A trekking stove primer for the Indian Himalayas. Part 1 - An introduction to fuels

A trekking stove primer for the Indian Himalayas. Part 1 - An introduction to fuels

Summary

With today's technology and lightweight materials, a trekking stove doesn't have to be bulky and heavy. Yet with all the different styles of stoves and types of fuel that they burn, making the right choice is not an easy decision. Each type of stove has its advantages and disadvantages. In these series of articles we analyse different kinds of stoves and their pros and cons. Our focus in this article is especially on what kind of stove works or doesn't work in the Indian Himalayas. Armed with this information, you can make a purchase that's right for your climate and trekking style.

Cooking in the Indian Himalayas.

Introduction

When you start to expand your trekking horizons beyond a day trek, the question of food and food preparation becomes essential. Subsisting on cold food rations over a multiple day trek is possible nevertheless it is not a very pleasant experience. Cooking meals has several advantages including
1. Comfort. Warm meals provide some heat for you and your body allowing you to relax. Anyone that goes out in cold weather will testify that a warm drink is nice to have on a cold day.
2. Nutrition. Vegetables are notoriously hard for people to digest. Cows, typically vegetarian, chew their cud for a reason. Heat from cooking initiates the breaking down of cell walls and indigestible cellulose before we ever start chewing it. 
3. Health. Disease causing pathogens are usually killed if we heat food items to about 70 degree Celsius.
4. Hydration. When out camping, it is difficult to find clean drinking water. Boiling water before drinking it makes a good backup for the filters, chemicals and UV treatments we now commonly use.

On a long tiring trek some luxuries like fresh coffee are worth their weight in gold. 
© Bialletti coffee maker on MSR Whisperlite stove by Robert Thomson [CC BY-NC 2.0]

To be able to cook meals on a trekking expedition, a reliable stove system is essential. Over the years outdoor stoves have evolved from heavy and crude devices to the sleek, lightweight, high efficiency precision instruments. In the past few years, lightweight and ultra lightweight trekkers has put a greater emphasis on weight savings, environment friendly nature of stoves and alternative cooking methodologies.

Before we delve into the world of stoves, let us clarify that: while it is possible to cook over an open flame, we do not support nor recommend this practice. Improperly extinguished campfires are the number one reason for forest fires worldwide.[1][2] Despite the utmost care, an ignored smouldering ember may lead to a serious forest fire later.

An dying ember can result in a blazing inferno


Despite these advances, most traditional stoves still need three basic ingredients to function namely: fuel, oxygen and a fire starter. Different kinds of stoves use different kinds of fuel and the kind of fuel usually defines the stove type. Because fuel is one of the defining characteristics of a stove let us look at and understand the different kinds of fuel and their characteristics.

Fuel types

Petroleum Fuels

Petroleum based fuels refer to fuel extracted from crude oil. Petrol, diesel, aviation fuel and kerosene belong to this category. These fuels provide excellent heat to weight ratio. They are generally unhindered by cold temperature and burn hot. On the flip side most of these fuels are corrosive and are a fire hazard if spilled.

Liquefied Gas (Butane, Isobutane, Propane)

Liquefied gas vaporises at above freezing temperature (0 Degrees Celsius) and burns very hot. This fuel has one of the best heat to weight ratio. Yet this fuel does not vaporise at under freezing temperature which limits its application in sub freezing temperature. This fuel is packaged in disposable metal canisters and tend to be expensive. There is also the environmental penalty of non-reusable metal canisters.

Alcohol (denatured alcohol, grain alcohol, methyl alcohol, gelled fuel)

Alcohol is a low heat output fuel with about half the heat to weight ratio as compared to petroleum based fuels. Yet it is clean burning fuel and does not produce soot or a residue. Alcohol does not constitute a fire hazard if spilled.

Chemical Solid Fuels (Esbit, Hexamine, Triox)

These low toxicity fuels were developed around the second world war to provide soldiers with a smokeless, high energy fuel for heating food rations. They burn slowly and do not need a special stove. Nevertheless, no solid fuel burns completely. The byproducts of combustion are ash and a sort of soot that will cover cooking utensils. Because some of their chemical energy is trapped in ash and soot, they have a low weight to heat ratio.

Wood

Wood varies in burn-ability, toxicity and availability. Wood provides a special ambiance to being in the outdoors nevertheless burning wood coats backpacking cookware with black soot.


The table below is a summary comparison of available fuels from a trekking perspective. (Download  this comparison table in PNG / PDF

A comparison of various fuels from a trekking perspective.


In part 2 we explore and compare the various types of trekking stoves available to a trekker, with an emphasis on what works and what doesn't work in the Indian Himalayas.

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