Friday, September 12, 2014

Palette's Product Reviews: Swiss Army Volcano Stove

Not actually Erin.
Picture by KJ Photography
& is used with permission.
My mother recently bought a Swiss Army Volcano Stove via one of the many prepper-themed mailing lists that exists mainly to exhort folks into buying things. I don't normally condone buying anything from direct-mailers and scaremongers, but since she didn't have any kind of stove or thermos for her bug-out bag, and because she was able to buy this for $20, I didn't have too much of a problem with it.

She asked me to test it for her, and of course I said yes.

As always, the 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.
It is worth noting that my test methodology was slightly different than previous experiments, due to the fact that the Volcano Stove came with its own cup and water bottle. Therefore, kindly note that these are amended, non-standard tests.
  1. How easy the stove was to light and keep fed, using identical natural materials.(This test was unchanged.)
  2. How quickly it could bring 16 ounces of water to boil in a steel mug the aluminum mug that came with the set. 
  3. How quickly it could bring 24 32 ounces of water to boil in an uncovered aluminum pot the uncorked aluminum water bottle that came with the stove. 
  4. How quickly they could cook a single egg on an aluminum skillet.  Not tested as my mother doesn't have any sort of skillet in her bag (I really ought to fix that). For sake of completeness I should have tested this anyway, but as you read the review you'll see why I didn't. 
All tests were performed on my 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.

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

I will state from the beginning that I was predisposed towards liking this stove. It has a nice gadgety feel to it, and anyone who knows me knows that I like gadgets I particularly like how it all folds up into a thermos-sized container 10.5" tall and 3.5" diameter.  Made out of aluminum, it has an empty weight of 13 ounces; if you fill the bottle with water, that weight goes up to 45 ounces (2.8 pounds).

My biggest concern with this stove was that it's made of aluminum, which is not particularly sturdy, and there are some concerns that cooking food in aluminum causes the AL to leach out into the food and contribute to health problems.

Fortunately, my stove did not melt or develop burn-through holes during the course of these tests.

Test 1: Keeping it Lit

As I mentioned earlier, this was not a referendum on my fire-starting skills, so I cheated and used a lighter. Even then, I found it awkward to light the tinder through the 1.5" x 2' opening. I'm not sure how I would have lit it had I needed to use ferro rod, especially given the ratio of small base to height.  

If you do plan to light it with sparks, my suggestion is to place a heavy rock behind it so that, if you bump the stove while trying to light it, you don't knock it over. 

Once I got it started, though, I was surprised at how well the stove kept a fire going. I expected to have problems with it, but all I needed to do was keep feeding sticks through the opening and it burned merrily along. It's a very efficient design that isn't particularly fuel-hungry, and the fuel door is just large enough to make feeding it easy without losing a lot of heat. 

Test 2: The Cup

There is a continuing theme of  "I was afraid it would fall over" throughout all these tests.  As you can see from the picture, the cup is smaller on the bottom than it is on the top, and with the extended handles shifting the center of gravity, it fell over more than a few times when empty.  Fortunately, adding water to it helps stabilize it:  2 ounces turns it into a 50/50 proposition, and 4 ounces weighs it down enough to not tip over unless it's bumped hard.  If it does fall, it will fall in the direction of the handles, so position your cup accordingly. 

The reason for the cup being smaller on the bottom is so that it will fit inside the stove without restricting airflow out of the holes around the upper ring. I found this quite ingenious and most effective:  16 ounces of water began to bubble at 2 minutes 30 seconds, with a light boil occurring at 6:30 and a nice rolling boil at the 8 minute mark. 

The handles were quite warm to the touch afterwards, so I recommend you pack a kevlar glove or two into your bug-out bag.

Test 3: The Bottle

After having a good experience with the cup, I expected similar from the bottle. I was disappointed.

Here's the problem:  the cup has an extra inch of clearance over the fire than the bottle does (there's a little tab on the handle that fits into a slot on the side and provides the bottle a bit of a ledge to rest on), and while the cup is only 2.625 inches across where it meets the fire, the bottle is 3 inches in diameter. These two factors served to choke off the fire when I was attempting to boil the bottle and made the design suddenly inefficient. 

After 8 minutes of struggling to keep the fire going, it eventually went out (due to lack of oxygen) without causing so much as a bubble to rise. 

Not wanting to call it quits just yet, I pulled out my trusty Solo Stove to see if I could get a result from the bottle. Remember how I keep mentioning "Small base, afraid it will fall over?"  That becomes quite relevant here: 
Small Base
What we have with this bottle is a relatively large volume of water for a camp stove to boil, combined with a very small surface area with which to heat it. I'm no engineer, but this strikes me as inefficient. Fortunately, my Solo is quite efficient, and within 4 minutes I started to see some bubbles making their way to the surface.

Afraid It Will Fall Over
At only 3 inches across, the bottle just barely fit on all three prongs of the Solo's cooking ring. Compare this to my stainless steel camp mug, which is 3.5" across and not nearly as tall. Short base, tall cylinder, precariously balanced... you know what's going to happen, right?
At the 9 minute mark, while adding more fuel to the stove, I bumped the bottle just enough to have it fall over -- TOWARDS ME, I might add -- and spill its contents everywhere. It's a good thing it wasn't boiling, or I could have scalded my legs and feet. Fortunately, I escaped with just some reddened skin and a few scrapes from scrambling out of the way. 

I terminated the experiment after this, as I was standing in the bathtub flushing my feet with cold water. (The Solo stove didn't tip over, thankfully, just the bottle.)  

It never even occurred to me to test the other stove again with the egg and frying pan. Given how well the Volcano stove works when the opening isn't restricted, I imagine it will work quite well, but I have no hard numbers for it. 


It's not a bad little system at all, especially if you can get it for $20 like mom did (I see it retailing for between $40 and $50, which is just far too much in my opinion). I like that there's a water bottle built into the system, but I'm worried that the cork stopper wouldn't keep the bottle from leaking all over your pack if you set it down on its side. 

The biggest drawback of this system, of course, is its complete inability to use the bottle for cooking -- your best bet is to use the bottle for water storage only, and any water that needs to be boiled should be done only with the cup. 

Now, that's great if you have a source of clean water nearby -- you can eat or drink straight from the cup. However, if you're having to purify potentially contaminated water, you can't use the cup for dinner without the risk of contamination. If you just want a drink of water, no problem, just drink from the bottle, but heaven help you if you want some hot soup for supper!  If you do, you'd better have a clean cup... in which case you're probably just better off bringing a different stove and a water bottle that you can also boil. 

My Rating: C+ overall

Great stove, good cup, crappy bottle. 

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