Survivalist Vandweller: Using a Wood Cook Stove

We all love a fire! And it is super for comfort and comradery but very wasteful for cooking. Any of he stoves in this post will use much less fuel and cook faster.

We all love a fire! And it’s super for comfort and comraderie but very wasteful for cooking. Any of the stoves in this post will use much less fuel and cook much faster.

This is part two of my post on which cooking fuel to use. In the last post I strongly recommended propane and solar as your primary cooking fuels but suggested that for survival purposes you should have one or two backups. Today we’re going to look at wood burning stoves and in my next post we’ll look at alcohol stoves and also at cooking accessories.

We all love a fire! There is something very primal about sitting around a roaring fire, especially with friends. It reaches down in to the depth of our soul and soothes us and brings us a sense of safety and grounded-ness we rarely have any more in the insane world of civilization. The greatest tragedy of modern life is our loss of connection with nature. Because we are nature deprived we have a disproportionate reaction to a fire; it’s like we’ve finally come home after a long,  miserable journey into  the terrible darkness of modern society.

As comforting as an open fire is, it’s not a good idea for cooking. When you build a full fire you waste a huge amount of fuel because the great majority of the heat produced by all that wood just goes up into the air and not into your food. If you build a big fire every night to cook on, the area around your camp will very quickly be stripped of all wood, then you’ll find yourself walking further and further to gather firewood and eventually you’ll spend all your time gathering firewood. That’s not a problem if you can just break camp and move to another area, but if times are bad that probably won’t be an option.

I took thi picturein my campsite in the Sierra National Forest. In just this small space is probably a weeks worth of fuel for any of the wood stoves in this post. within a 10 minutes walking distance of my van was a years supply of cooking fuel. And eery time the wind blew another years supply fell from the all the huge trees surrounding my camp. It is a truly free and renewable fuel source.

I took this picture in my campsite in the Sierra National Forest (but it’s the same in every forest I’ve been in). In just this small space is probably a weeks worth of fuel for any of the wood stoves in this post. Within a 10 minutes walking distance of my van was a years supply of cooking fuel. And every time the wind blew another years supply fell from the all the huge trees surrounding my camp. It is a truly free and renewable fuel source.

No, what we need is a stove that burns the abundance of very small wood like twigs, sticks and limbs that are everywhere in most forests and even in most desert areas. Almost without exception, every place I’ve camped there was enough twigs and sticks to use for fuel for many months. And then they are self-renewing; every storm that comes along in both the winter and summer breaks off more twig and limbs and scatters them across the forest or desert floor. I’m talking about very small pieces of wood from 1/8th of an inch up to maybe 1 ½ inches. Most of them will be smaller than your little finger and rarely will they be much bigger than your thumb. You may think that you couldn’t possibly cook a meal with that size of wood but today’s stoves can easily do it. The key is to concentrate the small amount of heat produced into an equally small area so it all gets to your pot and goes into your food instead of just dumping it uselessly into the air.

This is my Kelly Kettle cooking. Notice all the trees and twigs on the ground all round us.

This is my Kelly Kettle cooking. Notice all the trees and twigs on the ground all round us.

Looking down at the Kelly Kettle. The large open mouth is where you pour water in. So water is boiling in the chimney while a pot is cooking on top.

Looking down at the Kelly Kettle. The large open mouth is where you pour water in. So water is boiling in the chimney while a pot is cooking on top.

Vandwellers owe a lot to the backpacking hobby that has exploded in the last 40 years because they have given us an abundance of camping gear that is very small, light, efficient and yet also ultra-reliable. Many vandwellers have a history of backpacking and consider car or vandwelling to just be an extended backpacking trip in which they use the car or van as a tent with metal walls instead of nylon. That’s a very good way to look at it! One of the best things that backpacking has given us is a large number of small wood stoves that are easily carried in a pack and yet quickly prepare a meal.

I think every vandweller should have a wood-burning stove on hand for these reasons:

  1. It gives you unlimited fuel for boiling water! Safe drinking water is always our top priority and with any of these wood stoves you can make water  safe.
  2. As a backup to propane.
  3. As preparation for hard times.
  4. To save money by not buying propane.
  5. To enjoy the ambiance of fire.

Very often we are in areas where there is an abundance of wood for fuel and you can enjoy the ambience of wood and the money savings of not burning propane or other fossil fuels. Not only that, but if you are in a remote place and run out of propane, you have an alternative source of fuel. If you are a city vandweller there are usually parks and wild areas nearby where you can gather wood and use a wood stove.

