Thursday, July 26, 2012

Palette's Product Reviews: I'm a Firestarter

Now that I am actual honest-to-Eris product reviewer, I figured I would push my luck try my hand at reviewing other things by bald-facedly asking people to give me stuff requesting products for test & evaluation from manufacturers. Since I am a fan of preparedness and survival, and I also enjoy setting things on fire, I decided to test some camping stoves. They are as follows:
Kind of cute how three out of the four have alliterative names, isn't it? Very superheroic of them.

Before I begin the reviews, A Necessary Disclaimer:
I am not very good at starting fires. This makes me exactly the right person to review these stoves. A trained survivalist can make a stove out of a cow pattie, a hole in the ground, and a mirror. I, however, am an average schlub, just like most of the people who will be using these stoves. If they'll work for me, they will certainly work for you. 

These were the tests I performed on the stoves:
  1. How easy they were to light and keep fed, using identical natural materials. 
  2. How quickly they could bring 16 ounces of water to boil in a steel mug. 
  3. How quickly they could bring 24 ounces of water to boil in an uncovered aluminum pot.
  4. How quickly they could cook a single egg on an aluminum skillet. 

All tests were performed on my back porch where wind would not be a factor. I used natural fuels, but since this was not a referendum on my fire-making skills, I used a lighter to start them. All water would be poured out and the containers allowed to cool between use.

Now that the formalities are taken care of, let's begin.

1) The Vargo Hex Stove ($39.95)

I bought this stove with my own money sometime after Christmas and never got around to testing it until now. It's lightweight, it folds nearly flat in a very clever manner, and -- dare I say -- it's cute. It assembled easily and I had plenty of room to put in my tinder and kindling. It doesn't have much ground clearance, though, and that will be a factor later on.

Test 1
This is not an easy stove to keep lit. I don't know if it was inexperience on my part, or poor ventilation on my porch, or if I wasn't feeding it fast enough or what, but the fire just kept going out. I eventually got it going by dumping nearly all of my tinder on it and then blowing through the little door until I was blue in the face. Feeding it was a nearly constant activity -- if I left it alone for 5 minutes it would threaten to die.

This is most emphatically not a set-and-forget stove; it needs constant babysitting, more fuel than you think you will need, and a continuous supply of air. It's also exceptionally easy to smother, and if you're feeding it through the front door then ash will tend to build up near the entry. You'll need to clear this out regularly, because there isn't much surface area inside and you need every bit you have in order to keep the fire even.

Test 2
After much effort and cursing, I was able to get the fire mostly stable, and so I added the 16 oz steel mug. Nearly immediately, one of the walls popped out of its hinge. Since the steel stove was too hot for me to attempt any sort of repair, I just shoved a fire stick (see below) underneath it to keep the bottom from collapsing.

Another problem with this design is that even a 16 oz mug completely covers the top. Air can only enter through the triangular cuts at the top, the ventilated bottom (if it isn't buried in ash), and the front door. Again, I had to keep blowing on the fire and feeding it just to keep it from dying and to feed it, I had to either lift the cup (and risk a burn) or feed it through the door -- which meant a constant build-up of ash that needed to be raked out in order to keep the fire burning evenly and efficiently.

It took 21 minutes of solid effort to get the water to boil.

In the spirit of fairness, I provide equal time to a video rebuttal. 

Test 3
Same as above, only worse. The times were fairly consistent, at least: it took 26 minutes to bring 24 ounces of water to boil. It wasn't what you'd call a rolling boil, though; more like a "That's hot enough to kill the bugs and make some soup" boil, because frankly I was exhausted.

Test 4
I'll be honest, I didn't even attempt this. The frying pan was hugely oversize for the tiny opening, and I would have constantly been steadying the handle with one hand while alternating between feeding the fire and keeping the egg from burning with the other -- all while blowing air onto it. I decided I would rather do something fun, like see the dentist, than attempt to cook anything else on this stove ever again.

