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Stoves: essential gear. Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach; the same could be said of your average trekker; this month, Paul Deegan, looks at the cooking options available to hungry expeditioners.

I spent the spring of 1995 on an expedition to Mount Everest. One evening, the stove was proving difficult to light in the tent's porch as freight-train winds roared over our perch on the North Col. We reluctantly dragged the stove inside so that it could be fired up in the centre of the tent. This was clearly dangerous--fire and nylon don't mix well--but without anything to drink, dehydration would soon set in and, at 7,000 metres, we would then have a different order of chaos with which to contend.

The stove was duly ignited and we settled back into the corners of the tent. A few minutes later, the burner roared like an angry lion and belched four great tongues of flame that shot out between us and licked the tent's walls. Before anyone could react, the flames retreated into the burner and the stove resumed purring as normal.

An hour later, we were enjoying our first cup of tea. Thankfully, we never experienced a repetition of the incident, but from that day on, I've never cooked inside a tent.

Under pressure

Despite the potential dangers, a lightweight stove is an indispensable part of any camper's equipment. Yet until the mid-1800s, a reliable, efficient and portable burner simply didn't exist. Then a couple of unpressurised alcohol-burning stoves started to appear on the market. One model, engineered by polar explorers Fritdtj of Nansen and Adolphus Greeley, was a forerunner of the Swedish Trangia stove, which, even today, remains a popular choice when cooking at low altitudes.

But for real performance at any altitude, and for rapid snow melting in the polar regions, a pressurised stove is required. However, 19th-century kerosene (paraffin) wicking stoves were sooty and inefficient. The solution lay in finding a way to vaporise the fuel before combustion. The first device of this kind was a blowtorch that was invented and patented by Swedish engineer Carl Richard Nyberg in 1882.

A few years later, two more Swedes, the Lindqvist brothers, were awarded a patent for a small pressurised kerosene stove that vaporised the fuel before combustion to produce a smokeless flame. The Lindqvists subsequently went into production with Johan Viktor Svenson, at which point the stove was named the Primus. (Note, however, that this version of events is disputed in some quarters, with suggestions that a Dane, Frederik Ferdinand Tretow-Loof, may have invented the Primus stove.) Nansen took a Primus to the Arctic in 1893, and the stove rapidly became a commercial success both at home and abroad.

Svenson soon went into the business of producing blowtorches. In response, Nyberg began manufacturing pressure stoves of his own. One of his most successful designs was the Svea. Incredibly, the Svea 123R stove is still being manufactured today by Swedish company Optimus.

Different variations of the original Primus concept dominated the market until the early 1970s, when Mountain Safety Research (MSR) produced the first stove that utilised the fuel bottle as the fuel tank. Until this time, fuel was transported in separate containers and then poured into the small stove tank that was permanently attached to the burner. This generally meant carrying two metal containers around.

With the MSR Model 9 stove, only a single tank needed to be carried. The detachable pressurising pump was connected to the far end of the rigid fuel line that ran from the stove to the interchangeable bottle. When the stove ran out of fuel, any remaining pressure could be easily released by inverting the stove and opening the valve. The pump could then be safely removed and a fresh bottle of fuel attached. Having a rigid fuel line also made the whole unit wide and stable. MSR continues to champion the principle of the detachable fuel bottle, and several other companies, including Primus, have used this concept in their designs.

Life's a gas

In the 1930s, another option appeared on the market in the form of miniature pressurised bottled gas stoves. Unlike a liquid-fuel pressure stove, which must be pre-heated prior to ignition--a fiddly and potentially dangerous procedure that can result in a large, uncontrolled flame--gas stoves function in much the same way as a domestic cooker. The operator simply attaches a gas cylinder, lights a match, opens a valve, and presto--an infinitely adjustable flame. The other great advantage of gas stoves is that they are virtually maintenance free, in contrast to pressurised liquid fuel stoves, which need regular cleaning. On the flip side, empty gas canisters must be carried home for safe disposal.

Probably the most famous gas stove is the Campingaz Bleuet 206, which has been fired up by hungry campers all over the world for decades. The gas cylinder on the 206 is automatically pierced as it's connected to the stove, allowing the fuel to reach the burner. Consequently, the canister must be completely drained before being removed. Bearing in mind that gas cartridges perform better when full, being forced to continue to cook with an almost-empty cylinder isn't always ideal.

These days, the 206, which is also still in production, has been somewhat eclipsed by a new generation of gas stoves that use resealable screw-on canisters. These allow a new cartridge to be safely attached before the old one has totally expired. However, especially in some parts of Europe, the 206 remains popular. On a recent traverse of the Trekker's Haute Route from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland, I had a devil of a job finding anything other than 206 cylinders.

