The Seven Kinds of Survival Stoves That You Can Trust
If you don’t want to start the day by lighting up the BBQ grill in the rain to make your morning coffee, then having a survival stove handy is an excellent idea. We are going to review the seven main survival stove types, based on the fuel they use and then take a look at examples that represent the “best of” each of those groups.
Wood fueled cooking has come a long way from three rocks around a campfire. The modern versions of these stoves focus on ease of use and efficiency. They range from homemade models like the “hobo style” tin can stove or Nimblewill Nomad’s sheet metal stove to hand polished production models like the Emberlit. Since these stoves are, essentially, a metal box that holds the wood fire and points most of the heat towards your cookpot, they generally do not have moving parts to break. Temperature control simply involves adding more or less wood. And, wood fuel can be picked up off of the ground almost everywhere for free. The better units can boil a pot of water with a big handful of sticks and twigs or larger pieces or wood that have been split down. I’ve easily been able to gather enough fuel to run one of these stoves out of my backyard in just a few minutes.
The most interesting of the wood fueled stoves that I’ve had a chance to work with is the Emberlit Stove. It consists of five pieces of either laser cut stainless steel or titanium that lock together to make a rugged box, which holds the cooking fire and serves as a pot stand. It is a good idea to follow the directions the first time you put the stove together, as they walk you through the easiest way to connect the pieces. After setting it up the first few times, though, you should be able to have it out of it’s case and ready to go in less than a minute. When assembled, this stove will support the weight of my cast iron dutch oven. The Emberlit is extremely easy to store, since the pieces stack like playing cards to pack away flat and slide into the side pocket of a duffel bag or backpack. You could literally stow the stove in a car’s glove box, under the owner’s manual. Also, the titanium version weighs in at just under 6 oz. If sticks and twigs are locally available, then this becomes a six ounce stove, with no additional weight for fuel, making it an excellent choice for an emergency bag.
Wood fuel is usually free, often easy to find and will not easily run out, in most areas. These stoves can be amongst the smallest and most lightweight options. Wood fuel can deliver a small version of “campfire ambiance” and these stoves will roast up a proper marshmallow. Wood burning stoves that feed from the side are worth extra consideration, as they do not require you to keep moving your cookpot to add fuel.
Burning wood creates ashes and some smoke, so these stoves would best be used outdoors, even if this is just on top of a cookie sheet on the patio. If you are messing about with trying to make your own survival stove, stick with using non-zinc plated metal. Zinc fume poisoning kills in a rather nasty way.
Woodgas stoves are a modern twist on the idea of a wood fueled stove. They “cook” the various organic gasses out of wood and then burn those gasses as a fuel source. Using woodgas as a fuel has been around since the mid 1800s, but has only recently found it’s way into smaller stoves. The process works by having the stove first burn the wood and then a secondary source of oxygen mixes in above the fire to create a flammable atmosphere with the gasses from the wood, which is also burned. Woodgas stoves tend to be very efficient, if designed properly. A fair amount of engineering goes into getting the right amount of air in the right place, at the right time for the process to work as intended. Once you’ve cooked on one of these, you’ll see that it is noticeably more efficient than a traditional wood stove.
The Solo Stove is a solid example of a well made portable woodgas stove. This survival stove, as well as the more expensive, but quite similar, Bushbuddy and homemade woodgas tin can stoves, are all very similar in design. They use the same, basic “can within a can” layout that is common to these types of burners. Basically, the outer can is made to allow air to get both up under the burning wood, as well as above the wood, where the woodgasses will be produced. The inner can has a grate of some sort on the bottom that allows airflow up through the wood fuel and holes near the top for the burning of the woodgasses.
In use, these types of stoves do very well, once they get burning. You do have to do a little more prep work with the wood, as it needs to be able to fit inside the stove, which means plan for some extra time to make short pieces of wood. This is easily accomplished with a knife or a hatchet or just by breaking the sticks into appropriately sized pieces.
Wood fuel is usually free, often easy to find and will not run out, as long as there are sticks and twigs around. Woodgas stoves are a very fuel efficient design. Wood fuel can deliver a small version of “campfire ambiance” and these stoves will also roast up a proper marshmallow. Smaller woodgas stoves, like the Solo Stove, can often be stored inside the pot that you set on top of them, when they are packed away.
Burning wood creates ashes and some smoke, so these stoves would best be used outdoors, even if this is just on top of a cookie sheet on your patio. Woodgas stoves tend to be among the more expensive types of portable wood survival stove.
