Monday, November 30, 2015

Solo Stove Lite Kit Review

Last month I was contacted by the manufacturer of a portable wood burning stove called the Solo Stove. They provided me with a stove and pot set free of charge, and I agreed to review it. The stove was their most portable model, the Solo Stove Lite, and the pot was a Solo Stove 900 pot designed for the stove, so that the stove can fully nest in the pot.


First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: this is a Bushbuddy clone. There is no way around that. You are either okay with it, or you are not. That being said, there are some differences to keep in mind. Mainly, the Solo Stove is much more robust. It is made of thicker steel, and the construction is very professional and polished. I never had any fear of crushing the stove, nor did you have any visible weld marks. The construction is something I would expect from a larger manufacturer like MSR. The downside is that it weighs 9 oz, significantly more than the 5 oz Bushbuddy Ultra. On the upside, the cost is correspondingly less, at about $70.00.

The stove measures 4.25 inches in diameter, and 3.8 inches in height (5.7 inches when expanded). It fits perfectly in the provided Solo Pot 900, a 900ml stainless steel pot, both of which come in a good quality stuff sack. The pot weighs 7.8 oz and is 4.7 inches in diameter and 4.5 inches high, and costs about $35.00. 



The pot stand portion of the stove flips over and nests within the stove in order to save space. You pull it out and place it upright when you need to use the stove.


The theory behind it is that once you start a fire in the stove, and heat builds up, the additional wood you place in it will not only burn, but gasify. The heat will release combustible gases from the wood, which will then mix with a secondary amount of oxygen and ignite. This should produce a much cleaner and more complete burn.



Even though the combustion is supposed to be cleaner and more complete, it still produces sooth and residue. The wood is burnt fairly completely, leaving mostly ash.


So, this is the stove at a glance. These are the specifications, and the theory behind it. Now, let’s get into the actual discussion of how well it performs as a stove.

Let me start by saying, that the stove works very well for its intended purpose. Once lit, it gasifies beautifully, and you can bring water to a boil with a very small amount of wood. The kit is very portable and easy to set up. The stove is well insulated from the ground, so it leaves no marks when used.

There are however two significant downsides to the stove, not because of the manufacturer or even the specific design, but just by virtue of being a small wood burning stove.

The first downside is that as a non-vented wood burning stove, you can not use it in a tent. For me this is a significant disadvantage to a stove. In bad weather I have to be able to use it inside a tent. For example, when I was testing the stove last week, I found myself in a very exposed and windswept location, where most stoves would have struggled to boil water. If I had a canister, alcohol, or even a while gas stove, I would have used it within my tent, eliminating the problem. With this stove I couldn’t. All stoves pose a danger when used inside a tent, but even with the cleaner burning gasification wood stove, you will be smoked out of your tent in no time. 

The second downside is that for all practical purposes, you are carrying 9 oz of gear in order to make a tiny fire. In turn, there are two issues with this. The first is that I can build a relatively small fire without the use of any stove, and save myself the 9 oz, or better yet I can bring 9 oz of fire starting material instead. The second issue is that the smaller of a fire that you try to make, the harder it is to actually build.

If you are making a fire from dry, easily combustible materials like birch or pine, the job is relatively easy: you put some birch bark in the stove, light it, put some small, dry, pine twigs on top, and you have a tiny fire that you can then feed with finger-thick pieces of wood. However, try doing that in an oak and hickory forest. If you are relying on semi-dry grass as tinder and hickory sticks for fuel, starting such a tiny fire can be a nightmare. Woods like oak, hickory, and maple require high heat to burn. In a small space like this stove, where you have a limited amount of poor quality tinder, it can be almost impossible to raise the temperature high enough to ignite such woods. The problem can be overcome by building a larger fire where a sufficient amount of kindling (dry grass, feather sticks, bark, etc) can create enough heat to ignite the wood, but that is not possible in the small confines of the stove.


So, ultimately, my issue with this stove is the same issue that I have with all small wood burning stoves. It is a great design, and works the way it is supposed to. However, when I can more easily build and use a fire without carrying any stove at all, why do I need the stove? Sure, in some cases it is slightly more convenient than a fire, but in many cases it is less convenient. Under less than ideal conditions it is easier to start a large fire than to build one inside a small stove like this one. Under adverse conditions it is difficult to light quickly, and can not be used inside a shelter.

