April 28

Using Backpacking Stoves in Fire Danger

Want to take your backpacking stove out in high fire danger conditions? Take a few things under consideration. It’s dry out west, really dry.  According to National Public Radio, fire authorities are fighting about three times the normal number of fires.  So, how not to burn the whole place down?

Wood Fires

First, and maybe this goes without saying, but open wood fires aren’t such a good idea in a drought.  Wood fires are pretty much out of the question in Southern California and further north should only be used where safe, legal, and ethical.  Wherever you are, if you don’t have the means to put out a fire, don’t start one.

At the Messenger Flats Fire, hikers went to bed with a fire not completely out.  The wind came up in the night, fanned the embers, and the fire spread — even though it was in a steel fire ring.  The hikers awoke — surrounded by fire.  They escaped with their lives, but their gear was apparently destroyed.  Fortunately a trail crew with radios was nearby and fire fighters were quickly in place.  The moral of the story:  A drought year is no time to get sloppy.  Make sure a fire is out or don’t start one.

Messenger Flats Fire
The Messenger Flats Fire, started by PCT hikers. Photo courtesy of Dave L. Used by permission.

Backpacking Stoves

Stoves can also be a problem.  Let’s talk about them by type.  I’ll talk about ultralight types first and then “conventional” stoves next.  I’ll end with a brief mention of wood stoves.  With all stoves, clear the ground of flammable material first, and make sure you set them up where they’ll be stable and won’t tip over.  With stoves, there’s no need to scrape down to “mineral” soil the way you would for a wood fire.  Just do some basic clearing of obvious leaf litter and such, and you should be fine.

Alcoholl Stoves
Open Burner Type Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol stoves are generally not permitted in Southern California and are frequently restricted elsewhere.  Alcohol can spill, particularly open burner type stoves.  One spill, and you’ve got a major conflagration on your hands.  Fire in dry conditions can spread with unbelievable speed.  Several fires have been started by hikers who had an accident with their alcohol stoves.  I hate to say it (since I’m a big fan of alcohol stoves), but alcohol stoves are probably not a good pick this year.

Esbit Cube


Esbit cubes for your ultralight stove are probably the safest option out there.  It can’t spill, and it can be blown out by mouth.  The problem with Esbit is that many land management agencies have no idea what it is or that it even exists, so they haven’t included Esbit in their regulations.  If you adhere to the strict “letter of the law,” you might choose not to use Esbit since it isn’t specifically mentioned.  However, I personally use Esbit without much worry knowing that it’s absolutely the safest fuel.  There’s always the possibility that you could get in trouble with an overzealous ranger, but I’ve never had a problem.  If you were accosted, you could always demonstrate that it can be blown out quickly, much like a candle.  Most rangers, if you can demonstrate that you’re really thinking about fire safety, will give you the benefit of the doubt, particularly if you point out how vague the regulations are.

Be sure to check out part 2 of this article