POLEBRIDGE – Duff. Biomass. Plant matter. Whatever you burn in one of the new campfire stoves, just don’t call it wood.
“We’re calling them duff-burning stoves, and yes, they are legal,” Glacier National Park spokesman Tim Rains said after researching the rules on using what the manufacturers call wood-burning convection stoves. “It’s OK as long as you’re just burning stuff on the forest floor.”
The wording takes an important shift across the border in U.S. Forest Service territory.
“As related to fire restrictions, you wouldn’t be allowed to use a wood-burning stove, even contained ones, within current fire regulations during a Stage I or Stage II fire restrictions,” said Scott Fenimore, public affairs officer for Forest Service Region 1 in Missoula. “The current code of federal regulations is very specific limiting activity to petroleum-fueled stoves. However, there have been some discussions within fire and recreation community to change those regulations.”
Double-walled, self-ventilating pack stoves have been around for decades. But some new designs have started showing up in outdoor gear stores and roiling the backcountry cooking world. They range from basic water boilers to spacecraft-like mugs with fire-powered USB ports to recharge your cell phone.
“It’s basically an accelerated campfire,” said Connie Myers, director of the Carhart National Wilderness Training Center in Missoula. “The way I see it, they’re an improvement on the leave-no-trace approach to campfire stove cooking.”
Unlike common backpacking stoves that depend on pressurized white gas, propane or similar liquid fuel, campfire stoves burn handfuls of small twigs, pine cones, nut shells, bark or anything else that fits in the fist-sized burn chamber. Carefully engineered holes in the double-wall construction draw fresh air from the bottom and pull exhaust back from the top, resulting in a tornado-like flame with almost no smoke. The stoves can also be adapted to burn charcoal, solid fuel pellets or alcohol if plant matter isn’t available.
The double wall also means they won’t leave a burn scar on the ground. No need for a rock fire ring. The ferocious flame structure leaves almost no ash behind. And the locally sourced fuel supply means backpackers can carry campfire stoves on an airplane without violating luggage restrictions.
Drawbacks include black soot on your cooking pans that turn everything it touches into an art project. While the fire burns hot, it also requires constant feeding – each handful of twigs combusts in 3 to 5 minutes. If the fire drops below a certain level of activity, it will smoke like any other campfire. And if you’re above timberline, wood fuel could be scarce.
Boiling several liters of water takes a little longer on a campfire stove than a liquid-fuel stove, but not much. Toasting a marshmallow beggars the imagination - pop one in just after the flame goes down and it browns all around in seconds.
While campfire stoves can be bulkier than backpacking stove setups, they aren’t much heavier. Solo Stoves makes three sizes, weighing 9 ounces to 2.2 pounds. The BioLite stove weighs 2.06 pounds, including its USB charging module. In comparison, an ultralight gas burner with a small pressurized canister weighs about 8 ounces. A liquid-fueled stove and bottle of white gas can weigh just short of 2 pounds.
Campfire stove development has grown thanks to a need entirely separate from recreation – the problem of inefficient cookstoves in Third World kitchens.
Between deforestation of surrounding landscapes and chronic health problems from breathing kitchen smoke, wood-fired stoves in rural areas present a major challenge to developing nations. Modern wood-burning stoves can cut a family’s firewood consumption by 67 percent in rural India, according to a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and University of Washington. Using the improved stoves reduced indoor air pollution from 139 micrograms per cubic meter to 51 micrograms.
Unfortunately, the study also found lots of resistance among families to using the new stoves. About 40 percent of the study group kept using their traditional stoves, erasing many of the pollution and fuel consumption benefits.
The power take-off option also raises some odd debate points. In the Third World, getting some electricity as a side effect of daily cooking can mean a home has light for children to study, or capacity to recharge a cell phone or computer.
But in the American wilderness, it means the opportunity to escape modern technological ties has become harder. Myers praised the simple campfire stoves for their light touch on the land, but wasn’t so happy about bringing a new source of battery power into the woods.
“Technology is constantly pushing the frontier of wilderness,” Myers said. “Wilderness was intended to be separate and apart from civilization. It was intended to be more difficult to travel and work and play in, so we can test our own skills and reconnect with wild places. The more we blur that line, the less difference there is. We dilute what’s really special about America’s wilderness preservation system.”