The Solo Stove Lite is a well built and designed tool, and works very well with the 900ml pot as part of a kit. However, you have to take the stove for what it is: a fun tool to use when you are enjoying yourself in the woods. In that respect, it is spectacular. There is just no way for you not to have a smile on your face when you are feeding little sticks into the stove and watching the gasification process.

What the stove is not is a survival stove or a stove for adverse conditions. When you actually have to rely on the stove, especially when you are in a less than ideal spot, this is not the way to go. You need a stove that will work quickly every time, can be operated easily, can work under difficult conditions, and can be used inside a shelter. The Solo Stove is none of those things.

As always, I have very mixed feelings about small wood burning stoves like this one. On one hand it is well made and a lot of fun to use. On the other hand, it occupies a strange space between a backpacking stove and an open fire, and from a practical stand point is no better than either. If I have the desire and the ability to make a fire, then I can just make a small fire; or even a large one if I needed it. If I actually need to rely on a stove because of bad weather, hypothermia, lack of material to burn, etc, then a more conventional backpacking stove (canister, white gas, alcohol, etc) is a much better option. Of course, practicality is not always the controlling factor of what we use in the woods. As long as the limitations of the stove a kept in mind, I think it can be a fun addition to any camping trip.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Survivorman Season 7: Survivorman Is Back, But Forgot to Tell Anyone

Hey guy, did you know Survivorman is back? Well, he is, but no one would blame you if you had no idea. Season 7 of Survivorman premiered earlier this month, to virtually no promotion.


It has been airing on The Science Channel (Discovery Science) at 10pm Eastern on Saturdays. So far three episodes have aired:

  • Episode 1: Fan Challenge (November 7, 2015)
  • Episode 2: Transylvania Part 1 (November 14, 2015)
  • Episode 3: Transylvania Part 2 (November 21, 2015)

I’ve been shocked by how little promotion the show has seen. Not only is it not shown on more mainstream cable networks like The Discovery Channel, being relegated to its less popular Science Channel, but there was almost no advertisement. In October I saw some promos on The Science Channel about a new season, but when I checked Les Stroud’s website, there was nothing about it. The last season listed was the silly Bigfoot chase Season 6.

Being honest, Survivorman was never a show with big ratings. It can simply never manufacture the level of drama other survival shows pull of for purposes of ratings. Even in the early days it was being soundly beaten by the Bear Grylls fiasco Man vs. Wild. I imagine him spending a season chasing after Bogfoot didn’t do much for the appeal of the show either. I know I skipped that season.

This new season has followed the usual pattern. It is informative in a subdued, realistic way. The first episode showed him surviving along with a fan, with Les giving him some tips. The second and third episode showed him getting lost in Transylvania. For those of us who have been in similar situations, the episodes can be interesting, but generally they are relatively slow moving.

If you are a Survivorman fan, you can still catch the rest of the season. Again, it airs Saturdays at 10pm on The Science Channel.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Trip Report: Opening Days of Deer Season 11/21/15 – 11/22/15

I usually try to keep the trip reports to one per month at most because I know they can get boring, but this month I figured I would do a second one because this past weekend was the opening of deer season where I am.

I haven’t had any luck with deer hunting the past two years, so for this year I decided to make a change. The first change was to hunt in an area that didn’t have antler restrictions. That would immediately improve my chances. I wouldn’t be able to rely on calls as much, but the number of animals I could take would be greater.

The second change was to follow a tip I read from Steven Rinella in his book The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game: Volume 1: Big Game. The book itself is very well written and illustrated, and I highly recommend it. It doesn’t contain anything ground braking, but it has many excellent tips. Well, one of the chapters was on public land hunting, and what I got from it was that when hunting on public land you have to not only understand the behavior of the animal you are hunting, but also of the hunters who are hunting the are with you and how that interacts with the fame.

Keeping that tip in mind, I decided to change my strategy this year. Instead of hunting the low lands where deer like to be this time of year, I decided to do the opposite. I found the area most distant from any place that was easily accessible to hunters, and in that area I located the highest, most inaccessible point. My theory was that even though deer wouldn’t like such terrain, all of the hunters who tend to hunt close to roads and on the easy terrain, would push the game deeper into the woods and higher in elevation towards me.

