Friday, January 2, 2015

Thinking about stoves

It seems that kinda the default question people ask themselves about camping stoves is "how fast does it boil?"  Speed is what it comes down to right?  But if we chose bikes based on how fast they could go on a given surface (say pavement) we'd all be riding road bikes with 19 mm tires (the previous Arrowhead record on a bike, that stood for years, was set on a regular old 26" mountain bike - it was set in, I believe '07 and stood until '13.  As far as I know the single speed record was set on a regular 29er - hard packed snow favors skinnier tires and less rotating weight - even on snow sometimes a fatbike isn't the fastest).  I got to thinking about that - stove speed specifically as it applies to Arrowhead (be it on a bike or pulling a pulk while skiing or whatever).

There's alot of talk about how fast a white gas stove is.  It really puts out the heat - boils water (or melts snow) fast.  If you run a drag race of a white gas/canister (or any non alcohol stove that I'm aware of) stove vs an alcohol stove the white gas/canister stove will win by a long shot every time.

Problem is that's not, as I see it, the relevant question.  The question isn't "how fast does a stove perform once set up?" it's "how much time does it take me to go from a stove in the stuff sack, melt enough snow to get me down the trail, and then pack it all away?"

For a test in temps like we might see in Arrowhead I put on mittens (even though I may not have needed them in the conditions the test was being run: 10 degrees and roughly 4 mph winds).  I tested the alcohol stove first (Zelph Stoves Companion Burner).  A brief summary of the setup process: stove, potstand, and 4 ozs of alcohol fit inside of the pot.  Lower heat reflector and wind screen fit inside the same stuff sack but not in the pot - it's all contained in one sack.  It fits in the lower compartment of my frame bag.  I pulled out the windscreen, unfolded it, got out the lower reflector, set it on the snow, removed the stove and set it in the middle of the lower reflector, poured two ozs of alcohol in and lit it with a match (UCO Stormproof) (the only part I took my mittens of for),  then put on the potstand, placed the windscreen around it.  Then I filled the pot up with snow and set it on the potstand.  Probably about 2 minutes from everything in the sack to melting snow.

I melted a full pot of snow (24 ozs) and then with a sharp puff of air blew the stove out (it was still going strong but the ability to blow out an alcohol stoves relies on it being a wick stove), poured the water into a Nalgene, and packed everything up.  When I had it all packed away I stopped my watch at 24:26.

Next for the MSR Whisperlite.  The stove will not nest in my pot so I have a sack for my (mostly empty but for a match safe) pot, and a separate sack for the stove, and the fuel bottle (which is an integral part of the Whisperlite) stored separately too.  Having them all ready to go I started the timer and started setting it all up.  The lower reflector needed to be unfolded and threaded onto the stove unit before spreading the support legs of the stove, the windscreen needed to be unfolded then the pump/fuel bottle needed to be attached and pumped, the fuel released into the priming cup, light the priming cup (again I took my mittens off to light the match), wait for the stove to prime (I used this time to fill the pot with snow and start melting a bit of snow for seed so I didn't scorch the water).  It was almost 10 minutes in before I was starting to melt snow.

I melted a pot of snow (I had eyeballed what was a "full pot" in both of the tests and so ended up melting 24 ozs of water with the alcohol stove and 28 ozs with the Whisperlite), shut off the stove, dumped the water in a Nalgene and folded up the windscreen, had to wait a minute for the stove to cool off enough to pack (the alcohol stove's burner is mostly made of a aluminum can [but is quite a bit thicker than just a pop can] cools down in a few seconds - about as long as it takes to fold up the windscreen), packed it up, and stopped the clock at 23:13.

The Whisperlite was, as expected, much faster when it was actually melting snow.  But when considering the performance from packed up stove to melted snow to packed up and ready to go the two were remarkably similar.

