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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: The Soto WindMaster – World's Lightest Gas Stove with Piezo Ignition

I've talked about the Soto WindMaster (OD-1RX) upright canister gas in several of my posts lately.  The WindMaster's claim to fame is that a) it is the world's lightest (67 g/2.3 oz) upright canister gas stove with piezoelectric ignition and b) that it has superior wind handling capability.

I was really skeptical about this stove at first. As it turns out, it's one of my favorite canister gas stoves.  Ever.

UPDATE 27 November 2016:  I have added a point by point consideration of the stove based on my "What Makes a Good Backpacking Stove?" framework in the appendix
The Soto WindMaster (OD-1RX)
Why was I skeptical?  Well, the name of the stove sort of tells you why I was skeptical.  Soto is making the claim that their stove handles wind well.  An upright canister stove?  A master of the wind?  Really?

Let me explain. There are two general classes of canister gas backpacking stoves:  upright and remote.
An upright canister stove, left (a Soto Amicus), and a remote canister stove right (a Snow Peak GeoShield).
An upright canister stove screws directly onto the top of a canister of gas.  The advantage here is weight:  There's no need to have "legs" to support the burner.  The canister itself supports the stove.  Also, there is no need of any means to bring the fuel to the stove since the stove is directly attached to the canister.  Upright canister stoves are light, plentiful, affordable, compact, and simple.

Wow, sounds great, right?  So what's the disadvantage?  Well, notice how high the stove and pot are in the photo above.  Since the stove mounts on top of the canister, it sits higher up, more exposed to wind.  

Can't you use a windscreen?  Well, yes, kind of, but BE CAREFUL.  If you trap too much heat in the enclosed space around the fuel canister, the canister could overheat.  Heat the canister sufficiently, and it could burst, spewing highly flammable gas all around.  Let's see, flammable gas spraying all around a flame.  Say, that might be, um, bad, couldn't it?  Well, let's just say this could be your "last supper."  Most manufacturers strongly recommend against the use of a windscreen with an upright canister stove.  There's more to say here, but rather than go on and on, if you're interested in the subject of windscreens, I suggest you check out my blog post on Windscreens.  Another disadvantage to upright canister stoves is that they aren't all that great in cold temperatures.  Even with the best fuel, you probably don't want to go much below 20F/-7C.  There are tricks in cold weather.  If you're interested see: Canister Gas in Cold Weather.

Now, on the other hand, a remote canister stove has the fuel off to the side.  Fuel is delivered to the burner via a fuel hose or line of some type.  The advantages here are:  1. The stove sits lower to the ground, so it's more stable and more out of the wind, 2. The stove can be used with a full 360 degree windscreen with no risk of overheating the canister, and 3. Many remote canister stoves can be run with the canister inverted for cold weather operation.  If you're going to run a stove with the canister inverted, do your homework first.  Not all remote canister stoves can handle inverted canisters.  For starters, check out my article in Seattle Backpackers Magazine:  Stoves for Cold Weather II.  

The disadvantages to a remote canister are stove are:  1.  It takes up more space in your pack, 2. It weighs more, and 3. It typically costs more.  There are also fewer choices with remote canister stove than upright canister stoves, but there are some good ones out there.  If you're interested in a remote canister stove,  I suggest you check out the Kovea Spider remote canister stove. 

OK, enough background.  Here's the point:  The WindMaster is an upright canister stove.  In other words, the WindMaster is the kind of stove that does the worst in wind.  So, yeah, I was a little skeptical.  An upright canister stove that's good in wind?  Yeah, right.  But then I tested it.  

