Firestarter

Posted by Stu Ingram on 03/03/2002

Ahh, the warmth and comfort of the flames at the end of a hard day. Fire has represented one of the cornerstones of human survival since the Neanderthal tribes coveted and fought over it.

In our modern day air-conditioned and centrally heated environment, we invariably take its presence for granted. But when we pursue our activities in the outdoors, the absence of a means of warming and feeding ourselves becomes all too apparent. Stu Ingram looks at what you need to be a firestarter.

The modern manifestation of a fire (lets call it a stove!) is one of the most critical pieces of equipment for climbers and trekkers. In many situations a properly functioning stove can literally mean the difference between life and death in the mountains.

At the very least it will dictate whether you get that steaming bowl of pasta and mug of tea before bed, or make do with cold water and snack-food! This article aims to give a round up of what’s currently on the market to help you choose the bundle of warmth that’s best for you.

What’s out there?
At the most basic level, there are two principal types of stove, those that run on pressurised fuel (eg. paraffin, petrol, gas) and those using unpressurised propellants (eg Meths). Pressurised stoves, which can be further subdivided into models using liquid fuel and those using gas create more heat and work more efficiently at altitude than unpressurised models, and also offer advantages in weight, bulk and running costs. On the other side of things, liquid fuelled stoves require regular maintenance to keep them operating properly, whereas gas and unpressurised stoves need little or no user care in order to function well. A more recent development are ‘multi-fuel stoves’ capable of running on more than one type of fuel – you can even find models that will take both liquid fuels and gas!

If you choose to take a pressurised liquid fuel stove, it is essential to maintain it regularly to avoid a failure at some critical time. Make sure that you understand it’s construction and the way it functions before you get to the middle of nowhere, and pack plenty of spares, especially fuel jets and jet ‘prickers’.

Another important consideration is the availability of fuel – this may often determine the type of stove you buy (or pack if you own more than one). Take care to find out which fuels will be available in the area you are visiting and make your choice accordingly. Let’s not forget price, either – a top notch (pressurised) liquid-fuelled stove might set you back £100 or so, but an unpressurised meths or gas stove could be as little as £20. Think about how often and under what circumstances you are going to use the beast before you buy it!

As a general guide, pressurised liquid fuelled stoves are best for long-term worldwide backpacking, trekking and expedition (high-altitude) use. Pressurised gas models are great for Europe and suited to more occasional use, although climbers will often carry these to altitude for use when bivvying. Unpressurised liquid fuel stoves are good for group use and those on a budget.

How to get the best from it
Firstly, read the instructions! Know how to fuel, light and regulate your stove whilst in use, again before you have to use it “in anger” – this will save you a load of trouble when it matters. Be careful to buy suitably sized pans for you stove, and set it on a stable, level surface (some manufacturers produce bases for this purpose) to avoid tipping it over, spilling your gourmet creation and causing dangerous flaring.

Always position your stove safely away from objective hazards in a well- ventilated area. Camping in fine weather will allow you to cook al fresco – some would argue that there’s nothing finer in the outdoors than stuffing your face whilst admiring the beauty of nature. However, in wet conditions, many campers are forced to cook in their tent vestibule, even though tent manufacturers heavily discourage this. Tents are highly flammable, and the consequences of a burning tent – especially if the incumbents are in their sleeping bags at the time of the blaze – could be disastrous. If you have no option but to cook inside the porch entrance, do not allow any part of the shelter to come anywhere near the stove. Be prepared to boot the entire stove away from the tent if the burner flares and if your tent does not have a rear exit, keep a knife handy so that you can slash the fabric and escape if the tent starts to burn. Complete familiarity with the stove’s operation will minimise the chance of an uncontrollable blaze during the lighting or cooking process; through experience in use you will realize what you can and can’t get away with.

If the stove’s fuel tank needs refilling during cooking, turn off the burner and double-check that the flames have been properly extinguished before attempting to refill the tank. This is particularly important for stoves that burn transparent fuels (eg. Meths), often producing a colourless flame.

