Are you burning three times the fuel you should? You might be — without even realizing it. What’s the issue? Wind.
OK, so here’s the deal: If you’re not blocking the wind, the wind is robbing you. It’s robbing you of fuel and time. You’re going to be burning more fuel, yes the fuel that you carried ounce by precious ounce on your aching back, and here you are just throwing it down the drain, yes, that fuel. And time: You could be done by now but on this windy night your pot hasn’t even begun to boil. Say, you weren’t hungry were you? Oops.
How can we stop this thief? With a windscreen. Not using a windscreen could result in fuel usage up to 300% of what you might otherwise* need. And, yes, you could go through your entire fuel supply† without ever bringing your pot to a boil.
What’s that you say? Your stove’s directions say “don’t use a windscreen?” Well, fair enough, we can’t use a complete and total windscreen on every stove, but you still don’t have to just sit there doing nothing and be at the mercy of the wind. Read on, dear reader, read on.
Note: If you’re using an integrated canister stove such as a Jetboil (except GCS) or an MSR Reactor, you’ve already got some pretty good wind protection. This article is far less critical for you.
OK, first let’s let’s define what we’re talking about here so we’re all on the same sheet of music. There are a couple of basic types of stoves out there: upright and remote. An upright stove has burner right on top of the fuel, for example an MSR Pocket Rocket.
Note how the burner is connected directly to the fuel.
Another basic type of stove is a remote stove which has the fuel off to the side with a fuel hose or line leading to the burner, for example an MSR Wind Pro.
Note how the burner is off to one side and the fuel is off to other.
First, the easy case: remote stoves. If your stove’s fuel and burner are separate, you’re in fat city. Just put a windscreen around the burner, and you’re done.
A windscreen like the one shown above will go a long way towards protecting your flame, conserving your fuel, and speeding cooking. Note the use of a simple paper clip to hold the screen in place. A lot of remote type stoves come with a windscreen. If yours doesn’t, you can buy one at most outdoor and sporting goods stores. MSR, Brunton, etc. all sell windscreens similar to the one shown in the photo. The windscreen in the photo happens to be an MSR windscreen
OK, now for the trickier case: upright stoves. OK, so why trickier and why do a lot of instructions say to not even use a windscreen? Well, there is a danger, so pay attention. The fuel on an upright type stove is where? Right under the burner. If you put a windscreen around the burner, you at the same time are putting a windscreen around the fuel. Do you get it? You’re putting fuel in an enclosed space with a burner in it. Burner = heat. Heat + fuel = KABOOM!
So, how do we block the wind without trapping so much heat that we blow ourselves up? Answer: ventilation, shielding, and touching. You’ve got leave an opening in the windscreen to allow air flow (ventilation). You need to put in place a shield to block heat from the canister. And lastly, you have to touch the canister regularly to see if the canister is hot. If the canister feels hot, you need to take action — open up the windscreen more, turn down the stove, put the windscreen up on rocks, etc. — to cool the canister down.
Therein lies the problem. You have to take action. You are responsible for making sure that canister does NOT get hot. If you’re the type whose mind wanders or tends to be forgetful, this article is not for you. You may stop now; thanks for reading; have a nice day. If however, you’re willing to stay on top of things, then this article can save you fuel and time. If you are not diligent, using a windscreen with an upright canister stove could be dangerous or even deadly. Do NOT let that canister get hot!
Step 1. Windscreen.
The first thing you need is a windscreen. Some people make some complicated rigs that have to be staked out or suspended from the pot stands. My preference‡ is for one that’s simple and easy to use, so I prefer the self standing folding panel aluminum type shown in the below photo — at least on trips where weight isn’t super critical. You want a windscreen that will extend at least half way up your pot. Keep in mind that a different canister size may require a taller windscreen. The canister shown in the photo is a 230g size canister.
Remember that we need ventilation. Leave an opening in the windscreen (as shown above) on the downwind side (away from the wind direction). You’ll need to leave the windscreen open to reach the controls anyway, so this is easy to remember. You can also set the windscreen on top of rocks or sticks. Setting the windscreen on top of rocks or sticks will allow air to flow under the lower edge of the windscreen which will keep the canister cooler.
What’s that you say? Those folding panel aluminum windscreens are a little heavy? Yes, actually, they are. I like them because they’re sturdy, don’t get buffeted by the slightest wind, and have metal pins that hold the panels together. Those metal pins can be pushed into the ground to hold the windscreen in place if need be. I tend to take this type of windscreen on hikes were weight isn’t super critical — and go with something lighter when weight is more critical.
But there are plenty of other options. You want really light? Just get some household aluminum foil at the grocery store. Stack five or so sheets one atop another and fold the edges to hold things together. You’ll get something like this:
Now that’s about as light as you can get. You’ll probably have to brace it with rocks so the wind won’t knock it around, but it is light. You’ll probably also have to replace it every other trip or so. I help extend the life of mine by folding it in half lengthwise and rolling it around a water bottle.
Want a middle ground? Try 36 gauge aluminum tooling foil from your local craft store. It’s thick enough to be self standing with a single ply, but it is a lot lighter than a folding panel aluminum windscreen. You may still need to brace it with rocks, but it’s going to work better and be more durable than household aluminum foil.
Step 2. Heat shield.
Not only do we want to allow ventilation, we want to block heat from reaching the tank. To block the heat, we can create a heat shield. The heat shield you can see in a couple of the above photos is made from the cut out bottom of a pie tin. I cut a hole in the center of tin so that the burner can be slid through and attached to the canister.
I keep my heat shield in a zip lock which I store flat in the shovel pocket of my backpack.
Step 3. Touch.
Here’s where you come in. You have to touch the fuel canister regularly. If the canister feels hot, then open up that windscreen a bit more or turn down the stove. You have to keep that canister from getting hot. If you let the canister get too hot, you could be in for a world of hurt. Now, don’t get freaked out here. Those canisters are tough and have to meet Federal DOT standards. But at the same time, don’t get complacent. If it feels hot, increase the ventilation and/or turn down the flame. As long as you keep the canister below the level of “hot” to the touch, it will never get near the real danger zone where the canister might explode.
That’s it. It’s really pretty simple and reasonably safe, if you stay on top of things. Just be aware that this is not a technique where you fire up the stove and then wander down to the lake and see if the fish are biting. You need to stay by your stove and stay on top of things. Do be aware that if you go against the manufacturer’s warnings, you’re on your own. The safety of this technique is quite literally in your hands. Take things seriously, and you should be fine. Slack off, and things might go very badly indeed.
A final word on safety: Yes, you could take your stove inside your tent and close the door. Cooking inside a tent will indeed block the wind, but tip your stove over, and you’re inside a highly flammable environment that can go up in a flash. Oh, and you do know about the hazards of carbon monoxide, the silent killer, don’t you? If your stove produces too much carbon monoxide, your body will not react to it. You’ll just quietly pass out, and unless someone intervenes, you’ll never come back. Cooking inside a tent is not something to be taken lightly. Use a windscreen and cook outside. It’s a whole lot safer.
OK, enough stern warnings from worry-wart Jim. Now, get out there and have some fun, would you?
*Per an article in Backpacking Light magazine by W. Rietveld.
†The basics of stove fuel efficiency:
-Turn it down! A low flame is much more efficient.
-Use a lid. Escaping steam = escaping heat = wasted fuel.
-Use a windscreen.
‡Information regarding other alternatives will be posted on my blog: Adventures In Stoving — Windscreens