Incompatibility issues

One of the problems with resealable canisters is that there are now several versions on the market. So even if you find a shop selling this kind of cartridge, there's no guarantee that they will have the version that fits your stove.

The problem isn't limited to gas stoves. During the early 1990s, MSR slightly changed the screw-thread on the pump unit of the XGK stove to fit its own fuel bottles, leaving owners of the popular Sigg fuel bottle out in the cold. But no-one told Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Mike Stroud when they set out to walk across Antarctica. Consequently, on the first night of their epic traverse, the pair were unable to attach the fuel bottle to the stove, as Stroud related in his book Shadows On The Wasteland:

"We're in real trouble," l said. "If we can't use the stove we're stuffed."

"Surely you can cobble something together," said Ran.

"We could try it cross-threaded with two washers, using the one off the spare. But I doubt if we can make it seal. It certainly won't be the safest around."

My words were prophetic. Although I managed to make it work by accepting the cross-threading and putting in an extra O-ring, the stove had not long been pumped up when suddenly I smelt petrol. "Christ Ran, the stove!"

It was too late. With a loud WHOOMPH it went up and the whole tent was engulfed in flames...

Fiennes and Stroud survived to tell the tale, but the fact remains that even properly functioning and compatible stoves and parts can be both a fire and a fume hazard. I found this out the hard way during one of my first outdoor adventures, when I cooked an evening meal in the zipped-up porch of a tent in North Wales during a downpour. I was using a simple British Army hexamine stove, fuel led by tablets of solid fuel. After a short while, my companion and I began to feel distinctly unwell. In the nick of time, I realised that fumes from the fuel were poisoning us, and I managed to boot the stove out into the rain. Fresh air has never tasted sweeter.

Leaving hexamine stoves to military units who cook in the open air, the Which stove is right for you? section will help guide you through the process of choosing the most appropriate burner for your needs. Then it'll be time to get dinner on the go. To that end, we'll be looking at the other aspects of cooking

Don't forget ...

... to stow a healthy supply of lighters and matches in a variety of places. That way you'll be sure to find at least one dry firelighter during bouts of wet weather. Keep matches dry by storing them inside a couple of small waterproof Nalgene tubs

We don't know how lucky we are

Early polar explorers used blubber stoves alongside paraffin burners. A big drawback of the blubber stove is that the sooty flame quickly turns everything black. The haunting photograph of Scott's Northern Party, which was forced to endure the austral winter of 1912 in an ice cave, is made all the more dramatic by the horrific rags that the men were photographed wearing when they finally emerged from their hellhole. The team had been forced to cook on a blubber stove, the emissions from which had turned their clothing greasy and black

Which stove is right for you?

The stove that you plump for will depend on a number of factors, including the fuel availability in the country in which you intend to use it; whether snow-melting or cordon bleu cooking is the priority; and the duration of your expedition.

In Europe, North America and Australia, stoves that run on either methylated spirits, gas cartridges, or refined petrol--known as 'white gas' and sold in the UK under the brand-name Coleman Fuel--are the most popular. (Leaded petrol is best avoided as it clogs stoves rapidly and gives off noxious fumes). In Africa and the Indian subcontinent, kerosene stoves rule the roost, but take a filter with you to help reduce the level of impurity in the fuel and so minimise the number of times you have to strip down and clean the stove. In South America, kerosene remains the best bet, although the availability of white gas (known in Spanish-speaking countries as 'benzina blanca') is improving. If you're planning to visit more than one country, the good news is that there are several multi-fuel stoves available. If you decide to buy a liquid-fuel pressure stove, do check that all of its components can be stripped down, cleaned and easily reassembled in the field.

You'll need a pressure stove of some sort if you're going to be melting a lot of snow. At around 7,000 metres, the performance of liquid-fuel stoves tends to decline. At 8,000 metres on the South Col of Everest last year, I was very glad that the expedition was equipped with hassle-free gas stoves running on cylinders containing a mix of butane and propane (pure butane functions poorly in sub-zero temperatures). That said, Mark Twight points out in his seminal tome, Extreme Alpinism:

"Although stoves fuelled by cartridges need little attention, the awful truth is that they require from 30 to 45 minutes to boil a litre of water from snow. That translates to between three and five hours spent awake each night, melting and waiting. An MSR [XGK] requires attention, but it will produce six litres of boiling water in one hour. Then you can sleep."
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Title Annotation:GEAR ESSENTIALS
Author:Deegan, Paul
Publication:Geographical
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Words:1845
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