Using Backpacking Stoves in Fire Danger

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Gossamer Gear | Apr 28, 2014

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 Cube

ESBIT

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.

Liquid fuel stove

Liquid fuel stove burning kerosene

Liquid Fuel Stoves

Liquid Fuel Type Stoves generally burn one of two classes of fuel: gasoline type and kerosene type. Kerosene is far safer but takes a bit more skill to use. Gasoline is far more volatile than kerosene and can actually be quite dangerous. If you over prime a stove (use too much gasoline to get the stove going), you could spill gasoline and start a fire. I've seen Boy Scouts accidentally light a picnic table on fire. If you have another type of stove that's more fire safe, you might want to use it this year. If you're really committed to your liquid fuel stove, use kerosene if your stove can handle it. Whether you use kerosene or gasoline, practice priming at home. Getting a good prime with a minimum amount of fuel is the key to safety. Oh, and make sure your stove is well maintained. A leak on a white gas stove can be bad, really bad. I speak from experience here.

upright canister gas stove

An upright (top mounted) canister gas stove

Canister Gas Stoves

Lightweight canister gas stoves are really pretty safe and are 100% compliant with all stove rules for every land management agency–unless a total fire ban is put into place. If you want to be safe in terms of your stove use and fully adhere to the "letter of the law," gas stoves are the way to go.

Two caveats:

  1. Don't let the stove tip over. If a stove tips over while lit, it could cause quite a flare up. Even if it tips, it won't roll far, so reach over, switch it off, and then set it up where it will be stable. You did clear the ground first, right? Maybe it's not that critical most years, but it is critical this year.
  2. Don't ever change a canister by candle light or near a heat source. It's rare, but canister valves sometimes do stick open when you unscrew the burner. If you're near a heat source, the gas can flash into flame in an instant and the entire contents of your canister will go up in seconds. That would be bad, really bad. If ever you do have a valve stick open, just screw the burner back on and try again. Ninety percent of the time, trying again will take care of the problem. If the valve still sticks open, just leave the burner in place and use the valve on the burner to control the gas.
Wood Stove

Wood Stove burning local fuel

Wood Stoves

Wood Stoves are a poor choice for high fire danger years. Yes, if you do it right, you don't leave much in the way of smoldering coals, but a gust of wind can still blow embers into brush. Not recommended for the current conditions in the west.

So there you have it, a few tips to help you avoid being on the 11:00 news.

Now, stay safe out there!

This post was written by former Trail Ambassador Hikin' Jim and Editor.