The Half Ass Expeditions Guide to Winter Hiking Equipment
Timur looks at the all backpacking stoves in his life.
Throughout my lifetime of hiking I've had the opportunity to cook my meals on many different heat sources. My favorite method will always be the classic campfire, but the reality of backwoods travel today is low impact camping. There are many other choices the wilderness chef has for cooking a trailside banquet and I'll examine the stoves I've used throughout the years.
Yeah... the early years of smokey fires and sooty meals will forever remain as fond memories... Like the time I spilled our entire meal into the fire after grabbing a hot handle and blistering three fingers. How about that time Vincentoli blew all that ash into my gourmet noodle dinner with that thwamm thwacker of his. There was the time I got smoke in my eyes and stumbled head first into the shelter. Who doesn't possess their own memory of being hit by a flaming marshmallow ignited over the campfire! As fond as I was of that backwoods blaze, I embraced the technology that replaced it.
The Svea 123 remained a fixure in my pack for nearly a decade. I first saw that little powerhouse in action at the tender age of twelve. I was entranced. To control the flame was a power I wished to call my own. It wasn't until I was 15 when I purchased my own Svea. I loved that little 6 inch stove with the neat aluminum cup that fit over the top and the nifty key/tool that adjusted the flame. That tiny jet could boil all the water I needed in a few minutes. The Svea was way ahead of its time, incorporating a jet cleaning system that keeps the stove burning efficiently. It was a faithful companion for many years. Then I met Bruce McAnus. He compared the Svea to a Molatov Cocktail, with its flame surging on top of the fuel tank. That image never left my head even though we all know the stove is safe.
McAnus introduced me to the wonders of pressurized fuel tank stoves. We called it the Whisper Loud, because MSR's Whisperlite Stove is usually the loudest thing in camp when its going (besides Vincentoli after a few hot toddys). As well as being lightweight and very small, the Whisperlite is fun to use. Unrolling the foil wind screen, pumping up the fuel bottle, heating the fire pan... It is a sacred ritual that must be performed before each meal. This ritual did become tedious during my hike of the Appalachian Trail, setting up the stove three times a day for six months. The other annoying quirk of my Whisperlite was the constant need for "poking" the jet clear. (Now the stove has a cool shaker jet cleaning innovation that allows me to chuck that damn poker.) It was a reliable piece of gear, however, and kept our meals hot during the entire 2100 mile hike!
When I first saw the Zip Stove, I was skeptical. Marcus bought one, however, and we gave it a pretty good work out. Essentially a forced air wood burning system, the Zip Stove provides a flame that is as effective as most gas stoves. This neat device uses two AA batteries and a tiny fan to force air into a combustion chamber that is filled with bits of wood and bark. You'd be surprised how well this stove works. I was so enthralled with the concept, I wanted to take it a step further and power the fan with a wind-up mechanism. Perhaps someday I'll get around to it.
Though not the best choice for winter hiking, the Brasslite Stove uses alcohol and is the lightest stove you'll find. I've used alcohol stoves before and wasn't impressed until now.... Aaron Rosenbloom, the inventor of the Brasslite, is dedicated to the ultralight backpacking philosophy and this micro furnance reflects his devotion. Another plus of the Brasslite... it's the most silent stove of the bunch. OK, so it might not boil as fast as the fossil fuel BTU blasters out there, but it is more than adequate for most backpacking adventures. Combine this stove with a windscreen and a "cozy" (or the Bakebag) and you've got a pretty efficient little cook system.
The great thing about alcohol stoves is you can make your own easy enough. No pressurized tanks of fuel, complicated vaporizing or fuel jets, the "soda can stove" is simply cut from discarded cans and nested together. A quick Google for "can stoves" will lead you to a number of great DIY sites. After much R+D, a lot of beer and some 4:20 breaks, our favorite microgram furnace made from Heineken cans has proven to be one heckuva heat source.
These days there are so many stove choices for the trailside chef. I looked through the most recent Backcountry Edge catalog and could not believe the quantity of backpacking stoves out there. It seems to me MSR is leading the pack in the outdoor cooking category, offering the most stoves at the best prices. The Whisperlite features that shaker jet cleaner and an impressive selection of fuel options making this stove one of the most popular choices for winter hiking.
January 2004 update: HAE's latest trip to Maine revealed a new campstove favorite. The MSR Simmerlite was QUIET, easy to set up and start, lighter weight and it really does simmer. It has the cool shaker jet leading to an HAE chant: "Shake it like a Simmerlite Campstove". HAE gives this stove two polypro thumbs up!