Please take a look at this video:


The test in the video wasn't the only test I ran.  I ran dozens of tests over a long period of time.   My conclusion:  Soto really has succeeded in making a more windproof upright canister stove.
In every test, the Soto WindMaster (left) boiled faster than the Microregulator which is basically the same stove but without the wind resistant burner head.
Well, um, if this stove is so great, why isn't it the number one best seller?  Well, several reasons:
  1. It's kind of tall (see photo below).  It's not bad, but it is a little on the tall side.  I can't lay it on it's side in the bottom of my 550 ml mug-type pot.
  2. The pot support is kind of, uh, well, "different". I'll explain more, below.
  3. It's expensive.  It's about $75 MSRP.  (Note Campsaver* has them on sale right now for $52.47 which is a deal).
If you can handle the size and the pot support, I'll explain why I think the WindMaster might be worth the price (especially if you can get it on sale).

By the way, Soto has come out with a new, more affordable stove, the Amicus.  The Amicus has the same style burner head as the WindMaster.  Is the Amicus as good in wind as the WindMaster?  I don't know yet, but keep an eye on my blog.  I plan to post a review of the new Amicus some time in the next four to six weeks.

*Disclosure:  I have no relationship with Campsaver, financial or otherwise.  I don't think I've ever purchased anything from them.  Someone tipped me off to this sale; I pass the tip on to you.  As I say, I have not done business with them.  This link in no way constitutes an endorsement.  Caveat emptor.
The Soto Microregulator, left, and the Soto WindMaster, right.  The WindMaster is somewhat taller than average.
OK, so what's this about the pot support?  Well, it's detachable.  This is a feature that you're either going to love or you're going to hate.  It works for me, but a lot of people apparently didn't like it or weren't willing to try it.  There are actually two pot supports available for the WindMaster.  I'll discuss the basic one that comes with the stove first and then the optional, larger "4Flex" pot support later.

The basic pot support is actually pretty good.  It provides plenty of support and is pretty grippy.  It supports small diameter pots well, including something as small as a standard Sierra cup.  And it's not hard to take on and off.  All it takes is a little practice.  I can even do it wearing fleece mittens.
The pot support attaches easily with just a bit of practice – even in midweight fleece mittens
So that little metal bit in my left hand, above, is the pot support.  It's kind of a flat color.  If you drop it, it's hard to find.  My solution is to use a Sea to Summit mini carabiner (9 grams) to immediately clip the pot support to the valve handle the second I remove the support from the stove.
A Sea to Summit mini carabiner
In the photo below, you can see the carabiner hanging off the valve handle. The carabiner hanging there takes a bit of getting used to when you turn the valve handle, but it's no big deal.
A Soto WindMaster in use.
Note carabiner hanging on the valve handle.
OK, so I've talked about the relative wind proofness of the WindMaster.  How does it work?  Well, for one, the burner head is recessed which tends to guide the flames up toward the pot and limits the amount that wind can blow the flames off course.  Second, the lower portion of the burner head is angled such that wind naturally flows down, around, and away from the burner head.
The Soto WindMaster, left, has a recessed burner head.  Note that you can barely see the flame.
Most stoves have an open burner head, such as the stove on the right.
Note how the flame on the stove on the right is being blown over to the left by the wind.  Goodbye, heat.
I actually kind of enjoyed watching just how well the Soto WindMaster's burner head worked.  In test after test, I could see an open burner's flame being blown to one side or another whereas the WindMaster's flame was still centered on the pot.

Now, how wind proof is the WindMaster?  Is it as windproof as say the high tech MSR Windburner? Um, no.  No way.  The Windburner is a freaking miracle of windproofness.  If you expect to be in seriously windswept areas and really need just absolutely rock steady performance in wind, then get the MSR Windburner not the Soto WindMaster.

However, the Windburner* is larger, heavier, and more expensive than the WindMaster.  If you do your homework and find that an upright canister stove is right for you, the WindMaster will offer far better performance in wind than other similar stoves.  How do you "do your homework?"  Well, you might check out my post, What Makes a Good Backpacking Stove?

