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Reviews > Cook Gear > Stoves > Trail Designs Gram Cracker > Test Report by Kerri Larkin

CALDERA GRAM CRACKER ESBIT STOVE
TEST SERIES BY KERRI LARKIN
LONG-TERM REPORT

INITIAL REPORT - March 08, 2011
FIELD REPORT - June 09, 2011
LONG TERM REPORT - July 28, 2011

TESTER INFORMATION

NAME: Kerri Larkin
EMAIL: kerrilarkin AT yahoo DOT com
AGE: 50
LOCATION: Sydney, Australia
GENDER: F
HEIGHT: 5' 9" (1.75 m)
WEIGHT: 284 lb (129.00 kg)

I've been a car-camper and bushwalker for thirty years. Mostly I do day hikes as my passion is photography, which means I walk very slowly! I've returned to walking after some years away due to injuries and I'm learning to use Ultralight gear (and my new hammock!). I've traveled most of eastern Australia, walking in landscapes as diverse as tropical rainforest, snow fields, beaches and deserts. My fortieth birthday was spent trekking in Nepal which was a truly life changing experience.


INITIAL REPORT

PRODUCT INFORMATION & SPECIFICATIONS

Manufacturer: Trail Designs
Year of Manufacture: 2011
Manufacturer's Website: Trail Designs
MSRP: US$ 11.95
Listed Weight: 0.1 oz (3 g)

Measured Weight:
Stove components:0.1 oz (3 g)
Foil Drip Shield: 0.1 oz (4 g)
Total: 0.3 oz (7 g)

Other details:
The package arrived with an instruction booklet and three Esbit fuel tablets all contained in a zip-lock bag.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

What a stove! This thing really is tiny. It doesn't just crack the grams and ounces, it shatters them. It's really hard to see how a stove could be simpler than this - a small piece of bent titanium acts as the burner stand and has two equally thin side pieces, which act to regulate the flame intensity. I think my overall first impression is that the Gram Cracker is so light I'm sure it won't stand up to the rigors of camping trips. The thing is, though, this type of stove has been used for years, so they really must be able to last the distance or they would have faded to extinction on a side branch of stove evolution. I have a few reservations about the solid fuel stoves, and it's only fair to bring them out right here. Firstly, as I said, I'm not sure of the durability of something so small. The Gram Cracker arrived safely nestled over the fuel tablets, thus protecting its size and shape, but I haven't been able to find similar shaped fuel in Australia - my Esbit tabs are about a quarter the size of the ones that were supplied so I may have to use four tabs to get an equivalent burn. Then again, I may have better control over burn intensity by using two or three tabs. It's all a mystery to be explored over the next few months, but the point is, I'll have to find another way to safely transport this little stove. Fortunately the Caldera Cone I'm also testing has a 'Caddy' storage pot for transport so I have no doubt this little stove will fit right in there.

My other reservation is based on old memories of camping with a Hexamine solid fuel stove; the fumes from that one used to make me physically sick to the point where I stopped using it completely. I've never been game to try Esbit before for fear of ending up a vomiting mess and although I'm not primarily testing the fuel tablets, it may be a factor for some people. So, there we are. A few concerns I'll be looking to address. Back to to stove...

There are three main components to the stove: the 'U' shaped burner stand, and two side panels. To use, simply put the inverted 'U' on the ground, place a fuel tab on top, light and place the Caldera Cone over the top. That gives a rapid and inefficient burn, so the wisest move is to put a side panel in the slot on each side of the 'U' and put the fuel tab between the side panels to achieve a burn of "medium" speed and efficiency. The most efficient burn is achieved, according to the instructions, when the side panels are placed with their short sides in the slot, making a much taller burner enclosure. A fuel tab placed vertically between these panels will burn more slowly, increasing its efficiency. I'm looking forward to experimenting with all three positions to see which works best for a given scenario.

IMAGE 2
Small, lightweight, simple. Just what I need!