My rating: C- at best
I imagine you're surprised by that and expected I would fail this product. Well, the fact of the matter is that it's billed as an "ultralight backpacking stove," and it is both very light and has a small enough footprint to make it suitable for such. I was able to cook on it, and it sure beat building a campfire and holding the cup over the flames.

Someone far more experienced at camping and fire-building would probably be able to get this to perform more efficiently than I could, and if I had to use it again I would place its legs on rocks so that there is higher clearance between the ground and the combustion chamber. But unless you're an Eagle Scout, a Special Forces soldier, or a lifelong outdoorsman, I have to recommend against this product.

Not my hand. 

2) The Solo Stove ($69.99 & free S&H)

After the debacle with the Vargo, I went looking for more tinder while the utensils cooled. Did you know that lint from a dryer is perfect for this? It's basically very fine, pre-fluffed and aerated cotton. After I gathered up more fuel and measured out more water for the mug and pot, I was ready for an "easy" button.

The Solo Stove weighs only 10 ounces, which is great because there is no way it can be considered compact. It's approximately the same volume as one of those "feed your whole family" cans of Pork n' Beans or a box of iodized salt. Still, it's an impressive double-wall design and seems quite sturdy despite its light weight, so if necessary you can just throw it in a bag and clip it to the outside of your backpack if it won't fit.

I received this product for half price from the manufacturer. It came with some cosmetic blemishes that I barely noticed (and quickly became irrelevant after use, as the entire product took on a coppery patina.)

Test 1
Holy crap.

I asked for an easy button, and I sure got one. This thing is like a can of sterno, but using natural fuels rather than chemicals. The only trick to it is that you need to get the fire going before you put the cooking ring on it. But once that happens... wow.

It produced a nice even flame, much like that of a bunsen burner, without me having to blow once. It was nearly impossible to smother (I admit I didn't actively try to smother it, but I did get overzealous with the fuel once or twice). And once it really got going, I could hear a low hissing sound as jets of burning oxygen raced into the stove. 

This is perhaps the first idiot-proof stove I have ever seen. It burns amazingly hot in practically no time, puts out hardly any smoke, and eats anything you can stick in it. Wind direction doesn't matter, because the flame is shielded, yet vents around the entire base of the unit feed it constantly. As long as you keep feeding it, I don't see how anything short of kicking it over or dumping water on it could put this beast out.

Test 2
8 minutes to a rolling, roiling, oh my god that will scald boil. And all I had to do was occasionally put some sticks in it. Really, I was feeding it more for the pleasure of watching stuff burn than for any need to keep it going.

Test 3
12 minutes to the same boil, and by this point I was playing a game of "What won't it eat?" I am thrilled to tell you that this beast will burn any damn thing you put inside it: green sticks, damp leaves, squirts of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, even a charcoal briquette. I may have cackled like a lunatic once or twice. If it's at all flammable, the Solo Stove will turn it into fuel.

Test 4
I cracked an egg into the frying pan and set it to cooking. The handle of the pan put it off balance, so I needed to steady it with one hand. This wasn't a problem, as the fire didn't need any help from me, and so my other hand used a spatula to keep the egg from sticking and burning.

It took precisely three minutes to turn a cold raw egg into hot scrambled food.

My Rating: A+
The worst thing I can say about the Solo Stove is that it's larger than I'd like. But it's light enough that its size doesn't really matter, and it's so crazy efficient that I want to take it out into a thunderstorm just to see if it will light. I actually expect that it will.

In fact, it's so efficient that almost all of its heat is directed upwards towards the food. This stove won't keep you warm by itself -- but while it's going, you can build an actual camp fire and light that with the fire from the Solo.

3) The Folding Firebox ($49.99 & free S&H)

This sucker is heavy. Sure, anything would feel heavy when compared to the mostly-made-of-air Solo Stove, but this thing has some serious heft to it. We're talking college textbook weight here. If I dropped this, I fear I might lose a toe.

