Let’s talk about stoves

One of the founding principles of St Croix 40 is to help educate people on what’s required to be successful in winter endurance events. It’s the reason why we share interviews with experienced participants, talk about medical issues like frostbite and trench foot, and make videos to demonstrate equipment. 

For this year’s featured video we’ve put together an explainer on the three most popular stove types you’ll encounter out there in winter ultras. We talk about what they are, what are their pros/cons, and how to think about mitigating your risks when making your decision. You can also read about these stoves below the link if video’s aren’t your thing.

Also check out RD Jamison’s blog post about testing ESBIT stove boiling times.

White gas

First, let’s start with the granddaddy of them all, the white gas stove. When it comes to raw heat potential, no matter the conditions, this is the stove that delivers. White gas stoves will burn all the way down to -40F (which is also -40C), which makes them perfect for winter events.

However, there are a few downsides. First, it’s a bulky setup. In addition to the stove you also need a gas canister, and the tubing and hand pump that connects to two. Second, it takes practice to get good at lighting these stoves. I’m not going to give a tutorial here, but suffice it to say, it’s not just a quick turn of a valve. We’ve had multiple participants light things on fire while trying to control their white gas stove.

So if you choose this stove… practice, practice, practice. If you know what you’re doing it absolutely will not let you down.

Solid fuel stoves

On the other end of the spectrum we have the good, old, reliable, solid fuel stoves. The most common and popular of which is ESBIT tablets (although wood and alcohol stoves are an option as well). These stoves are dead simple. You place a tablet into the tray, light it on fire, and that’s it. They don’t burn as hot as gas stoves, but they are cheap, easy, and reliable. They should work just fine to -40 degrees and even lower.

The downsides to these stoves is that they are often slow, and they are subject to the same issues as a traditional fire, such as wind. You need to be patient with these stoves, and if you’re heating water for a meal, put a lid on the pot, and don’t try and boil more than you need. Sheltering the flame from wind is also key, as wind can pull heat away from the pot you’re cooking in.

As always, practicing with this stove is a good idea to get used to how it works in different conditions.

Canister stoves

Finally, we get to the one that everyone’s been waiting for, the canister stove. These are the most popular backpacking stove, hand’s down. They’re simple to use, and they put out a tremendous amount of heat in a short period of time. You can boil water in a minute, and be eating a hot meal quicker than any other option.

But that strength is also their greatest weakness. The reason these canisters work so well is because the liquid inside them is under pressure, and vaporizes at a high temperature. That gas is pushed out through the nozzle where you then light it on fire and voila you have heat.

These canisters contain three different fuels, Propane, which vaporizes at -44 F (-42 C), Iso-Butane, with a vaporization point of 11 F (-12 C) , and a small amount of n-butane, 31F (0 C). Most modern canisters don’t have more than 5% n-butane so we won’t worry too much about that. The key is that in most cases your propane is only 15-20% of the canister mixture. That means the primary fuel that you’re burning is Iso-Butane that has a vaporization point of 11 F (-12 C). If your air temperature is lower than that, you’re going to have a much harder time getting these stoves to light, and keep them burning. Even if you’re able to get them to light, you may end up burning only propane, which limits you to just a fraction of the canister’s capacity.

So should you use these stoves in a winter ultra? And if you do, is there anything you can do to make them work better?

Let’s start with what you can do to help make these work in the cold. First, if you can find some way to keep the canister warm and above freezing, that will ensure you can get it lit pretty easily. That may mean keeping the canister close to your body, but remember it’s made of metal, so don’t keep it next to your skin.

Second, make sure that the canister isn’t touching the cold ground directly when you’re using it. Use a plastic camping bowl to insulate the stove from the ground. Another trick is to put some of your non-frozen drinking water into that same bowl. The water will act as an insulator and will freeze first before the canister does.

Also, make sure you’re starting with a fresh canister, as this gives you the best chance of having a good mixture of chemicals, and enough propane to keep things going in extreme cold.

Should you use these stoves? It really comes down to your tolerance for risk. Although these are the easiest and quickest stoves to use, they come with the highest risk of failure in extreme cold.

That’s why a race like the St Croix 40 is a perfect place to try these things and experiment to see what works for you. We require you to use your stove at one point during the race, and so you’ll have the perfect chance to see if you can handle whichever stove system you’ve chosen. Because St Croix 40 is a short race, the consequence of failure is simply a time penalty. Longer, and more remote, races are not nearly as forgiving.

And above all, practice, practice, practice. As soon as you have an opportunity to get outside on a cold night, start checking your gear, and make sure you know how everything works, inside and out.

I hope this has been informative for you, and we can’t wait to see you in January for the St Croix 40 Winter Ultra

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