I was astounded to find the bulk and weight of my Gram Cracker was the fuel. The three supplied tabs weigh 1.5 oz or 43 g, enough for three burns but it's comparable to denatured alcohol which would require roughly 1.5 fl oz, or 45 ml, for three burns. The big difference is in volume. Individually packaged Esbit tabs take up a lot of room. The Australian version has 20 tabs (perhaps 5 burns?) in a more compact pack which weighs 3 oz, or 85g. It will be interesting to see how the two fuels compare in real life use.

The foil drip shield serves two purposes: firstly to catch the melting Esbit, and secondly, to protect the ground under the stove from heat and flame. The drip shield is of heavy aluminium foil, yet is easily straightened if bent during transport. It does have sharp edges so I think it will be only a matter of time before it tears the sides of the zip lock back it was supplied in. That won't be much of a problem though as it will be easy enough to transport the foil in the Caldera Cone caddy.


READING THE INSTRUCTIONS

A small, single page of instructions is included and does a nice job of explaining how to use the stove. It also includes pictures of all the various configurations making it very easy to understand what is being meant in the written instructions. Once read, there would be no need to transport these as use of the stove is obvious.

TRYING IT OUT

Now, let's get one thing straight right here: I love those comparison tests that give all the numbers that help me decide which is the most efficient of two stoves, but I'm not the kinda girl that writes those reports. My report is going to be much more hands-on-in-the-field kinda stuff because I've come to realise that thirty seconds difference in how long it takes to make a cup of tea is really no big deal. After all, I go bush to relax. I'm not gonna miss a bus if my stove doesn't instantly boil a bucket full of water. So this report is more about ease of use, practicality and downright usefulness. My peers will do a far better job with the figures, and I love them for that.

And so to light the fire...

I put the side panels in the slots with the long sides vertical, the position for a most efficient burn, then put an Esbit tab standing on its end between the side panels. I have to say, the Esbit stinks when pushed out of the plastic and foil pack. Rotten fish is the thing that comes to mind. I'll want to make certain there is no way these tabs will come into contact with clothing, food, or cooking pots. Strangely, the Australian version doesn't smell at all.

IMAGE 3
The most efficient configuration



Lighting the Esbit is fairly easy - just hold a match across the top of the cube. Like alcohol, the flame is hard to see during the day but the heat gives a good indication the Esbit is alight! Once burning, it's a simple matter of placing the Caldera Cone to surround the stove and slipping the pot straight into the Cone. It was about 79 Degrees F (26 C) when I did my first test and very, very humid.

IMAGE 4
Esbit burning, waiting for the pot.




So how did the stove perform? Brilliantly! I boiled two cups of water in under six minutes and still had about a third of the Esbit block left. The combination of the Gram Cracker stove with the Caldera Cone seems like a winner in terms of efficiency. There was no scorching of the ground so it fits well with the Leave No Trace philosophy. I'm guessing a single Esbit tab is good for about a ten minute burn, but I'll report more on that during my Field Report. That boil time is similar to another Name Brand alcohol stove I own, and faster than the 12-10 alcohol stove the Caldera Cone kit comes with, but only by a minute so who really cares!

IMAGE 5
A rolling boil in under six minutes. Fantastic!



Although this test is not about Esbit itself, it's worth mentioning a safety feature that I've noticed: Esbit doesn't spill. It also doesn't ignite if put on a hot stove holder. That alone makes it worth considering for camping trips.

Unfortunately, my fears about the fumes were justified. This is not a fuel I would recommend using in a tent or vestibule, it's just way to smelly and it wasn't too long before I started getting that old familiar nausea. I don't intend letting this interfere with the reporting process as these reports are about the Gram Cracker and Caldera Cone, not Esbit. It's just to note that for me at least, the stove needs to be used with plenty of ventilation.

Two other things I noticed; the Esbit leaves a sticky mess on the bottom of the pot, so it will definitely need a good scour to get the residue off, and, there is a bit of sooty residue on the burner and side panels - no big deal but not as clean as denatured alcohol.

IMAGE 6
A sticky, sooty residue is left after burning.



As for cooking with the Gram Cracker, I think that will be comparatively easy. The adjustability of the system means I should be able to tailor the heat to a specific need although I don't expect to be able to simmer.

