A trekking stove primer for the Indian Himalayas - Part 3 - Choosing the right stove

A trekking stove primer for the Indian Himalayas - Part 3 - Choosing the right stove

Summary

Having covered stove fuel in part 1 and the different types of stoves in part 2 we move on to stove usage. There is no one size that fits all when it comes to trekking stoves. Different hikers have different requirements for trekking stoves. In essence, the choice for a stove, boils down (pun intended) to the following factors

  1. Cost
  2. Three vs four season or winter use
  3. Group size
  4. Simmering / Gourmet vs boiling water

In this final post we construe various trekking profiles and shed some light on which stove is suitable for a each trekker profile.

Cheap / Three season with no melting snow / individual or small trekking group / Boiling

An alcohol stove fits the bill. It costs next to nothing if you have some Do It Yourself (DIY) skill and have a cola or a tuna can lying around. Fuel is relatively cheap and denatured alcohol is available in any shop that sells surgical supplies. In New Delhi there is a wholesale market for surgical supplies near Chawri Bazaar metro station. In a pinch you can procure rubbing alcohol from a chemist shop and use that as fuel. Do note that the rubbing alcohol available in India does not burn clean and it will cover your cooking utensils in soot. Experiment with different types of alcohol available and choose the one that fits the bill. 

We received an mail from one of our readers Nikhil (You can follow Nikhil's blog here). Quick updates from Bhrigu experience - We made the stove and tried it out. Since we couldn't get Ethanol, we used turpentine oil. It worked. The flames were a bit low hence it took its sweet time to boil. But it came as an enlightenment. We cooked MTR stuff, soup, rice, etc...

Nikhil and friends using an alcohol stove in the field  (on Brighu Lake trek)

Fuel storage is not a problem as alcohol does not degrade over time. Storing alcohol in an airtight bottle away from direct heat or sunlight alcohol keeps it from vaporising in the Indian summer. Use a squeeze bottle with a pointy nozzle (like sewing machine oil bottles) for trekking trips. These bottles make it easier to pour just the right amount of alcohol in a stove and minimise spillage. We at inditramp own many types of stoves but, for our spring - summer treks everyone reaches out for their own alcohol stove. There is a healthy discussion at work on the best raw material for an alcohol stove and the consensus is that it is a tuna can with two rows of punched holes. Let us know about your preferred raw material and method for creating an alcohol stove in the comments below.

Infographic summarising the pros and cons for an alcohol stove

Availability in India

If you really have to buy rather than building your own alcohol stove we recommend, buying into the Trangia System. Its stable, robust with an amazing build quality and it has been making these stoves since 1925.


High initial cost / Four season - winter trekking / Big groups / Boiling with a limited simmering ability

Come winter and we take the wraps off our trusty Primus Omnifuel. A quick inspection later, we have a stove that will go with us on all our winter treks. At 200 euros it is perhaps the most expensive stove we own. Yet, our editor has used it for over 6 six years now and it has never let him down. A multi-fuel stove pushes out huge amount of heat and it is the best bet for winter treks where you have to melt snow for drinking water. It also significantly cuts down cooking time for a large group. 

In 2012-13 we were on a dog sled trek near Kiruna (Sweden). Kiruna lies with the arctic circle, and temperatures usually dip to as low as -30 Degrees Centigrade without windchill. In such extreme conditions, a Primus Omnifuel stove running on White Gas / Naphtha kept a group of four hydrated and fed for a week without a single hiccup. 

One caveat with a multi-fuel stove is that it requires maintenance, and we recommend investing in a field repair kit when you buy a multi-fuel stove. Big fuel manufactures like MSR and Primus also supply field repair kits.

MSR whisperlite field repair kit (Image courtesy www.cascadedesigns.com/)

Another hiccup with most multi-fuel stoves make an eerily loud roar. If your idea of a morning breakfast is a quiet commune with nature and hearing the birds chirp then this is not the stove for you. In India, we prefer running our multi fuel stove on unleaded petrol rather than kerosene. Unleaded petrol produces noticeably less soot and is almost as readily available as kerosene in the remotest himalayan village. However, for treks longer than a week we do keep the kerosene jet with us, just in case. We have tried running this stove with Old Monk rum and Smirnoff vodka as fuel and to our pleasant surprise the stove works with both liquors. Nevertheless, we would not recommend making this a regular practice. In conclusion, if you need a stove that offers extreme reliability and performance in any weather condition over any elevation then look no further than a multi fuel stove. Read our article on stove types to understand why multi fuel stoves are so efficient over extreme elevations.

