At a recent training night with my volunteer ground SAR team we got the chance to play with and test out a number of wood stoves designed for backpacking. It was an awesome and rare opportunity to see all of these specimens in the same place at the same time to get some hands-on back-to-back comparisons.
I don’t own a wood burning stove myself and the stove I currently use for backpacking is the White Box alcohol stove. But, after getting a chance to actually play around with some of the most popular wood stoves on the market I would definitely consider putting one in my pack permanently.
The most alluring reason in making the switch to wood is simply that you no longer need to carry your fuel with you. Instead, your fuel is all around you. You’re no longer limited by weight, size, trip-length, cooking-time, and all of the other factors that you take into consideration when planning how much fuel to take on your hike.
Of course, there are also drawbacks to packing a wood stove versus an alcohol, canister, or liquid fuel stove. Wood stoves tend to be larger and weigh more due to the need to be robust and sizable enough to fill with small sticks. Although, the weight gains are easily offset by not having to carry fuel in your pack. They also require more time and effort to collect enough fuel, get started, cook, and cool-down. If you like having more than one hot meal a day, like I do, with oatmeal and coffee in the mornings then this could mean a fairly substantial more time spent preparing meals during a trip.
The four stoves we got to test out were the Boilerwerks Backcountry Boiler, Bushbuddy, Caldera Cone Ti-Tri, and the Vargo Folding Stove. All four of the stoves did what they were supposed to do and were able to bring water to a boil. As this was just a quick test out in the field I wouldn’t say that I had enough experience with any of the models to write a full review or make any conclusions, however here are my initial thoughts on each of the wood stoves:
The Backcountry Boiler is a lightweight aluminum chimney kettle that resembles a short motorcycle exhaust pipe. Water is poured into the top of the canister and is stored in the double walled area surrounding the open chimney hole.
A fire is built underneath the boiler and heat is absorbed all the way up the chimney rather than just on the bottom of a pot.
This makes the most effective use of the small fire’s heat, spreading the energy over a large surface area.
Although our testing wasn’t scientific with exact measurements or conditions, the aptly named Boiler achieved the quickest boil time and was the simplest stove design by far. It’s also very well designed and finished with additions such as a fitted neoprene sleeve to protect your hands from the heat while pouring.
The main drawback to the Boiler are it’s size compared to the other stoves and the fact that you are restricted to boiling water only. You would not be able to cook any meals with the Boiler that required prolonged cooking times over flame. This isn’t an issue for most standard dehydrated backpacking meals, however it would restrict some of the more ambitious back-country chefs.
The Bushbuddy was the stove I was most interested in checking out as I’ve been contemplating purchasing one for awhile now. The stove is a simple design consisting of a lower burn chamber with a pot stand on top.
The double walled burn chamber is designed to maximize airflow and efficiency to get a clean, hot burn from a small amount of fuel. The entire unit nests cleanly inside a .9 L Snow Peak titanium pot or a container with similar dimensions.
Despite it’s light weight this little stove is still sturdy and feels well made. The Bushbuddy was the second stove to reach a boil and adds the versatility of being able to use any number of different cookpots and cooking times to prepare meals, plus it’s Canadian!
Trail Designs’ Caldera Cone stove has been a long time favourite with lightweight backpackers. The Ti-Tri design adds the functionality of being able to burn wood in the stove as well as alcohol and esbit tablets.
This versatility alone makes it a very attractive option for someone looking for a do-it-all stove.
The cone is sized specifically to fit your pot, so you must know your pot model you will be using with your stove. This means that you will get the best heat transfer to your pot as the cone will be snug on the sides, however it also means you are limited to using that one pot.
The entire system is very light and collapses and folds up to fit into its own small mug. This is a great design for space savings, although it does add another level of complexity. Taking it apart in the dark for the first time was a bit tedious as all of the parts needed to be accounted for.
The Caldera took a little longer to reach boil than the first two stoves, but we figured out that our pot was sitting too low in the cone due to some incorrect pot stand positioning. If we had it set up correctly at first I expect it would have reached a boil at a similar time as the Bushbuddy.
Vargo Titanium Hexagon Wood Stove
As the name suggests, the Vargo stove is a hexagon made of titanium. The stove is made up of hinged flat panels that snap apart to allow the stove to fold completely flat (maybe they should add folding to the name). It’s a pretty innovative set-up and I’m sure it would impress your friends to pull your stove out of an envelope.
In reality the stove is basically just a container to hold wood and act as a pot stand. One of the panels can be opened during use to adjust airflow and add fuel. We found this design was actually the most cumbersome when trying to add sticks during use. The Vargo was also the last stove to reach a boil. The Vargo website shows the stove could also be used as a windscreen for an alcohol stove, however it’s substantially more expensive than the heavy duty foil I use with my alcohol stove.
This stove has a cool design; however, it’s clear that the other three stoves were engineered with more focus on the end result of providing efficient heating rather than space savings.
Although none of this testing was comprehensive enough to come to any conclusions on which of these models is the best, it is safe to say that I would be interested in adding a wood stove to my pack. As I already own an alcohol stove I don’t need the extras that come with the Caldera. I also don’t like being limited to a single pot as I bring different pots depending on how many people I’m cooking for.
For me the Bushbuddy satisfies the ability to use different pots and cook different meals. However, if I was only planning on using the stove to boil water then the Backcountry Boiler is very enticing as well.
I’m still a little apprehensive about having to rely solely on wood for fuel. Not that I’m typically above the tree-line, but cooking in the rain is already frustrating enough that I’m not sure I want to add scrounging for dry bits of wood to the pile.
Let me know if you own any of these stoves and your thoughts on how they’ve worked.