After cooking, the Gram Cracker easily fitted in the Caldera Caddy, so I don't foresee any further storage problems.

SUMMARY

The Trail Designs Gram Cracker is an absolute beauty of a stove. It's hard to imagine how any stove could be lighter than this. It really is minimalist cooking at its best. When combined with the Caldera Cone, it makes a very efficient cooking system with minimal weight. Although I've never cooked with a solid fuel system before (apart from those ill-fated Hexamine stove days some thirty years ago) I'm looking forward to learning the subtleties of using solid fuel, and getting to know the Gram Cracker better.

That concludes my Initial Report on the Trail Designs Gram Cracker Esbit stove. I'd like to thank Trail Designs and BackPackGearTest.org for the opportunity of participating in this test series. Please check back here in about two months for a more in depth Field Report.


FIELD REPORT

FIELD LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS

Field Conditions
One overnight trip to Yuragir National Park and one six day trip to Station Creek

Boorkoom Campsite, Yuragir National Park, NSW North Coast, Australia
This short trip was perhaps the best camp I've done in ages! Perfect weather gave a crisp, cool night and a couple of wonderfully warm days. No open fires are allowed here, so a fuel stove of some kind is the only option. Recent heavy rains would have made it difficult to find enough dry wood for a fire anyway.

This is a coastal park and the camp is perched on a cliff with a short walk down to a rocky beach. Typical coastal heath and rainforest surround the clearing for the campsite, contributing to the heavy dew in the morning. A well-formed walking track leads around the headlands and provides some spectacular view points of the coastline. The camp area is designed for ten sites, but there were only two other groups using the area, making for a lovely quiet time. My site was nicely secluded, making it seem more remote than it actually was.

Station Creek, Yuragir National Park, NSW North Coast, Australia
This campsite is a complete contrast to Boorkoom. It's heavily forested, the sites feel more enclosed, and the sun only reaches the ground for a short time each day due to the tree canopy. Consequently, this was a very damp area, exacerbated by rain on one night. Temperatures were considerably cooler with the coldest morning being 6 degrees Celsius (43 F).

Again, Station Creek is coastal but is set well back from the beach (a ten minute walk) and the campsites are well protected from wind by both the sand dune system and the canopy. Wildlife is abundant with many species of birds (most of which will steal food right from your hand), Lace Monitors (large lizards), emus, and wallabies.

IMAGE 1
Lace monitors; big & scary. Their tail can break a leg.

PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD

I used the Gram Cracker stove to boil water for tea, to heat my meals, and to compare to the Caldera Cone 12-10 alcohol stove which report can be found here. For every use of the 12-10 stove, I immediately compared the result with the Gram Cracker by performing the same cooking function again. Redundant, I know, but it has given me a good footing to review a solid-fuel stove system which I have not used before.

Further use of the Esbit solid fuel tablets has confirmed that this system is not for me. Even in open spaces the fumes from the stove seemed to follow me and led to instant nausea. This is more a problem between me and solid fuel rather than being any fault of the Caldera Cone system. It is, however, worth mentioning as I'm sure I'm not the only person on the planet to have this problem.

Having said that, the Trail Designs Gram Cracker stove worked flawlessly and exactly as advertised. I was initially concerned by the flimsy appearance of the stove components, worried they would be bent out of shape in a very short time. I'm pleased to report, that hasn't happened. When stored within the Caldera Caddy (the plastic storage container), the three components of the stove are well protected, with the Cone giving a solid layer of protection around the components. The Caddy also serves to keep the fuel dry - an important function. I must confess, though, I have 'babied' the stove a little.

The Caldera Cone itself is just a brilliant piece of kit. I can't speak highly enough of this design. It has proven easy to assemble and, provided the sharp edges are treated with a little respect, hasn't amputated any fingers yet. I was concerned the Cone would stretch or bend out of shape and prove unstable at holding my pot in place but this has proven to be simply not true; my pot has never slipped or fallen and when in place gives a very positive rigidity to the Cone.

