Ring of Fire
Keeping it Simple With the Trangia Spirit Burner
By Tamia Nelson
November 9, 2010
I've owned and used a lot of camping stoves, from the Optimus 111b to an early Peak 1 to the Svea 123. The 111b never let me down, and its blowtorch‑like burner could transform a small snowbank into a large pot of boiling water in minutes, no matter how bone‑chillingly foul the weather. But it was also very big and very, very heavy, so when the Coleman Peak 1 first appeared on the market, I traded in my 111b. That was a big mistake. While the Peak 1 broadened my culinary horizons — it simmered like no other camping stove I'd ever used — it also erupted in a ball of fire from time to time, for no discernible reason. When a second Peak 1 exhibited the same volcanic tendencies, I followed Farwell's lead and cast in my lot with the diminutive Svea 123. Small and light, this little jewel was my constant backcountry companion for nearly three decades, even if it didn't simmer worth a damn.
Lately, however, I've been rethinking my options, in line with a growing fondness for minimalist cooking. It's not supposed to be kosher to KISS and tell, but I don't think I'm betraying a confidence if I let on that — as I lean more and more toward amphibious explorations and weekend adventures — my backcountry menus are becoming simpler. So I started looking for a simpler stove. And I found one: the Trangia spirit burner.
There's nothing wonkish about the Trangia burner. It's about as uncomplicated as a stove can get. No pump. No pressure tank. No hose. No generator. No valve. Just a brass cup, a screw cap, and a slightly Rube Goldberg add‑on that Trangia calls a "simmer ring." The burner is light, too. And fuel can be had in almost any Ser‑Sta‑Gro or country hardware outlet, in manageable quantities. Does this sound too good to be true? It's not. So let's take…
A Closer Look
The Trangia is so elemental that handy folks make similar burners out of bits cut from soda and beer cans. These DIY versions, although wonderfully light, aren't in quite the same league as the Trangia. The flimsy beer‑can aluminum is easily bent out of shape, for one thing. But the fact that anyone can build a serviceable knockoff on his kitchen table is still a testament to the Trangia's simplicity. Me? I prefer the real McCoy, and here's a brand new burner in all its glory:
I told you it was simple, didn't I? And getting it ready to cook a meal involves no more than decanting a few ounces of fuel alcohol (known as "methylated spirit" in countries that take the trouble to demand strict labeling) into the central well. After that, you just protect the burner from the wind, strike a match, and light up. That's it. You're good to go. In temperate climes, the burner will already be operating at maximum efficiency by the time you put the pot on, with flames jetting out of the ring of pinhole ports.
Now here's a close‑up of the gasketed screw cap and the simmer ring:
And here's the gasket itself, a neoprene O‑ring:
This gasket allows you to transport the stove fully fueled — perfect for one‑day outings — or carry unburned fuel over from one meal to the next. But be warned: neoprene will melt. So be sure to let your stove cool before screwing on the cap. (Belt‑and‑suspenders types carry an extra gasket or two, just in case.) The "simmer ring" is simply placed over an open burner. It has a pivoting shutter that allows you to modulate heat output, and it works as advertised, though it takes a little practice to get the opening just right. When fully closed, the simmer ring also serves as a snuffer, killing the flame after you've finished cooking. Resist the temptation to use the screw cap for snuffing — the gasket, remember?
By the way, that inscription you see on the simmer ring's shutter, "ACHTUNG HEIß," can be translated as "Warning! Hot!" Which leaves an important question unanswered: Just how do you get the ring on and off the burner without adding toasted fingers to your menu? Well, it's surprisingly easy to drop the ring in place, even when the burner is blazing away, though practice makes perfect. (Paddlers whose reflexes are a little sub‑par, or whose eye‑hand coordination is a bit uncertain, might want to wear fire‑resistant leather gloves.) You can also use a pot‑gripper. In fact, if you need to remove the simmer ring while the stove is still burning, you'll have no choice but to reach for that pot‑gripper. Not even Billy Whizz could do this bare‑handed.
