Monday, December 5, 2011

Gas in Extreme Cold: Yes or No?

OK, if you've read my previous blog posts, you know that remote canister gas stoves work pretty well down to 0°F/-18°C – if you run them with the canister upside down.  This assumes that you know and use good cold weather gas stove techniques.  And you'd better read up to understand just which gas stoves can be run with the canister upside down, because most of them can't.  See my article Stoves for Cold Weather II  (see also the list of related blog posts below).

What about below 0°F/-18°C?  Remember the three basic rules of gas stoves in cold weather:  choose good fuel, start with a warm canister, and keep the canister warm.  Those rules still apply, but in extreme cold, they become critical.  You must have a "warm" canister (generally about twenty degrees above the boiling point of your fuel) for your stove to work.  If things go seriously wrong on a backcountry trip and you can't warm that canister, you're in a world of hurt.

Hey, wait a minute.  So, why even bother with gas?  I mean if I can't warm up that canister, then I could die, right?

Yep, you could die.  That's not an exaggeration.  This is not something to take lightly.  But there are reasons to want to take gas in extreme cold. One reason is safety.  If you have to cook inside your shelter, gas is the safest option.  Yes, I know, stove manufacturers unanimously proclaim "never use a stove inside."  Let's see.  It's -5°F/-20°C.  It's blowing hard out there.  There's snow everywhere.  It's basically a white out.  You're going to go outside to cook? Really?  There comes a point in time where cooking inside is the lesser of two evils.  Cooking outside might mean certain death whereas cooking inside while risky is far safer.  Yes, you have to worry about fires.  Yes, you have to worry about Carbon Monoxide.  But you're a complete idiot if you try to cook outside in a howling gale when it's -5°F/-20°C out.

Back to my point about safety:  Gas stoves generally do not require priming.  If you know anything at all about priming a liquid fueled stove, you know flames can spring up several feet into the air.  Yes, with practice and care, you can keep the priming flames smaller.  In ideal conditions.  But if you come stumbling into your tent at night, half dead, half hypothermic, with hands about as nimble as a block of ice, just how controlled do you think that priming will be?  Priming inside a confined space with flammable items surrounding you is just not a good idea.  With gas, you just open the valve, light, and go.

Another issue is mechanical reliability.  Pumps on liquid fueled stoves can and do fail in extreme cold.  While the valve on a Gas canister can jam, jams are far less likely than on liquid fueled stoves, and the valve usually jams open.  In the case of a gas canister with the valve jammed open, just leave the stove attached to the canister.  Hardly ideal, but leaving the stove attached will allow you to use the stove's valve to hold back the gas – and you can still use the stove.

Now, even though I have called out liquid fuel pumps as having reliability problems in extreme cold, that is not to say that such pumps are unreliable per se.  In other words, most liquid fuel pumps will do fine, but failures do happen and they happen at a higher rate than with gas canisters.

Me personally?  I'd take both.  Yes, I am serious. I'd take a liquid fueled stove and a gas stove both if there were any way my team could reasonably manage it.  I'd take more than two stoves if the group were large enough to support it, even if I thought we could get by with less.  Gas will be safest if you have to cook inside, but if you get into a situation where you cannot warm the canister (a distinct possibility in extreme cold), you still have a liquid fueled stove. In extreme cold, it's time to quit counting grams and stay focused on coming back alive.

For your liquid fuel, use kerosene not white gasoline.  Kerosene is much  less likely to start a fire if there are any leaks or spills.  White gasoline is volatile stuff and really shouldn't be used inside unless you just don't have any other choice.  I'd also bring a spare fuel pump (or two) and expedition type maintenance kits and tools.  In extreme conditions, take extreme precautions.

In extreme cold, the real failure is the failure not to have everyone come back in one piece.


P.S.  OK, so maybe "bring both" is a little bit of a cop out.  If I absolutely had to choose only one stove for extreme cold weather, I'd probably go with kerosene.  But I really would seriously consider bringing both a liquid fueled and a liquid feed canister gas stove, especially for a group.  You just don't want to screw around when it gets that cold.

