Traditionally, when backpacking I carry a gas-fueled stove (such as my Jetboil Zip), but there are circumstances when that’s just not practical. If you’re flying, you’re not going to be able to carry the gas canisters onboard (and you can’t mail them ahead to your destination either…), and if you have a long trek (or one with multiple people, burning your gas faster…) you’ll have a resupply problem.
The alternative to that is to use a wood-burning stove, but I’ve never been impressed with the ones designed for backpacking. Most of them are just folding aluminum boxes that hold your pot a couple inches in the air, and give you just enough room for an Esbit fuel cube or a handful of twigs underneath. Either way, it’s next to impossible to keep a good flame going for any length of time, and I’ve never actually been able to bring anything to a boil.
Solo Stove sent us both a Solo Stove Lite and a Solo Stove Pot 900 to test, and my first impressions on taking them out of the box were very positive. They are both made of 304 stainless steel, so while they are a bit heavier than aluminum stoves and pots, they feel much sturdier – I wouldn’t be worried about denting them when my pack gets tossed around.
The Solo Stove is actually a “natural convection inverted downgas gasifer stove”. So what does that mouthful mean? The air intake holes on the bottom of the stove allow air to flow to the bottom of the fire, while at the same time channeling warm air up between the walls of the stove. The hot oxygen is then fed back into the flame, which causes a secondary combustion, actually burning the smoke itself. This way you use less wood for your fire, and generate almost no smoke.
The Solo Stove is approximately 4.25″ wide and 3.8″ high when packed, and the pot is 4.7″ wide and 4.5″ high. The stove nests nicely inside the pot, even inside of its carrying bag, so the whole unit takes up less than 5″ in your pack. You even have a bit of room left inside the stove for your fire starting kit.
The stove and the pot together, with both of their carrying bags, weigh 17.8 ounces (or 504 grams), so while it’s not the lightest piece of gear, it’s still lighter than my Jetboil cooker and a single gas canister.
The inner area of the stove (where you will add your fuel) measures about 3.75″ wide and 2″ high. There is a nichrome wire grate at the bottom, which will keep your burning twigs out of the ashes that are created.
To use the stove, you gather a supply of twigs about thumb-sized, and load it up to the top (where the cooking ring will go). You’ll need some sort of tinder that will catch and stay lit long enough to light a few of the twigs; I used a bit of dryer lint from my fire starter kit.
Once the fire is lit and self-sustaining, you can place your pan or pot on top of the cooking ring. If I was using a stove this size in the wilderness, I’d probably be cooking mostly dehydrated backpacking food, so I just decided to test how well I could boil water in the 30 oz. Solo Stove Pot 900.
You’ll need to feed the stove a bit during the cooking process; the fire gets nice and hot, but due to the smaller size it will burn out in only 5 minutes or so if no additional fuel is added.
In my test it took about 10 minutes for my 30 ounces of water to boil – Solo Stove advertises 8-10 minutes to boil 32 ounces. I probably let the flames die down a bit more than I should have while the water was heating, so I bet I could have shaved a few minutes off that time if I’d paid closer attention.
The Solo Stove is self-extinguishing when all the fuel burns up; the wood burns down completely to ash which is easily buried to leave no trace. This also means that there’s not a long waiting period for your ashes to cool, and no need to douse them in water to put them out.
And speaking of leave no trace, the Solo has a base so it doesn’t scorch the ground, unlike most folding aluminum stoves.
Solo Stove also offers an alcohol burner designed to work with the stove; I didn’t have a chance to test it, but it looks like it could be a nice alternative if you were ever in a situation where twigs or other dry biomass wasn’t readily available.
Because you’re cooking over a wood fire, you have to deal with soot on your stove and cook pots. You can cut down on this by trying to burn hardwoods and not twigs with a lot of sap or resin in them…
…but a simple green kitchen scrubby will clean the stainless nicely. Since there’s a carrying bag for both the stove and the pot, you can keep the stove’s soot out of the inside of the pot, and the pot’s soot out of your pack. Personally, I think blackened pots are a badge of honor – they’re proof you were out there having a great time!
The Solo Stove also comes in two larger sizes – the Titan (measuring 5.1″ wide and 5.6″ high when packed) and the Campfire (7″ wide and 6.7″ high packed). Both of these will allow you to cook for more people, but won’t be as easy to carry.
While there are slightly less expensive and lighter weight wood stoves available, I don’t know of many that combine all the features of the Solo Stove – high heat due to the gasification process, double walls to act as a windscreen, and an integrated heat shield that prevents the ground from being burnt or scorched under the stove. It would also make a good backup off-grid cooking option – anything that does not require electricity or gas (in case you run out of butane or propane) is a good option to have at your disposal when it comes to heat and being able to warm up food.
The Solo Stove Lite costs $69.99 (at the time of this review…) and is available from both the Solo Stove website, as well as Amazon. Shipping is free from SoloStove.com, and free at Amazon.com if you have Amazon Prime.