A few things that draw me to alcohol stoves in general:

1) The stove in this test is made by a non-huge-corporation and costs $15.  You can make your own alcohol stove - I have a whole bunch.
2) It's lighter than the Whisperlite.  The Whisperlite weighs about a pound.  This alcohol stove weighs 3.5 ozs (this includes the potstand).  For summer use I've got perfectly serviceable stoves that weighs .3 ozs and is its own pot stand (but it doesn't pressurize reliably in cold weather so it'll stay at home).
3) It packs better.  As mentioned before, the burner, potstand, and a 4oz bottle of alcohol all fit inside of the  pot.  The other things (windscreen and ground reflector) fit inside of the same sack.  It all fits in my frame bag.  Everything's in a single place - the Whisperlite requires the pot, stove, and fuel bottle to all be a separate sacks.  When things are cold and dark and you're delirious from fatigue the advantage of having everything in one simple, easy to find spot is hard to overstate.  Also the time my stopwatch reported didn't include wrangling up the stoves - when I started the timer they were right beside me.  If I included the time spent getting all the stove sacks together (3 separate for the Whisperlite and a single one for the alcohol) and putting them back in my bike bag the time difference would be even closer - or maybe even favored the alcohol stove.  The way the alcohol stove packs down will also allow me to have an 8 oz bottle of fuel (to meet race requirments) packed separate that I will leave untouched (except life threatening emergency) and just use the 4 ozs I keep in the pot.  Can't do this with the Whisperlite: the small fuel bottle I have holds 11 ozs but the fuel bottle has to be used when the stove is used.  If I use any fuel I have to make sure that I only use 3 ozs to meet race requirments of finishing with 8 ozs.  I don't plan on taking a measuring device with me.  On the other hand I've never heard of anyone ever being checked. 
4) No moving parts, seals, or almost anything else to fail.  The Whisperlite has umpteen moving parts, seals, and teeny-tiny little parts that would be a nightmare/impossible to fix in the field at 30 below.  You'd pretty much have to step on the alcohol stove to render it unusable (something that would also do in the Whisperlite).
5) It's silent.  The only sound you can hear with most alcohol stoves is the water as it begins to boil.  The Whisperlite, despite its name, roars (and is also not light relative to an alcohol stove - as you saw in #2).

This stove is uses carbon felt as a wick (to read about wick stoves go here) which serves a several of functions a couple of which are especially attractive for Arrowhead: The wick vaporizes fuel more readily - which is important in cold weather.  The wick absorbs the alcohol so once you pour the alcohol in it will not pour back out meaning if you accidentally knock the burning stove over (with a clumsy, hypothermic, mittened hand) you won't spill flaming alcohol all over. 

I don't mean to poo-poo the Whisperlite too much.  It's a good stove and a workhorse.  Once its set up and running it is far and away faster.  And, of course, if one was melting more snow than I did the time difference would be greater.  I've carried the Whisperlite on all of my past Arrowheads.  I have yet to test out the alcohol stove at really low temps (-5 is the lowest) and the Whisperlite may very well go with me again this year as alcohol stove performance drops off as things get cold.  On the other hand mushers in extreme cold situations rely on wick alcohol stoves to heat up food and melt snow for their dogs.  It's had decades of field testing and is tried and true.

I also realize that the times here may not be very representative of results you would have if you were using a canister stove (something faster to set up) or were just plain faster than I at setting a Whisperlite up.  It's what I had so it's what I tested.

If you like your non-alcohol stove by all means use it.  If it works well and suits you, far be it from me to be try and convince you otherwise.  I think the most important thing is to get out there and use it.  An alcohol stove suits me.

7.3 ozs for the stove, pot stand, windscreen, ground reflector, and a couple of empty 4 oz fuel bottles.   I haven't yet bought an 8 oz bottle but I will and will fill that with alcohol and pack it separately for the race - one less thing to unpack and repack if I need the stove during the race.
It's a snap to set up.  1:08.  The mittens I was wearing are on the left.

