After comparing different fuel types in Part 1, we move on to the various kinds of stoves available for trekking. The discussion on fuels (see part 1) was essential, because the type of fuel used often defines the characteristics and performance of a trekking stove. In this second part of this three part series we discuss various stove types, their pros and cons especially applicable to the Indian Himalayas and some stove handling tips.
Wood stove (fuel – wood)
A wood stove works like a camp fire, albeit in a carefully controlled environment. It burns branches, twigs, shoots and leaves you gather along your trek. Therefore, you carry no fuel which is a excellent idea for multi day treks. The stove construction is simple. There is a combustion chamber for wood and underneath the combustion chamber there is usually a place for a commercial fire starter or for some kindling like dry leaves and grass. Light the kindling, feed the wood and in a few minutes you’re ready to start cooking. Simmering is possible by adjusting the amount of fuel (twigs) that is fed to the stove. Some modern wood burning stoves can do much more than just providing heat and light. Stoves like Biolite generate an electric current from the heat produced by the stove. This generated current can then be used to charge your electronic devices.
The biggest advantage of a wood burning stove is that fuel is free of cost and freely available. However, this works only if you are trekking under or below the tree line, and if the weather is fair. Locating wood and lighting a wood stove in wet weather or under snow can be a harrowing experience. Using a wood fire coats your backpacking cookware with black soot. In the Himalayas, the tree cover diminishes rapidly over an elevation of 2500 metres. This makes a wood stove a poor candidate for high altitude treks.
- Will not work above tree line
- Difficult to work with during the monsoons and in inclement weather, which is when a source of heat is most essential
- Sooty flame
- Efficiency is variable, depends on fuel source
- Requires skill to ignite. Does not have a click to ignite mechanism
- Environmental concern about removing dead wood from forest
- Simple to use
- Does not require packed fuel
- Quiet operation
- No fuel spill / leakage
- Ambience of a campfire
Canister Stove (fuel – propane / butane)
A canister stove consists of a small stove and a pressurised fuel canister. There are two types of canister stoves based on how the fuel canisters attach to the stove. In an **upright stove** the fuel canister screws directly to the stove via a threaded screw valve. Whereas in a **low-profile stove** a fuel hose connects the fuel canister to the stove which has its own independent base.
Canister stoves are small, lightweight, easy to operate and very safe. You turn on the gas, light it with a match, and you’re ready to cook. Some stoves are even equipped with a built in piezo igniter. Regulating the gas valve gives excellent control over heat intensity and allows for simmering. Since the fuel canister is sealed, there’s no chance of spilling fuel.
The canister stove fuel is a blend of propane and either butane or iso-butane. There are two reasons for using a mix of gases. First, butane is more stable than propane at room temperatures and this means it can be safely packed in a lightweight canister. Second, Propane vaporises much below freezing temperature (-41 degree Celsius) while butane does not. This makes propane much more usable in and under freezing temperatures. Most of the proprietary fuel mixes 10 to 30 percent propane with butane.
This discussion on fuel brings us to the biggest disadvantage of a container stove system, that they can be problematic in cold weather trekking. The fuel canister loses pressure below 0°C which means that it is difficult to light and if lit, burns with a low flame. There are plenty of workarounds to get over this poor cold weather performance like storing the canister in your sleeping bag or inverting the canister in a low profile stove. However, none of these workarounds are very practical in an extreme weather situation and therefore we do not recommend a canister stove system for winter trekking in the Indian Himalayas. Another disadvantage of a canister stove system are that canister fuel is very expensive. It is also difficult to gauge the level of fuel in a partially used canister. Fuel canisters are environmentally unfriendly compared to alternatives as they are meant to be disposable and non-reusable.
In India, availability of fuel canisters is restricted to large metropolitan cities and bustling hill towns like Manali or Leh. Be prepared to pay a huge price premium for the right brand / size canister, if you are lucky enough to find one in the first place. Chances of procuring fuel canister in a small town are virtually nil. Therefore, one needs to plan carefully in order to use a canister stove on multi day trek or on multiple treks. There is no way to gauge the amount of fuel left inside a fuel container, which complicates fuel planning.