So I got to the forest about half an hour before sunrise and set out. It would be a long trek to the area on the map that I had picked out so I wanted to get a head start.


Once it was officially sunrise (the legal time to start hunting), I loaded the rifle and kept it at the ready just in case I spotted a deer on my way into the woods.

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I spent a good portion of the day backpacking in. I heard several shots from areas that I had already passed. I kept going in the hopes that those hunters would push the game to my chosen destination.

I didn’t encounter any game along the way, and when the sun started going down I set up camp near the location where I had planned to hunt.


Even though I was in a pretty exposed location, the wind wasn’t nearly as bad as last weekend. Overnight temperatures were about 20F (-7C). I was again using my three season bag, but I had my thick coat with me, so I slept in it and was fine. In the morning I again got up about half hour before sunrise, packed up, and set up on a ridge I had located the previous day, overlooking two intersecting ravines.


I waited for about two hours. Shortly after 8 am I spotted two doe making their way through one of the ravines. I was surprised that they weren’t aware of me because the wind was not in my favor in the direction from which they were coming, but they didn’t spot me. I was using Nose Jammer scent blocker, which I had sprayed the previous day. Maybe that’s what made the difference. I don’t know.

I positioned myself and took a shot from the knee at the lead doe at about 50 yards. I used my Savage 11-111 F rifle in .308 with a Nikon Prostaff 3-9x40 scope, which I have zeroed in at 50 yards. She rushed for about 20 feet and then dropped. I cleared the rifle, waited a few minutes to make sure she was dead, and then made my way down into the ravine.


It was a fully grown doe, about 150lb. I took it with a lung shot. Even though the entry point was the neck, it wasn’t a pure neck shot because I was up and in front of the deer. The bullet entered the neck and then continued down and back through the lungs, stopping in the far shoulder blade.

Now it was time for the hard work. I had to skin, butcher, and carry out the deer. I debated with myself about whether or not to gut it or to just bone it out without gutting, but ultimately decided to gut it so I can get the heart and liver.


All the processing work was done with my Mark Hill Mora #2 custom clone and a Bahco Laplander saw. The saw is obviously not great with bone because it’s too aggressive, but it got the job of cutting through the sternum and pelvis done. The knife performed beautifully. I know many hunters prefer the Havalon style blades, but I like a less delicate tool. I’ve been very impressed with the Mark Hill knife. I processed the whole deer with it without having to touch it up. When I was done I spent a minute on the fine side of my DC3 sharpening stone and it was shaving sharp again.

After I gutted it, I skinned it, and removed the meat from the bones. I packed it all in a T.A.G. game bag. The T.A.G. B.O.M.B. kit which I was using comes with several game bags, but they are large, and I only needed one. The kit was developed for elk hunters, so it was oversized for my needs.


I figured I would spare you the rest of the process. I placed the game bag in a plastic trash bag and transferred the tag to it. For those who don’t hunt, game bags are designed to keep insects away from the meet and allow it to breathe and cool off. They will let blood go through, so if you want your backpack to stay clean, you have to put them in a plastic bag. I am not a skilled butcher, so the process took me over an hour.

When I was done, I cleaned up, packed up all of the meet in my old Gregory Palisade 80 pack, and started making my way back.


It took me many very long hours to make it out of the woods. I’ll have to figure out a good way to attack the rifle to my pack, so that I can use my trekking poles. They would have really helped.

Overall, everything came together nicely. My strategy worked, all of the gear performed well, and I didn’t have any difficulties. It would have been nice to spend an extra day in the woods and cook up some of the meat, but I wanted to get home as soon as possible to make sure I can preserve all of it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Trip Report: Bailey Cemetery 11/14/15 – 11/15/15

It’s still a week before deer season opens around here, so I decided that while waiting I would just go and relax in the woods. After some searching over the maps, I noticed that there was a marking for an old cemetery in the northern section of Harriman State Park. I figured I would make a trip out of it and make my way to it.

The weather was brisk, around 40F (4C), and very windy. It still wasn’t bad for mid November.


Rhea came along for the ride. In fact the reason why I picked this part of the woods is because there is no hunting here and I could bring here safely.


I took the long way to my destination so I could pass by an old mine. Back in the 18th and early 19th century, in these forests there were a number of small villages and homesteads that were eventually abandoned. Sometimes you can see the remnants of house foundations, but the best preserved evidence of their existence is the small cemeteries and iron mines cut into the rock.


