Being able to survive with only minimal gear is a good skill to have; but it’s not all that fun if you’re used to the luxury of a house. Having gear with you when you enter the woods for a backwoods camping trip or bug-out is necessary, but what to take? With the bewildering array of gear out there today let’s take a few minutes to strip away the glitter and see what really works and what doesn’t.
One of the more important pieces of gear you can have in your kit is a stove. Stoves are used for heating water for cooking and purifying water for drinking that you get in the wilderness. The type of stove you choose is dependent on any number of circumstances such as how many people you’re going to cook for, the type of fuel you want to use, the environment you’re in, and how long you’ll be in the field.
Size of Stove
The more people you’ll be cooking for the larger your stove will need to be. Probably one of the bigger portable cook stoves would be a two-burner propane stove like Coleman makes that would allow you to use two frying pans, or a coffee pot over one burner and pan over the other.
This type of stove is best for camping trips where you’ll be taking a canoe, car, truck, or some other vehicle that can haul a lot of gear. They aren’t light and you wouldn’t want to carry them for any distance, but they do have great utility when cooking for a half dozen or so people.
If you’re cooking for just yourself or a couple of people then a one burner stove will work, especially if you’re just heating water to add to a dehydrated meal or to boil noodle soup, and this is where we’ll focus our attention today. There are many different types of fuels that you can burn in a stove, so we’ll start there.
As mentioned earlier there are different kinds of fuel you can use in portable stoves. Alcohol, propane, isobutane, liquid camp fuel, wood, trioxane, etc. All have advantages and disadvantages, so let’s talk about a few here.
Alcohol: this fuel is cheap and easy to carry. It’s a liquid fuel so there is some weight involved with it, but for the most part alcohol stoves are easy to use and you can even make them yourself out of tin cans. I’ve done this and hiked a piece of the Appalachian Trail using one and was pleased with its performance. This is a slower burning stove, but it gets the job done.
Camp Fuel – I have another stove that uses camp fuel under pressure and this is my go-to winter stove. Pump it up, light it, let it heat up and you’ll have a blue flame that cooks hot and fast. It can be a little noisy, but it will boil a pot of water in no time.
Butane/isobutane – these stoves work really well, but if you use one in the winter make sure you get the winter fuel mix or the stove won’t work well at all. I’ve seen a Jetboil with the wrong fuel for cold weather and it took forty-five minutes to boil enough water for a meal. When the isobutane was replaced with the proper fuel it worked fine.
Wood/Biomass – small wood stoves such as the Solo Stove are excellent for long term hiking as your fuel is all around you in the forest. These stoves burn small twigs, pine cones, and other small pieces of wood that you constantly feed into the fire. It’s relatively labor intensive, so make sure you have a supply of wood standing by when you light it otherwise you’ll be running back and forth to keep it lit.
Trioxane or solid fuels – these are the heat tabs used by various armies around the world. You light a small tablet of fuel and it will burn long enough to heat water for a meal. These used to be popular in the old time C-Rats back in the day when you could make a stove out of the cans that came in your meal.
For each type of fuel there are many different makes and model of stoves that can burn it. For example: you can burn alcohol in a handmade stove made out of soda cans or an expensive stove bought in a sporting goods store. Alcohol stoves are typically less expensive ranging in price from DIY (free) to $30 or $40 for a high end one.
The camp fuel stove I favor is the Whisper Lite, which is a fantastic winter stove. It’s a little tricky to start the first time or two, but once you understand how it works it will heat water in the coldest of temperatures. It’s lightweight and rugged and I’ve never had a problem with it in the ten years that I’ve owned it.
Isobutane stoves are popular and you may have heard of the Jetboil brand. These work really well for heating water, although as mentioned earlier they don’t work so well in cold weather unless you have the winter mix fuel.
My favorite wood/biomass stove is the Solo Stove. Mine came with the stove, pot, lid, and a carrying bag to keep it all together when it’s not being used. I’ve had this stove for around six years and have never had a problem with it. I’ve burned pine cones, twigs, small branches, birch bark, etc. With the pot and stand combination this little guy really does the trick. The only real downside is that you have to know how to light a small fire and it’s hard to get good fuel when it’s raining. It is possible to light in the rain if you know what you’re doing, so study up on your bushcraft skills before getting one of these stoves.
Stove vs Fire
A fire is a good way to cook if you have the time and the weather conditions are favorable; however, if it’s raining, or you’re trying to keep a low visibility it’s a harder to have one. Fires burn bright and you can smell wood smoke from a long ways off, which could give away your position if you’re trying to camp stealthy.
Using a stove has advantages in that they are easy to light and most aren’t dependent on weather conditions. Put up a poncho for a shelter and get under it with your stove and you can have soup cooking in no time even in the rain. The downside of a stove in the wilderness is that you need fuel to run it and fuel is heavy. Weight is the enemy of your backpack because every ounce you carry will slow you down. That’s why carrying a water filter or a way to purify water is so important. You wouldn’t want to carry a gallon of water any more than you’d want to carry a gallon of fuel, so you find ways to get it on the go.
In this case the solo stove is your best bet for a long term hike or bug-out since the fuel is all around you in the forest. If you’re going on a short hike – five days as an example – and you’ve figured out exactly how much fuel you’ll need you can pack the fuel in and as you hike it becomes one of the consumables along with your food, which means your pack grows lighter the longer you hike.
One last type of stove I’ll mention here is what I call a tent stove. This is a wood stove that’s big enough to heat a tent and cook on when it’s cold outside. I use mine in a tipi right through the winter and it would be a lot less comfortable if I didn’t have it.
It will heat the inside of the tipi up to seventy degrees even when the outdoor temps are around ten degrees. It takes a little more to keep it running than a big wood stove, but it’s worth it! I’ve had this stove for five or six years and use it every winter.
There are smaller ammo can stoves you can use for smaller tents, but I didn’t like them as much as I do this one.
Today we’ve talked about the various fuels and types of stoves that can burn them. I’ve used all of them at one point and they all have various advantages and disadvantages. You need to figure out what’s going to work for you on your camping trip or bug-out before investing in or building your stove.
Do you have experience with a stove I didn’t mention here? Tell me about it in the comments!
Sound off below!
I have an MSR WhisperLite that I keep in my pack, but it’s pretty close to useless with standard isobutane when it starts getting cold, as you noted. I’ll have to look into proper winter fuel; do places like Cabela’s carry it?
They should. My WhisperLite is a camp fuel or white gas fuel, so it’s pumped up and pressurized and burns in any environment.
Ever tried a Trangia, a great windproof cooker, used mine for 25 years and swear by it!
I’ve seen the Trangia stoves, but never used one. They look pretty nice.