Thursday, October 7, 2010

Preparedness 2010 - Stoves

Instead of a camping canister stove costing US$25 - $295, here are some low-cost, low- or no-maintenance alternatives to see you and your family through an emergency situation:

1. Esbit Emergency Stove, $2.99, comes with three hexamine fuel cubes. A flat piece of steel you bend to form a pot stand, it is ideal for day hikers, travelers, and vehicle survival kits for one to two persons. Best use is to boil water for safe drinking, hot beverages, instant foods, freeze-dried meals, and preparing Ramen and soups. Natural fuel can be used to supplement or as an alternative to the fuel cube which also is an excellent fire starter.

Needing to be lit by a flame, such as from a match or cigarette lighter, each cube burns for about 13 minutes. It takes about 8 minutes to bring 16 oz. (.5 L) of cold tap water to a full rolling boil, less if you have a windscreen (recommended). Cover the vessel, however, as an uncovered vessel gets merely steamy. If you want to light it with a sparker such as a Spark-Lite or Swedish FireSteel, place some tinder on or next to it and light the tinder, instead. Only a small bit is necessary; it took only a few strokes of my FireSteel to light about a quarter of a square of toilet tissue moistened with hand sanitizer that I set on top of the cube.

If you want to conserve fuel, and as fuels go, hexamine tabs are expensive so should be conserved, simply blow it out like a birthday candle as soon as you don't need the flame anymore and save what remains for future use. Since it will stick to the stove's fuel platform, you may want to set the cube in an Altoids Smalls tin before lighting it to make it easier to store after extinguishing it. You can make the lid removable by simply pushing out the tabs forming the hinges to release the lid from the bottom of the tin, then pushing the tabs back so they won't catch on anything.

An alternative to the fuel cubes is an alcohol burner made of an Altoids Smalls tin (see 6. Alcohol Burners below for instructions). Be aware, however, that since the slits for the hinges won't permit you to completely fill the tin with your liquid fuel, you may not be able to attain a boil.

By bending the stove to support my 18 oz. stainless steel backpacker's mug (the handles fold in for easy packing), I can store it in the mug along with 11 fuel cubes (four go in the stove and one in the Altoids Smalls tin), an Altoids Smalls tin, a disposable cigarette lighter, and one of those tubular orange, waterproof match boxes that can be found online, in camping stores, and Wal-Mart's camping department for about $2.

Having both wooden matches and a lighter is better because matches may fail or break and butane lighters don't work when cold or at higher elevations. If using safety matches, be sure to tuck the striker strip from the original box into the waterproof match box or you won't be able to get the matches to light.

2. Esbit Pocket Stove, $9.99 although it may sometimes be found it in military surplus stores for as low as $3. The website says, "Includes 3 large solid fuel cubes." Mine came with six and the steel isn't pliable like the description states. (Frankly, I think they put up the same description as the Emergency Stove instead of the description for the Pocket Stove.) Four cubes store neatly in the stove when it's closed.

Popular for its small size by outdoors people, military forces, and expeditions since 1936, the Pocket Stove is more robust than the Esbit Emergency Stove and more versatile in fuel options. As well as a Kiwi alcohol burner (see 6. Alcohol Burners below), natural fuel or two charcoal briquettes will fit and may be continually added if you want to keep the fire going outdoors.

Since there's no heat control other than the two positions in which it may be set, the Pocket Stove is better for simple cooking like frying bacon or burgers or boiling water for one to three people. Substituting a tealight candle allows simmering.

Because hexamine fuel cubes, a safe fuel, aren't always available in local stores, it's best to stock up on Esbit tabs (12 for $5.95) and/or make an alcohol burner. Trioxane tabs are available, usually through military surplus stores, but need to be used outdoors carefully because they're toxic. The advantage of trioxane tabs is they can be lit with only a spark, not requiring a direct flame as do hexamine tabs.

3. Coghlan's Folding Stove, $8.98, is limited to canned fuel such as Sterno, the Nuwick 44-hour candle (the 120-hour Nuwick candle doesn't fit), or an alcohol burner such as a Trangia or a DIY project, although I don't see why natural fuel or charcoal briquettes can't be used as long as it's set on the ground outside with a foil pan underneath so nothing will be harmed when hot embers and ashes fall off the fuel platform. Hexamine tabs might be used if an empty can is put on the platform upside down to boost the height.

Because it's rather large when compared the Esbit stoves and is heavier, being made of steel, than the Sterno Portable Folding Stove (next), the best use is for a family at home if you have only heavy pots or for car camping. I don't like it for a car survival kit because it's heavy for lugging around should you have to leave the car; rarely advisable but a possibility.

4. Sterno Portable Folding Stove, $9.75, uses 7 and 8 oz. Sterno canned fuel that will simmer but might not boil water depending on conditions, as well as 44-hour and 120-hour Nuwick candles that can have the heat output regulated according to the number of wicks lit. It is also available in a Stove Kit that includes two cans of Sterno fuel and in the Sterno Emergency Kit that includes the stove, cans of Sterno, and candles.

When I tested it with a can of Sterno, I got 16 oz. of water, uncovered, to a slow, gentle, boil in 25 minutes. I quit ten minutes later when there was no change.

Because the fuel platform is only a couple of wire supports instead of being solid, using a Trangia alcohol burner is too close to being a balancing act for my comfort so I set my Trangia burner into an empty, clean, 5 oz. chicken can to make it stable. With the Trangia filled with 91% isopropyl alcohol, my uncovered stainless steel mug with 16 oz. of cold tap water took 5.5 minutes to reach a full, vigorously rolling boil.