On the other hand, it's built like a freaking tank. I didn't try it, but I suspect it would support my weight if I stood on it. This is because the firebox isn't exactly square -- it's a very clever polygon with only two parallel sides. This means that, if I am correctly recalling my geometry, that it converts angular shearing force into pressure that makes it stay rigid. And if I'm wrong, it's still amazingly tough.

Also, it folds into a shape not much larger than stenographer's pad, which means it can be packed into a rucksack where its weight can be mitigated.

I received the Firebox for free from the manufacturer and, amazingly, it made it from Utah to Florida in two days. Just to make sure, I bought the accessory pack (and oh, was I glad that I did) and it also reached me in two days. There's a lot to be said for a company that gets your products to you without screwing around with "Expect your package to arrive in 5-7 business days."

Test 1
The Firebox has a nice big opening 5" square. I had plenty of room to set up my fire, but it took me a few tries to get it to light. It wasn't as efficient as the Solo, but once the fire got going it quickly took on a life of its own and started putting out a massive amount of heat. Unlike the Solo, the Firebox most assuredly can be used to warm you up like a campfire, because its large steel walls radiate that heat out like, well, a radiator.

I also have to give the Firebox top marks in versatility. It comes with detailed instructions on how to use it with not just wood and charcoal, but also fuel tabs, alcohol stoves, small flammables like pellets and sawdust. It also comes with two Firesticks, which are basically prongs which can be used to poke the fire, or support a pot, or move the Firebox out of the way. These things were so useful that I wouldn't have been able to operate the Vargo without one.

Test 2
Are you ready to be amazed? The Firebox boiled 16 oz of water in three and a half minutes. I can't claim that it's more efficient than the Solo, because it puts out a lot more smoke and is much hungrier, but you can't dispute that it was faster than its competitor by almost half.

Also, this thing is rock solid. I had no fear of knocking over the stove or the cup that was on it -- probably because I was afraid I would brush up against it and get third degree burns. I am not kidding when I say the Firebox is a portable campfire rather than a stove.

Test 3
Again, no worries about the pot being knocked over, which was a concern of mine with the other stoves. 24 ounces of water took six and a half minutes to come to a roaring boil. I was very, VERY glad to have the Firesticks by this point, because the flames were licking up the sides of the pot and blackening it.

In both tests, this monster ate everything I threw at it and asked for more. I was shoving sticks into its gaping maw and it just laughed and asked for more. It probably would have taken a tree branch if one had been lying about. I'd have been cackling with glee and wantonly burning stuff like I did with the Solo, but between the Florida humidity and the heat it was putting out, I didn't have the energy.

Test 4
Fuhgeddaboutit. Cooked that egg in a flat minute. This was the only stove that completely supported the frying pan without even a hint of wobble. I could probably roast a Cornish game hen over this monster.

My Rating: A+
The Firebox is tough, versatile, and HOT. It's a campfire, it's a cookstove, it packs nearly flat and eats anything. It's built like a tank and in a pinch I think I could use it as a weapon to bludgeon something to death.

It's biggest drawback is that it's heavy, but its versatility overshadows that. This is the Swiss Army Knife of camp stoves, and if I had to pick just one of them, I'd pick this one. Fortunately, I don't have to.

4) The Kelly Kettle Trekker ($59.99)

This is a bit of an oddball in that it's not strictly a stove, although it can be used as such if you buy the cook set that goes with it. Mainly, it's a way to carry and boil water as efficiently as possible. The version I used was the small (16 ounce) version in aluminum. This product also comes in steel, and in medium (44 oz) and large (54 oz) sizes.

I bought this product with my own money.

Test 1
The fire pan is basically a bowl with two holes cut out of it for lighting. It's very simple, but there is no provision for ash, and some people might find it difficult to light the fuel through the little holes. It's much easier to light with the kettle off, but be careful if you do. The way the kettle is shaped, it draws the fire up through its chimney very quickly. Burning yourself with open flame that is roaring out of the top is a very real possibility.