Infographic summarising the pros and cons for a liquid fuel / multi-fuel stove

Availability In India

Our favourite of the lot, the Primus Omnifuel stove is not available in India. IN such a case we recommend settling for MSR Whisperlite international which is 90% as good as the Primus.


Have money, want no hassle / Three season trekking, can push to four season / small to large group / gourmet meals

If you value time and convenience and you can afford to pay for it the Canister Stove is the right choice for you. Canister stoves are the simplest to use and have the best simmer control mechanism. This makes them an ideal choice for the discerning gourmet chef. An excellent flame control means that anything that can be home cooked on a gas range can be cooked outdoors. Moreover, this is the simplest stove to use. If you are new to cooking on treks and do not want to clean soot from your cooking gear this is the stove to use. Fuel availability is a mixed bag. In large mountain towns e.g. Leh (Jammu & Kashmir), Manali (Himachal Pradesh), Nainital (Uttarakhand) and Darjeeling (W. Bengal) and you can find fuel canisters at most trekking stores and also with large trek operators. We are unaware of an online store that sells fuel canisters yet. Do you know a place to procure fuel canisters? Please do let us know in the comments below.

Infographic summarising the pros and cons for a canister stove

Availability In India

Our pick, the MSR windburner is unavailable in India, and none of the stoves suggested above have an integrated heating system, therefore we suggest reviewing your options carefully.


    No wood stoves? The case against wood stoves

    We have to admit that when we first saw the Biolite wood burning stove (available on Amazon India) we were very excited, and it seemed like a pretty good idea. However, the warm fuzzy feeling started dissipating the more we explored it. Lets go through the perceived advantages of a wood burning stove one by one and see if they hold up to further scrutiny.

    1. Never carry fuel - Only true if all your treks are below snow line on fair weather days. But not on a wet day or above 2500 metres this does not hold true. Also, it weighs 930 grams, thats over 700 grams compared to our heaviest alcohol stove. 700 grams of alcohol equates to fuel for around 35 meals or 12 days of hiking at 3 meals a day (123 = 36)
    2. You can feed a bigger group - We noted that it took between 10-15 minutes for a load of wood to burn through. This means that a wood stove requires constant replenishment and wood does not provide the same amount of heat as petroleum based fuels or even alcohol in certain cases (see part 1 - fuels).
    3. Charging electronics - SectionHiker reports that two hours of burning wood to bring an empty Android smartphone to 50% power. This implies that it needs 16 loads of wood and four hours of burning to bring the phone to a charge. You decide whether this is practical in the field, we deem it is not.
    4. You can fly with this - so can we with our dainty 100 grams alcohol stove.

    Conclusion - The Biolite wood stove is a cool gadget, and we at inditramp love gadgets. But it really doesn't excel as a stove, and it really doesn't charge devices very well either. It is a great device to have for an emergency situation in a car or an off-road vehicle but as a backpacking stove its utility is severely limited especially in the Indian Himalayas.

    Infographic summarising the pros and cons for a wood burning stove


    And what about solid fuel stoves?

    Solid fuel stoves weigh just as much as an home made alcohol stove. However, ESBIT and other safe solid fuel tablets are virtually impossible to come by in India. What you do get online is paraffin wax tablets. Paraffin wax’s heat output is substantially lower than alcohol and the tablets are not as clean burning as denatured alcohol.

    Infographic summarising the pros and cons for a solid fuel stove


    Conclusion

    In conclusion, trekking stoves are light, reliable and support the Leave No Trace ethic. If you are in the market for a trekking stove you need to ask yourself a few questions

    1. How much do I want to spend on a stove?
    2. How much do I want to spend on fuel?
    3. Where am I going backpacking?
    4. How cold will it get where I am going?
    5. How many people am I cooking for?
    6. How available is the fuel that I need?

    Based on the answers to these questions our stove recommendations are

     

    MSR windburner. Image courtesy www.cascadedesigns.com. More information about this stove can be found here

     

     

    Primus Omnifuel. Image courtesy www.primus.eu. More information can be found here

    Do you agree with our conclusion or do your experiences tell you otherwise? Let us know in comments below.

    Tip #2 - Simple steps to trekking stove safety (infographic)

    Tip #2 - Simple steps to trekking stove safety (infographic)

    A trekking stove primer for Indian Himalayas - Part 2 Stove Types

    A trekking stove primer for Indian Himalayas - Part 2 Stove Types