IMPORTANT: Remember that all combustion of flammable material gives off carbon monoxide. A build-up of carbon monoxide in a confined area (such as a sealed tent, snow hole or mountain hut) is virtually undetectable without specialist equipment, and can rapidly lead to unconsciousness and death. For safety’s sake, always ensure that you cook in a well-ventilated area.

But it’s freezing cold!
Everything becomes more difficult and time consuming when it’s cold, and using a stove is no exception. Apart from the inevitable fumbling with valves, matches, fuel pumps etc. with half-numb pinkies, there are some additional safety issues. Firstly, it’s vital to prevent your fuel supply from solidifying. Gas canisters can be popped in a sleeping bag half an hour before being connected to the stove, whilst a pressurised liquid fuel burner may need extra encouragement if regular priming is ineffective - applying a small amount of ‘burning paste’ around the base of the stove can do this. Light this paste, and allow the gentle flames produced to heat the stove. When they have self-extinguished, open the fuel valve and ignite the burner.

A light dusting of snow can be brushed away before setting the stove down on frozen ground. However, if you are cooking on deep snow or ice, it is important that a piece of insulating material (eg. sleeping mat foam, cardboard) is placed between the stove and the cold stuff. If this precaution is not taken, your burner is likely to melt itself into the ice with attendant consequences! If you need to improvise, then a spare pan lid can suffice. If using snow or ice as your water source, then remember that ice produces a greater return and is faster, as it does not contain any air. If you only have snow available, it is worth taking the time to produce a pyramid of hard-packed snowballs before starting to cook – as well as providing ammunition if the chef isn’t up to scratch, snowballs melted one at a time are more efficient than a simple filling the pan.

What about altitude?
Never mind the cold, when high altitude (significantly less oxygen and air pressure) and stoves mix, things really start to get fruity! Unfortunately under these more extreme conditions, your stove is literally your life – no pubs to fall back on up here! This is when it’s more important than ever to know your stove and its capabilities. Pressurised liquid models will work reasonably up to around 6500m but make sure you get the right kind of jet – certain types are almost useless at altitude! Above that propane/butane mix gas stoves are the only real choice, and the simplest to operate (big advantage).

The stove is likely to be in constant use due to slow boil times, so it must be in top working order beforehand (it’s hard enough to cook with headaches, nausea, and tiredness without the stove packing in). At altitude you need to drink more water to stay properly hydrated, 4-6 litres per day minimum but when you consider it can take an hour to make a panful of water from snow and another hour to boil it, the difficulty is apparent. Add to this altitude-induced loss of appetite – to keep psyched you will need to make your meals as varied as possible by adding spices, pickles, milk powder etc. to the necessarily simple dishes (pasta, rice, noodles) that are easiest to cook.
So, the question here is not “will my stove work?” – it should provided you look after it – more “will I be in a fit state to make it work?!”

Are there any accessories?
There are a few gizmos you can use to improve the efficiency of your stove (at any altitude), and some accessories that will make life in the outdoor kitchen more enjoyable:

Maintenance Kit: Essential for those stoves requiring field maintenance, and not always included when you buy the stove.
Windshield: Some stoves have integral windshields or come supplied with a bendy aluminium foil strip to wrap around the stove – if not it’s worthwhile getting one to keep the draughts out and increase efficiency.
Heat Exchanger: a system of coils that transfers heat from the burner back around the gas canister or cooking pot. These can increase efficiency by over 50% if a good fit is achieved – commercially produced models exist, or make your own from copper wire/or ensolite foil (see Climbing No.145 for dubious details!)
Hanging kit: This will allow you to hang your stove from a tent/portaledge tab or directly from the rock/ice, saving space on those cramped bivis. Will only fit specific models
Auto-starter: Many gas models can now be fitted with a piezo-electric igniter to prevent “the lighter’s run out!” scenarios.
Cooking kits: Many variations now exist containing spatulas, chopping boards, shakers, little pots for sauces etc. allowing you to prepare the feast of your choice in the remote backcountry. Pass the salt…
Espresso maker: Not a stove gadget, but definitely essential!



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