Feeding it is also dead easy -- just drop fuel down the chimney -- but again, be careful not to get burnt. This sounds easier than reality, because smaller fuel often misses the hole and it's human nature to want to bump it into position. Also, be careful not to overfeed it, because when the water gets hot and it's time to remove the kettle, you don't want to have burning branches and hot ash falling on your legs.

That said, it was still easier to run than the Vargo Hex stove. 

Test 2
I didn't need to boil the actual steel cup because, as stated, the kettle holds 16 oz of water in a double-wall design. Once the fire was started, I put the kettle on to boil (and just saying that makes me feel oh so British) and waited.

I confess, it was hard to tell when the water was actually boiling, because there isn't a lot of space between the walls for me to observe the motion of the bubbles, and there isn't a convenient whistle on it like a proper kettle to tell me when it's done.

What I can tell you is that the water was hot to the touch at the 2 minute mark, and by 4-5 minutes it was pinging and shaking and definitely boiling. Taking the average, it's still faster than any of the others.

Test 3
Well, I didn't boil a pot because I had no way to put a pot onto the kettle. However, boiling more water was dead easy: just add more and put it back on the fire. It boiled faster this time, perhaps because the metal was already hot. So making enough hot water for everyone is not a problem.

What is a problem, however, is getting the kettle off the fire without getting burned, and then pouring the water. It's possible -- their video even shows you how -- but it takes a fair amount of practice and no small degree of coordination. Klutzes should stay far, far away from this product.

Test 4
Cooking an egg over the Kelly Kettle, while possible, is problematic at best. While the water is boiling, the fire is very hot but has a small surface area. I had no place to rest the pan, and instead just held it over the open flame. I had to move the pan frequently in order to feed the fire, which also delayed cooking. And finally, the water become hot and started to boil over, so I had to once again set the pan down, take the kettle off, and finish cooking my egg over the now-exposed flame.

All told, it took about 4 minutes, which wasn't bad considering all the juggling I had to do.

My Rating: A+ as a kettle, B overall
For what it is designed to do -- boil water -- the Kelly Kettle is very, very good. I especially like how I can carry it with water inside, like a thermos, and then heat it up when I'm ready. If all you want to do is heat water for beverages or reconstituting meals, this is an A+ piece of kit. 

For cooking, it performs well but not spectacularly. This may sound like a dig at it, but please note that 1) it's a stove in only the barest sense of the word, in that it's a metal thing which holds fire, and 2) it still worked better than the Vargo.

But wait, there's more!  
In addition to setting fires and burning things, I also decided to pull an Xzibit and put some stoves inside other stoves to see how well they performed!

Kelly Kettle & Solo Stove
Sounds like a superhero team, doesn't it?  Well, it should, because these two are an amazing combination. The Solo fits perfectly into the base of the Kelly, almost as if it were designed that way.

16 ounces of water was hot at 1:30, and boiling by 2:30 if not earlier.

If you're going to use the Kelly Kettle, ditch the fire bowl that comes with it and use the Solo instead. They're both lightweight, nest inside each other, and if you're carrying a Kettle then the shape of the Solo obviously doesn't matter to you.  A+ combination

Kelly Kettle and Firebox
Feeding the fire is no longer a burn hazard, which is good, and the Firesticks might prove useful in taking the Kettle off the fire. The drawback to this combination is that now you're dealing with both awkward size (Kettle) and weight (Firebox).

Very obviously boiling at 1:30.

This combination gives you the best time for boiling water, but you've got the previously mentioned drawback of bulk and weight. Still, if you have both -- in a camper, say -- why not use both?  B combination

Firebox and Solo Stove
There's absolutely no reason to try this out other than sheer perversity -- a quality I possess in spades. I was curious to see if the Solo could achieve the same level of efficiency while encased in the steel Firebox.

