Still looking for a way to leave that campstove behind? On a good day you might be able to get by with not much more than the pot. Before you get excited and throw away the Pocket Rocket (or in my case, retire the Svea) let’s take a look at the reasons the solar campstove makes a great camp project or survival trick, but a poor excuse for a cookstove.
The first problem is timing — the best and actually only time for efficient cooking with a solar stove is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is high in the clear blue sky. You’d better start by 11 a.m. if you want to get the cooking done. If you’re hiking during those hours, never mind. The solar campstove takes awhile — from one to two hours to cook a small meal ought to be about right, but scudding clouds could wreck that schedule. The more food you cook, the longer this will take.
Weight is also a concern, and if there’s no weight savings over a three ounce pocket stove and a six ounce fuel canister, why bother? Well, the Pine Creek solar oven actually weighs ten ounces, and that doesn’t include the pot. The only saving grace here is zero need for fuel. OK, in spite of all the problems I’m still interested.
Solar campstoves built for the backpacker come and go, and mostly go (as of March 2012 the Pine Creek model is no longer available on Amazon but might still be found elsewhere). The solar stove by Pine Creek Outdoors is typical and isn’t much more than a folded piece of reflective mylar and a plastic cooking bag. If they’re that simple, why spend twenty bucks on one? The idea seems very straightforward — all you need is a reflective surface to wrap around four sides of the oven, just exactly right to catch the sun and focus it on the pot. Well, maybe’s that’s why buying one makes sense — ever try to grind your own parabola? You’ll find that neatness counts, and having a well designed foldable which doesn’t fall apart when the tape heats up is worth the price in convenience terms. DIY plans from Zen Stove (link at the bottom of this article) will help homebrew builders through the project. Aside from the reflector all you need is a black cooking pot and a clear plastic cooking bag to put it in. Set the pot in the hot spot of the reflector array and greenhouse the heck out of it. I’ve experimented with stoves of this type made from windshield reflector panels and on a hot summer day they work fine. But on a hot summer day you can cook an egg on the sidewalk or the hood of your car. In winter, with the sun low on the horizon and maybe four hours of good light, you won’t have much luck with this kind of cooker.
Since this is really only a backup concept and on cloudy days or rainy days you’ll be resorting to the hot-fuel stove anyway, you could be well off not bringing anything but the raw materials and the glimmer of a neat survival idea. Suppose you run out of combustibles for some reason, say you’ve mistakenly hiked thirty miles into the Sahara and there’s nothing but sand dunes and sun. Put on your Macgyver hat and dig out the space blanket that you never use for anything anyway. With some ingenious arranging of the pole frame from your Coleman tent you create a parabolic mirror from the space blanket, fill your dark-anodized Optimus Terra cooking pot with the last of your water and a packet of ramen noodles, and inside of an hour you’ve got food slightly hotter than that sand dune. I’m actually being too critical, this rig could be a lifesaver even if all you do with it is purify drinking water (takes about an hour per liter). In some climates and seasons you can fry an egg on a hot rock, with no special setup needed. Solar ovens can work very well in some situations.
I’m trying very hard to like this concept, but as yet it seems like the backpacker’s solar oven is nothing more than a fuel-saver on the best of days. The eco-greenest of us may feel obligated to carry and use solar stoves whenever possible, for the sake of the planet and future generations. That does makes sense, but if you’re serious about cutting carry weight it’s better to carry the space blanket, a couple of clear plastic cooking bags, and switch out the shiny cookpot for a black-anodized version. It’s possible to go solar without extra gear.
More permanent versions of solar stoves are easy to make at home, or possibly even on the trail if you run across the right sort of garbage. Check out these links for more information on lightweight lightstoves, as well as moderately practical and heavier versions for base camps and backyards. That’s where the solar stove really works the best.