At altitudes over 3000 metres in the Himalayas, wind speeds of over 60kmph in the evening are not uncommon. Such windy conditions adversely affect the performance of an upright canister stove because a windscreen cannot be used with this stove. Surrounding an upright canister stove with a windscreen may cause the fuel canister to heat up and explode. Integrated canister stove systems like MSR Jetboil, solve this problem. An integrated system works in the same way as a canister stove, except that the cooking pot (or other optional accessories) attach directly to the stove. This results in performance that is not hindered by wind and a high thermal efficiency. However, integrated stoves do not work with other cooking pots and they are much more expensive than simple canister stoves.
- Problematic in sub zero temperature
- Finding fuel is extremely difficult in India
- Compared to other options, fuel is expensive
- Difficult to gauge remaining fuel
- Heat output drops and canister empties
- Upright models susceptible to tip-overs
- Environmental hazard due to non reusable fuel canisters
- Immediate high heat output
- Compact and lightweight
- No priming required
- Burns clean (no soot)
- No fuel spill risk
- Excellent simmering and flame control
Liquid Fuel Stove (fuel – kerosene, unleaded petrol, diesel naphtha, vodka)
A liquid fuel stove has three components: stove, a mechanical pump and a fuel canister. The mechanical pump goes inside the fuel bottle and a fuel hose connects the fuel bottle to a free-standing stove body.
Liquid fuel stoves typically run on white gas, also known as naphtha. Naphtha is a highly refined fuel that is processed to leave few or no impurities, however its availability is still an issue. Some liquid fuel stoves like the MSR Whisperlite International and Primus Omnifuel are classified as multi fuel stoves. Depending on the model, these stoves may operate on almost any liquid fuel like kerosene, jet fuel, diesel or unleaded automobile petrol.
None of these fuels are as pure as naphtha or white gas. Over time the impurities in these fuels may clog stove parts. This brings us to the biggest disadvantage of a liquid fuel stove system, that they require occasional maintenance to ensure optimum performance. Liquid fuel stoves are not as user-friendly and because of the presence of a manual pump they are not as lightweight as a canister stove system.
Since these stoves use a liquid fuel, they require the use of a manual plunger to create pressure that will supply the fuel to the stove burner. While at the first glance this may may seem like a limitation, yet having a manual plunger pump makes the system extremely versatile. Canister stoves which lose pressure at below freezing temperatures whereas liquid gas systems are unaffected by winter weather. This is because a manual pump can create a high pressure to compensate for lower temperature and pressure. The performance of a canister stove also decreases as the amount of the gas and therefore the pressure in the canister drops. Once again, because it is possible to regulate the pressure with manual pump a liquid fuel stove, a consistent and optimum performance can be maintained throughout the entire fuel bottle. These features make a liquid fuel stove a proven workhorse of high altitude, cold weather expeditions. On the flip side however liquid fuels require priming. Priming is the act of converting liquid fuel to vapour before it can start burning. This can be a awkward operation and may result in a small fireball if done incorrectly.
In India the most available source of fuel is kerosene followed by unleaded automobile petrol. Kerosene or petrol can be found in the smallest village or tea shop in the Indian Himalayas. Even mountain shepherds (gaddis) often carry a small stash of kerosene. Excellent fuel availability gives multi fuel stoves an unparalleled usage edge in the Indian Himalayas.
- High purchase price
- Requires priming
- Heavier than canister stoves
- Noisier than canister stoves
- Sooty smoke with most easily available fuels i.e. unleaded petrol, kerosene, diesel
- Complicated, may require field repairs
- Possibility of severe burns as most spilled fuel is highly inflammable
- Excellent cold weather performance
- Inexpensive fuel
- Low profile design provides more stability and the ability to use a windscreen
- Easy to gauge fuel level
- Reusable fuel canister
Most versatile. Just change the stove jet to go from Kerosene to unleaded petrol or even to Vodka
- Before packing a fuel bottle, check if its cap is tightly sealed. Spilled fuel is a fire hazard and leaves you clothes and gear smelling of fuel, which may make you nauseous.
