Gear Review: Using Camp Stoves on Polar Expeditions

Antarctic Arctic Reviews
Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Early one spring in Resolute, the gateway to High Arctic adventure in Canada, two Swedes in their fifties checked into the little hotel where I was staying. They planned to haul their sleds for hundreds of kilometres, but first they went out on a shakedown trip near town. A local outfitter rented them some gear, including a little one-burner Coleman stove. They returned two days later, looking ghastly. “The stove didn’t work,” they complained.

“Did you prime it?” the outfitter asked.

The two men looked at each other. “What’s that?”

Scandinavians are usually competent, but these two were outliers. The outfitter explained that in the cold, you have to pre-warm a stove’s generator, either with a little gasoline or with priming paste, so that the fuel can vaporize. Sheepishly, they headed out for a second test.

They returned to the hotel the following day. “It still didn’t work!” they said. “We couldn’t even build up any pressure.”

The outfitter fired up the stove, which seemed to be working fine. “Did you cover the little hole at the top of the pump with your thumb while pumping?” he asked eventually.

The pair looked at each other. Then they packed and flew home.

A camp stove is a key item of gear on polar expeditions. Never mind warming food: It’s vital to melt drinking water. You just can’t drink enough snow to slake thirst. Given the stove’s importance, it helps to know its idiosyncracies before heading off for a month or two, especially in arctic cold, where gear can become cranky.

-54C: hard on both people and gear. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Some points to consider about using a camp stove at low temperatures:

Most polar expeditioners today use time-tested MSR stoves, either the XGK-Ex or the WhisperLite. Neither of these have those sneaky little holes in the top of the pump, like the one that flummoxed the two Swedes. Cold-weather stoves use white gas, sometimes called naptha, a particularly clean type of gasoline. The XGK (and one model of WhisperLite) can also burn other fuels, if you happen to be in a part of the world, like Russia, where white gas is not readily available.

The XGK’s main drawback is its lack of adjustability. Unless you pump constantly, it has two settings: off and full blast. It is mainly used for melting water and bringing it to a boil for freeze-dried dinners, cups of tea, etc. Some don’t like the model because it’s very noisy. The Whisperlite is not as hot as the XGK, so it doesn’t melt snow or ice as quickly, but it’s a little more adjustable.

MSR stoves come with a separate pump that screws into a fuel bottle (which you supply). A metal hose on the stove inserts into a hole near the head of the pump. A wire bail holds the assembly securely. These pumps can malfunction in severe cold, causing liquid fuel to leak from the joint between the stove and the pump! It’s easy for this fuel to catch fire. (Turn the stove off, then throw snow on the flame to douse it.)

The problem is that an O-ring in the pump can stiffen in the cold and not seal properly. Some O-rings seem able to handle -40. (I bring three pumps on every expedition, because one always works without leaking.) Other gaskets are horrible: In the early 2000s, MSR changed its O-ring supplier, and the new O-rings leaked in the cold. They’re better now. But more importantly, MSR now offers a $50 arctic pump with a special cold-resistant O-ring. If you don’t want to gamble, it’s the one to bring on a frigid trip.

MSR’s Arctic Fuel Pump

Those who have never spent weeks on the land wonder how much fuel to carry on their first cold-weather expedition. It’s simple arithmetic: .18 to .25 litres/person-day. .18 is very spartan; .25 is luxurious and adds margin for accidents, such as if you spill a fuel bottle or if, perish the thought, the screw top of a bottle has not been tightened properly, and fuel leaks in the sled as it bounces over sastrugi.

For this reason, it’s important to keep fuel as far from food as possible in the sled. Gasoline-contaminated food cannot be eaten, even if you are starving. I had this happen once with (luckily) just a single bag of sandwiches. Long after the fuel had evaporated, the taint was just too much for even one experimental bite.

The .25-litre daily fuel budget is also advisable when you or one of your partners sweats a lot and needs more rehydration. I’ve traveled with guys who had to drink as much as 1.5 litres a day more than I did.

Stove board. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Although more a general winter camping accessory than something specifically designed for the polar regions, a stove board stabilizes the unit and keeps it from constantly listing over as heat melts the snow platform on which the stove rests. Many a tipped pot of water can be attributed to the lack of a stove board. These bases are available commercially, and MSR even makes one. Unfortunately, the metal base still absorbs heat and causes melting underneath. I prefer a thin piece of plywood with a length of rubber tubing staplegunned to it to hold the fuel bottle.

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Finally, while this can’t be recommended, many experienced arctic travelers do risk bringing the stove inside the tent. During cooking, it warms up a tent from -40 to about a cozy -15C. However, one flare-up or leaky O-ring, and your tent can disappear spectacularly in seconds, forcing you to build igloos or quincees every day for next four weeks. I always start the stove in the vestibule and leave it there for several minutes until the flame stabilizes. Then, carrying it on the stove board, I place it on a banker’s box, which holds part of my food and serves as a table. I put the frozen nosepiece of my wind mask on the table, where the heat dries it.

It’s important to take a pot of water off the stove before it reaches a rolling boil, when great clouds of steam fill the tent, coating the roof with several snowballs worth of frost. Worst of all, the moisture freezes the tent pole sections together. The following morning, you must warm the metal joints with bare fingers to disengage the sections and fold up the pole. At -40, this feels like holding a lighted match to your fingertips.

If you’re extremely anal, as every cold-weather traveler should be, and constantly watch the stove like a hawk, you may just get away with this dangerous practice. But even with care and experience, I’ve had to throw the stove outside a few times when a leaky O-ring caused the stove board to catch fire.

I didn’t cook inside for years, and when a partner showed me how cozy it could be, I was initially concerned less about the tent going up in flames — I’m pretty careful — than about carbon monoxide. But tents breathe well, and I leave the inner door about one-third open and a small air hole in the vestibule as well. I’ve never noticed any deleterious effects, including in athletic performance, although the sticky carbon monoxide molecules adhere to your blood cells for hours and decrease your circulation system’s ability to transport oxygen.

Note, however, that cooking in igloos or other snow shelters — though the Inuit have done it for centuries — is highly dangerous, and the air hole in the roof must be checked constantly for drifting snow. Several people I know have had near-fatal encounters with carbon monoxide in igloos: legs crumbling beneath them when they try to stand up, desperately punching an air hole in the igloo wall before they lose consciousness, knowing that their life is at stake, because their partners have already blacked out.

About the Author

Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko is the editor of ExplorersWeb. Canada's premier arctic traveler, he is the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden, and is currently working on a book about adventures in Labrador. In 2018, he was awarded the Polar Medal by the Governor General of Canada.

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Thanks for this. While I’m not planning a North Pole expedition, I am planning on spending some multi day to multi week periods in cold weather using the cold weather camping style. I have minimal sub zero experience so it’s good to learn the easy way rather than the hard, possibly life threatening, way.