The alcohol stove packed up inside the pot.  One of the bottles will fit inside, too.  This all fits in my frame bag - I just have to find a single bag if I need the stove.
15.5 ozs without the stuff sack

1 lb .1 oz

2:24 set up time.  It was slower to set up outside (as was the alcohol stove) because I was wearing thicker mittens - more like I would probably be using in Arrowhead

1 lb 10 ozs with empty fuel bottle

1.7 more ozs if you want to take a repair kit along

The stove will not fit in my pot so I need to pack it in three separate places - more hassle if I need to use it during the race.
Since were talking stoves:

Just for fun (I don't plan to take it on Arrowhead) I'll show you the wood burning camp stove that I got for Christmas.  It is called the Solo Stove, fit's inside of the pot for easy carrying, and weighs 9 ozs.  It just feels right to have some kind of wood fire at camp. 

It's double wall and reinjects preheated air mixed with some of the unburned gases that would normally just go up in smoke.  You can see the jets coming in from the left.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Back in the winter of '03/'04 I was living near Fairbanks, AK.  Before that winter in Fairbanks winter biking had meant riding the trainer down in the basement.  Previously my lower temperature riding limit was about +20*.  But I ended up falling in with a bunch of winter bikers (including, in a totally unearned bit of extraordinary luck, Rocky Reifenstuhl [though the linked article makes him sound totally badass at the start, further down it states "For all his intensity and racing bravado, though, there was a softer side to Rocky that many people didn’t see. He was a mentor and a teacher and a friend who was willing to share his knowledge about bikes and training and fitness and race strategy, as well as life in general, to anyone who was willing to listen.."  That's the Rocky I remember]).

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that I first fell in love with snowbiking in Fairbanks.  I don't remember ever riding on a groomed trail up there but everyone had snowmachines and the trails were - in general - packed hard.  Which was good because fatbikes weren't yet invented - or at least weren't commonly available (I had never seen one)(Mike Curiak wasn't even riding fat yet)

Because the trails weren't groomed in the they were narrow.  The ride yesterday reminded me of that.  We got a big snow here back in early/mid Nov.  And have gotten just a few small snowfalls and dustings (not more than a couple of inches at a time) since - and while the snowmobile trails are officially open they haven't yet been groomed.  Here's to hoping that they don't.  The trail winds through the trees, and though it's not single track by any stretch, it feels much more intimate than it does after the groomer comes though and makes it so two snowmobiles can pass each other easily.

It was one of those foggy days where the fog frosts the treetops and you almost can't tell where the trees end and the sky begins

Even though the Chequamegon Highlands are not much higher than our place (maybe a few hundred feet) I had no idea that things would be so frosty at the top of the ridge.  They weren't at home when I left and weren't when I got back.

Much of the ride was kinda a pleasure cruise that saw me taking lots of pictures and not really pushing the pace at all.

I had intentionally shorted myself on water - I took enough with me to get me a few hours down the trail and then run out.  I wanted to have to melt some snow.
With ~2 ozs of alcohol I melted enough snow to fill one pot of water (which I dumped in my camelbak) and then since the stove was still burning I melted most of another pot.  But it was +33 - not likely to be the conditions we'll see at Arrowhead.  Though in '13 it was almost that warm - the lowest we saw in the race was +20.  But in '09 it was -25 and in '11, -35.

It's been warm here - mostly in the 20's and even 30's with maybe high teens overnight and I haven't had much chance to test out gear in the really cold weather that I could see at Arrowhead.  It'd actually be really nice (for Arrowhead training - definitely not for our propane bill) if it got really cold (like -25) for a couple of days so I could give things a try in cold weather.  It's one thing to be able to use your gear at +20 but it's quite another to use it at -35 when you're sleep deprived and have 80 miles in your legs already.