- Do not fill your fuel bottle to the lip. Leave some airspace for the fuel to expand.
- Naptha or white gas degrades over time. The fresher the fuel, less likely are chances for a clog.
- Perform periodic maintenance of your stove. Especially the ‘O’ rings and the fuel hose
- Empty the fuel tank before storing your stove for several months or longer. Petroleum based fuels are corrosive and may corrode the rubber parts in the stove
- Don’t spill fuel on bare skin. In extreme cold, this can cause frostbite due to the rapid evaporation of fuel
Alcohol stove (fuel – methanol, ethanol, rubbing alcohol)
Alcohol stoves come in many forms and are often “Do It Yourself” (DIY). Homemade alcohol stoves are generally made of aluminium or tin cans and may weigh less than 30 grams. Commercial alcohol stoves like Trangia have been available for awhile now but they weigh more than their home made cousins. Alcohol stoves burn a variety of fuels: denatured alcohol, grain alcohol, methyl alcohol, and gelled fuel. Most stoves operate simply by adding fuel, lighting it and covering the stove to extinguish the fuel. A home made alcohol stove is the cheapest, simplest and the most lightweight cooking system. The disadvantages of an aluminium stove are inherent to the fuel it uses, namely alcohol. Alcohol has a half the heat potential of petroleum based fuels (see part 1 – a comparison of fuels) and thus aluminium stoves tend to be slow to cook with and use up more fuel than other stoves. This makes them a poor choice for a large group of trekkers or for a really long trip because of the weight of additional fuel. Since they do not have a way to control heat or to simmer alcohol stoves are best used for rehydrating meals by boiling water. These stoves are not very good for winter trekking, since alcohol doesn’t vaporise well below freezing temperature.
- Cannot be turned off. Shuts only when alcohol is exhausted
- Low heat output, therefore longer cooking time
- Fuel may contain toxic adhesives
- Does not work in high altitude, cold temperature
- Cannot be used to melt snow
- Lightweight may be offset with heavy fuel requirements especially for a large trekking group
- Requires trial and error to get it right
- Simplest. No moving parts or gaskets. Nothing to break
- No priming required
- Do It Yourself (DIY)
- Cheapest to build and operate
- Clean burning, leaves no residue
Solid fuel stoves (fuel – hexamine )
Solid fuel tablets were developed around the second world war to provide soldiers with a smokeless, high energy fuel for heating food rations. The most popular solid fuel is called ESBIT (hexamine). ESBIT comes packaged in 15 gram tablets that burn for 12 minutes and provide enough heat energy to boil half a litre of water. Solid fuel tablets require a very simple stove to use, just a stable base and a wind screen to improve fuel efficiency. Usage is as simple as lighting a fuel tablet and cooking. Many alcohol stoves double as solid fuel stoves.
One major drawback of hexamine (ESBIT) is that it produces a noticeable odour and leaves a sticky brown residue on cooking pots. Like alcohol, solid fuel is best used for boiling water to rehydrate dried foods, although some stoves provide you with the ability to simmer or even bake with Esbit tablets. The downside of solid fuel tablets is that they can be difficult to resupply in small towns. In India Esbit tablets are virtually impossible to come by. Some trekkers in India have experimented with Camphor and Paraffin wax tablets. Such tablets are used by catering companies in India for outdoor catering and are readily available. Nevertheless, since the quality, volatility and toxicity of such solid fuel tablets vary between brands and providers, we so not recommend using such tablets without a comprehensive test.
- Slow cooking
- No simmer control
- Brown sticky residue
- Poor to non existent fuel availability in India
- Some fuels don’t extinguish well so must be burned completely
- Extremely lightweight and compact
- Cheap Fuel
- Low cost
- Easy storage of fuel
In the final part (Part 3) of this article we will look at the applicability of these stoves to Indian Himalayas and on how to choose the right stove based on your requirements.