No other item of backpacking equipment causes more argument than the lightweight stove. Primus partisans, Svea supporters, Optimus addicts and others argue hotly over their quaint, beautiful and often balky potboilers.
Well, the great backpack stove war is over. The winner is a homely two-pound Coleman called the Peak 1. The runner-up is another Coleman, the Sportster, which weighs eight ounces more and heats a little slower but costs about half as much (something over $15 vs. something under $30).
The two stoves have everything except cachet. Coleman products are associated with the car campers, trailer campers and motor-home campers that backpackers despise. Your dedicated backpacker will not ride where she can carry an 80-pound pack. She can be found in remote places, kneeling before a complex and delicate stove as though praying. She is praying - that all the parts are present and that the thing will light and won't explode.
Across the clearing will be a novice who bought a Coleman because he didn't know any better. He pumps it a few strokes, lights it with one match, and in a few minutes offers his mentor a steaming cup of soup. It grows cold while the expert is singeing her eyebrows.
The Colemans will never win the heart of such a one. They cost less than other light gasoline stoves (bottled-gas stoves aren't worth discussing). The Colemans are sturdy and have few parts, which are impossible to lose and easy to replace. They are so simple any fool can follow the directions on the fuel tank. The Peak 1, which holds 12 ounces, will burn for almost two hours at high heat and more than five on simmer. The Sportster uses up its 22 ounces in about three stay awake long enough to find out how long it will simmer.
Which brings up another point about the Colemans: they will simmer. There are stoves that burn about as hot, but they tend to flame out when throttled back even slightly. The Colemans will faithfully maintain gentle heat under a stewpot for hours on end in blowing, freezing rain.
(In case you were wondering, the Coleman Co. has given me nothing but answers to my questions.)
The Colemans weigh a pound or so more than their rivals but that could matter only to purist "pushpackers" of the sort who drill holes in their toothbrush handles, eschew grommets and trim the edges of maps to shave milligrams. The Colemans burns so efficiently that the difference in weight may be more than made up in extra fuel that doesn't have to be carried.
"We have been making lightweight stoves for a long time," Coleman PR man Herb Ebendorf said. "The Sportster is the great grandson, and the Peak 1 the great-great-grandson, of one we developed for the Army in 1942. The idea was that they would be used by alpine troops, and the specifications were really tough. It had to burn any kind of fuel, at temperatures from 60 below to 125, weigh no more than 3 1/2 pounds and be about the size of a milk bottle.
"We told the Quartemaster General it couldn't be done, but then we went to work and surprised ourselves by getting the stove into production within a couple of months. We made over a million of them, and they went ashore with the troops on every beach from Casablanca on."
(One of the early production models, after 38 years in a Washington attic, fired up on the first try and ran like a blowtorch.)
The GI "foxhole stove" used the principle of spraying raw fuel on a hot baffle because the Army wanted one that would burn leaded gasoline. Coleman produced civilian versions from 1946 to the early 1950s and then discarded the raw-gas mechanism - still used by most European stovemakers - because "it's inherently dangerous and so is leaded fuel," Ebendorf said.
Coleman's vaporizer mechanism, used in most of its apploances, works well only with pure petroleum naptha, which used to be available at most has stations. (modern "white" or "unleaded" gasoline is not the same thing). The fuel additives needed by postwar high-compression engines put real white gas off the market and Coleman into the Coleman Fuel business.
Ebendorf, by the way, would like to lay to rest the widespread belief that Coleman Fuel has a limited shelf life. "There's nothing in it to cause sediment or shellac," he said. "Our tests say it's good until it's gone."