SolHuma Vital Stove
Test Series by Sophie Pearson
Initial Report - March 27, 2009
Field Report - June 1, 2009
Long-Term Report - July 27, 2009
Name: Sophie Pearson
Height: 5' 8" (1.71 m)
Weight: 180 lb (82 kg)
Email address: sophiep3 at gmail dot com
Location: Tampa, Florida, USA
I first started backpacking as a teenager in England. I did a
28-day trip in the Arctic, but most of my backpacking experience
has been weekend to 10-day trips, in a range of terrains and climates.
I am a volcanologist so I also do day hikes carrying loaded packs over
intense terrain. Nowadays I am generally in sub-tropical climates. I
am heading increasingly towards ultralight packing, and unless I am
sharing I use a bivy. I try to pack around 20 lb (9 kg) for long
weekend trips but have carried over 50 lb (23 kg).
March 27, 2009
Year of Manufacture: 2009
|Weight||1.5 lb (700 g)||1.6 lb (726 g)|
|Length||8 in (20.4 cm)||8 in (20.3 cm)|
|Width||4.9 in (12.5 cm)||5 in (12.7 cm)|
|Storage height||1.8 in (4.6 cm)||1.9 in (4.8 cm)|
|Utility height||4.9 in (12.5 cm)||4.5 in (11.4 cm)|
|Min. cooking area||2.5 in (6.5 cm)||2.3 in (5.84 cm)|
The weight does not include the battery pack which weighs another 0.15 lb (70 g). The manufacturer's conversions are slightly off - the weight should be 680 g, and the length should be 20.3 cm. Not a big deal though! According to the packaging, the output of the stove is 20,000 BTU/h (6000 W), the heat output is 1200 F (760 C), the maximum load is 50 lb (24 kg) and the power supply is 2 AA batteries.
The SolHuma Vital stove is touted as a stove 'for extreme situations'. Its main advantage is that it burns whatever fuel is put into it, so gas canisters are not needed. A battery operated fan allows the fuel to burn much more efficiently than an open fire. The stove is almost completely made of brushed steel, except the plastic battery pack which is carried separately and plugged in when in use. The stove folds
flat for easy transport.
The stove arrived in a cardboard box with a sleeve around it. The sleeve folds out to show user instructions, warnings, product information and a one year limited warranty. Some of the warnings are general (never put the stove on a flammable surface, keep it away from flammable materials, use outdoors only), while others are specific to the stove (never stop the fan while the stove is still burning as it will cause the
base to overheat, never pour any kind of liquid into the stove).
The stove needs some assembly to make it usable from how it is transported. The instructions on the box explain this pretty clearly. First, the shield that is in the base needs to be removed. Then it is folded out to a square shape. This is slotted onto the base, making sure the shield lines up with the grooves in the base. The arms are rotated into position and the battery pack is plugged in. Voila, it is ready for fuel! To install the batteries a small Phillips head
screwdriver is needed to remove one screw in the corner. The top then slides off and the batteries can be inserted. The top is then slotted back on and the screw replaced.
The stove appears to be very solid and well-made. As it is stainless steel this means that it is fairly heavy, definitely heavier than a normal stove, although I'm not sure how it compares when fuel is taken into account. Although the stove feels very sturdy, the steel appears to be half-finished - in multiple places I can see where it was sanded or cut into shape. It is also the kind of surface that collects fingerprints. These are purely cosmetic issues though.
I like the fact that it folds so compactly, although it is a tight squeeze to fit the shield into the base and requires a bit of wiggling. It also takes a little bit of effort to get the shield to fit onto the base and it may end up gaining a few scratches, but I think I will get the hang of it pretty quickly. I really like the fact that the battery pack comes separately so that there is no danger of accidentally running the fan in my pack. It would be nice if there was a
pouch or something waterproof to carry it in though. The only real potential weakness that I can see at the moment is the shutter, which is much thinner steel and slides out of the base if I tip it ever so slightly. I will definitely keep an eye on that to see if it gets bent out of shape!
