Stoves for your Alaska back-country adventure come in all sizes and styles, use different fuel sources and are designed for different purposes. Your choice depends mostly on the kind of trip you're taking, what you intend to do with it and to a certain extent, the time of year you are camping.
The primary purpose for a wood stove in camp is to generate heat inside your tent. The models currently on the market do this very well. A secondary purpose is for cooking,
however cooking inside a tent is not a preferred practice in bear country. The last thing you need is a 1200-pound nocturnal visitor sniffing around your tent in search of an easy meal. Most of these "sheepherder" style stoves are made of sheet metal and are very light for their size. Some fold down into a compact package that is easily flown out to a remote location. Wood stoves offer several advantages to liquid or gas-fueled stoves. Let's look at some pros and cons.
- Cheap. You don't have to ship hazardous fuel, and the stove itself is very light weight, reducing your shipping costs substantially.
- Unlimited suppy of free, natural fuel.
- Wood produces a dry heat. This enables you to dry wet clothes and gear efficiently.
- Holes in your tent. Sparks can escape the stove pipe, or fall out of the door opening, burning holes in the fabric.
- Must be set up inside the tent. If you plan on cooking on your wood stove, keep in mind that cooking inside your tent is not generally recommended in bear country.
- Wood stoves also take up valuable floor space in your tent, so if space is at a premium you may have to leave the wood stove at home.
- Finally, wood stoves can burn through in a few years, requiring replacement.
For purposes of this discussion, a "camp stove" is the traditional two or three-burner stove that runs on propane or white gas. The most common stove of this type is the Coleman brand.
White Gas Stoves
The term "white gas" is a generic word for naphtha, a liquid fuel that is typically sold in one-gallon metal cans. White gas is commonly referred to as "Blazo" across Bush Alaska, a reference to the Chevron brand that was used extensively across Alaska for many years. The traditional "Coleman stove" has two burners (though three-burner models exist), and has a removable fuel tank that holds about a quart of white gas. The tank is pressurized via a plunger pump system that is manually operated.
- Holds pressure at low temperatures. Because pressure is introduced into the fuel tank manually, white gas stoves can maintain pressure at low temperatures. This is not true of propane, which does not flow well at really low temperatures.
- Emergency uses. White gas may be used in an emergency to start a fire even if the wood is wet. Of course, extreme caution must be used.
- Generator requires regular maintenance or replacement. Carry a spare generator for your stove, along with extra pump parts. These things can break in the field and your stove may quit working.
- Cost. Liquid fuel stoves require fuel in order to operate and this fuel, a hazardous material under DOT regulations, can be expensive to ship. If you are shipping your gear via air freight, you must consider this extra cost. Alternatively, you could purchase fuel from a local village if you are near one.
The traditional "Coleman stove" mentioned earlier is also available in a configuration that burns propane gas.
- Light, slim stove design. A propane camp stove is about half the thickness of a liquid fuel stove, and weighs substantially less. This makes it very easy to pack in your gear and load in the aircraft.
- Simplicity. Because the propane canisters are pressurized, there is no need to pump this stove. Simply turn it on and light the burner.
- Virtually maintenance-free. There are no generators or pump assemblies to wear out or break. These stoves just work.
- Non-refillable canisters create disposal problems. They are convenient, light weight, and take up little space in the aircraft on flyout trips. But once the canisters are empty, they become trash and have to be hauled out of the field. Note that a small brass fitting is available which is used to refill small propane canisters from a larger bottle. But as the larger bottle loses pressure it cannot completely fill the canister to the same level it was when it was new. This fitting is available from http://www.maccoupler.com/catalogs.htm
- Larger propane bottles may be too big or heavy for a bush plane flight.
A light-weight backpack stove is a must-have if you plan on setting a remote spike camp. Several types of backpack stoves are available, using different types of fuel.
A liquid-fuel mountaineering stove relies on several standard components to function.
- Pump. The pump introduces pressure into the fuel tank, and keeps it there by means of several seals. Bring a spare pump, or at least a rebuild kit with you in the field, so your stove will work if a O-ring blows.
- Fuel jet. As fuel is pressurized, the valve is opened and fuel passes through a tiny orifice that atomizes the fuel (turns it into a fine spray). Atomization is crucial to getting the fuel to burn correctly. Over time, the orifice can become clogged and the jet will not function properly. In extreme cases the stove will simply quit working. Some stoves incorporate a technology that keeps this jet clear, while others require routine cleaning of the orifice in the field. Ensure that you have the proper tools and, if possible, bring a spare jet with you in the field.
- Fuel bottle. Stove fuel bottles come in various sizes. The determination of which size to use depends on how long you'll be afield and whether this stove is intended for supplemental use only. If the stove is used as your primary means of cooking, plan on at least two liters of fuel for two people, depending on whether you are cooking with it, or just boiling water for dehydrated meals.
Several types of liquid-fuel stoves are on the market, but the most versatile are the multi-fuel stoves. Depending on the brand, they can burn kerosene, white gas, diesel fuel or avgas (piston engine aircraft fuel). Though you will likely only bring one type of fuel with you, in extreme emergencies you may need the ability to burn other types.