To be fair I should warn you that all these stove have some big disadvantages:

  1. Fire is inherently dangerous–caution is constantly required!
  2. The all make lots of soot which means your hands  will be dirty all the time.
  3. They simmer very poorly!  Basically they are for boiling water and warming up food which is fine for our survival purposes but very bad for a gourmet chef. The Kelly Kettle is probably the easiest to manage the heat output.

Now, let’s look at some of the stoves that will work for us:

My Emberlit cooking away. The 4 sides and bottom just unsnap and lay down flat for easy storage,

My Emberlit cooking away. The 4 sides and bottom just unsnap and lay down flat for easy storage,

The Emberlit has tabs that hold it together. Just unsnap them and it will lay down flat in a quart Ziploc bag. You can see the clean spot I made on the MSR Kettle. Soot is just a fact of life with wood cook stoves.

The Emberlit has tabs that hold it together. Just unsnap them and it will lay down flat in a quart Ziploc bag. It has a cross-piece for smaller pots, but I have it out for the photo. I also find it’s easier to just drop new wood in from the top.   You can see the clean spot I made on the MSR Kettle. Soot is just a fact of life with wood cook stoves. You can put your alcohol stove in here as well and not have any soot.

Emberlit: I own and recommend this stove because it’s small, light and folds down very small. All woodstoves get dirty from soot but this one folds so small and flat you can put it away in a one gallon ZipLoc bag which controls and confines the mess of the soot. But best of all it is one of the cheapest of the commercial backpacking wood stoves. It also works very well with an alcohol or tablet stove making it versatile. It’s the perfect stove for a vandweller to keep on hand. Buy it from Amazon by clicking here: Emberlit Wood-burning Portable Stove

You can find plans to make a basic hobo stove here: http://www.practicalsurvivor.com/hobostove

I stole this photo from the Biolite website.

I stole this photo from the Biolite website.

Bio-Lite: This is a very new high-tech version of a wood stove. It’s very well designed to work as a gassifier to get a very complete and clean burn of the wood which means it cooks fast but also has less soot and uses less fuel. But what makes it totally unique is that it has a built in electric generator that will recharge most cell phones and USB devices. It also powers a small internal fan which is why it burns so well; the more air a fire gets the hotter and faster it burns and the more heat it creates. I have almost 600 watts of solar so I’m not interested in that feature, and it is an expensive stove so I don’t own one. But everything I’ve read and heard about it is extremely positive. This is not a toy and actually works very well to cook meals and charge your devices. It’s a viable source of cooking and electricity for a vandweller. Dual uses is always a good thing for us!! Buy it from Amazon by clicking here: BioLite Wood Burning Campstove w/Electric Generator

Here are the two sizes of the Kelly Kettle at a survival store here in Cottonwood, AZ. The smaller one is $80 here.

Here are the two sizes of the Kelly Kettle at a survival store here in Cottonwood, AZ. The smaller one is $80 here.

Kelly Kettle: These innovative stoves were created in Ireland for fisherman who worked in wet, cold and often miserable conditions on a small boat and so having a hot drink or meal was very important. The Kelly Kettle does a great job of that! It has two parts, the bottom part holds the wood and fire and the top part is a chimney that presses into the stove. The chimney has a hallow double-wall with an opening at the top that you pour water into the chimney where it heats up and comes to a boil. At the top of the chimney is a grill where you can put a pot on it and cook a pot of food while you are bringing water to a boil. It’s an incredibly smart design that can cook a lot of food with very little wood. I loved mine and highly recommend them. Buy it from Amazon by clicking here: Kelly Kettle.Camp Stove

Solo Stove: This is a very high-tech wood stove that actually gasifies the flame so that it burns very hot and efficiently without the use of a fan. It’s more expensive than the Emberlit but it probably burns cleaner, hotter and cooks faster. It also doesn’t fold flat so it takes more room to store. Buy it from Amazon by clicking here: Solo Stove Wood Burning Backpacking Stove -Perfect for Survival, Camping, Hunting & Emergency Preparation.

You can find plans to make your own here: http://theultimatehang.com/2012/12/diy-wood-gas-stove-instructions/

I stole this photo from the Sierra Stove website.

I stole this photo from the Sierra Stove website. I’m told that because it uses an electric fan (one AA battery) you can control the simmer with it better by turning down the fan. 

Sierra Stove: The Sierra Stove has been around for a very long time—I think it was the original backpackers wood stove. They have a good reputation and are worth considering. They use an AA battery for their fan which gives you a hot, fast, burn and fast cooking times. But they are big and heavy and they look tippy to me. Buy it from Amazon by clicking here: Sierra Stove Wood Camping Stove Boil 1 qt of water in only 4 Min.