I am curious about using this stove. There seem to be a lot of warnings about the stove getting hot to the touch, but I'm not sure if this is because it gets abnormally hot compared to other stoves, or because of out litigation culture. It also warns that the parts in contact with the fire may bend out of shape or change color, although that does not affect their functionality. I am curious about how much they are affected and if they ever get bent to the point where the stove does not fit together as well as it should. I do like that the stove has six feet, hopefully that means that it will be much more stable than other stoves I have used and I will not have to work as hard to find a good surface for it to rest on. We shall see!
As this is touted as a survival stove that can be used in all conditions and down to -50 F (-45 C), I am really curious to see how the battery pack and fan fair. I haven't quite figured out how I will test it at really low temperatures, but I am definitely not convinced that the batteries will work that cold! It seems like the manufacturers are not expecting the batteries to need to be replaced as the screw in the battery pack makes it a fiddly job
that requires a very specific screw-driver. With an advertised 35-40 hours of battery life I guess that it is not likely to run out on one trip, but I will probably carry that screwdriver around with me initially, and will test the battery life thoroughly. I really don't want to end up carrying a stove only to find that it can't be used because the battery is dead and I can't replace it!
As this cannot be used indoors, as a trial run I just installed batteries, assembled the stove and let it run for a minute or so. On setting one the fan makes a gentle humming sound, comparable to when my computer fan kicks in, but faster and steadier. On setting two it sounds more like a very weak hairdryer and I could feel the table it was standing on vibrating. I am definitely looking forward to seeing how much difference the fan makes on the different settings,
how long the battery lasts and how much difference the shutter makes in different positions.
June 1, 2009
|Location||Activity||No. Nights||Total Distance||Min. Temp.||Max. Temp.||Rain?|
|My complex||Midnight picnic with my parents||N/A||N/A||71F/22C||89F/32C||No|
|Homosassa, Florida||Kayaking wedding||2||10 miles/16 km||44F/7C||84F/29C||No|
|Myakka State Park, Florida||Backpacking||1||11 miles/18 km||69F/21C||91F/33C||Yes|
|Suwannee River, Florida||Kayaking||3||63 miles/101 km||69F/21C||80F/27C||Yes|
|Ocoee River, Tennessee||Whitewater rafting/Backpacking||3||23 miles/37 km||51F/11C||78F/26C||No|
This stove generates a lot of interest and there are always people willing to help me cook!
While fitting the shield into the base the leg broke. They sent me a new stove which has not had that problem.
I start with small twigs, or palmetto fronds if the wood is wet, then add bigger bits. Or use firelighter matches!
I have cooked quite a few things with this stove. I can see the flame coming out the side, which helps to judge when to add wood.
Sometimes there is still a pretty good flame after I have finished cooking!
On setting II, the fan can blow quite a lot of ash about. It is worth figuring out which way is downwind!
The fire pits in the backcountry make a great spot for the stove. This was when I just started cooking...
...And this was after I had cooked. The smoke definitely blackens the pan.
This stove is fun! It has proved to be a really good talking point and generated lots of interest, especially among my car camping friends. The advantage of this is that they are willing to help collect firewood! The stove has worked really well and I have not had any issues with functionality. However, the shield continued to be difficult to fit in the bottom, and while pushing it in the leg broke. The stove still seemed stable with the 5 remaining legs, but I emailed the company and they sent me a new one in time for a trip 3 days later. They called me in return for my email, gave me some great tips about use, and told me that they have only had that problem with testers from this site. I think this is more of a shipping issue than anything, and better padding when shipping would help. Possibly the legs are a bit soft too. The replacement stove was (and is) much easier to put the shield in the bottom.