It couldn't. 16 oz of water took 5 minutes to boil, and the Solo ate way more fuel with obviously reduced heat. Clearly, the walls of the Firebox were depriving it of oxygen.

Really, I did this just to be stupid. But y'know, it still worked better than the Vargo. C+ combination

So which one do I recommend?
Honestly, it depends on what you want it for. There is an awful lot to be said for the nearly idiot-proof Solo Stove, especially if you pair it with the Kelly Kettle. Guaranteed fire, hot water, and a cooking surface for the same volume of a loaf of bread is significant. If you went this route I would not blame you one bit.

The Firebox, however, is just so darn rugged and multi-purpose that I can see it having a place in every camper's rucksack. Much like a good pair of boots, it is heavy but dependable and will work wherever you take it. If you keep it in your car where weight won't be a factor, it becomes perfect.

The Kelly Kettle, in my opinion, suffers in the fire department. The kettle itself is fine and would make a fine partner for either of these stoves.

Don't buy the Vargo unless you are a Green Beret or a masochist. There are other stoves out there which are less expensive but still very light, such as the fuel tab-using Esbit.


  1. Good reviews.  I have/had something alot like the solo in my hiking kit.   Though that had extra fan support. Bugger really worked well

    The kettle is all around handy and quick too. Much of the "second day"  on the hikes I went on were dehydrated. So you just needed hot water for your food and your coffee/tea/hot chocolate.  

    But for anything other than heating water I think the kettle is a reach.

    And Combo powers!  You know you could make a matrix with all the various combinations and then color code each combo for effectiveness.

    The vargo seems to have a major fail in the primary job of holding a mass above a fire.  Sad really.

  2. Thanks for this timely review. I'm setting up a camping kit for my bike. As weight is not a factor, but space is, I will be buying the Firebox. The only problem is that I cannot find any info on the boil plate. Did you find it useful? Or will having the grill plate cover most needs?

  3. I couldn't get the boil plate to work because my cup was too small for the cutout. It sat lopsided and I was worried I'd dump water everywhere. Maybe I was using the plate wrong? Dunno. 

    But the thing is, it didn't matter, because with the fire sticks I was able to set up a VERY stable cooking surface. Remember, the Firebox was able to support a camping mug, a cook pot, and then the Kelly Kettle. It's up to you if you want to bring one along (not like it will add any noticeable weight) but I think you'll be fine without it. 

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on it once you've used it in the field. Would you be interested in writing a guest post?

  4. So what does the Firebox weigh, specificly?

    P.S: Needs more pictures of Firestarter Girl.

  5. The Solo just went in my amazon wishlist.  I've been happy with my msr pocket rocket, but I could really use something that will work with natural fuels.  I want a simple alcohol stove too and the solo comes with one.

  6. Excellent review! More of them, please.

  7. For those on a tight campstove budget (dear Bog, I could eat for months for the prices of those stoves):

    The trick to cooking over cow patties is 1) make sure the dung is completely dry, and 2) only cook stuff in a pan of some sort. You do NOT want to grill steaks directly over the smoldering dung, uless you have exotic preferences in food seasoning. (And yes, I do have a magnifying glass in my camp kit.)

  8. Yeah! You are a reviewer! Great reviews and actually very timely for me!

  9. You're like the third or fourth person to tell me how timely this is. :D

    If you end up buying one of these, let me know which one and how well it worked for you!

  10. I asked the manufacturer (a pleasant fellow named Steve) and he says:

    "The Firebox weighs 2 Pounds even, it seems heavier because It's so
    compact, Like a pound of feathers VS a pound of lead, they weigh the
    same but the feathers seem light and the lead seems heavy."

  11. Ah! I've been using it wrong! I thought the boil plate was supposed to be used INSTEAD OF the firesticks, but it turns out it needs to be IN CONJUNCTION WITH. 

    See for a demonstration. :)

  12. So only semi-heavy. A bit too heavy to lug around when trekking (with that weight I could pack a full trangia kitchen), but when canoing or biking. No problem. Although for survival I think the solo stove would be the better choice. It's size isn't a huge problem since you can stuff side inside it once it's cool.