To make your own alcohol burner that fits the fuel platform, I suggest using up a can of Sterno, and then making an alcohol burner with the empty can (see 6. Alcohol Burners below). Not having an empty Sterno can, I used a 1.76 oz. (50g) Altoids tin with a thin layer of 0000 steel wool and 91% isopropyl alcohol and got a full boil in 6 minutes. The flame went out nine minutes later making 15 minutes the total burn time for the Altoids burner.

Using a 120-hour Nuwick for cooking that needs high heat isn't feasible; after an hour with three wicks, I didn't get anything more than steamy water. Starting over, reducing the water from 16 oz. to 8 oz., I got some steam at 30 minutes and gave up knowing it's much faster for me to use an alcohol burner if I need to boil water.

Like the Coghlan's stove above, I don't know of any reason natural fuels or charcoal shouldn't be used as long as the stove is set on the ground outdoors with a foil pan underneath to catch the ashes.

The advantage the Sterno stove has over the others is that the pot support portion of it is made of wire that campers have used for toasting bread and grilling. However, it is faster to toast more than one or two slices at a time by using a stove toasting rack.

Because of its size and being made of aluminum, this is a good choice for a family at home, for a family's Grab & Go bag, as well as for a car survival kit, and car camping.

5. UCO Candlelier, $36.95. Not readily apparent as a stove, the flat heat shield top has been used for years by campers and backpackers to boil water. The amount of heat may be lowered by extinguishing one or two of the three 9-hour candles. Although it's more expensive than the cheapest canister stove, it provides light, heat, and a stove in a single unit making it as good for a car survival kit or an individual's Grab & Go bag as for backpacking. If bugs are a problem, 9-hour citronella candles are available.

6. Alcohol burners or stoves might be the least expensive option of all since the majority of them are DIY projects. Known as a "Cat stove," "Super Cat stove," "Pepsi stove," "Penny stove," or by whatever container or design is used, alcohol burners are popular for their reliability, ease of use being practically maintenance-free thus no hard-to-find parts to break or buy when access to camping stores is limited, and use inexpensive denatured or 90+% isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol that's available practically everywhere, from marine stores, hardware and home improvement stores, service stations and automotive parts stores, to drug stores, and doesn't require special fuel bottles. In a pinch, more expensive alcohol is available from liquor stores.

I made my first Kiwi burner back in 2006 by cleaning out all the residue from a 1-1/8 oz can of Kiwi shoe polish that fit perfectly into my Esbit Pocket Stove, then filled it with fine steel wool (recommended grades are 0000 or 000). When I was ready to cook my scrambled eggs and sausage, I filled it with 91% rubbing alcohol and lit it with a match.

Unfortunately, after my last meal was eaten and the stove cooled off ready for storage, I stored the steel wool in the Kiwi can which corroded during the three years I didn't use it. As a result, next time, instead of steel wool, I plan to use perlite with a piece of aluminum screen cut to fit inside the container to keep the beads from scattering when the lid's off or I'll store the piece of steel wool separately.

The best-known of the commercially-made alcohol stoves is the Trangia that's been used since 1925 by military forces and outdoors people. Available in cook sets for one to four people, with accessories to use other fuels, the alcohol burner is available separately for about $14.95. Made of brass so it's a lot sturdier than any DIY burner, the best features of the Trangia burner are the adjustable simmer ring that allows you to regulate the flame or extinguish it by moving the damper (Caution! Hot! Use something like the pliers of your multitool to lift the simmer ring off the burner and protect your fingers from being burned while adjusting the hot damper), and the cap that lets you store unused fuel in the burner which can't be done with others.

As with my Kiwi burner, all that's needed to operate a Trangia is to pour in the fuel and light it. When done, close the damper on the simmer ring and set the simmer ring on the burner to smother the flame.

If the burner is filled to capacity, it will cook at full blast for 30-45 minutes depending on wind and outside temperature. The only cautions are to set it on a stable surface so the fuel won't spill, don't check the difficult-to-see flame by passing your hand over it (Duh!), don't refill the burner while it's still warm - avoid a flare-up by using a second burner if you need to continue cooking longer - and avoid ruining the O-ring by waiting for the burner to cool before capping it. Also, it's better to coat the O-ring with silicone grease when you first get it and occasionally after so it doesn't dry and crack.

Detractors claim alcohol stoves are slow, but it's significantly true only for making coffee or hot cocoa for a crowd of eight which seems like it takes forever. Breaking the task down into two to four cups at a time will get it served a lot faster. Parties of only a few people won't notice a difference between a canister stove and a Trangia because of the pre-cook fiddling and priming that canister stoves require and the Trangia is sometimes even faster. Besides, what else are you going to be doing that's making you impatient over so very few minutes other than wait for your situation to improve?

For winter conditions, there's a Winter Attachment set ($26) that comes with a burner, a pre-burner to warm the burner so it starts easily in cold temperatures, and a pan so the burner won't sink into melted snow and disappear from sight.

In addition to the pot stands mentioned here, there are others made by other companies specifically for the Trangia burner. I favor the Westwind, available with a Trangia burner ($29.95) or without ($17.95), because it's lightweight and can be taken apart and easily stored flat in your pot or a Grab & Go bag.


Accessories for whichever type of stove you choose for your preparedness kit should include a windscreen for cooking outdoors or with adequate ventilation and a pot cozy.

While a windscreen may be fashioned from heavy-duty foil doubled and wrapped around your pot stand, it might be easier to use one made of aluminum with accordion folds available for about $11.

A pot cozy is recommended to conserve fuel. When instructions say to simmer for n minutes, you can remove the pot from the stove after the water's boiled and set it in a pot cozy to continue cooking for the remaining time using residual heat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent information for the first time camper, no need in spending much money until you see if camping is what you will enjoy.