Gear Review: Solo Stove Backpacking cooking stove…
I was recently contacted by Solo Stove to test and review their backpacking stove after a conversation they’d had with Trail Sherpa mastermind, Tim Miner. As usual, I’m happy to oblige and a couple of days later I was pulling the shiny new stove out of a tiny little box anxious to get it dirty.
What is Solo Stove…?
According to their website, the Solo Stove is described as a “natural convection inverted downgas gasifier stove”. All this really means is that the stove uses a design that pulls air down through the fire and cycles pre-heated air back up between the double-wall where it’s fed back into the flame for a more efficient, cleaner burn process. This means less solid fuel is needed to achieve a hotter burn and it should also create less smoke.
The SoloStove website describes the process like this:
Designed with a double wall, the Solo Stove is a natural convection inverted downgas gasifier stove. The air intake holes on the bottom of the stove channels air to the bottom of the fire while at the same time, channels warm air up between the walls of the stove. This burst of preheated oxygen feeding back into the firebox through the smaller holes at the top of the stove causes a secondary combustion. This allows the fire to burn more complete which is why there is very little smoke during full burn. A more efficient burn also means you’ll use much less wood compared to an open camp fire. The Solo Stove doesn’t just burn wood. It actually cooks the smoke out of the wood and then burns the smoke not once, but twice!
The recommended method for building your fire in the Solo Stove is the opposite of what you’d traditionally build on the open ground. Your heaviest fuel goes in first as the bottom layer, followed by lighter fuel then topped by your tinder bundle. As the air inside the walls of the stove heats up, it draws from the bottom of the stove, pulling the fire down with it. With this stove design, the fire burns more efficiently from the top down.
At 9 ounces, the Solo Stove is a little heavier than anything considered “ultra-light” but for a solid fuel stove, it’s still the lightest one I’ve used. And compared to most other stoves that burn liquid fuel from canisters, it’s lighter simply by virtue of not having to carry your fuel. It has two pieces (stove and pot stand) and the outside dimensions with the stand stashed inside are 3.8″ tall by 4.25″ in diameter making it compact enough to fit inside most backpacking cookware (it’s designed to fit inside the Solo Pot 900). I currently carry an old JetBoil with me on most backpacking trips which weighs in just over 19 oz including fuel, so the Solo Stove is half the weight I usually carry.
Using the Solo Stove…
My first test of the stove resulted in a potentially ruined Snow Peak Titanium mug…but the fire burned great! It was incredibly easy to get the fire going and keep it burning by feeding fuel through the notch in the pot-stand. I kept the first fire going for probably 20 minutes or so, used less than 8 ounces of dry twigs and branches and had almost no ashes to dispose of once it had burned out.
I used the stove a few more times around the yard just to get used to it and make sure I could consistently build a fire quickly. I also experimented with different size branches, seed pods, and other natural fuel sources I could find around my yard. This stove will eat anything you throw at it and burn it down to nothing. The only tricky part is making sure the fuel of choice will fit through the feed port (which is only a couple of inches wide) and isn’t so long that it sticks too far out. I’ve found that a nice branch size to keep the fire going once it’s started is 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick and no more than 4″ long.
Solo Stove Field Test…
I wanted to take the stove out in the Arizona Desert with me and see what natural found-fuel I could use and if there was enough around to keep the stove going. Deserts are notoriously barren and fuel can be hard to find, but our Sonoran Desert is a little more bountiful than most suspect. Finding cactus skeletons, or deadwood in the Palo Verde or Ironwood trees can be enough fuel to boil a week’s worth of water…that is, if you can find the water.
I took the stove out for the day on the north end of the McDowell Mountain Range among the granite boulder piles. I found a sufficiently barren spot, with no trees and few shrubs. I was still able to find the remains of a large shrub laid out on the desert floor. I picked up a handful of the dry, dead branches and carried them to a sheltered spot against some boulders to start my fire.
Once I had the Solo Stove set up and some larger fuel in the bottom of the can, I made a quick tender bundle from the thin dried stems off the dead tips of a Mormon Tea. I worked these into a small “bird’s nest” and placed my fire-starter in the middle. I usually use dryer-lint and a dab of lip-balm as a starter. A couple of quick sparks and it was going. This was one of the easiest fires I’ve ever built. Once it sparked, the stove did the rest and all I had to do was add fuel.
Keeping the fire going can get a little tricky, you do have to watch it closely. What seems to work best for me is to watch for the secondary combustion, then start feeding the fire a little at a time. Working with the 1/2″ size pieces (or whatever I’ve got), I’ll feed one or two in every minute or two to keep it stoked. Outside of that, this is as simple as it gets.
I also burned some of the less desirable fuel out in the desert including Cholla, Ocotillo and one small piece of Yucca. All burned well and completely, leaving almost nothing in the can.
The Bottom Line
I had great success in all my trials with this stove. The fire is easy to start and fairly easy to maintain. I could boil 2 or 3 cups of cold water in roughly 10 minutes (some variation). It is light, packs easy and the metal cools quickly once the fire is out. I never once had to coax the fire to start, the design of the stove creates down-draft almost immediately which feeds the early flame and gets the fire going. Finding fuel is not an issue, especially out here. As long as you can find some semi-dry combustible material you've got fuel and this stove doesn't require much. With practice, I'm sure you can control the burn temp by feeding different sized fuel with varying frequency. Something I intend to work on…
SoloStove and the BushBuddy…
I've heard some people mention that the SoloStove is very similar to the BushBuddy Stove. In fact, they do appear to be the same basic design but with some small, but significant differences. First, and most significantly, the construction is tighter with fewer welds and heavier steel making it incredibly durable (and a few ounces heavier). The second is a small design change, but I feel an intelligent one: the pot stand has 3 posts to support your pot instead of 4. Three supports is the most stable platform for anything that is not perfectly flat, which most pots that see a lot of use are never perfectly flat for long. The only other difference (again a big one), is the price. Solo Stove is significantly more affordable than the BushBuddy. Solo Stove even outlines the comparison on their site.