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Backpacking Stoves in Drought and Fire Danger

Want to take your backpacking stove out in high fire danger conditions? Take a few things under consideration. It’s dry out west, really dry.  According to National Public Radio, fire authorities are fighting about three times the normal number of fires.  So, how not to burn the whole place down?

Wood Fires

First, and maybe this goes without saying, but open wood fires aren’t such a good idea in a drought.  Wood fires are pretty much out of the question in Southern California and further north should only be used where safe, legal, and ethical.  Wherever you are, if you don’t have the means to put out a fire, don’t start one.

At the Messenger Flats Fire, hikers went to bed with a fire not completely out.  The wind came up in the night, fanned the embers, and the fire spread — even though it was in a steel fire ring.  The hikers awoke — surrounded by fire.  They escaped with their lives, but their gear was apparently destroyed.  Fortunately a trail crew with radios was nearby and fire fighters were quickly in place.  The moral of the story:  A drought year is no time to get sloppy.  Make sure a fire is out or don’t start one.

Messenger Flats Fire

The Messenger Flats Fire, started by PCT hikers. Photo courtesy of Dave L. Used by permission.

Backpacking Stoves

Stoves can also be a problem.  Let’s talk about them by type.  I’ll talk about ultralight types first and then “conventional” stoves next.  I’ll end with a brief mention of wood stoves.  With all stoves, clear the ground of flammable material first, and make sure you set them up where they’ll be stable and won’t tip over.  With stoves, there’s no need to scrape down to “mineral” soil the way you would for a wood fire.  Just do some basic clearing of obvious leaf litter and such, and you should be fine.

Alcoholl Stoves

Open Burner Type Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol stoves are generally not permitted in Southern California and are frequently restricted elsewhere.  Alcohol can spill, particularly open burner type stoves.  One spill, and you’ve got a major conflagration on your hands.  Fire in dry conditions can spread with unbelievable speed.  Several fires have been started by hikers who had an accident with their alcohol stoves.  I hate to say it (since I’m a big fan of alcohol stoves), but alcohol stoves are probably not a good pick this year.

Esbit Cube



Esbit cubes for your ultralight stove are probably the safest option out there.  It can’t spill, and it can be blown out by mouth.  The problem with Esbit is that many land management agencies have no idea what it is or that it even exists, so they haven’t included Esbit in their regulations.  If you adhere to the strict “letter of the law,” you might choose not to use Esbit since it isn’t specifically mentioned.  However, I personally use Esbit without much worry knowing that it’s absolutely the safest fuel.  There’s always the possibility that you could get in trouble with an overzealous ranger, but I’ve never had a problem.  If you were accosted, you could always demonstrate that it can be blown out quickly, much like a candle.  Most rangers, if you can demonstrate that you’re really thinking about fire safety, will give you the benefit of the doubt, particularly if you point out how vague the regulations are.

Be sure to check out part 2 of this article

29 Responses to Backpacking Stoves in Drought and Fire Danger

  1. Stephen April 29, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    Scouting has pretty much banned liquid fuel stoves (i.e. kerosene, white fuel) for quite a while now. The only time I’ve seen a table catch fire was when a backpacker tried to do that at Upper Goose Pond.

    • Hikin' Jim April 30, 2014 at 12:25 am #

      Stephen, I wonder if it varies by council. The Scouts I saw were out here in California, and this was only a couple of years ago.

      But whatever. :) I’m not condemning liquid fueled stoves. I’m just recommending that people practice and become proficient with them.


    • MBB May 14, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

      Umm.. No. Possibly your local troop does, but scouting does not.

      White gas is very common because of the large group sizes, its the primary fuel used at Philmont.

      Scouting discourages alcohol stoves, and bans homemade stoves or stoves manufactured from recycled materials however. In spite of this, alcohol even is not banned, only discouraged if used with a commercial stove.

      • Jim Barbour May 14, 2014 at 10:19 pm #

        MBB, thanks for the clarification.


