This article looks at the principles of outdoor stove cooking to help choose the right outdoor stove for your needs. Later articles will identify our recommended best stoves, cookers, and other outdoor gear.
The main thing you want from an outdoor stove is heat – fast, and safe.
Chopping down trees wherever you happen to be is no longer possible if you are worried about the countryside you are in, or even the owners’ rights. The forests around more popular camp sites have been stripped of wood. (plus remember that green wood does not burn as well a seasoned). So packing your own “fire” has definite advantages.
Stoves have their own drawbacks: many types use fuels that come from non-renewable resources (not to mention that the method of extraction is often less than environmentally sound); small stoves are not really suitable for large groups of people; many stoves on the market are finicky and require some playing around before they operate properly. Still, when all is said and done, the convenience and lightweight of stoves usually wins out. The hard part is deciding what stove is right for you. This is usually determined by what type of fuel the stove uses.
Wood or other solid fuel
Ultimately, despite the warnings, the wood stove is likely to be the cheapest both to buy and in terms of what eneregy is available for free. You can buy them or build them yourself. Try a book like The Country Journal Woodburner\’s Cookbook: How to Cook and Bake–And Save Energy–On an Airtight Wood Stove,available on Amazon.
There are outdoor stoves that burn small fuel cubes specific to the stove. Basically, you place the fuel inside the stove chamber and set it alight; a small battery powered fan forces the heat up towards the pot. By controlling the fan speed you can control the heat output.
Make your own solar oven
It’s fun to dry or cook food in a solar cooker,the ideal appliance for the lazy environmentalist. You just pop the food in and it cooks – no fuel needed.
It is also the obvious answer when you have no fuel to cook with. It is mind bogglingly cheap and easy to build, real alternative technology. The secret is to have thin walled, matt black painted cooking pots and a matt black steel panel in the bottom to absorb the heat. This heat is then passed on to the cooking pot, in direct contact with it by conduction. This technology makes sense and works fine if you set it up right. So here is how to make the no-tech solar oven – but first, you can buy this book from Amazon:
Or if you are in the UK: The Solar Stovetop Cooker: Pattern, Instructions, Recipes
Construction details :
Get hold of a large cardboard box, a smaller cardboard box (one which allows at least an inch of dead space all around once it is inserted in the larger box) a Glad or equivalent oven bag, some aluminium foil, PVA glue and the steel plate with some matt black paint.
Centre the bottom of the smaller box over the top of the larger one and, using a Stanley knife or equivalent, cut a hole in the top of the larger box so that the smaller one can slide into the larger one. Now line the larger box with aluminium foil, shiny side out. This can most easily be done by getting hold of some PVA glue and a paint brush and painting the glue onto the cardboard and then smoothing on the foil. If the glue is a bit thick to use a brush, thin it down by mixing in a bit of water.
Cut the corners of the top of the smaller box into flaps and fold them out so that they support the smaller box centrally in the larger box. If you are going to insert insulation this should be done before the flaps are glued into place, locking the smaller box into the larger one. The insulation could be crumpled newspaper, straw, wool, polystyrene beads or what-have-you, anything that provides insulating dead-air spaces. The smaller box may now be lined with aluminium foil, also shiny side out. Once the inner and outer box are assembled and glued, the lid can be made by placing a flat piece of cardboard over the top of the double box and cutting it to leave a 25mm edge all around. The line where the box sits can then be scored and the ends cut to form flaps, the flaps are then folded down and around at the corners and glued, forming a tray shaped lid. This lid
then has a three sided cut to put in the top of it to form a large flap the size of the inner box and then tape an oven bag over the hole to form a clear window to let the sun in. The bottom of the flap should also be lined with aluminium foil to act as a mirror to reflect sunlight into the oven. A Z-shaped piece of wire is then inserted in the edge of the flap and the top of the box to keep the flap open at the right angle to act as a reflector. To finish off the oven cut a piece of sheet metal to fit the bottom of the inner box, and hit it with some non-toxic matt black aerosol spray. Install the plate and your ready to cook! All it took was a couple of hours work and very little outlay (mostly for the oven bag).
Propane / Butane / Isobutene:
The main advantage of these fuels is their ease of use: strike a match, turn the knob and presto – a nice blue flame that is easy to control with a great simmer whether you are cooking outdoors or in a field kitchen. But these fuels do have problems. It is stored as a liquid in sealed metal canisters under extreme pressure so it will vaporize when released. These canisters are not reusable, so when emptied they go sraight to the landfill.