This diagram gives the basic idea behind a Rocket Stove. I stole it from Wickipedia

This diagram gives the basic idea behind a Rocket Stove. I stole it from Wickipedia

Here is a friends home-built rocket stove.

Here is a friends home-built rocket stove.

Rocket Stove: These aren’t backpackers stove but still may be something you want to consider. They are especially good at cooking for a group—and groups are the very best possible thing in a survival situation! They are usually made out of a metal bucket about the size of a 5 gallon paint can and they have an opening at the bottom where you feed small sticks into the fire chamber. From the fire chamber a chimney exits from the top. There are several outstanding commercial models available. Buy one from Amazon by clicking here: Envirofit Rocket Stove

You can easily make your own out of a #10 can (small enough for a van) by following these plans: http://prepared-housewives.com/how-to-build-a-rocket-stove-and-impress-the-boys/

Thanks for shopping Amazon from these links!

I make a little money (even if you buy something different) and it costs you nothing.

My Emberlit folded flat. I store in a quart Ziploc bag and put that inside a gallon bag along with matches, lighter, oven mitt and scrubbie.

My Emberlit folded flat. I store it in a quart Ziploc bag and put that inside a gallon bag along with matches, lighter, oven mitt and scrubbie.

Bob
About

I’ve been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

27 comments on “Survivalist Vandweller: Using a Wood Cook Stove
  1. Calvin R says:

    Now I have a whole new thing to look at. Picking up absolutely anything on public property in the Eastern US is ordinarily forbidden–but there’s plenty of private property where nobody would mind one taking a handful of loose twigs and what not. I am always interested in backpacker methods. Less is not more, but less is usually better for me.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Calvin, it’s actually illegal in most of the deserts in the Southwest. I only use it where it is legal but if I needed to in an emergency situation I would use it illegally.
      Bob

  2. CAE says:

    Very nice! Thanks

  3. Douglas V says:

    Good ideas, I actually try and use small amounts of fire, which means small amounts of wood, whenever possible. I use a mound of rocks that kind of looks like a very small igloo of rocks when doing cooking or boiling water outside. Too bad I didn’t take pictures.
    Douglas V recently posted…GearMy Profile

  4. Ming says:

    Nice roundup of stoves, Bob. I have a Bushbuddy (I wanted to support the designer of the the original, the Solo stove is a knockoff) and have found it just as sooty in use as a home made hobo stove. When you add more wood to the fire, you get a puff of smoke and that deposits soot. The volume of wood these stoves hold is too little to build up a long lasting bed of coals that would be cleaner on the pots.

    In my quest for cleaner wood cooking, my experiments with shielding the pot from soot have so far resulted in very slow heating, especially on a windy day. You have to feed the fire for ages before achieving a boil. Perhaps putting a bottomless cozy around the pot while it was on the stove would help. I may try that next.

    I started out with the smaller Kelly, but found that it spurted out a lot of water onto the ground when it comes to a boil, and moved to a medium one, a much better size for 2 people who drink a lot of tea.

    From my reading of reviews of the Biolite, it looks to charge devices quite slowly, you’ll be feeding the fire for hours. The Powerpots produce more electricity, but you don’t want to waste propane and alcohol to recharge your phone, hence the wood… and soot.

  5. Peggy says:

    Thanks for doing all that research, Bob. It surprises me to read that it’s illegal to pick up anything off ground in so much of the U.S. I wonder if it’s the same here where I live (British Columbia, Canada). Even if it’s legal though, the problem here in the Pacific Northwest is that wood is often too wet because it rains here so much! We heat our little place with a wood stove in winter (well, actually it’s still cold enough to have it going now in April), but it’s always a challenge to scavenge wood and get it dry in time for burning.
    Peggy recently posted…Butterfly On My FingerMy Profile

    • Ming says:

      Peggy, I live in BC too, and I usually go by posted signs. Some provincial parks say not to pick up stuff from the undergrowth, so I pick it up from the middle of the roads (just “tidying up”). It only takes a few twigs to boil a kettle. In forestry sites, it’s no problem at all.

      Wet wood – I usually keep a bag of dry twigs at home from around my house or street. Then when I camp I pick up damp stuff and let it dry out in the car or camping shelter while I use up my wood from home, and just keep going that way.

