Cooking stoves are crucial backcountry gear. They allow for cooking those high-calorie meals, the lifeblood of any hiker after spending hours trudging through forest, field and/or wetlands. However, stoves are only as good as their fuel, for without some type of combustible material, they are just a useless trinket cluttering up your backpack.
Determining the amount of fuel to carry is often more art than science – not enough, you have to force down soggy uncooked oatmeal, too much, and you beat yourself up for carrying the extra weight. Fortunately, Solo Stove has solved this dilemma by creating an attractive line of stoves that burns a fuel that is so readably accessible in the Adirondacks that there is almost never a reason to carry it.
No, the stoves do not run on dirt, water or black flies (though that would be FANTASTIC – I need to get working on this ASAP), instead it burns twigs, bark, pine cones or any other combustible material (but probably not your hiking companion’s sleeping bag). You just need to provide the energy to collect the material from the forest floor and either matches or a lighter to start it.
This idea is hardly new, as other biomass-burning backpacking stoves have been available for years. What is unique is Solo Stove’s simple double-walled design which functions as a natural convection inverted downgas gasifier stove. What exactly does that mean?
According to the manufacturer’s website, the stove uses airflow and a secondary burn created by its double-hulled burn chamber, combined with its ash pan, nichrome wire grate and cooking ring components to create a hotter and cleaner burn, resulting in less smoke and little impact on the surrounding environment.
The double-hulled design of the burn chamber allows for increased airflow, where rising hot air and the absence of oxygen from the fire pulls air through the bottom exterior vent holes. This air flow fuels the fire at its base while also providing a boost of preheated air through the interior vent holes at the top of the burn chamber. This preheated oxygen fuels the flame resulting in a more complete combustion, and thus a hotter fire with less smoke.
An ash pan at the bottom of the burn chamber collects loose ash, preventing it from clogging the airflow. The elevated pan acts as a heat shield, preventing the hot ash from negatively affecting the delicate biota within the soil beneath it. Above the ash pan is a nichrome wire grate, which holds the combustible material, providing for ample oxygen from below, which enables the fire to burn faster and hotter, simultaneously allowing the spent ash to fall out below into the pan.
A detachable cooking ring sits on the top of the burn chamber and holds the cooking pot. The cooking ring directs heat up to the center of the pot for maximized efficiency. The ring also acts as a windscreen, although a bottom row of air vents still allowing oxygen to fuel the flame. The cooking ring inserts into the burn chamber when the stove is not in use, allowing for a more compact design.
Solo Stove was nice enough to provide me with a free Solo Stove Lite to try out for this review. It weighs about nine ounces, and is appropriate for 1-2 people, making it an ideal size for an Adirondack backcountry adventurer. The Solo Stove Lite retails for $89.99, although currently it is available for $69.99 at the company’s website. In addition, it comes with a money-back guarantee and a lifetime warranty against defects.
The Solo Stove Lite is no ultra-lightweight stove, unfortunately. The 304 Stainless steel construction makes it durable enough for backcountry conditions, but accounts for the heavier weight, although a titanium version could ameliorate that considerably. The Solo Stove’s weight dwarfs my Pepsi can stove’s weight of nearly three ounces, which includes the stand, stakes and collapsible fuel container.
Although my current Pepsi can stove is much lighter, the required denatured alcohol fuel makes all the difference. It takes about a half liter of fuel to get me through a 7-9 day backcountry adventure, which equals about 13.8 ounces – nearly 5 ounces more than the entire Solo Stove!
These stove specs are fine, but my first thoughts were about its performance in the field. More importantly, how would it perform against my current go to stove, the homemade Pepsi-can stove?
To satisfy my curiosity, I cooked up a little field experiment. With both stoves set-up near a stream (for access to a plentiful supply of water), I fired up each stove separately with the intention of boiling a standard amount of water in the same pot. A cupful of water was my standard amount (a cupful being equivalent to filling my titanium mug with water, not the standard volume measurement of a cup). I measured the time it took for steam to visibly appear from the little vent hole in the pot’s lid.
The results were quite stunning. The Solo Stove only took 4 minutes and 45 seconds to boil the water, while my current can stove took a whopping 10 minutes and 11 seconds. Placing the alcohol stove inside the Solo Stove cut the time for the alcohol stove down to 7 minutes and 50 seconds, proving the superior insulating ability of the Solo Stove double-walled design.
Although the Solo Stove Lite boiled water in considerably less time than my current alcohol stove, there are some other relevant factors to consider. The amount of time to find wood for the Solo Stove was considerable, especially given the wet summer we are currently enduring in upstate New York. In addition, it took me quite a number of matches to get the moist wood to ignite and form hot coals, even though I started with a small portion of a fire starter stick. In contrast, I nearly burned my hand lighting the alcohol stove on the first match.
The Solo Stove Lite is an efficient and well-made backcountry stove that burns wood and other biomass. Its fuel is readily available within the Adirondacks backcountry, making it a viable choice for any backpacker wanting to abandon using liquid or gaseous fuels on their journeys.
Photos: Solo Stove Lite courtesy of Solo Stove; testing the Solo Stove Lite by Dan Crane.