The mines are usually very shallow, going about a dozen feet into the rock. They were cut with hand tools, and followed the iron ore veins running on the surface.

From there it was a steep climb up the mountain. One of the frustrating things about Harriman State Park is that there are limits on where you can overnight. There are “shelter” locations dispersed through the mountain, and you have to set up within a certain distance from them. This is done to decrease the overall impact on the forest, and it has the added benefit of limiting the number of people overnighting in the forest. You can’t just walk 100 yards into the woods and set up a huge camp. If you want to spend the night, you have to walk in at lest good five miles, which requires some commitment.

The down side is that you can’t chose your location based on the weather conditions. These shelter sites, which are no more than a makeshift leanto, are usually set up in locations with nice views, which in turn are usually on top of mountains. That is great during summer, but in adverse weather, such as this past weekend, where the winds were extremely strong, setting up in such a location is far from ideal. This is the shelter I encountered when I got to the top of the mountain; a leanto on a rock outcrop:


I never use the leantos. It never appealed to me, and besides, there are people who rely on them, especially some through-hikers, so I usually go as far away from them as I can under the regulations (usually about 100 yards), and set up my camp. In this instance, that left me exposed to some pretty severe winds.

I haven’t had to fight winds this strong in a long time. They were strong enough that even with my four season tent, it wouldn’t stay up unless I pitched it directly into the wind. Even then, several times during the night I had to get up and put my body against the tent wall to keep it from collapsing when wind directions changed.


After I pitched the tent and secured it, my next challenge was to cook dinner. For this weekend I was testing a small wood burning stove called the Solo Stove. I was asked to test it by the manufacturer, so I’ve been trying to get some use out of it. For all practical purposes, it is a Bush Buddy clone.

The first problem was the wind. It was so strong that cooking in it without a stove specifically designed for the purpose, like an MSR Reactor, would be extremely difficult. The wind just sucks the heat out of the stove. Ordinarily, under such conditions I would just cook inside the tent. Unfortunately you can’t do that with a stove like this one. So, I found a somewhat sheltered spot near some rocks, and gave it a try.


The second problem was that such small wood burning stoves rely on your ability to make a fire, and having the resources to do it. It is relatively easy to do if you were in an area abundant in birch and pine trees. You can easily make a small fire within the stove with such woods. However, where I was there wasn’t a single birch or soft wood in sight. All I had was hickory, oak, and maple. For tinder all I had was grass. Hickory, oak, and maple make great fuel woods because of their extended burn time. However, they are very difficult to light. They require a lot of heat to get going, even when they are processed into small pieces. The usual solution is to build a larger fire set up. You use a good bundle of grass to get the fire going, you surround it with thin pieces of wood, and then larger ones. Ones the grass start burning, the wood around it traps the heat, and eventually the ignites the wood and reaches sustainability. Doing that is a tiny stove however, is extremely difficult. You just can’t place enough tinder (grass) to raise the heat high enough to light the wood you are using.

Long story short, it took me nearly an hour to get the stove working and somewhat warm up some water (the wind wouldn’t allow more than that).

The night was pretty cold. I had with me my three season bag, and I was cold. The wind was relentless all night, and had to get up several times to secure the tent.

In the morning I got up early and headed down the other side of the mountain. It was an easy hike to the cemetery that I was looking for. There were no trails leading to it, but there were some unmarked paths. The cemetery was easy to spot this time of year. It was surrounded by the remnants of a low stone wall.


Some of the grave stones were toppled over. Most of them had the name Bailey on them. That’s why I am referring to it as the Bailey cemetery. This is pretty common in this area. There were many small villages and homesteads, at time composed only of one family.



All of the grave stones were from the 1800s. The one above shows the realities of life back then, marking the grave of two and a half year old child.

On that somber note, I made my way back, going around the mountain, and out of the forest. It was a good weekend to test the gear against some strong winds. Everything worked out well, and it was a lot of fun.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

My Favorite Cold Weather Exploration Books

Winter is just around the corner, and and my mind has been drifting towards undertaking different, foolish, cold weather adventures. When I am in such a mood, I often go back to books on the subject that I find both inspirational as well as educational. There are a few books which chronicle journeys of cold weather exploration, which hold a prominent place on my book shelves. In this post I wanted to share that short list with you in the case you were looking for some reading. The books are listed in no particular order.