      • Peggy says:

        Hi Ming ~ Sounds good. I’ve haven’t seen a sign about not picking up stuff so I guess I haven’t broken any laws yet! We collect our firewood from forestry sites so I guess it’s o.k. In any case, things are pretty loosey goosey where I live so I can’t see anyone making a big deal about it either way.
        Peggy recently posted…Butterfly On My FingerMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Peggy, in the desert things bio-degrade very slowly and if humans burn up all the wood that’s on the ground, that won’t leave any organic material to break down and build up the soil. So the BLM doesn’t allow campers to gather and burn firewood. Lot’s of people are too short-sighted to think ahead to 100 years when there is nothing growing in the desert because all the organic material in the soil is gone, but the BLM has to think that far ahead. I think it is a very, very good rule that I strictly follow.

      Nearly all National Forests in the USA allow the gathering of dead and down firewood. However, there are certain times of the year when the Forest is so dry there is an extreme danger for forest fires. When that happens they put on a Fire Ban against all fires no matter where you get the wood and sometimes they even ban propane stoves being used outside. Here in Arizona that is a lot of the year because we get so little rain. And even with the fire bans we get a lot of forest fires from lightning strikes and scumbag, idiot campers who think they are special and can burn fires anyway. . Of course where you are in the Pacific Northwest that would never happen in the USA either–too much rain!
      Bob
      Bob

      • Peggy says:

        Ahh, o.k., that makes perfect sense.

        Guess what? Surprisingly, we have fire bans here in the summer almost every year. We also have watering restrictions most summers because our water comes from local lakes. I guess the rain is mostly in the winter but you know, it sure doesn’t feel like it! Overcast days are pretty common.
        Peggy recently posted…Butterfly On My FingerMy Profile

        • Bob Bob says:

          I am surprised by that, but all it takes is enough time to dry out. Flagstaff got snow about 10 days ago but they have a wildfire going right now that has burned 100 acres.
          Bob

          • Ming says:

            Bob, we often have 2 months of solid sunshine where the woods get quite dry. Then there are fire bans for a bit, then the rains come back.

            That’s on the coast. It is quite a bit drier once you start traveling east in BC.

          • Bob Bob says:

            Ming, that makes sense to me.
            Bob

      • Douglas V says:

        I use that igloo looking fire pit because I don’t want the fire getting out of hand or embers to get out as easily, in addition to using less fuel as well as having a surface to boil water, cook food, etc.
        Douglas V recently posted…GearMy Profile

  6. I was wondering–since a small amount of water heats faster than a larger amount, would it use less fuel and heat faster if you brought a small amount to boil and then added a little at a time, bringing it up to boil before adding more? (Physics was never one of my strong points.)
    Al Christensen recently posted…Aaaawk!My Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Al, you know you are asking the wrong guy about science! Why don’t you do an experiment and tell us how it works.
      Bob

      • Ming says:

        Yes, Al. That would be an interesting experiment. I once read a comment by an ultralight backpacker using an alcohol stove who said that he saved on fuel by boiling it in 2 small lots rather than one large one.

  7. Douglas V says:

    For coffee in the field, I don’t boil much, usually between 6-8 cups and that is usually enough for the team of guys that I have out there.

    When I learned of that fire “igloo” I started using that idea in a lot of places, plus such a small fire doesn’t take as much water to put it out and more of the heat is held in the rocks to cook with. It heated up a can of meat and beans in minimal time with minimal stirring.
    Douglas V recently posted…GearMy Profile

  8. LeeRevell says:

    Bob said, “Nearly all National Forests in the USA allow the gathering of dead and down firewood. However, there are certain times of the year when the Forest is so dry there is an extreme danger for forest fires. When that happens they put on a Fire Ban against all fires no matter where you get the wood and sometimes they even ban propane stoves being used outside.”
    Yep, that is exactly our situation here in northern Florida in the National Forests. Also, you must get a free permit to collect downed wood, available at any ranger station.
    They do a pretty good job of controlled burning here too, so there’s not a huge amount of old wood on the ground. Plenty for the occasional camper though!
    I use a cheap folding sheet metal stove I got years ago – WallyMart I think. Works well for me.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Lee, so much of the country has been going through drought that fire bans and permits have become the norm in many places. The fire danger here in Northern Arizona is extreme right now so we are under a fire ban as I write this.
      Bob

  9. Hi,

    It feels nice to see your post!!

    People should know the wood cook stove and their benefits.
    Wood cook stoves are great for energy conservation. Wood is less expensive than gas or electricity. People can find their own wood, or they can buy firewood from a store. Many people in rustic areas use wood cook stoves in order to remain completely self-sufficient. They can fuel the stove with wood from their property and not even have to use electricity.

    Thank you so much for such a great share. Hats off!!

    Regards
    Audrey G. Crabb

    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks Audrey, all very good points! For us nomads who spend the summers in the National Forests, you wouldn’t have to buy any fuel for 7 months. That’s money in your pocket! Bob

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