Sour gummi worms are my Mike and Ike's

I hopefully won't need to even get out my tool kit in Arrowhead but just in case I do need it I "practiced" today.  I there were times when I needed to tweak my bike and since none of them were a big deal I suppose I could have waited until I got back inside - but I wanted to try out working tools with gloves on.  My slow-leaking rear tire gave me ample opportunity to try out my pump, too.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Less than 2 months


Arrowhead 2015 is less than two months away - the things I would like to do before the start seem to be stacking up.  I'm not super anxious about that since I've finished the race before with the same gear I have now (though I doubt that I'll ever eliminate all anxiety).  But I think there's room for improvement.  

And, of course, I need to ride, ride, ride.  To that end I went for a bit of a ride today.

though the Corridor isn't groomed, the thaw and refreeze have made it hard and fast.  

Fewer snowmobiles have been on the Spur - it was pretty soft.  I took me a few tries but eventually I got my tire pressure low enough so - when I was in my granny gear - I could ride it.  But it was too much of an effort and I soaked my layers

Eventually I made to forest roads that had seen a fair amount of truck traffic this hunting season and were packed smoother than they are in the summer.

Back to civilization at the end of the ride


Last night I went out for a ride well after dark, with hopes that the nearly-full moon would light the way.  There ended up being a thin layer of clouds so moonlight wasn't as intense as it would have been but it was still pretty light and I ended up riding most of the time without having to turn my headlamp on.

The snowmobile trails haven't yet been groomed and are pretty maybe 5 feet wide and have been packed down fairly firmly.  It reminded me of when I used to ride near Fairbanks on similar conditions.  I must say I much prefer the narrower trails to groomed trails - it twists around in the woods.

Earlier this week I received a new alcohol stove that I wanted to test out.  It works on the same principles as do the stoves that dog mushers use in bitter weather.  I have high hopes but haven't had any true cold to really test it.  I'll let you know how it goes.  If I could ditch the Whisperlite I'd be happy to do so - I'd save over a pound and end up with a stove that has no moving parts to fail.  The stove weighs about 2 oz (if you include the pot stand).  We'll see how it goes - I'm not going to take it if it doesn't work in true cold.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Arrowhead 135: Melting

Wednesday I took off on a little bike ride - just a couple of hours long - on the Corridor that passes near our house.  I just wanted to get out and put in some time on the bike - and I wanted to test out melting snow.  See in all three of my previous Arrowhead experiences (two finishes in '09 and '11 and one more attempt in '13 that saw me drop at Melgeorge's) I've had water issues.  In theory all of them could have been avoided by simply melting snow but in '09 (-25) and '11 (-35) trying to handle a stove would have been problematic.  In '13 the trails were all but unridable because of a snowstorm and I ran out of water just because it was taking much longer to get from Gateway to Melgeorge's.  It was warm that year and I certainly could have stopped to melt snow.  But for reasons that mainly have to do with dumbassedness, I didn't.

So this year, I am going to do it right or suffer the consequences of thirst (not to mention shame and humiliation).  To that end, I'm going to practice melting snow.  It's very complicated.

Somebody thought it'd be a good idea to drive their truck down the snowmobile trail.  It didn't last all that long but it about gave me fits.  I can't imagine that snowmobilers like it much, either.  
A single snowmobile had passed when the snow was soft last weekend - and they had since frozen.  The firmest part of the trail was the center tread.

After a bit of trouble getting the stove lit (I think the alcohol may have gotten some condensation in it) it worked pretty well to melt some snow.

The stove (which is also the pot support) melted into the snow a bit.

I got enough snow to melt to about fill the pot.

The stove was a little alcohol contraption that I made with a pop can.  And it weighs .3 oz and fits inside the pot so it doesn't take up any more space.

The stove fits in the pot (as does the small fuel bottle I was using) so things pack up pretty small and easily fits in my frame bag. 

Thanksgiving day I went for a quick, easy spin to stretch the legs and get some fresh air.  I only rode like 30 minutes.