting snow for water, then it really is time to reconsider using a white gas stove.
All stoves except perhaps the zip and canister stoves, require the use of a windscreen for efficiency. They keep the heat generated by the stove at the pot instead of letting it get blown away by the wind. I continue to use my seemingly heavy MSR windscreen even though my stove has gone lightweight. I've found that when I try to use a lighter windscreen, the screen just gets blown about by the wind which, of course, defeats the whole purpose of having a windscreen.
When cooking, to maximize efficiency and minimize heat loss, keep your pot lid on as much as possible. While I always thought this was obvious, I've seen too many people scratching their heads over why it was taking their pot so much longer to boil than the others' pots around them.
Travel and mailing issues
Liquid fuel bottles and sometimes even stoves are now prohibited from many aircraft and may be confiscated upon check-in at the airport. This, of course, limits their usefulness for international travel. Some choose to mail their otherwise prohibited stoves ahead. Soda can stoves should not cause any problems and if necessary, can always be made once you get to your destination.
It may be permissible to travel with solid fuel tablets. As always, check with your carrier prior to packing. The active ingredient in Esbit tablets is Methenamine (aka Hexamine or Hexamethylenetetramine). This is the same active ingredient in Standsport tablets.
Even though Esbit tablets are hard to light, easy to blow out, and produce no flammable fumes, hexamethylenetetramine is listed on a USPS web site.
A glance makes it looks like it can be mailed by surface. If anyone wants to follow all the references (the top of the page gives links for each column), I suppose it would be nice to know exactly how packages are supposed to be marked for shipping and if there are any additional restrictions.
Then again, sometimes ignorance can be bliss... ;-} I know of situations where Esbit tablets have been mailed or included in checked luggage with no problems.
Hikers should evaluate their needs and pick the most appropriate type of stove to match their hiking and cooking style and test it out at home before hitting the trail. You may find that one ounce of alcohol per day, is enough for one person if your cooking habits are limited to just dinner. Others who cook elaborate breakfasts, dinners, and enjoy many hot beverages may have different needs.
While your local outfitter is unlikely to have additional information about many of these options (especially homemade stoves), there are plenty of on-line resources. A Google search for Homemade Stoves or “Stove” and any of the manufacturers listed above will yield useful results.
Last updated, December 15, 2006.
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