*The Windburner is on sale at REI for $99 right now which is a pretty good price considering that MSRP is $130.
Disclosure:  I receive no remuneration from REI for mentioning them here.  I just happen to know that they have the Windburner on sale right now.  I am however an REI customer, and I do occasionally make purchases from them.
Soto WindMaster, left, with a recessed burner head.  Soto Microregulator, right, with an open burner head.
Note how the Microregulator's flame is blown off to the left whereas the WindMaster's is not.
Much ado has been made about stoves with regulator valves being able to really cook lately.  I kind of laugh.  Yes, Jetboil made a big deal about how you can really control the flame on their relatively new MiniMo regulator valved stove.  Why do I laugh?  Because Soto has been doing it all along. Soto is really ahead of other stove companies in terms of technology, so I laugh when other companies make a big deal about something that Soto has been doing for several years.  Soto would never have put out stoves with crappy burner control like that on the first generation regulator valved Jetboils.
Noodle dish prepared on a Soto WindMaster.
You can actually cook with the Soto WindMaster, to include fine simmering.
Now, another thing about the WindMaster:  The "Stealth" ignition.  Soto's Stealth ignition (found on several Soto stoves) is the best in the industry.  Period.  Nobody's ignition is as sophisticated and reliable as Soto's.  Many companies sort of bolt this big kludgy ignition thing to the side of their stoves and then have a wire running up the side of the burner column.  The ignition system then ends with an exposed wire directly in the flame.  This wire often warps in the heat or snags on things – and fails.  Soto has a much more elegant control and runs their wire up through the inside of the burner column.  Then, at the top of the burner column, instead of a little wire sticking out just waiting to be snagged, they put a much more stable strip of metal that doesn't jut out the way wire ignitions do.  Notice also, in the photo below, that the ignition point is in the center of the burner.  This has two advantages:  1) It's a heck of a lot less likely to snag on something when located in center of a burner than an ignition on the rim of a burner and 2) there's a sort of "island" in the center of the burner head that the ignition point sits in.  The ignition point is less exposed to heat and is less likely to become warped or otherwise damaged.
The ignition point of Soto's Stealth ignition is the strip of silver colored metal (not a wire) in the center of the burner head.
Now, notice something else in the photo, above.  Look at the pot supports.  Those are not that little pot support we saw before.  This is the optional "4Flex" pot support that can be purchased to supplement the pot support that comes with the stove.  The 4Flex offers a wide surface for larger pots.
A 2.6 liter pot on a a Soto WindMaster equipped with the optional 4Flex pot support.  Really stable.
In fact, the supports are not the worry here; the small size of the canister is.
Canister "feet" can help but are not absolutely required.
 I found the 4Flex to be a really nice option with large pots (as in group cooking or snow melting).
The WindMaster's optional 4Flex pot support offers excellent stability for larger pots.
I've gone from skeptic to convert.  I really like the quality and flexibility of the WindMaster – as well as it's ability to handle wind.  If I go out solo or with one other person, I can take the basic pot support.  I don't have to take up a lot of room in my kit with an unnecessarily large pot support.  On the other hand, on trips with a larger group or larger pots – or pans as in fish frying, pancakes, etc. – I take the 4Flex, and then I don't have to worry about my pot being "tippy."  With the 4Flex, even fairly large pots are very stable.  The one thing you might worry about with large pots is not the pot supports at all but rather the canister.  A large pot with a small canister at the base could be a little tippy on uneven ground.  Several companies offer canister "feet" that one could purchase if one were concerned.  I didn't find them necessary,

A final note:  On local hikes, I might do stove testing, but on my "big" hikes where it's a really a special hike, I don't do stove testing.  I take stoves that I like and trust.  The last couple of photos were from my hike on the John Muir Trail this past summer.  In other words, this isn't a stove that I test and then stick on a shelf never to be seen or heard from again.  No, this is a stove I actually use.  I have dozens and dozens of stoves sent to me for free from companies that would like me to do a review.  I can pretty much use any stove I like.  If a stove makes it on a trip where I'm not testing, you know it's a good stove.