Related articles and posts:


  1. LOL! 'Yep, you could die.' I literally laughed out loud. Beautiful! Yet, so true in extreme cold.

    I have had a liquid-fuel pump fail on me. It was too cold. The wimp didn't like -30F. I slept with it that night and had the epiphany in the morning that 'You can fix anything by sleeping with it,' as the pump worked fine then. I guess you can say that with canisters, too, except it's not a situational fix, but more of a 'keep her happy' endeavor :)

    'In extreme cold, it's time to quit counting grams and stay focused on coming back alive.'
    No one will understand this until they camp in at least -15F, if not colder, but this point cannot be stressed enough. There is nothing that I have learned to be more true in all of my time in Alaska than this. Excellent, Jim. Certain things must be overlooked for sheer safety and reasonable comfort. There is NO room for error below -20F. A sleeping bag and clothing system are the other paramount pieces of kit in extreme cold.

    Very true about kerosene, as well. Just make sure you have a stove with a shaker-jet!!!


  2. Nice post there on your blog, Josh. Thanks for the link. I'll have to see if I can work in return link.


    P.S. Nice "hat" ya got there, bro. ;)

  3. You had blogged about alcohol stoves earlier, specifically the Trangia 27. You didn't mention them in this post. Do you feel that the alcohol stoves would be dangerous in the scenario that you have described?

  4. Bill,

    I wouldn't say that alcohol stoves are "dangerous". They're actually pretty safe in terms of carbon monoxide and fires (if you use something stable like a Trangia). You've got two problems though: 1) They're going to be hard to get going because the alcohol will have trouble vaporizing at low temperatures. 2) They're going to be very slow, particularly when melting snow.

    Would I use alcohol in extreme cold? No. I don't think it would be practical. Use kerosene or gas.


  5. That's reasonable. I didn't think that emissions would be a problem, because alcohol is pretty clean burning. For me, the nearly invisible flame is a concern. I have never used one in very cold temperatures, so I am curious as to how well they would work. Since they originated in Sweden (Trangia), it would seem reasonable to expect them to work in cold weather.

  6. Bill,
    Trangia did originate in Sweden, but so did kerosene stoves. You could use an alcohol stove in extreme cold weather, but you'd have to keep the alcohol warm, otherwise you'll have a really hard time getting the fuel to vaporize.

    A wick-based alcohol stove would probably perform better than a conventional open jet burner (as in a Trangia burner) in extreme cold weather, but I've never tried it.


  7. Thanks for your comments. I'm not trying to push alcohol, just curious. My backpacking stove for many years was an Optimus 99. I've always used white gas stoves and seldom had problems. I don't normally get out in the extreme cold conditions that you described. The only types of stoves that I don't have are canister gas or kerosene. I've been interested in getting a kerosene stove for a long time, but never did. I don't think that you have one, but the gas burner for the Trangia 27 looks interesting as does the Omnifuel stove. I'm not likely to run right out and get either.

    Thanks again, I appreciate your experience.

  8. Hi, Bill,

    Completely legit questions. Alcohol in general and the Trangia in particular are good choices for a lot of applications. I'd love to try out one of their gas attachments; I just wish they weren't quite so pricey.

    By the way, an Optimus 99 is a great stove; very reliable.


  9. Your points are one of the reasons that I fell in love with the Primus 2260 propane stove, more commonly known as the "grasshopper" stove.

    No little bits to deal with when your fingers are near frozen stiff, and with a flint lighter mounted to it, you can have it up and running in a matter of seconds.

    I used one years ago to warm the oilpan of a rather unhappy engine in sub-zero weather, made all the difference!

    As to weight, it's kinda a draw; the tanks weigh more, but the stove weighs less.


  10. Hi, Murph,

    I've got a Grasshopper too that I got for $5.00 at a garage sale. Kind of a cool little stove, although it sits kind of high and is difficult to protect from wind.

    The danged 16.2oz/465g propane canisters are so BULKY and heavy. I've seen them in the backcountry before, but a lot of the time I've seen them abandoned. I really don't consider them practical for cold weather. I'd rather just take a kerosene stove.