The Trangia burner isn't bulky. You could probably carry it in your shirt pocket, if you wanted to. But that's a bit misleading. You'll also need a windscreen of some sort, as well as a pot‑support. Trangia isn't the only source for these. The popularity of their spirit burner has spawned a windscreen arms race. But you're on your own here. My experience to date is limited to only two cookers ("cooker" is a handy portmanteau label for the combination of burner plus windscreen plus pots and pans), one marketed by Trangia and the other a superannuated model of a type once sold by Optimus. The first of these is the Mini Trangia, a featherweight package that's advertised as being "specially produced for the multi‑sport competitor." And while I can't speak to its virtues in competition — my backcountry treks are determinedly non‑competitive — the Mini is ideal for any solo paddler, hiker, or cyclist who's just out for the day (or who has a suitably spartan menu).
The banana in the photo above provides scale. As you can see, the Mini is well‑named. It combines a rudimentary pot‑stand, a tiny non‑stick frypan (it's just about big enough to fry a single egg), and a 0.8‑liter aluminum pot, not to mention a spindly but functional pot‑gripper — and, of course, a Trangia spirit burner. A heavy plastic guard protects the surface of the frypan from damage in transit, but you'll probably want to put the burner in a plastic bag as well, particularly if you carry it full, or part‑full. (Alcohol vapors will corrode aluminum.) Better yet, carry the stove separately. In any case, the entire package — pot‑support, frypan, pot, pot‑gripper, and burner — weighs less than a pound without fuel. It's hard to find a lighter, more compact cooker.
But the Mini does have one…no, two…shortcomings. First and most obvious, it's definitely a solo cooker. Period. If you're traveling with a companion (or if your culinary ambitions rise above the simplest heat‑and‑serve meals), you'll need a bigger pot and pan, and probably more, besides. Second, the Mini's pot‑support is pretty near useless as a windscreen. You could simply position a pack to break the force of the wind, I suppose, but I prefer a homemade bicycle‑spoke‑and‑fabric screen that Farwell put together twenty‑odd years ago. It weighs only a couple of ounces and it takes up no room to speak of.
And what if there are more than one of you? Well, Trangia sells a wide range of cookers suited to parties of two to four paddlers. These aren't cheap, however. Of course, other manufacturers have also entered (and left) the market over the years. One of these was Optimus:
This is a civilian version of the Jägerkök, an arctic cooker "issued to Swedish Army Rangers working in the far [N]orth." Farwell picked one up, used it a couple of times and then packed it away, where it gathered dust for more than 30 years. Somewhere along the line, the burner (not a Trangia) went AWOL, but the two‑piece windscreen‑cum‑pot‑support, the pot‑grip, and the nesting pots stayed together, along with the encircling webbing strap. The pots' blackened bottoms (visible in the lower left photo above) illustrated one of the hallmarks of alcohol burners: they tend to leave a sooty deposit behind. I don't worry about this, but if you do, I'm told that adding a small amount of water (!) to your fuel — around 10 percent by volume — will reduce the amount of soot, or even eliminate it altogether. I'm afraid I can't say if this is true, but if the idea appeals to you, I'd suggest experimenting at home rather than in camp.
As I mentioned in the last paragraph, the Optimus cooker's original burner went AWOL. But when the Mini came along, I figured I'd try using the Trangia burner in the Jägerkök, to see if it was up to the job of cooking for two. There was one problem, though: The Optimus burner was slightly larger than the Trangia. And the solution? Bicycle spokes. Again. Farwell cut three old spokes to length, bent short hooks in the ends, and the job was done. The Jägerkök was now Trangia‑friendly…
As this view from below attests:
Now, while we're on the subject of bottom lines, what's mine? Will the Trangia spirit burner supplant the faithful — if somewhat fussy — Svea 123 in my affections? I think it will. The Trangia seems ideally suited to KISS cookery, at least for small groups of paddlers. (Large groups could use two Trangia cookers, of course.) Still, it has its share of quirks, some of which bear mentioning. So here are a few…
First things first. Cooking over an open flame can be hazardous to your health, not to mention your hair and clothing. The simmer‑ring's warning (ACHTUNG HEIß) is always worth heeding. It also pays to remember that…
- Alcohol flames are all but invisible in daylight
- Neoprene O‑rings will melt
- Refueling a hot burner is a quick way to earn a long stay in a burn ward
- Fuel alcohol ("methylated spirit") is poisonous; it should be stored in clearly marked and tightly sealed containers
- All burners generate toxic gases in operation, so don't cook inside tents or other confined spaces unless you have to — and then only with adequate ventilation
Some of these points would benefit from a little elaboration, I think, beginning with the visibility (or lack thereof) of alcohol flames. A case in point:
OK. Fooled you, didn't I? It's obvious that I haven't lit the burner yet. Right? WRONG! Take another look after I turn out the lights:
Those flames rise a good eight inches above the burner. What you don't see can hurt you. 'Nuff said, I'm sure.