Liquid fuel stoves, which most often use white gas as a fuel, have been made for many years in countless models by companies such as Coleman, MSR and Primus. There are plenty of new and used ones out there, including some older military surplus models. I once had a neat, old surplus M1950 stove that hadn’t been used in years burn through about two hours’ worth of fuel in just over two minutes. The plume of fire jetting out of the top was really impressive. So, if you do find a good deal on an older, used survival stove, make sure to check it out thoroughly for leaks or dried out seals before reaching for the matches. Also, check to see if you can find a source of replacement o-rings or gaskets to get it back up and running. On fairly recent stoves, this usually isn’t a big problem, but on older models, it can be a concern.
An example of a good, modern liquid fuel stove is the MSR Whisperlite. MSR has been making this stove since 1984 with a few variations on the basic design. In 1996, there was a significant update with the introduction of the Shaker Jet, which added a trapped weighted needle inside the stove. This allows the fuel jet opening to be cleaned much more easily by inverting the stove and shaking it, before use. If a used stove rattles, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is broken, but likely just one of the newer models.
One of the best models in the WhisperLite line is the “International”, which is the multi-fuel version that will run on white gas (also known as Coleman fuel), kerosene or unleaded gasoline. In order to change fuels, you do have to switch out the brass jet nozzle, but a small wrench for this task comes with the stove. Having the option to use multiple fuel sources in an emergency is an advantage.
All white gas type stoves are similar in operation. First, fuel is added to the fuel tank then the stove is pumped up to pressurize the tank. Then, the stove is warmed up, so that the fuel is hot and vaporized. Usually, this means that the stove is turned on for a few seconds, to leak out a bit of fuel, which is then lit and allowed to burn. These stoves will run rough until the metal tube that feeds fuel into the burner is hot enough to vaporize the liquid inside. One trick that will reduce the black soot that forms on the stove and the excitement of lighting it up, is to carry a small bottle of alcohol to use for priming, but this is by no means a necessity.
The Whisperlite International is a survival stove that will run on liquid fuels found all over the world. It has a relatively simple design and a cheap spare parts kit is available with extra o rings, etc. for recent models. There are plenty of these stoves available, both new and gently used. The shelf life of an unopened can of white gas is five to seven years and it is available by the gallon in Wal-Mart, Hardware and Sporting Goods stores all over the country. White gas stoves also perform quite well in cold weather, which can be a problem for some other designs.
Lighting this and most other white gas stoves is an adventure than can endanger the hair on your arms and your eyebrows, if you aren’t careful. While cooking, the Whisperlite is pretty loud, since it works on the same basic principle as a little jet engine. Most white gas stoves do not include piezoelectric push button ignition, so plan on carrying matches or a lighter.
Alcohol stoves have become increasingly popular in recent years, due to their ultra-simple designs, often with no moving parts to fail or wear out. This style of stove has been made out of everything from titanium to cat food and soda cans. I remember when, years ago, a good hiking buddy of mine was the first person around to get his hands on an imported set of Trangia cooking gear. A few weeks later, standing on top of an ice and snow covered mountain, he pulled it out to make a hot lunch. After getting everything set up, he held the flaming match over the puddle of alcohol in the middle of the stove and…nothing happened. That day we learned that if it is really cold, plan to spend some quality time with your stove and fuel bottle under your coat to warm them up enough for the alcohol to vaporize so the stove can light.
Alcohol stoves are typified by the Trangia and Svea style of burners. Although they are made by two different companies, they use the same basic design and materials. The Svea is sometimes found, often at a bargain price, as part of the old style Swedish military mess kits. This survival stove is basically a small, double-walled brass can with some holes near the top edge. A screw on lid can be twisted on to the top to seal the stove shut. However, the lid should not be put on the stove while it is still hot, or the rubber o-ring on the inside might melt. Whether store bought or homemade, these are small, inexpensive, lightweight stoves.
To use an alcohol stove, measure out and pour a little fuel into the top and touch it with a match. To turn the stove off, either snuff it or just let the fuel in the stove burn out. The big advantages of these stoves are that they are dead simple to use, very quiet when running and burn so clean that the flame can literally be hard to see in the daytime. As for fuel, the cans of denatured alcohol from a hardware store paint department work great. Autoparts stores also carry a gas additive called HEET in a yellow bottle that is a common fuel choice.
Alcohol stoves like the brass Svea are quiet, with no moving parts to break. The famous White Box Alcohol Stove is both a well made and inexpensive option. Also, a simple burner can be made in a pinch out of soda cans with a pocket knife. Alcohol is by far one of the safer liquid stove fuels. Also, the shelf life of an unopened can of alcohol from the hardware store is indefinite.
Alcohol stoves are not as fast at boiling water as some other stoves. It is also hard to light in cold weather without preheating the stove with either bodyheat, a candle, lighter, etc. This fuel doesn’t hold as much energy as some others, so more of it is needed, which can add up over longer periods of time. It is not safe to use any other kind of fuel in an alcohol stove. These little burners often need a windscreen of some kind to work efficiently, but this can be as simple a piece of aluminum foil.
