Stove Talk

Still on hiatus in Peru with little in the way of biking adventures to report on, this is another unashamed ‘filler’ post. I’ll admit I’m scraping the barrel with this one; a rambling note on the various stoves that have featured in the trip and why I now use what is fundamentally a beer can. Again, if you’re not a gear geek this is sure to bore the socks off you!

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I’m not sure I’ve actually cooked a camp dinner that hasn’t involved pasta, such are the extents of my culinary genius

Broadly speaking, your happy camper is faced with 3 types of stove to chose from; alcohol, gas canister and multi-fuel, in ascending order of both price and power. For the wandering cyclist in remote or developing parts of the world, sourcing gas canisters is generally a nightmare, so you’re effectively down to 2 options…

  1. Multi-fuel Powerhouses

If you’re looking for serious power and man points you want one of these beasts. As the name suggests they’ll burn almost anything, which, for the shoestring cyclist, inevitably means standard car gasoline. Not only does this make them incredibly cheap to run, but you can also get hold of fuel almost anywhere.

The downsides are not insignificant though; they’re expensive, heavy-ish (ballpark 330 to 400g), soon become a dirty sooty mess and then there’s the whole palaver of actually getting the thing going. Having pumped up the fuel bottle to a reasonable pressure, it’s onto the ‘priming’ stage, which basically involves setting fire to the whole thing (to heat the fuel jet up sufficiently that it’ll vaporise the fuel when it shoots through on its way to the burner). A bit of a black art and somewhat unnerving on your first go, especially when the MSR manual tells you to expect a ‘football sized’ flame.

MSR Whisperlite

I started the trip with the ‘go to’ multi-fuel stove, MSR’s Whisperlite, a frankly brilliant bit of kit that I got know intimately during it’s a year and a bit of use. Had it not been nicked, leaving Mat and I to go Bear Grylls in the Cordillera Huayhuash, I would no doubt have continued with it to the end. Completely user serviceable and simple to dissect for occasional maintenance, it’s a stove I have full confidence in. If you’re passionate about cooking you may want something that can actually simmer though; the temperature ranges from ferocious to hotter than the sun.

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Cleaning time…

Some tips:

  • It took me about 6 months to figure this out, but to largely avoid the sooty mess, prime the stove using pure alcohol. I started always carrying a small bottle with me so I could pour a little into the priming cup, light it, then only let through the gasoline when it was primed and could burn as a clean blue flame (instead of a dirty yellow fireball).
  • Be sure to use the right jet for your fuel type, again it took me a while to figure out I was using the wrong one; ‘K’ instead of ‘G’

Optimus Nova

Following the theft of the MSR, keen to stick with the power of multi-fuel I picked up a barely used Optimus Nova. This is a sexy beast it has to be said and sounds like a rocket during takeoff (which I’m classing as a positive), but that’s about the extent of my praise; my relationship with this stove was one of woe and frustration. Having serviced it as best I could it was still horrendously unreliable and difficult to start after priming. Used exclusively in the high Andes over 4000m I’m not sure if was the altitude, poor quality gasoline or just some genuine problem with the stove, but failure to light on a subzero morning at Laguna Rajucolta was the last straw. Time to cut my losses and move on…

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Alien technology? Not quite.

  1. Alcohol Simplicity

Coming from the raucous world of multi-fuel, experiencing the Zen like process that is alcohol-cooking came as somewhat of a contrast. Almost completely silent and ridiculously simple, you just let it do its thing and wait patiently. And therein lies the only real downside; it’s quite a bit slower than the roaring inferno of multi-fuel. Fine in my opinion for solo cooking, but for a couple the Zen effect may be lost as you slowly starve waiting for your pasta. Arguably fuel is also less easy to track down, but in South America it really isn’t a problem. Pharmacies, which are bizarrely numerous over here, almost always stock bottles of 90%+ alcohol and in many rural areas, especially in mining areas, the locals basically drink the stuff so it’s rarely hard to find (just look for the horrifically drunk chap).

The Beer Can

In its simplest form an alcohol stove is just a container in which you can set fire to some alcohol. Enter the beer can.

The world of DIY beer can stoves is an incredibly geeky place; with a bewildering number of designs from ranging from the humble half cut can to the pressure sensitive ‘penny stove’. With nowhere to buy a stove I disappeared down this DIY rabbit hole and emerged with a ‘middle of the road’ version.

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Along with stand fashioned from spokes (3 for 30cents from a streetside bike mechanic) and spare can sides this is a seriously budget bit of kit.

For something that costs effectively nothing, weighs effectively nothing and takes about 10 minutes to make, I have to say it’s absolutely incredible. This is the video I followed:

It’s seen a lot of action in Peru, Bolivia and the Puna de Atacama and has performed admirably. The only downside is its susceptibility to being crushed when packed, but seated inside my mug it’s fine.

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The little champ boiling snow a 4800m on the Ausangate circuit

The Trangia

This Swedish classic is popular choice in adventuring circles, basically a sturdier brass version of the beer can. I picked up a second hand one of these in La Paz, but found it slower (possibly as a result of its age) than its beer can counterpart so soon ditched it and returned to my trusty can.

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So there you have it, a self-confessed gear geek moving from the relatively high tech world of multi-fuel to the humble beer can, a real ‘under dog’ story if you will. I have no doubt it’ll see me through to the Fin del Mundo and it’s something I’d have no hesitation in recommending to others planning similar endeavors. Afterall, if it does break, it’s just a case of having a beer and making a new one, hardly a disaster…

6 responses to “Stove Talk

  1. Hi Paul! It’s good to hear that the stove design you’re using actually works at that height. I have tried a penny stove at 3800 m without success (Siecha Lagoon, Colombia https://www.google.com/maps/@4.7651031,-73.8472495,3034m/data=!3m1!1e3), mostly because priming was difficult, then the heat was not enough to boil two cups of water and was not even bellow 0°C (also in Colombia is difficult to find alcohol over 76%, which is not so good to burn).
    I’m wondering if the stand you’re using have the same height of the stove or if it’s higher.

    • hey eduardo, great to hear from you! The stand is about one inch higher than the top of the can, it seems to work better with a gap to let more air in. I hope you guys are well and all the best for brazil!

      • Thanks for your reply Paul! We are in a kind of hiatus too in Cochabamba, Bolivia. A bridge in the main road to Santa Cruz fell after intense rains on the zone and things are a little bit chaotic as many people is stranded in Cochabamba. Fortunately we found and old friend and she is hosting us in her house as many days as we need. We wish you the best too for your rides!

  2. I really like the pot support you’ve made.

    My mom gave me a gift of $80 to buy a Whisperlite years ago, just before I was planning to travel to France to meet Lael, who was living there at the time. I built a beer can stove the next day, pocketed the cash and never looked back. The infrequent Achilles heel of an alcohol stove is not being able to find fuel, but it is always fun to figure out what to call it and where to get it in each country. I’ve been using a Penny Stove since 2009, although it does falter with lower grade fuel. When all I can find is 70% alcohol, I find it easiest to cut the bottom off a can and live with an open flame for some time.

    Keep scraping the bottom of the pot with these posts, that’s where all the good stuff is.

    • Cheers nick, maybe I’ll try ‘upgrading’ to the penny stove soon… Brilliant to hear you’ve been beer canning it for so long, $80 well saved!

      Keep on rolling.

      Paul

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