If you backpack with me at my current age, the first thing you’ll likely notice is that I have no interest in running down the trail. For me, if I had to rush past the sights and smells, I probably wouldn’t go backpacking. If I spend a minute or two observing a blooming flower, a uniquely shaped tree, a rare and spotted salamander, or having a starring contest with a bear or deer, that makes my time in the woods infinitely better.
The older I get, the more it seems I dwell on these things. I suppose it’s fair to say that I appreciate things more. I appreciate my time in the woods because these opportunities are more infrequent than they were in the past now that work and life obligations have me entirely too occupied.
It is reflecting on this love affair that I find myself slowly being willing to become more involved with the backpacking environment. I observe. I study. I participate. I appreciate. I consciously travel with these things in mind and I constantly remind myself to blend in with nature, to walk lightly, and to leave things as I find them. I enjoy watching the seasons, the movements of the animals, and I like that I have learned various behavior patterns of both. I like the process of trying to identify trees to determine which may be good for a bow-drill fire, which were the oldest, and which were likely a good home for a raccoon. I like the regime of my normal schedule being discarded in favor of waking and sleeping as a result of the movement of the sun.
One experience that has slowly been growing on me is using a wood stove instead of a more conventional gas, esbit or alcohol cooking option. In fact, going without a stove entirely and just totting foods that don’t need to be cooked or instead using an open fire has been quite enjoyable. I definitely feel more in touch with the environment around me when I’m not using something that came from a store to do something as simple as cooking when the very environment I’m in is capable of providing so much.
The beauty of many wood-burning lightweight stoves currently on the market is that they are fuel flexible – meaning they can take natural resources (wood, pine cones, debris, etc.), esbit and alcohol. If you don’t want to carry fuel or if you want to be guaranteed you’ll never run out of fuel, this is truly a wonderful concept. I also revel in the fact that I don’t need to worry about alcohol, esbit, or my least favorite, gas. I’ve come to loathe my JetBoil ever since the fins on the bottom melted without provocation (and it took entirely too much motivation for JetBoil to stand behind their product). I’m not a fan of using alcohol personally and most of the time I go with esbit despite it being costly. Being able to use fuel from the environment and break from the commercial grasp of other fuels is a wonderful feeling. I also get the sense that those before me who walked the same woods have a sense of pride in my recognition that time in the woods doesn’t first require time in a store.
My first wood-burning stove was the Bushbuddy Ultra ($120/5.1oz). It was a lot of fun, but it did have some drawbacks. First, it was expensive. It was essentially a can that couldn’t be folded, so I needed to nest it in a similar sized pot to protect its fragile walls. While it was fun to use and I still like it, overall it sits in my gear closet because of its size and the fact that it is a little fussy to try to keep clean. It also required me to carry a heavier pot regardless and I was constantly worried about various parts of the meticulously crafted design to get bent, fall off or fail because it was largely one spot-welded unit.
I later moved on to Trail Design’s Classic Ti-Tri ($80/58g). This was my go-to every-day use stove for roughly 3 years of my young backpacking career. The problem was that the cone was tall and a pain to pack. Fortunately, Trail Designs began offering the Sidewinder ($80/49grams) which was a far more squat cone that fit inside of a pot making packing much easier. For both of these cone designs, they are tremendously efficient, lightweight and work very well. But, they are very fragile and they have exceptionally sharp edges. Every time I handle one of these cones I’m convinced I’m going to get cut. There is a ridge that joins to fasten the cone together and if it is damaged the cone can’t be brought together as a functional unit. Each cone also only works with a single type of pot sized to the cone, and personally I like to carry cups. So if I was using the cone, I really couldn’t alternate to a different pot, pan or cup. The exception is if the cone is used in wood-burning mode where tent stakes are put through the top of the cone which allows most any sized pot, pan or cup to rest on top. This arrangement can get quite unstable though as the edges are very flimsy top to bottom.
Wanting something more stable, more packable and more flexible to pot/pan/cup size, I decided to look for other options.
First I purchased a Vargo Titanium Hexagon ($52/4.1oz) There was a lot to like on this small stove, but ultimately I felt the hinge design was too risky (potentially prone to failure and largely unrepairable in the field) and the top was also a bit too small to support a variety of pots/pans/cups. There was also poor ventilation coming up from the bottom making the stove less efficient.
Next I looked at the Firebox 3” Titanium Nano ($40/ 6oz). It was a little heavier and physically smaller than I’d like and also had potential hinge issues.
Next I looked at the FireFly UL Titanium Stove ($66/2.7oz). While definitely the lightest, I was worried that its cooking surface was too small and didn’t have as many surface points to stabilize different pots/pans/cups. The word “fragile” seemed also relevant.
Next I looked at the Element Titanium Stove ($55/4.9oz) which I had seen before at Trail Days being used by the infamous “Dutch” of DutchWearGear fame. Much like the others though, I felt like it was a little small and I didn’t like the hinges. It has its merits though, and a separate grill top can be used.
Finally, I took at look at the Emberlit ($85/5.7oz-titanium, $45/11.3oz-aluminum) and ultimately decided on the titanium version. What I liked about it was, well, the opposite of what I didn’t like about the others. It folded entirely flat, had a very stable surface which didn’t require extra parts, it was large enough for fuel and pots/pans/cups of various sizes, and the corners hooked together instead of using a hinge. It was rugged and fairly foolproof. If I bent a part of it, I could bend it back without a fuss. I could also use it as a windscreen which was not possible for some of the other stoves. It had a useful slot to allow larger branches the opportunity to stick out which meant for me that I didn't need to worry about a knife to process wood (although I wouldn't have minded if the slot were larger). The Emberlit was a little pricier than I’d like, and at 5.7oz it is a little heavier than I’d like, but it also isn’t the heaviest or priciest, yet it is what I would argue to be the most functional and durable with low fuss. At the very least, it’s another option – and options are good. Burn time to boil water was pretty much on par with esbit or alcohol in my experience. These kinds of stove fire up with almost no effort and work like a chimney. They are a lot of fun to use in this mode and a small alcohol stove or esbit can also be used with this and the other wood-burning stoves mentioned in this article.
The pictures throughout this entry are from the first time I attempted to use it while in my yard on a very hot and humid Virginia day. Beside the Emberlit are the Classic Ti-Tri and Sidewinder cones for comparison.
These pictures remind me to pass along some general cautions. First, be sure to clear a spot on a debris-free surface to avoid miscellaneous debris being caught on fire. Second, choose the right wood. When I first started the fire, it smoked wildly because I used pine. When I switched to hardwood, it was much cleaner. Third, the wind and other factors can send the flames up the cup, to include the handle. Know your pot/pan/cup will likely be hot, so take appropriate caution. Fourth, the wood will coat the bottom of your pot/pan/cup with a black sticky substance called cresol. Plan ahead to deal with it, but don’t remove it entirely as the black surface will actually draw in more heat (cook more efficiently). Finally, you’ll have ash remaining in the stove. Be a good steward of Leave No Trace and wet them completely before discarding. Either spread them by hand across a wide area or under a rock or in another manner that allows others to avoid seeing your fire residue. Plan on smelling like a campfire – you’re welcome.