Tech skills: how to choose a stove

Posted by Daniel Middleton on 12/08/2014
Make sure your stove is a roaring success

Whether melting Himalayan snow or cooking a gourmet meal in Snowdonia, make sure your stove is a roaring success.

Camping stoves range in size from pocket size to larger than your kitchen sink and, with new technologies and materials, there’s a lot of choice. This article focusses on small, lightweight stoves suitable for backpacking and multi-day mountaineering trips. Such stoves fall into three main types:

Unpressurised solid or liquid fuel

Solid-fuel blocks and gels are used in the most basic of stoves. Popular with the military, because they’re light and have no parts to go wrong, their main limitation is a very low heat output. They make a handy addition to an emergency kit for a group, but for general cooking and melting snow they can't be recommended.

Liquid fuel stoves include the alcohol-fuelled Trangia. With a higher heat output than solid fuels, this type is still fairly slow to boil water, and performs poorly in the cold. The fuel is cheap and readily available, although the stoves and fuel containers are rather bulky. Split amongst a group, this is a popular and relatively safe stove for novice groups.

Pressurised liquid fuel

These stoves are best for extreme conditions, although they require plenty of maintenance. The main liquid fuels are kerosene (paraffin), unleaded petrol and white gas, although some stoves will run on other fuel types as well. Some stoves allow fuel types to be switched by changing the fuel jet. The fuel container contains a pump, which allows it to be pressurised and the fuel expelled under pressure. A key feature is a fuel line which runs past the burner, causing the fuel to vaporise as it is heated prior to combustion.

Depending on the fuel used, and the conditions, these stoves usually require priming before use: using some fuel to preheat the system. When working correctly, these stoves provide very high output, cheap readily available fuel and great performance in adverse conditions. But the volatile fuels can be dangerous, and stoves can explode or flare if not maintained or used correctly. The high heat output is great for boiling water or melting snow, but can be more challenging if trying to cook a meal. A stove with a separate flame control will make this easier. These are the perfect stoves for extended wilderness adventures – as long as you’re prepared to look after them.

Liquified Petroleum Gas

Gas stoves use petroleum gas which has been compressed into a liquid and held in pressurised canisters (LPG). There are many advantages to this type: the fuel burns very cleanly, there is no chance of spilling fuel, heat output is good, and maintenance and cleaning are minimal. Against this, fuel canisters are expensive, may be difficult to obtain, require disposal and up to 10% of the canister fuel is wasted.

It’s essential to match canisters to the stove, which has been made easier by a new standard for resealable LPG canisters (EN417). Various fuel combinations abound; those which include isobutane or propane are best for cold conditions. Some of the smaller LPG stoves are perfect for mountaineering, due to their compact nature and relatively hassle-free operation.

New developments

There have been some exciting innovations in stove design over the last few years. Stoves and cooking pots are now often available in titanium alloy – reducing weight drastically (and denting your wallet). Stove burners have always been inefficient, especially in windy conditions. A good windshield will reduce heat loss, but a heat exchanger built into the cooking pot – such as the Jetboil – dramatically improves the efficiency. The MSR Reactor utilises another novel approach: employing a radiant burner which is extremely efficient in windy conditions.

Obtaining the correct fuel is always a concern when travelling, hence the need for multi-fuel stoves. A step further in this direction are stoves such as the Primus Omni-fuel which, as its name suggests, will run on LPG canisters, petrol, diesel and kerosene.

Stove safety

Remember that cooking in an enclosed space, such as a tent porch, is a potentially hazardous activity. The obvious risk is of a stove malfunction, burner flare or fuel spillage causing fi re. If you have ever seen a nylon tent go up, you’ll appreciate this is no laughing matter. Only cook inside if you have no other option. Ensure the stove is well maintained, keep it as far away from the tent sides as possible and have an escape route if things go wrong.

Far more insidious – and the cause of several deaths over the past few years – is asphyxiation from carbon monoxide poisoning. Always endeavour to cook in a well-ventilated space, and have a healthy respect for this invisible killer.

Dan Middleton is the BMC Technical Officer. Contact him with your technical questions at dan@thebmc.co.uk.

Expert Q&A

This issue, Paul Ramsden is our expert on the silent killer: carbon monoxide. Paul lives the somewhat unusual lifestyle of a mountaineer funded by his work as a Health and Safety consultant. Since ascents of classic alpine north faces in his teens, he’s continued to climb in most of the world’s greater ranges. See www.integralhse.co.uk.

Q. What is carbon monoxide?

A. Carbon monoxide is a colourless and odourless gas, most commonly formed by incomplete combustion of almost any fuel type, from charcoal to propane. Described as the ‘silent killer’, more technically it’s known as a chemical asphyxiate.

Q. What are the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning?

A. Initial symptoms include headache, nausea and fatigue. These are often misdiagnosed as the flu or acute mountain sickness at altitude. More serious effects can include: delirium, hallucinations, dizziness, confusion and, ultimately, unconsciousness and death. Whilst death is relatively unlikely, any form of unsteadiness and confusion could significantly increase the potential for a mountain accident. In many ways, this is the unforeseen outcome of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Q. How can I prevent it?

A. All stoves will release carbon monoxide if the fuel is only partially combusted due to a lack of oxygen or an insufficiently hot flame. Cooking outdoors or allowing plenty of ventilation when cooking in a tent is essentially. Hot blue flames release little carbon monoxide but if the flame burns white or orange the risk increases. Modern heat exchanger pans are more prone to carbon monoxide generation, but the very worst culprit is the barbecue, with its relatively cool flame.

Q. I’m family camping. Should I take a CO alarm?

A. I think the use of an alarm is excessive, but they are very cheap. Cook outdoors if you can and allow plenty of ventilation if weather conditions don’t allow this. Be vigilant for the early onset of headaches and NEVER use a barbecue in the tent.

READ: More articles like this

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