  2. Marco April 29, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

    Thanks, Jim! Good write up! I agree with you that priming a kerosene or WG stove is a bit of a trick.

    • Hikin' Jim April 30, 2014 at 12:27 am #

      Marco, it definitely takes some practice. Using alcohol instead of WG or kero can be helpful. It’s easier to control how much alcohol is dispensed, alcohol evaporates quickly if you dispense too much, and alcohol doesn’t leave soot the way WG and (especially) kero do.


  3. Eric Klein May 1, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    I so want to take my bobcat jr.esbit set-up on the jmt this summer.

    • Hikin' Jim May 1, 2014 at 11:20 pm #

      Personally, I’d feel very comfortable with an ESBIT set up on the JMT, Eric. I honestly don’t think anyone would hassle you over it. You could call the NPS and USFS and ask.


  4. Eric Klein May 2, 2014 at 12:14 am #

    Jim I plan on taking it. Might pick up the kovea spider and put it in my first resupply. Just in case.

    • Jim Barbour May 6, 2014 at 11:36 pm #


      The Spider is an excellent stove. I understand that it is one of Kovea’s top selling stoves. The minute I saw one in a catalog for the first time a few years ago, I contacted Kovea and told them I wanted to test one. I could tell just by it’s design that it would be a good stove (assuming the internals were executed properly — which they were).

      Happy hiking,


  5. The Hawk May 2, 2014 at 7:25 am #

    FYI…. Scouting had not banned liquid fuel stoves. Check out the guide to safe scouting. The only thing things that are banned are homemade chemical fueled stoves. Or stoves modified beyond the stated use. It is also not permissible to use liquid fuel to start a camp fire. Just check the guide to safe scouting. In fact you should check out the second class requirements. They Include starting a lightweight or propane stove. (read liquid fuel). This is so that you learn how to use them properly.
    If you go to Philmont, the main stoves you will see in use are liquid fuel stoves. In addition, during the dead of winter those are the only stoves we use for snow melters to get drinking water. Canned gas just won’t give you enough flame in cold or high altitudes.

    • Jim Barbour May 6, 2014 at 11:18 pm #

      Hawk, thanks for the info. That’s my understanding as well from the Scouter boards and talking to local scoutmasters.

      One thing though. When you say “Canned gas just won’t give you enough flame in cold or high altitudes,” that’s not quite accurate. While canister gas IS affected by cold it is NOT affected by high altitude. Canister gas works every bit as well as white gas or kerosene even at the highest altitude as any Everest climber will attest.

      Thanks again for the info on Scouting regs,


  6. The Hawk May 2, 2014 at 7:30 am #

    FROM THE GUIDE TO SAFE SCOUTING: Recommended chemical fuels—White gas (Coleman fuel); kerosene; liquefied petroleum gas fuels, including propane, butane, and isobutane; vegetable oil fuels; biodiesel fuel; and commercially prepared gelled-alcohol fuel in original containers.

  7. Hillhikerz May 2, 2014 at 8:49 am #

    It looks like this is the year for the Kovea Spider… It is what I will be using… Thanks Jim

    • Jim Barbour May 6, 2014 at 11:20 pm #

      You’re welcome — and the Kovea Spider is a personal favorite of mine for group trips or for cold weather.


  8. Doug May 2, 2014 at 9:25 am #

    The Hawk: thanks for quoting the BSA rules. The rules allow (NOT recommend) commercial liquid-alcohol stoves, but since mine don’t work as well and aren’t as light as my homemade stoves, I’ve switched to canister gas for scout trips.

    Canister gas works fine in the cold as long as you provide a source of relative ‘heat’. When it’s below freezing, I set the canister in a shallow (1-inch) plastic lid filled with cold water. This winter, I finished off a nearly-empty canister at -20F, and it flamed nicely until it went out. Altitude improves canister gas performance (lower external pressure).

    But for longer trips with snow-melting I go with white gas, because I prefer to carry one large fuel bottle instead of a lot of gas canisters.