  13. you can stuff side inside it once it's cool.

    Not really, no. Between the wire mesh covering the ash pan, and the cooking ring that inverts for storage, there isn't much you could fit in it. Perhaps a small container of spices. 

  14.  Thanks for the info about the plate. Just bought one. Unfortunately there was no bird-dog option. Although one minor complaint for others. Their website only seems to allow payment through PayPal, so for those who don't like to use that service...well.

  15. it has been many moons since i went camping but i would buy the stoves you recommend BECAUSE FIRE GIRL!

  16.  A referral bonus. Most car dealerships and TV providers offer them (but rarely let anyone know about the offer), some random companies also have them.

  17. It's fine. The manufacturer has said he'll send me new products for review, so it all works out. :)

  18. Wow.  I seem to have created a monster.  

    All that said, outstanding reviews!  I have a little Coleman gasoline stove that I have never even tested to see if it works right (guess I should), but having two twenty-gallon tanks of fuel sitting in the driveway always gave me a warm-fuzzy.  I was going to get something like the stoves you reviewed (that could eat anything), but then I heard about the BioLite, and now I am saving up pennies... If you could talk one of those out as a T&E, that would be pretty frickin' impressive ;). 

  19. Getting the Solo from Amazon now.  I collect hiking stoves, will be interesting to see how the Solo stacks up against the Svea 123. 

  20. Very nice job!  Now, I want a firebox.  

  21. Someone linked a gun post on G+ and after reading it I explored a bit.

    Nice post here, and useful for me personally. I have a Kelly Kettle and was considering a Solo as well. Good to know they work well together.

  22. I have also reviewed the Solo Pot. Well worth getting.

  23. Nice.

    I was looking at a kit that included the stove, pot, windscreen, and alcohol burner.

    How is the fit with the KK? I have the base camp model, not much difference in carrying as even the little one needs to be lashed on my pack externally, the weight isn't that different as they're both pretty much all air space. The base of the kettle is wider though, not sure how that would fit with the Solo.

  24. The Solo nests inside like it belongs there. I'm not sure how deep it goes... no more than an inch, I imagine. But I have the Trekker, which is smallest; the Base Camp might have a wider base.

    I have the alcohol stove and plan to test it soon.

  25. Excellent review - fairly epic actually.

    I wanted to add two bits of experience as the owner of a few Kelly Kettles over some years.

    1) Always - ~ALWAYS~ - get the Stainless variety. I seriously object to them offering the aluminum variety after watching my own and my friends' AL Kelly Kettles die early (and once dangerous) deaths.

    2) Tactical or workman leather gloves are a good this to keep alongside (or in) the Kelly Kettle. You actually may not use them but it serves as a reminder to anyone else to be a bit ginger in handling.

    Thanks much, Cheers, -Pk

  26. Thanks for the kind words, and welcome to my blog!

    I would very much like to know more about these early deaths of aluminum kettles. Do you have pictures?

    I actually facepalmed at myself when I read this. Yes, OF COURSE leather gloves would be a good thing. Why didn't I think of this? Derrrrrrrp.

  27. I have one old AL set that I could probably replicate the problem with in one try. I might just do that.

    The gist of it is this - the AL ones don't deal with early morning dew and cold nearly as well as the SS. They show visible distress and a crack after a few multiday trips. And then AL corrosion from there.

    One friend - who I openly call an idiot for doing this - did top off a piping hot pair of Kettles with very cold early morning CT water. Mine, which was the AL, convulsed - that's the only way I can describe it - and expanded a bit at the bottom, crack, and hopped right off the flame spilling still boiling water. The other, smaller SS unit, didn't burp.

    I love LOVE my home and camping KKs in stainless though. And I intentionally abused one the first time out just to make sure. Tough as nails. -Pk


The Fine Print

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License

Erin Palette is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to