While the back may have kept me off the hills for a few weeks there has still been a lot of time to play with gear and to ponder great thoughts!
On thing that has caught my attention this year has been the esbit tablet which is beginning to seem to be a fuel source that is worth considering. Esbits are solid fuel tablets that are rectangular shaped and about a couple of centimetres long. This is a fuel that I’ve long associated with the military. Being solid these tablets are long lasting, portable without danger of spillage and effective enough for a basic meal. In the past I’ve always seen this fuel source as one that will heat food and water to a safety point if one that falls short of a full ‘rolling boil’. Some people like them but I’ve never really seen any advantage over meths. The new, small, meths stoves are my preferred fuel of choice, especially when trekking alone or taking part in shorter trips. Canisters, of course, have great convenience for the long distance walker and they are both versatile and effective. Canisters are not very environmentally friendly though. Thoughtful and considerate disposal of spent canisters is something of a nightmare. Still, there are times when they are useful. I used one on this year’s walk across Scotland â€” mainly because I already had some full canisters at home. My favourite stove is the Bushbuddy wood burner but you do need the weather for it. The last time I used it on a long walk was in a sunny climate (and with a small alcohol stove as a backup).
On this year’s Challenge younger hikers â€” followers of lightweight principles â€” were far more prominent than in previous years. Many of these folks instinctively network through blogs and other social media (Twitter being the best place to find them). These guys and girls take their kit seriously and they seem to spend a lot of their income on it â€” I guess young famlies haven’t impinged that much yet. This group will almost certainly not be using canisters. Meths/alcohol is very much to the fore. But esbit tablets are there too.
I first began to think again about esbits a couple of years ago when wild camping with Colin Ibbotson in Snbowdonia. We set up camp and both got on with heating our food. I was using a pretty fast alcohol stove (the Whitebox I think) and Colin was using his own design and manufactured esbit stove, the design of which is featured in the Colin Ibbotson pages elsewhere on this blog. Colin’s food was ready before mine. We were both using small titanium kettles but Colin’s food was hot to a boil, not what I’d expected. Bob Cartwright is the only other person who’s regularly gone on to me about Esbits, but then Bob is a stove fanatic and gets excited about things in the way that only Weird Darren can! Colin’s system clearly delivered results.
On this year’s Challenge I kept coming across the Caldera Cone system from Trail Designs. I’ve been aware of this for a while, of course, and Chris Townsend reckons it to be the best meths system he’s used (which is good enough for me).
At Coylumbridge I met up with Steve Horner who was using a Caldera Cone with an esbit stove. Interesting. Later on in the trip I was chatting about stoves to Rob Slade who was also using a Caldera but with meths, but he’d been thinking about the benefits as esbit.
When I returned home I ordered a Caldera Cone, custom designed by Trail Designs to take my Mountain Laurel Designs titanium pot. The Cone system is both very effective and ridiculously cheap, even when ordering from abroad. The concept is very simply. The ‘cone’ is a piece of aluminium (I think) that is engineered so that it can be put together as piece of kit that is both a wind shield and a pot support. You order your cone to fit your pot â€” Trail Designs are able to supply cones shaped to fit almost all popular pots. The pot slips into the top of the cone and is suspended at exactly the optimum height to get the most out of your stove.
The Cone comes with a very light, beer-can-type stove. Indeed, what you get through the post is a complete system that includes a lightweight measuring ‘thimble’ and a convenient small plastic bottle which allows you to easily add the correct amount of fuel without spillage. You can use the cone with other small stoves â€” Trail Designs themselves are making a lot at the moment of the Evernote alcohol stove that Bob is selling. But the basic stove that arrives with the cone is pretty effective and efficient. The cone provides brilliant wind protection and together with the optimum height arrangement for the pot really does give you a lot of power for the least fuel. I’ve been very impressed with it.
But order a Caldera Cone and you have an option of adding a Trail Designs esbit stove â€” the Gram Gracker, which is small, ultralight and cheap piece of kit. I think this was the stove that Steve Horner was using; it was certainly the piece of kit that Rob had been talking to me about. I decided to have a look at the Gram Cracker and ordered one with my cone.