    • Jim Barbour May 6, 2014 at 11:34 pm #


      Absolutely correct, higher altitude does improve canister gas cold weather performance. The only negative directly associated with altitude is that piezoelectric ignitions tend to fail above 10,000 feet on stoves (about 8,000 feet on cigarette type lighters).


    • Ed May 1, 2015 at 6:21 am #

      The other alternative for canister is to use a stove that is a liquid feed vs. a gas feed. Most canister stoves require the canister to be upright, thus providing a gas flow. Some use the canister inverted, providing a liquid flow. These have a pre-heat loop like white-gas stoves to vaporize the fuel before it gets to the burner. The liquid feed doesn’t allow the iso/butane/propane mix to boil off at different temps, all go to the burner as a mix.

  9. Jacob D May 2, 2014 at 9:52 am #

    Nice writeup Jim. Straight to the point. My preference is canister, then esbit when fire danger is high. I really dislike esbit though, so it’s usually just canister :)

    • Jim Barbour May 6, 2014 at 11:31 pm #

      Jacob, the one thing I really dislike about ESBIT is the darned coating it leaves on pots. Yes, it’s easy enough to scrub off, but it’s a nuisance.

      Still, though it’s so light. My pack, including fuel and food, was only 22 lbs on my last trip even though I brought some luxury items.

      I also like ESBIT because with the right set up, you can do baking with it. I baked muffins for my group on my last trip.


  10. Vandy-SJ May 2, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    After focusing on DIY and factory-made alcohol stoves, the revised park and forest regulations in California have steered me to canister stoves. My favorite is the Soto WindMaster OD-1RX (shown in this writeup) – very lightweight and efficient – plus I use a canister stand for stability. This setup has worked well for me so far. Great article, Hikin’ Jim!

    • Jim Barbour May 6, 2014 at 11:28 pm #

      Hi, Vandy,
      I was pretty skeptical of the Windmaster OD-1RX at first with it’s kind of oddball pot support, but head to head testing with the older Microregulator stove has won me over. The Windmaster did better than the Microregulator in every test that I ran.


  11. Jon FOng May 2, 2014 at 8:56 pm #


    Another prudent article. Wildfires in Southern California are a known issue. 2014 is extremely bad due to the back to back bad years. Everyone needs to read and understand the regulation and play it on the safe side.

    • Jim Barbour May 6, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

      Thanks, Jon. And yes even I gave up alcohol stoves for my last trip and went with ESBIT. Coincidentally, I used a Bobcat system with an Epicurean Ti stove and a SS windscreen. Excellent set up. I really like the SS windscreen and prefer it to the aluminum.


  12. Linda May 3, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    In Yosemite the Rangers I spoke with were aware of Esbit and were happy I was using it

    • Jim Barbour May 6, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

      Linda, that’s excellent. The NPS is typically (at least in my experience) a lot more aware than the USFS of hikers/backpackers and their gear. It doesn’t surprise me really to hear it although I’m glad to hear it.

      My article of course had to be fairly generic since it was about “the West”, but it’s always a good idea to do just as you did and contact the specific land management agency for the area(s) you’ll be visiting on a particular trip.


  13. ab July 22, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    What about wick based alcohol stoves?

    • Hikin' Jim July 22, 2014 at 6:38 pm #

      Generally, land management agencies don’t make a distinction as to what type of alcohol stove.

      There’s some good news for alcohol stove users out there: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks are all still permitting alcohol stoves (of all types). Apparently, their risk assessment concluded that the fire danger posed by alcohol stoves did not warrant a pan.

      Unlike the National Park Service, the US Forest Service’s regulations generally ban alcohol stoves except stoves that use gelled alcohol (e.g. Sterno).


  14. Russ May 3, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    great read, I live in pnw where out summers get almost as dry. My approach here is an SUL evolution of candle stoves I’ve invented and shared on BPL, which can be blown out. Wax is great for it’s no spill fuel, this version does have soot, but better to carry a cozy than triggering a forest fire. Not to mention 8grams fuel boils 16oz water, and 4cents a boil.

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