Four Against Everest by Woodrow Wilson Sayre, 1964


The first book on the list is Four Against Everest by Woodrow Wilson Sayre. It chronicles the 1962 attempt at a summit of Mt. Everest by a team of four men, Woodrow Wilson Sayre, Norman Hanseng, Roger Hart, and Hans-Peter Duttle. This American-Swiss team of amateurs managed to get to within 3500 ft from the summit before having to turn back. They did it while climbing without Sherpas, without permits, and without oxygen.

The book does an excellent job documenting the attempt, complete with gear lists and food rations data. It is full of useful advise, even though it was written decades ago. Not only does this book foreshadow more modern mountaineering approaches, but that approach of climbing as a self contained unit, without huge expedition and support teams, really strikes a cord with me.

Polar Attack: From Canada to the North Pole, and Back by Richard Weber and Mikhail Malakhov, 1996


Polar Attack follows the accounts of Richard Weber and Mikhail Malakhov, documenting their 1994 failed attempt at an unsupported round trip journey to the north pole and their 1995 successful trip, making them the first people to complete the task.

Even though the chapters of the book alternate as one is written by Weber and the next my Malakhov, which gives it the feel of a compilation of journal entries, it flows very well and presents the material in an educational yet exciting manner. The accounts of both attempts are filled with valuable information that can only be gained under such conditions.

Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, and High by Mark F. Twight and James Martin, 1999


It is hard to imagine that one of the most influential books when it comes to cold weather climbing, and I would say to cold weather expeditions in general, is now over a decade old.

When I first started reading the book, I expected it to be very technical in nature. In many respect it is, doing a fantastic job of describing different systems and techniques. Surprisingly however, the book also contains many personal accounts of different expeditions, which really transform the book from a technical manual into more of an exciting read.

Minus 148 Degrees: The First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley by Art Davidson, 1969


In many ways Minus 148 Degrees reminds me of the book Four Against Everest you see further up the list. The goal of the expedition is just as far fetched, and the team is similarly foolhardy and as a result the achievement inspiring. The book is an account of the first winter ascent of Mt. McKinley (Denali) in 1967. The feat was accomplished by a team of eight men, of which only seven returned. The name of the book stems from the temperature recorded by the team as they were caught by a six day blizzard on their descend from the mountain.

The book is not a technical how-to. If anything, it is the opposite, chronicling different mistakes made by the team. Many would call the expedition reckless, but for some reason I find it very inspirational. I suppose that is because it demonstrates how far a small group with little support can go through determination and grit.

Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, 8th Edition, originally published in 1960


Originally published in 1960, Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills is now in its 8th edition, featuring updated content. The book is a technical manual that covers the basics of mountaineering and cold weather travel. It is the book that just about anyone interest in the subject starts with, and rightfully so. It is well written, contains tons of very useful information, and is easily accessible.

Farthest North Vol I and Vol II by Fridtjof Nansen, 1897


For my last pick, I am going way back, to one of the greatest cold weather explorers in history, Fridtjof Nansen. In particular I would recommend Farthest North, which chronicles in detail the 1893 Fram expedition, which attempted to reach the north pole. The First Crossing of Greenland also by Nansen, describing his crossing of Greenland was a close contender.

The book comes in two volumes. The first volume details Nansen’s preparations for the expedition and the time spent drifting with Fram (the name of the ship). Unlike many of the expeditions featured in the books further up on the list, this is an example of large scale, well funded expedition. Far from being a group of guys who just decided to go on an adventure, this is an expedition for national pride; well funded and well planned. As a result, I personally found the first volume to be rather boring at times. While the journey is brilliant, my interests are not in sailing or expedition logistics.

The second volume focuses on the time spent by Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen attempting to reach the pole by skis. They were forced to turn back, undertaking a year long journey over the polar ice, heading south towards safety. The account, composed of their journal entries is mind blowing. If for no other reason, the book is worth reading so one can get the idea of how amazing these men really were.

The two volumes are in the public domain and can be downloaded for free: Vol I, Vol II. The First Crossing of Greenland is also available for free download here along with other locations online. 

So, these are just some of my favorites. For one reason or another I like reading them. What about you guys? What are some of your favorites?