Canister stoves have evolved over the years from primitive and bulky designs into some of the most engineered systems available. They all run on small canisters of pressurized gas. Most stove companies have their own “proprietary mix” of butane, isobutene, etc. However, the vast majority of the ones found in the United States are compatible with each other, since they use the same standardized type of Lindal valve meeting the EN417 specification. A modern canister stove will run just fine on any Jetboil, SnowPeak, MSR or Primus canisters that can screw onto it. Some might work a little bit better in really cold weather, and others might put out a smidge more heat, but they will all work. A few different sizes can be found online and in most any sporting goods store.
The standout for a complete cook system is indeed the Jetboil. It blends a windscreen, piezoelectric lighter and storage for all the parts into a well thought out system. The real deal breaker, though, is the built in heat exchanger that is attached to the bottom of the pot. This exchanger captures much of the heat that would usually just escape around the edges. The end result of this is that this stove boils water faster, with less fuel.
These stoves start up with instant full power with no priming needed. They light up at the push of a button on the models that have piezoelectric ignition. Units like the Jetboil are an all-in-one cooking stations, with room for the burner and a fuel cartridge inside the packed stove. When cooking just for myself, I’ve used one fuel cartridge for a full week. As a survival stove, they are also easy to store, since everything packs away together.
These stoves run only on fuel canisters. Most brands work just fine, unless they are a proprietary cartridge, such as some of the blue Camping Gaz brand. Fuel cartridges have a minimum shelf life of three years, due to the Lindal valve possibly developing leaks or sticking as they age. However, this seems to be relatively uncommon on properly stored fuel. While great at boiling water, Jetboil stoves don’t simmer well, but this is not true of all canister stoves.
Similar in design to the side burner on nice BBQ grills, these are single burner units that run on butane cartridges. There are multiple brand names, but none of the ones I’ve had the chance to examine were drastically different in design. The Sterno brand models are as good as any of the others and come with a nice plastic storage box.
These stoves are often marketed towards the food service industry, so they are usually found at a store that supplies restaurants and caterers. They are, of course, available online. Most run on a standardized 8oz can of butane fuel that will burn for around an hour and a half to two hours. The same places that sell the stoves should carry the butane cartridges, as well as some ethnic markets and the occasional sporting goods store.
The big advantage to this type of burner is that it cooks pretty much the same as the top of a gas range. They will simmer food well or boil water acceptably. On the Sterno model, turning the gas knob all the way to the left sparks a small piezoelectric igniter to start the stove.
As a survival stove, these run on butane fuel cartridges that can be quite hard to find outside of specialty stores, so stock up. They are large enough that they represent the upper limits of what could be realistically “portable” for a survival stove.
These stoves are a varied lot, grouped together by their use of some kind of solid, manmade fuel. They range from the Stove in a Can brand which burns discs made of wood chips and wax, to Esbit stoves which run on trioxane or hexamine chemical pellets, to Sterno stoves which are powered by cans of jellied alcohol. The other six types of survival stoves really give solid fuel models stiff competition. The price of the “fuel cell” woodchip biscuits for the Stove in a Can is disappointing.
The Esbit is a decent choice from the solid fuel lineup for a really small stove sized for a single person for a couple of days. You can pick one up with some fuel pellets for around twelve dollars. One thing to keep in mind with these, though is that the burning fuel pellets can produce some rather nasty chemicals, so all cooking would best be done outside.
The big selling point of Sterno is that it’s safe and simple. Pop the lid, light the pink goo and you’ve got gentle flames. If you knock it over, the wad of alcohol goop will probably stay in the can, much like cranberry sauce does when making a Thanksgiving dinner. Just slide the lid back on and let the stove cool when done. However, Sterno doesn’t put out much heat by modern stove standards and is more expensive in the long run than many of the other options. Sadly, there is no easy way to refill a can of Sterno.
These survival stoves can be amongst the simplest of the stove/fuel combos. If you ignore fuel costs, they are inexpensive and tend to use stable fuel with a long shelf life. Many of the solid fuel stoves would be a good choice for a disposable stove or for very short term use.
These survival stoves are usually designed to only work with one specific fuel type. The solid fuel tends to range from somewhat expensive to very expensive. Some tablets can produce fumes from burning which contain unplesant chemicals. A tall windscreen around the pot is a good idea, as the heat output on these is less than a liquid fuel stove. Controlling the heat output of a solid fuel stove can bit a bit more of a challenge than with some of the other stove types. Unless the need is for a “disposable stove”, one is often better off looking into the other categories.