Some manufacturers are starting to introduce methods for recycling, but there are other problems. As the canister empties, it loses pressure which means a decrease in stove performance: it takes twice as long to boil water with a nearly empty canister as it does with a full one. The cooling effect of the fuel vaporizing compounds this problem, chilling the canister and further reducing the inside pressure. For similar reasons, these outdoor stoves are unsuitable for cold weather camping. For example, butane will not vaporize below 0 degrees Celsius; isobutene ceases to vaporize below -10 degrees Celsius.
The exception is propane which, because of the high pressure under which it is stored, will continue to vaporize at -43 degrees Celsius; however, propane must be contained in heavy steel canisters, making them impractical when weight is an issue. In short, the ideal user for one of these stoves is someone who does the majority of their camping or outdoor cooking in the summer , and uses a mode of transport where weight is not much of an issue (camper, sailboat, car). These users will find the ease of use, clean burning and flame control to outweigh the disadvantages.
Most commonly known in North America as Coleman fuel, white gas is also called Naphtha and MSR fuel. White gas outdoor stoves are probably the most popular type for several reasons: the cost of fuel is relatively low, the stoves are very efficient even in colder temperatures, and most models are very lightweight.
Most white gas stoves operate under the same principal: you pour the fuel into a metal container and pressurizing it with a pump thereby forcing it through the jet. You can then either light the stove or you have to prime it (heat the fuel so that it vaporizes before mixing with oxygen) and then light it, depending on the model. While they are extremely practical and effective, white gas stoves tend to have more mechanical failures than other stove types because of the quality of fuel and the number of parts found in the stove. For this reason the field maintainability of the outdoor stove may be an issue, especially on longer trips or in places where fires are not an option. With the purchase of a maintenance kit the MSR Whisper Lite stove can be completely re built in the field and is cleaned by simply shacking the burner.
Multi-fuel stoves operate under the same basic principals as white gas stoves, but they burn a wider variety of fuels (i.e. Kerosene, jet fuel, Stoddard solvents, some automobile fuels), making them more practical for hiking trips or any travel off the beaten path. The only real issue is the purity of the fuel: the more contaminated the fuel, the more likely it is to clog your stove. For this reason, constant cleaning of the jet is necessary as is filtering the fuel before you use it. Both Peck 1 and MSR make this type of stove however the Peck 1 multi fuel only burns white gas and kerosene. The MSR Whisper lite international and Dragon fly are a much better bet due to the ease of cleaning these stoves can be cleaned by simply shacking the stove.
Alcohol stoves, while not all that common, definitely have some features to recommend them. Because alcohol does not require pressurization to burn, these stoves have very few (if any) moving parts making them extremely reliable. The low volatility of alcohol also makes it a very safe fuel to use.
The downside? Alcohol does not produce a great deal of heat, so cooking times are quite a bit longer than with other fuels. Also, most alcohol burning stoves come with fairly small fuel cups, meaning refills might be necessary to finish cooking a larger meal. To get the most out of a alcohol burning stove, consider a windscreen and well fitted pots mandatory (most alcohol stoves come with their own pot set).
For efficient cooking, a good pot set is just as important as a suitable stove. Pots are usually made of aluminium, stainless steel, enameled steel or a combination of two. Each has its pros and cons.
Aluminum is very light and provides fairly even cooking, but dents easily and there is that pesky aluminum being linked to health problems issue in the non coated sets. The MSR Blacklite sets have a non-stick Teflon coating to seal out the effect of the aluminum and aid in cleaning however just like the Teflon pots at home you must look after them.
Stainless steel is much more durable, but it is heavier, more expensive and does not provide as even a cooking surface as the aluminum. It is still the choice for most outdoor people. Enamel is lightweight and cooks evenly, however I think every camper has experienced the chipping and flaking that can seems to happen immediately after the first use. Combinations of materials (stainless steel pots with aluminum coatings, aluminum pots with a more durable enameled coating) try to make the best of all worlds and often succeed. They can be heavy and expensive, but if your a back country gourmet they will provide you with a good cooking experience.
On the other end of the spectrum, if all you need to do is boil water, just about any pot will do the trick; you may as well go for the lightest you can find. One way to increase the efficiency of any pot is to blacken it; this will increase the heat absorption and may make for more even cooking.
Wind screens should be considered a priority no matter what the conditions. Wind screens not only block wind, they also help trap the heat from the stove around the pot speeding up cooking time. Heat exchangers are bulkier than wind screens but trap heat more effectively, reducing cooking time and therefore reducing fuel consumption. This is definitely an advantage on longer trips where the weight of fuel might be a concern. as is filtering the fuel before you use it.