But if a spirit burner sometimes burns too hot — especially when you get too close to the invisible flame — what about the other side of the coin? What do you do when the flame gutters out in the middle of cooking a meal? It does happen. Unless you throttle it down with the simmer ring, a fully charged burner holds just enough fuel for 20‑30 minutes, and you can't top up a hot burner. The only solution? Patient waiting. When the burner is cool enough for you to pick it up in your bare hand, it's cool enough to refill. (Inconvenient? You bet. But a lot less trouble than a trip to the ER.) To avoid untimely interruptions in future, either adjust your menu to permit shorter cooking times or carry a second burner.
That said, for all of its idiosyncrasies — sooty pots, invisible flames, relatively low heat output — alcohol has at least one clear advantage: it can be transported in many plastic containers. (Do NOT use an uncoated aluminum fuel bottle.) To be on the safe side, however, test your choice of container to make sure it doesn't leak, and mark it clearly. Methylated spirit is poisonous, and the higher the methyl‑alcohol content, the more poisonous it is. The stuff commonly sold in the States — usually, but not invariably, labeled "denatured alcohol" — can contain as little as 3.6 percent methanol by weight (Sunnyside Denatured Alcohol) or as much as 99 percent (HEET Gas‑Line Antifreeze). And you probably won't find this information on the container. You'll need to look at the Material Safety Data Sheet. Other countries have more stringent labeling laws, I'm happy to say — and more informative labels.
So much for technical matters. Now let's talk cooking. The Trangia spirit burner is simple and reliable, with no moving parts to break and no needle valves to soot up. So far, so good. But can you adapt your paddling menu to its limitations? In a word, yes. I've cooked meals from stew and dumplings to pasta on a Trangia burner, all without difficulty — and without having to use the simmer ring. Here's just one example: Pasta with packaged sauce mix, followed by tea. I was cooking for two, so I used the Optimus Jägerkök instead of the Mini. The good news? I only needed one fill for everything — about three fluid ounces, or enough alcohol to fill the central well of the burner two‑thirds full. As with any cooking, advance preparation is key to making the most efficient use of fuel. So I made sure that both pots were filled with water, the ingredients were close at hand, and all utensils were nearby. Then it was ready, steady, cook! Or, if you'd rather do it by the numbers…
- Light burner
- Place pot of water on burner; cover
- Mix sauce packet with clean water in large steel cup
- Once water in cooker reaches a rolling boil, put angel hair pasta in pot, stirring occasionally till done
- Lift pot of cooked pasta off burner
- Place second pot of water on burner; cover
- Drain cooking water from pasta, add prepared sauce, and stir
- Serve pasta
- When second pot boils, remove from burner, add tea, and replace cover
- Snuff out burner with closed simmer ring
- Let tea steep for five minutes; pour
Simple and good, eh? A hot meal for two in a quarter of an hour, prepared and served on a rock outcrop overlooking a falls. And there was still enough fuel left in the burner to bring half a pot of water to a boil for scrubbing the dirty dishes. That's the spirit, Trangia!
Choosing a stove can be a daunting task. High output, ease of operation, reliability, light weight, low cost — each of these is important. But you can't have all of them at once. So it's not easy to strike the right balance. I think I've found the sweet spot at last, however: the Trangia spirit burner. It's about as simple as a stove can get, and while it probably won't appeal to ambitious backcountry chefs or meet the needs of very large parties, it certainly does the job for everyday cooks like me. That's all I ask. And the Trangia's ring of fire delivers.
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