The Soto WindMaster

What's Good About It?
  • World's lightest canister gas stove with piezoelectric ignition  (67 g/2.3 oz).
  • Superior wind handling
  • Reliable, sophisticated piezoelectric ignition
  • Good pot stability on both large and small pots with multiple pot support options
What's Not So Good About It?
  • A little on the tall side.
  • More expensive than many comparable stoves
  • The smaller pot support is easy to lose – unless you use a mini carabiner and always clip the support to the valve handle when you take the pot support off.
The Soto WindMaster:  Highly Recommended.

I thank you for joining me on another Adventure In Stoving.

HJ

Disclosures:  I received the WindMaster stove free of charge from a third party (not Soto in other words) for the purpose of this review.  I purchased the 4Flex support with my own money.   I am not compensated for my reviews except for the trivial amount of money I receive from the ads on my blog (about $1.00 USD per day at last check).  The income from my blog pays for fuel and occasional parts and accessories, but I in no way derive my living from my blog.  My blog is basically a hobby which leaves me free to review stoves any dang way I please.  


Appendix – "What Makes a Good Backpacking Stove?"

An evaluation of the Soto Windmaster based on my fourteen point "What Makes a Good Backpacking Stove?" framework.

  1. Suitability – Is this stove suitable for what I want to do?
    • Cooking  – The Windmaster can pretty much support any type of cooking from high heat, rapid boiling and snow melting to slow simmering.  The fine control of the flame is very good.
    • Conditions – Like all upright canister stoves, the WindMaster would not be my first choice for temperatures under 20 Fahrenheit/-7 Celsius.  The WindMaster may be used at all elevations although the piezoelectric ignition will be less reliable above 10,000 feet/3000 meters in elevation.  No matter what elevation one uses a stove with a built in ignition, always carry a second source of ignition (non-piezo lighter, matches, firesteel, etc.).  The WindMaster will handle windy conditions better than most upright canister stoves but would not be a good choice for extremely windy conditions.
    • Capacity  – The Windmaster can easily support pots from about 250 ml (depending on proportions) to about 2000 ml with the basic pot support, but over 1500 ml, you'd have to be a bit cautious about using a small canister.  With the larger 4Flex pot supports, 1500 ml to 3500 ml, probably larger, pots can be accommodated, but one might want to use canister "feet" to make the whole assembly more stable.
  2. Reliability/Robustness – Can it “take a licking and keep on ticking?”
    I found the stove to be quite solid.  Some have complained that the basic pot support is "flimsy."  I did not find it so, and found it to be quite solid once properly emplaced on the burner head.  As with all canister stoves, one must keep the threaded area clean, and one should avoid spilling food on the burner head.  Do not set the stove down in the dirt if you can avoid it.  One should also keep the canister threads clean lest abrasives (dirt, grit, etc.) get into the threads of your stove.  Always use the cap on the canister when not in use.  Avoid Coleman brand canisters which don't have a cap  or save a cap from another brand and use it if you buy a Coleman canister.  Why Coleman doesn't provide a cap on their canisters is beyond me.  Dumb idea, Coleman.
  3. Weight  –  The WindMaster weighs 67 g/2.3 oz which is in line with other major stove brands (MSR, Snow Peak, Optimus, Primus, etc.).  There are titanium stoves coming out of China, some by Fire Maple which is actually a decent brand, that are lighter, but you will sacrifice pot stability and the ability to handle wind.  Some will find this trade off acceptable; others will want to carry the extra ounce to get better pot stability and windproofness.  It is a choice; the choice is yours.
  4. Price – Do I have mortgage my home to afford this thing? 
    At MSRP $75, the WindMaster is in the upper range of upright canister stoves.  The WindMaster offers high quality construction and engineering, good pot stability, an excellent ignition, and superior wind performance.  Some will consider it worth the price; others will not.  Always look for sales. Never be in a hurry to purchase gear.
  5. Stability – Pot stability is well above average for upright canister stoves.  The detailed engineering of the pot supports makes them more grippy than most.