This is definitely the most interesting thing about this stove. I have only used it with wood so far, but will try and use dung and other fuels before the end of the test. It is a lot of fun burning the wood, especially as there are different levels of fire ban and this stove can still be used when campfires cannot. The manufacturer told me that when there is a complete fire ban the stove can use charcoal, although it takes longer to cook things. It is nice to not have to buy fuel or worry about it running out. I travel a lot and this stove can go on a plane while gas cannot. However, it can take a while to collect wood depending on the surroundings. At the end of a long day's hiking I sometimes find that a bit of a pain, and it definitely makes the total cooking time longer. I have been really pleased to find that once the fire is lit it takes the same, or even less, time to boil water than a commercial gas or homemade alcohol burning stove.
The stove works with wet wood, although it takes longer and the wood steams a lot before it gets hot. After big thunderstorms I found that I needed to burn palmetto fronds to get the fire going with wet wood. I then bought firelighter matches and have not had a problem with any fuel - the matches stay lit for quite a few minutes, by which time at least a few of the smaller twigs are lit. I do find it a bit tricky to judge how much wood to burn. I am sure that with experience I will get better at this but so far I have had so many different weather conditions, types of wood, and different cooking lengths (as well as water I have cooked burgers, eggs, hash browns and bacon on this stove) so haven't had time to really get a good handle on it.
Sometimes the water boils so fast that there is still loads of wood left. Other times the fire has been almost out when I have noticed, although the extra wood relights really well. I can see the flames coming out around the pan and through the sides, but when it gets lower it is trickier to tell if it needs restocking. As I have to lift the pan off to restoke the fire I try to minimize it, and haven't found that it needs unreasonable amounts of restoking.
It doesn't really need much fuel, just over a handful for a cupful of water, with maybe two larger pieces and the rest more like kindling. If any of the wood is too long it can stick out and tilt the pan which I have had to be a bit careful with. I have been careful to make sure that the fan continues working until the flame is totally out, and then I leave the stove to cool before throwing out the wood (generally in a fire pit, of which there are an abundance in Florida). This could be an issue if I was in a hurry, but so far I have been able to time it OK. On one occasion I had to be antisocial and cook outside while my friends used their gas-burning stoves inside a wooden pavilion, but I am not convinced they were supposed to be using theirs inside anyway!
The fan is what really makes the difference with this stove. A few times I have wondered why it was burning so sluggishly then realized that the shutter was not open so the fan was not doing anything! The stove still boiled water pretty well, but it took almost an hour to cook a burger compared to just over 5 minutes with the fan on! I have found that it works the best to start it with the fan on setting I, and then turn it up to II if need be to speed it up later. The II setting can blow out the fire at the beginning, and can also blow quite a lot of ash around so I often leave it on I. It definitely speeds it up on II though. I haven't really noticed any difference from pulling the shutter in or out, unless it is pushed all the way in and stops air flow. I do find it difficult to remember to open the shutter, but that is not the stove's fault!.
The battery pack for the fan is still going strong after 20+ hours. When I was cooking burgers it got quite a lot of ash and grease on it but it didn't seem to do it any harm. I found it worth figuring out which way was downwind though, for the battery pack and me! A couple of times I have turned the fan on and nothing has happened, but it turned out it wasn't plugged in. That is a nice feature as it means it won't accidentally turn on and run down the battery and/or blow things around in my bag. I wish there was a good place to store the battery pack with the stove though to make it harder to forget. The manufacturer told me that you don't need the battery pack - you can actually use just the shield without the base. The hole in the bottom means that air can get in to circulate. I haven't tried this yet, but I will do before the long-term report. I guess that means that if weight is really important and time to cook isn't, I could just use the shield and not even take the base.
