Cookstoves That Burn Debris — for Backpackers and Mad Max Scenarios

I just finished updating my debris stove section at Jimmy’s Backpacking Page and find that I have even more to say about this interesting technology.  Maybe because we’re drifting ever closer to the mystical date of December 21st, 2012, I do see a lot more products that try to appeal to the end-of-the-world marketplace. I’m not totally convinced they are better ideas than campfires, even though they are vastly more efficient. I reviewed a few of these stoves on JBP (I like the Vargo Hexagon for backpacking purposes, simple and light) but there’s just so much more to say about the runners-up that I can’t stop there.

I suppose that part of the mystique of naturally-fueled stoves is the hypnotic effect of fire and the ritualistic aspect of fire-stoking. When I was a kid, my main chore other than slopping the hogs and feeding the cattle and horses was building and feeding the fire, and I liked the fire part best because there’s something both technical and savage about it. I got very good at building fires, so good that when my parents started leaving me at home alone occasionally I nearly burned the house down, twice. Although I’ve spent a lot of time around campfires, I gave them up except for occasional demonstrations (can’t build a fire today because everything’s wet? Let me give it a shot!) and instead, I use a Svea 123 that I bought in 1972. Kind of puzzles me that people think natural fires are better than a white gas blowtorch, but ok, let’s take a look.

Here’s an intriguing and well-designed debris stove: the Solhuma Vital Survival Stove, advertised as “designed to deliver life-saving heat in extreme situations.” Although I like this stove a lot, it isn’t actually designed for that. The Solhuma isn’t built for heating and would kill you if fired up inside a tent or a closed room. This is actually a cookstove, the equivalent of one burner of your current range top. The Solhuma weighs 1 1/2 pounds and takes up only 8 by 5 by 2 inches when folded. That’s a neat package and good enough for camping or backpacking if you’re not an ultralight enthusiast. Anything solid that burns can fuel the Solhuma, including dry animal dung, paper, cardboard, dry leaves and sticks. The stove generates a maximum of 20,000 BTU’s because two AA batteries power a small blower fan and intensify the burn.

That sounds pretty darn good, and in terms of debris stoves it is pretty darn good. Last winter I heated my house with a 15,000 BTU kerosene heater and on cold days I could sort of feel the warmth when I lit it. 20,000 BTU’s is useful warmth, but the Solhuma can’t provide that indoors due to smoke and carbon monoxide production. Don’t save your dried dung and expect to heat the house with it in emergency situations, because you’ll have to cook outside in the cold.

Realistically, the Solhuma isn’t going to work well on all fuels. The best fuels are going to be the things that people usually use in campfires like twigs and sticks, but if you get it going you can get good results from sawdust pellets and whole corn. After the world ends, you’ll probably want to eat your whole kernel corn instead of burning it, but pellet fuel in general will operate the Solhuma efficiently. If you decide to cook a meal using nothing but dried tree leaves, collect a massive pile of them first, because you’re going to be really busy stuffing dried leaves into the fire. Weight matters where fuel is concerned and if your fuel is mostly air you’re going to need a lot of it.

After December 21st, 2012, if the world does collapse upon us, you’ll get at least 35 hours of burn time from the Solhuma, because that’s as long it runs on two AA batteries. Stock up on those batteries, because we won’t be making any more after civilization collapses and without them, a skillfully built campfire outperforms the Solhuma Vital Survival Stove. Without the batteries, the Solhuma doesn’t work. It’s just a tiny fire that goes out.

Still, if civilization doesn’t collapse and you want a fairly lightweight cookstove for camping trips that will burn nearly anything you can shove into it, the Solhuma is a great thing to have around. Instead of a smoldering smoky fire, it makes a hot clean fire that cooks food quickly. Heck, you can probably burn pieces of your car in it if you get stuck in the mountains in the deep snow and want to make hot tea. How useful that is, well, make your own decision. Maybe you should take a sandwich instead.

As far as the end-of-the-world thing goes, I expect that at the end of the world you’ll have plenty of debris around and you won’t need to worry about running out of fuel for campfires. Most of civilization burns pretty good.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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