  6. Efficiency (i.e. fuel economy) – The WindMaster has better fuel economy than most upright canister stoves, particularly in wind.  The WindMaster will not have as good fuel economy as an integrated canister stove like a Jetboil  unless one uses a heat exchanger pot in which case the fuel economy of a WindMaster may rival that of a Jetboil.  
  7. Windproofness –  The WindMaster is of a design that gives it better performance in wind than other upright canister stoves.  This is one of the chief features of the stove (hence the name).  One should not use a full 360 degree windscreen with the WindMaster or any upright canister stove.  Overheating the canister could result in an explosion.  See my post on Windscreens for ideas and precautions related to windscreens with upright canister stoves.
  8. Compactness – The WindMaster is reasonably compact for its class, but it is taller than most upright canister stoves.  There are many upright canister stoves that are significantly more packable.
  9. Ease of use – Generally, the WindMaster is a pretty easy to use stove, but it does have the detachable pot support.  I found that I could put on the pot support with one hand, even in midweight mittens, and I didn't think it was a big deal, but some people just absolutely hate the detachable pot support.  You must make provision to not lose the post support.  I clip mine to the valve handle when not in use.
  10. Ease of maintenance/field repair –  Like most upright canister gas stoves, tools and spares are not included with the stove.  Note that in four years of using the stove, I encountered no instances where I needed to perform maintenance or repairs on the stove.  Spares and tools are more typically included with liquid fuel or multi fuel stoves.
  11. Speed – Please refer to the video in the main body of the review.  Basically, I found the stove to be fast.  Boil times will vary with conditions, but the WindMaster is far less affected by wind (the chief enemy of good boil times) than other upright canister stoves.  No, I won't quote an exact time.  Such quotes are fairly irrelevant since there are no standards for test conditions.  The water temperature, air temperature, fuel used, valve setting, elevation above sea level, and type of pot will all cause the boil time to change.  I found boil times to be in line with other major stove brands and faster in wind.
  12. Noise – Average. About the same as most ported gas stoves, i.e. fairly quiet.  Not as quiet as an alcohol stove but no where near as loud as a liquid fueled stove with a "roarer" type burner (e.g. Primus Omnifuel, MSR XGK or DragonFly, Optimus Nova, etc.)
  13. Fuel considerations (availability/versatility/morality) 
    • Availability.   The WindMaster uses standard threaded canisters.  One can use any reputable brand of canister gas.  See Can I Use Any Brand of Gas Canister?  Standard threaded canisters are widely available in the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.  Availability may be limited elsewhere.  In some areas, particularly in France, non-threaded canisters are the norm.  In the Middle East and Eastern Europe, only puncture type canisters (no valve) may be available.  No matter where you are planning to go, check the availability of fuel.
    • Versatility.  Generally, only threaded canisters may be used, but there are adapters that will allow one to use non-threaded valved canisters, puncture type canisters, 100% propane canisters, and 100% butane bayonet-connector type canisters.  Always check availability of adapters before embarking on a trip.  If possible, obtain and test adapters in advance.  Some adapters from China are of extremely poor (i.e. dangerous) quality.  Liquid fuels such as alcohol, gasoline, or kerosene may not be used.
    • Morality/Ethics.  Canister gas is generally considered to be better for the environment than wood fires. Use of wood fires a) often lead to an area being stripped of wood and b) have significantly higher fire danger.  However, on the other hand, while canisters can be re-cycled, most of the canisters wind up in the land fill.  Even recycling of canisters takes energy and other resources and is not as low impact, environmentally, as a liquid fueled stove or alcohol stove.  Some people have gone back to liquid fueled stoves (gasoline or kerosene) or alcohol stoves to reduce their environmental impact. 
  14. Safety/Legality.  
    • General.  Standard threaded canisters are generally considered safe; however, do not allow the temperature of the canister to exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).  Leaving a canister in the back window of a car on a hot day is not a good idea.