This stove is definitely not for very fastidious people (but then nor is the backcountry really)! The bottom of the pan gets very black from the soot. After 2 days it is still fairly easy to clean, but now that I have used it quite a lot the pan has some blackness that won't come off. When I touched the bottom of the pan my hands got really sooty. After using it for a few days the black becomes so ingrained that it doesn't come off on my hands, but cleaning the pan is an even bigger pain! The shield and top of the base come off to make them easier to clean, which is nice. When I am hiking it is much easier to store the stove with the shield in the bottom but this generally gets me pretty dirty. I don't really worry about it, but am glad for black hiking pants to wipe my hands on! I think it would be nice if the stove came in something other than cardboard to carry it in, with a way to store the battery pack with it but separately. I have been using the cardboard box because a plastic bag is not strong enough and gets holes in it, and I don't want to get everything dirty. This adds to the not-inconsiderable weight though, and makes it slightly bigger to pack. It does leave space for matches, but I think some kind of reinforced bag would be nice. Especially if it was washable so I could wipe my hands on the inside too and not get my other things dirty!
I have found this to be a really fun stove to use. Collecting wood can take some effort depending on the surroundings, and the stove is a bit on the heavy side, but it works really well and I love the fact I don't have to buy fuel or worry about it running out. I really have faith that this stove will work under any condition, albeit maybe not always in the fastest way. This makes it great for extreme situations, just as the manufacturer claims!
July 27, 2009
I have used the stove on three more overnight trips in west central Florida. Temperatures have ranged between 50 and 95 F (10 and 35 C), with heavy rain before the trips but glorious sunshine during them. Apparently I'm lucky!
Since the issue with the foot in the field report, the replacement stove has lasted very well. I have not been gentle with it at all, but other than discoloration from the flames, it is not showing signs of wear. The heat has not caused it to change shape either, which I am grateful for! I continued to carry it in the cardboard box to protect my things from it, and that served really well. I also carried it in a plastic bag but the feet made holes in the bag. It was always carried wrapped tightly enough that the shutter could not slide out in transit, something that I still worry could be a potential point of weakness. It has survived this long though!
The battery pack has suffered a bit more from use. It was always on the small side so does not close without the screw in place. With normal AA batteries the sides of the pack do not meet. It doesn't affect functionality, but it seems like it would be a fairly simple thing to make the battery pack marginally deeper. The screw also got very rusty from a submersion in water, but the inside did not appear to be affected, and once the screw was cleaned off it was fine. Thank goodness!
(Left) The screw got rusty from getting wet, but there was no lasting damage to any of the stove. (Right) The battery pack is slightly too small for the AA batteries, and really requires the tiny screw to stay closed.
The stove has now been used for well upwards of 30 hours. The fan still functions and is clearly stronger on one setting than the other, but on either setting it is not as strong as it initially was. It is still fully functional and the fan makes a significant difference, but the battery is definitely starting to wear down. I always left the battery in the pack, but not attached to the stove so it may possibly be that it has worn down a bit in storage, but I wouldn't have thought it was likely. It is still going though, so I think it is within the range of the listed battery life. It is also nice to know that it gradually gets weaker rather than the battery dying, so there is some warning before it stops functioning.
One of the big things I became aware of during the last phase of testing is the weather susceptibility. Wet fuel continued to work after it had smoked itself dry, but wind became an issue. On one of the trips we were at an exposed campsite and it was extremely windy. Although the shield does protect from the elements, it has holes in it to encourage circulation. I found that the wind whipped through the holes and made it impossible to light the stove without fire-starter matches. I know how to make a fire but generally find that someone else is keener than me, so I don't know all the tips and tricks but it was definitely a lot harder with a strong wind. Once it was lit it was fine until the fuel was running low, when it blew out. Therefore it really needs some form of shelter from strong wind, or at least more careful tending. Although we were fortunate enough to not camp during a rain storm, the stove did get soaked when it fell in some water in a leaky drybag. The cardboard I was carrying it in is now misshapen, but once the stove dried out it worked just fine. Because the stove has a motor inside I would not use it in the rain, but apparently it can get wet so long as it gets the chance to dry out before use.
