Light my fire: What cooking stove?
A cycle tour that involves camping usually means packing a cooking stove of some description. Choosing the right one depends partly on how much you want to spend, but also where you’re going to tour and how much camping/cooking you’re planning to do. This is by no means an extensive review of camping stoves. There are plenty of longer and more detailed blog posts found through a simple google search. This is merely my experience.
During my first long tour I started with a Jetboil. This is a great stove if you’re going to use it for quickly boiling up soups/tea/coffee/packet noodles etc whilst out on a short tour or walk, where it’s probably not necessary to be carrying more than one extra butane gas canister as a spare and where size and weight are important.
On a long tour, through countries where camping gas isn’t available and your hunger extends beyond packet noodles, which I found myself surviving on for much of the time in Tibet, the Jetboil is not the best stove. Setting off from Kashgar in western China I was carrying about 6/7 gas canisters as I had no idea where/if I could find another in Central Asia.
A number of countries and wild camping nights later I eventually got my hands on a multi-fuel stove, which has been with me ever since.
I bought the Primus Omnifuel on the basis of reviews and reputation of the company. I’ve run it almost entirely on petrol in the last 5 years, although did accidentally once use diesel in Tunisia when my schoolboy French assumed gazole was petrol! Multifuel stoves, despite the name, generally don’t run very well on diesel, creating huge amounts of black smoke and a fuel jet which soon becomes blocked. Lesson learnt. I have not tried running it on kerosene, which is also possible.
The advantages of a multi-fuel stove over a camping gas stove is that petrol is available almost anywhere in the World, and is much cheaper to use than camping gas canisters. My half-litre fuel bottle might cost anything between £0.30-0.70 pence to fill, and will last for at least 6-7 nights of camping when I’m using it for 30-40 minutes of cooking each evening. At altitude they are also far more powerful. Most camping gas canisters suffer above 4000m. The other advantage of the Omnifuel is that it has the ability for you to control the heat, a function that not all multi-fuel stoves have. This makes cooking rice much easier, and anything else where a low simmer heat is necessary.
The disadvantages of a multi-fuel stove is that they do occasionally need cleaning, depending on the grade of petrol that is used (in much of Africa petrol is of a poor grade and I had to frequently clean the Omnifuel through Central Africa) and there is often a smell of petrol involved in the setting up, priming and taking apart of the stove. A multi-fuel stove is also far more potentially dangerous, as this excerpt and picture from a recent email I received makes clear.
Regarding the MSR and the fire: Cycled long time in the Sahara and arrived that day in Senegal. Hence, it was my first night wild camping in the Sahel, with the soil covered with dried grass instead of only sand.. Due to the routine that I got from the Sahara, I was not thinking about getting rid of the dry grass around my stove. The moment I put the fire on the stove a quick flame burst set the grass around it on fire. The moment it happened I grabbed a bottle of water but was doubting a split second whether to extinguish the fire with water with benzene in the stove. I decided to extinguish the fire with my feet. Unfortunately the fire was already too strong and I couldn’t get control over it. The only thing I then could do was saving my stuff by dragging it away from the quick moving fire. In the dark with my headlight on I saved my bicycle and my tent with most of the gear inside it. In the meantime the fire expanded as a ring around the area and I was in a shock. Luckily, within a couple of minutes from all around people arrived and quit the fire by beating with branches..It was my most horrible night during my trip.
That’s a scary story, and a clear illustration that cooking on a multi-fuel stove requires more care and attention.
Despite the seriousness of this case, I don’t think you should be afraid to use a multi-fuel stove, particularly if your tour is going to include parts of Africa, Asia and South America, where petrol is by far and away the easiest source of fuel to find, and the cheapest.
MSR make several popular multi-fuel stoves. Had I owned one and used it successfully like the Primus Omnifuel I would be able to offer more judgement. Tom Allen has written a good review of his MSR Dragonfly stove, which is an equal choice for a robust and durable multi-fuel stove, although on recollection I bought the Omnifuel as the fuel cable between bottle and stove is longer, which allows you to position the fuel bottle at a safer distance from the stove. The pump of the Omnifuel also has more metal rather than plastic in its construction, leading me to feel it was a stronger design. It has to be said that like most multi-fuel stoves, the Dragonfly and Omnifuel are loud.
On a long cycle tour in remote parts of the World where you plan to camp a lot, then a multi-fuel stove is the obvious choice. In the long-term it will certainly be worth the money, and don’t be deterred by occasional maintenance/cleaning that needs to be done.
On shorter journeys, and where more fuels are available, I would possibly revert back to using camping gas. They are quicker to set up and use, and certainly cleaner. If you have used another stove and have recommendations and comments about it, please do share them.