      The valve on a canister can stick in the open position when you disconnect the stove.  NEVER disconnect the stove near a candle or other open flame or hot surface.  Disaster may result if the valve sticks open.  If the valve does stick in the open position, simply replace the burner on the canister and try again.  If the valve on the canister continues to stick, leave the burner on the stove and control the gas with the valve on the burner.
    • Fire safety and regulations.  In terms of fire safety, canisters are fairly safe, but care must be taken not to allow the canister to tip over while the stove is in use.  If the liquid fuel inside the canister hits the flame, a fireball several feet in diameter may erupt.  This may cause an injury, a fire, or worse.  Canister stoves are generally allowed during most fire bans in the western United States whereas alcohol and wood stoves are generally not allowed.  Regulations may vary elsewhere.  A California Campfire Permit is required in California for stoves of all types.   There are also total fire bans that are sometimes invoked.  Always check with the local land management agency where you intend to hike.
      Canister stoves do not require priming and are free from the dangers of priming.

8 comments:

  1. Nice write-up Jim.

    I just do not like the whole "carry extra pot supports" approach.

    You also made mention that the WindBurner is a lot more expensive. Well, at 75 bucks for this stove, plus the usual 50-80 bucks for a pot, there is a very good chance that the WindBurner is actually less expensive!

    So how did the jets do at staying clean? Have you had to do any scrubbing of the stove head in order to keep the jets clean?

    (ps: you did not use your own 'fourteen criteria for a good stove' for this review :-p )

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    1. Well, I never carry extra pot supports. I choose the pot support that I need for a given trip and leave the other one at home. 90% of the time, the basic pot support is fine. Maybe if you're going to have more than a 1.5 liter pot you could move up to the Four Flex, but I think you'd be fine up to 2 liters pot size with the basic supports.

      As for expense, yeah, I guess so although if you went with a basic Open Country aluminum pot, I think you could go cheaper. The WindBurner is MSRP $130, which gives one about $45 worth of "play." (and a lot of people will already have a pot and are just looking to upgrade their stove) GSI also puts out some pots for $35 to $40 dollars.

      But if you want to go with Evernew or something, then yeah the Windburner would actually be cheaper. I wrote the post all in one go today. Maybe I'll expand it a bit.

      The jets are fine. In 3 or 4 years of use 2012 - 2016, I've never done a lick of maintenance. In several time periods in there, the Windmaster was my primary stove, although, as you know, I have a lot of stoves. :)

      As for the fourteen criteria, true, but most are there if you look hard enough. The safety issue is the glaring one that I didn't address. Maybe I'll put together a point by point appendix if I get time. I guess I should use my own framework. You will note however that I did link to it.

      HJ

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    2. Oh, and Campsaver has the Windmaster on sale for $52 bucks which is a crazy good deal. Of course REI also has the Windburner on sale right now, so I guess the "play" is still about the same.

      HJ

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    3. Based on your input, I added a few more things to the post. I will add more as time permits.

      HJ

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  2. thanks for the link. good info, especially on the windscreens. i like the idea of the kite, nice and light (assuming that light weight long pegs can be used to secure to earth.also, unlike metal screen solutions, it doesnt redirect the heat back towards the canister. this along with an HE pot could have an overall lighter weight than using the msr windburner.

    was wondering if you have had a chance to test the soto microregulator with the soto windscreen. i'm assuming it's better than the windmaster since the screen is pretty large.

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    1. Hi, Billy,

      You would think that the Micro Regulator + windscreen would do better than the Windmaster alone, but actually the opposite is true. The Windmaster does better.

      HJ

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  3. Hi Jim. Would you know if the Windmaster stove with either the 3 or 4 leg pot supports will fit inside an Evernew Pasta 1.0L pot along with the MSR 110g/3.9oz canister? I can't find the stove anywhere in person to check it out. Thank you very much.

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    Replies
    1. Unfortunately, I don't have a 1 L Pasta pot, so I don't know.

      HJ

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