The Caldera Cone arrives in a plastic tube that both protects the aluminium cone and contains all your other bits and pieces. At first I was a bit annoyed by this. The container is additional weight that I didn’t think I needed. But, it doesn’t weight much and is made of taste neutral plastic. You unscrew the tube in the middle and you then have one or two plastic mugs that can be used for food or drinks. The whole package weighs very little.
As I opened the package I almost missed the Gram Cracker it is that small. Included in the deal are a few sample esbit tablets and these gave the game away and ensured that I didn’t throw away the Gram Cracker with the packaging!
Initially I experimented with the alcohol stove and the tablets were left to one side. But I’ve finally got used to using them and I’m impressed!
The Gram Cracker is really a narrow strip of bent metal. That being said Trail designs reckon that it is designed (as the meths stove) to be the perfect height to get maximum benefit from the fuel when using the cone. You slip a tablet onto the stove and you can control the flame, to some extent, by adding or removing side panels. If you need a longer burn you can stack two tablets one on top of each other.
Now, in all honesty, I have’t used this system on a proper wild camp yet. I’ve just experimented with it in the relative shelter of my back garden. But first results are impressive.
Colin regularly makes use of just half a tablet to heat his food. First impressions suggest that â€” so long as your careful with the measurement of dried food and water â€” half a tablet is indeed all you need. When trekking Colin never prepares hot drinks and he tells me that this cuts down his fuel consumption dramatically â€” and this of course means less weight carried; just one of the Ibbotson tricks this. Me, I like my tea and coffee when out in the wild.
I now use a Mountain kettle because of its capacity. It is almost as good as my MSR 2 person pot but with a footprint that is smaller than my single person MSR kettle. When camping solo this allows me to boil a full pot’s worth of water, use some of it to make a drink (in the plastic cup/cone tube) and then to add dried fuel to the remaining water. The pot can the be placed in its pot cozy and allowed to dehydrate properly. In the back garden I’ve been amazed to find that I can get a good temperature for the water using only half a tablet. I suspect in the wilds I might use a whole tablet but I’ll have to see. I’d be interested in feedback from those who use esbits regularly â€” Steve/Colin?
So, this fuel â€” in this kit at least â€” seems to offer more than I’d considered before. Now we have to think about convenience.
A two or three week trek, without re-supply, would be interesting and I’m not sure that the tablets would win over alcohol. But for three or four days at a time they make great sense. On something like the TGO Challenge you are able to re-supply every three or four days and so bulk of fuel is not such a problem. But as Steve pointed out to me, you can easily add tablets to fuel parcels and send them through the post, something you shouldn’t really do with bottles of meths.
This arrangement might also provide a cheap and light back-up to alcohol as well. I find it quite easy to use more alcohol than planned. In remote places like the Highlands replenishing the fuel can be quite difficult â€” this year Phil Turner was mightily relieved when he found a bottle of meths in the chemist in Drumnadrochit. I know how he felt as I’ve been in a similar situation myself. Bring along a Gram Cracker and three or four tablet of emergencies would be an effective insurance policy against alcohol blight!
There may be other downsides to the tablets. Some complain of the smell of some brands, though this is not a problem with the stuff I’ve been using. Others have written dire things about carbon monoxide fumes and other emissions. But my shelters are always well ventilated and I’m quite happy if the fumes kill bugs but leave me alone!
I’ve not really experimented with other esbit/tablet stoves but the Gram Cracker and the Caldera Cone does the business. This is a combination that would be worth any ultralight backpacker having a look at. And if you want an even more versitile system you can buy one of the Cones that is designed to operate (also) as a wood burning stove. I think Colin Ibbotson used this system on his recent Arizona trek, at least there seem to photos of one.
I’d be interested in more feedback on esbit tablets. Do you use them? have you experimented with them? How do you use them for optimum performance?