I did not get the chance to try the stove with dung during my testing, but I used a wide variety of wood types. They behave exactly as I would expect - leaves, paper and palmetto fronds burn very fast and hot, other types of wood take longer to heat up but last longer. I still really feel like I can trust the stove to work, but I realized that the effort-to-output ratio is a lot higher than for a fuel stove. For example, in the morning I would not bother with oatmeal or tea because collecting the wood, starting the fire, boiling the water, letting it all cool and then getting dirty putting it away was just not worth the effort. For dinner, where there is more time and a meal is more of a feature, it was fine though. The stove continued to get a lot of attention, but by the time I had got the wood and got the fire started someone would often offer that I could use their stove because they had finished cooking. For a more pyrotechnically-inclined person than me, and in an area that has more wood than sandy Florida, I am sure that would not be the case, but for me it was sometimes a bit frustrating. I never had a problem finding wood though and getting the fire started eventually, which I was pleasantly surprised by!
Being a geeky scientist, I had to do a bit of testing of the different settings. I put 6.5 fl oz (200 ml or just over 3/4 cup) cold water in a small saucepan and then tried each of the different settings in turn. I kept it lit so it might take marginally longer normally when everything is cold, but there was no difference in time between the first time and when I did it again not from cold. I got it to a full rolling boil (see picture), mainly because then I could hear it so didn't need to remove the lid. It was pretty much perfect weather - hot (96 F/ 36 C) and humid, but with enough of a breeze to fan the flames without putting them out. Results are below:
Each time I got the water to a rolling boil as above left. Above right, the stove can be used without the base so essentially without the fan. It worked surprisingly well.
The last two I was particularly interested in - the manufacturer told me that even with a full fire ban you are allowed to use this stove with charcoal, although it takes longer. It did take longer, but there were no embers blowing around even on the fastest fan setting, and the charcoal lasted ages. It was on setting I for the first two minutes, but I got tired of that so put it up to II.
|Fan setting||Shutter Position||Lid||Fuel||Time (mins:secs)|
The last test was without the base at all. Because it gets too hot the instructions say not to use the stove with the fan off, but the manufacturer told me about using it without the base if the batteries run out or whatever. I was surprised how well it worked - the holes allowed a really good breeze through it and it was comparable to with no base. However, with no wind I think it would be hard to get a reliable flame, and with a really strong wind the bottom is more exposed so it would blow the ash around and possibly blow it out.
The other results are all predictable, but it appears that the different settings don't make too much difference. I personally prefer setting I because the ash and embers get blown around a lot on setting II, but it does take longer than setting II.
This is a really fun stove, that has proved to be extremely reliable. Its stability and use of wood mean that it really would be good for long trips in uncertain terrain, but for overnight trips its relatively heavy weight and the amount of effort involved in collecting wood and not getting everything covered in soot after cooking mean that it is less appealing. I will continue to use it for car camping trips (especially when there are lots of people around as it is a great talking point!), and possibly overnight kayaking trips, but I doubt that I will take it on short backpacking trips. For longer trips, where calculating the amount of fuel becomes tricky and the fuel weight starts to add up, or ones involving flights, where fuel becomes an issue, it will also accompany me. Overall I have really enjoyed using this stove and have been pleasantly surprised by how well it works, but I think that its survival description is a good one and it is more designed for hard-core adventurers than wilderness wanderers like I normally am!
Well-designed with features like the fan only working when it is plugged in, and folding flat for carrying
Surprisingly easy to find fuel
Only takes a handful of fuel to boil a cup of water
Can still use it with a low-level fire ban, and with charcoal with a complete fire ban
Can control the heat source fairly well between the shutter and the fan speed
Great customer service
Takes AA batteries, which I generally have spares of
On the heavy side
Things get very sooty
Hard to find a good container to carry it in
On the fastest setting it blows ash and grease around
Depending on fuel availability, weather conditions and expertise of user, it can be quite an effort to use
Some embers can escape so it needs careful tending
Needs a specific screwdriver to change the battery
This concludes my report. Many thanks to SolHuma and to BackpackGearTest.org for the fun opportunity to test the SolHuma Vital Stove!
Read more reviews of SolHuma gear
Read more gear reviews by Sophie Pearson