Operation of the stove continues to be absolutely silent until the water is coming to the boil and is not affected by wind, rain, or even the inability to find dry ground to set it up. This provides a brilliant safety margin for walkers over a wood stove, and even over an alcohol stove using a homemade wind screen. The snug fit of the pot into the top of the Cone eliminates most flaring due to wind, and stops all but the worst rain getting near the stove.

IMAGE 2
The perfect hammock camp at Station Creek.



After such a good review, now the negatives. Esbit is not for everyone. While this review is of the Caldera Cone and Gram Cracker stove, it would not be complete without reference to the fuel used in the stove. Please bear in mind that the following comments are not about the stove system, but rather about the fuel.

Solid fuel stinks. There's no way around that. The smell interferes with my ability to relate to the landscape around me, and to relax into that landscape. True, alcohol stoves do this to an extent also, but it's nowhere near as intrusive as the solid fuel fumes. It's worth thinking about when making a decision on what sort of a stove to purchase.

Solid fuel is messy. There's also no way around that. It leaves a sticky residue on the bottom of my pot and also on the stove itself. This can be washed off using detergent and a scouring pad, but isn't conducive to a short trail-side stop for lunch or a cuppa to me. I'm sure those who use solid fuel regularly are throwing up their arms and calling me a whinger, but for me, the system is just too messy to be 'nice' to use. Yes, I get the same problems using a wood-burning stove, and yes, I've learnt to deal with that, but the residues from a wood stove don't smell bad to me. I've learnt to carry a stuff sack for my pot when using a wood stove, but the residues from a solid fuel tablet are far more sticky.

Solid fuel can't be so readily measured. I've found I need over half a tablet to get a good boil when my pot is nearly full, but a full tablet just burns too long. It feels like quite a waste of fuel, and consequently I find I'm carrying more fuel to compensate for that. With an alcohol stove (and especially the Caldera Cone 12-10 stove) I know almost to the millilitre how much fuel I need so I don't have to carry excess. On a car-based trip this factor is eliminated, but for a backpacking trip I find it worth considering.

In its favour, solid fuel does not need priming and once alight is ready for immediate use as there's no waiting for it to 'bloom'. It's also easy to light in all weather conditions where alcohol (and gas most certainly) can be a bit temperamental at times, especially in the cold. While solid fuel will never be my first choice in camping stove fuels, I can most certainly see why it does have its users.

IMAGE 3
Bill the Magpie. A constant companion at every meal!


SUMMARY

The Trail Designs Caldera Cone cooking system continues to impress. It's fairly compact, easy to set up, reliable and performs brilliantly. The Gram Cracker stove does the same. Even though I know solid fuel is something I would not use in the future, I have tried to remain unbiased in this review, focusing on the system rather than the fuel. To that end, the Caldera Cone and Gram Cracker well and truly live up to their claims. This system would suit anyone who wants a light, portable, spill-proof cooking system that works first time, every time.

Perhaps my only criticism of the Caldera Cone system is that it only fits one pot. My pot choice usually depends on where I'm going and who I'm going with. With this system I'd need a different Cone for each pot. It's a minor quibble I know and I'm sure I will get used to using a single pot rather than choosing from the many that inhabit my gear cupboard.

I'll continue to test the Gram Cracker and Caldera Cone over the next couple of months to see if I can find any chinks in the armour but, judging by what I've seen so far, I really don't expect to find any.

I'd again like to take this opportunity to thank Trail Designs and BackPackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this wonderful system. Please check back in a couple of months for my Long Term Report.


LONG-TERM REPORT

LONG-TERM TEST LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS

It's been a very wet couple of months here which has somewhat restricted my ability to test the Trail Designs Gram Cracker and Caldera Cone cooking system. That said, I have managed to use the stove on a further six occasions, and have done a fair bit of "bench" testing. Locations have remained similar to those in the Field Report - coastal heath and rainforest mostly. It has been considerably colder with daytime temperatures in the low 20's C (68-72 F) and overnight lows of around 3 C (37 F).

PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD

The Gram Cracker stove is, as advertised, very small and light. This almost created a major problem once when I became distracted as I was packing everything away. I didn't see the stove and almost forgot it. Luckily, once the distraction passed I had a nagging sensation I'd forgotten something. A quick check of my Caldera Caddy revealed the stove was missing. Thank goodness I hadn't walked very far!

I did some testing to compare burn times using the Esbit tablets in the different configurations within the stove. I was surprised to find the stove burnt hotter and for a shorter time (11 min) with the tablet in the 'on edge' position as shown in the photo below (right). With the tablet lying flat, as in the photo below (left), the stove burnt longer (15 min) but cooler, which may help if a simmer is needed.

IMAGE 1
Left: flat lay , Right: on edge



The picture below gives an idea of the comparative sizes of the stove wings when in the 'flat' position or the 'on edge' position.

IMAGE 4
Discolouration is due to heat



Both positions produced a rolling boil but it took longer with the tablet laid flat. A comparison of the flame pattern in the picture below gives an idea of why the 'on edge' position boils water faster.

IMAGE 2
The on edge position burns hotter



As I mentioned in my field report, I was unable to find Esbit locally in the same shape and size as that supplied with the stove. I finally tracked some down online from one of the few Australian sellers willing to post fuel tablets. It is quite a different shape and size, but works just as effectively.

IMAGE 3
Local esbit tabs put together to create sufficient heat



A few figures for the scientifically inclined using 400 ml (13.5 fl oz) of water:

The supplied Esbit Tablets burnt for 15 minutes when in the 'flat' position and 11 minutes in the 'on edge' position;

Three local Esbit tablets were required to produce a boil at 8:30 minutes and burnt for 15 minutes;

Two local Esbit tabs (equivalent of one 'flat' tab burnt for 11:30 and did not reach a rolling boil but would probably be hot enough for tea.

By way of comparison, 20 ml (0.7 fl oz) of denatured alcohol the 12-10 stove brought 400 ml (13.5 fl oz) of water to the boil in 4:40 minutes and continued to burn for 7 minutes. Cost wise, twenty Esbit Tablets cost me just under $AU 9 ($US 9) which will give just over eight burns. One litre (1 qt) of denatured alcohol costs just over half that and will give me around 50 burns.

So, Esbit is definitely slower than denatured alcohol, but does that matter? I'm not trying to cover big miles in a day or walking for twelve hours so, for me, an extra couple of minutes at a rest stop doesn't really matter that much.

As I've used the Gram Cracker stove more, I've come to realise just how messy Esbit is. It leaves a waxy residue on the stove parts which requires them to be pried apart. It's not hard to do, but is very obvious. I've taken to using the wings of the stove to scrape the residue off the stove and wings after each use. There's also a sooty residue on the bottom of my pot, which needs to be cleaned as well.

I'm the first to go weak at the knees over a new an inventive piece of gear but I have to say, my lasting impression of the Gram Cracker is, "What's the point?" The ultralight weight of this stove is great, but it's part of the bigger Caldera Cone kit which includes a much heavier windscreen and lifting tongs. If the Cone and cooking pot were also titanium it might make more sense, but I can't honestly see that it would make that much difference if the stove were made of steel rather than titanium. If I were a dedicated gram counter I probably wouldn't use the Cone anyway, preferring a lighter homemade windshield, which is where titanium really makes sense.

That said, the Gram Cracker does exactly what it claims to do, and does it well. It's super simple to set up and use, and performs well in most conditions. Like the 12-10 alcohol stove, the Gram Cracker can be used in wet weather as once it's alight and in the Cone, the cook pot keeps the rain away from the flames. The flame is fairly well protected from the wind once inside the Cone.


SUMMARY

The Trail Designs Gram Cracker stove and Caldera Cone make a great combination. The stove is simple to use, fairly efficient and uses roughly the same weight of fuel that an alcohol stove does. It has the benefit of being odorless until the fuel tablets are opened so won't contaminate cooking pots and gear in the same way denatured alcohol will, and fuel storage is much safer. The Gram Cracker is incredibly light weight and I can't see how it would be possible to make a stove much more basic than this. By basic, I mean minimal rather than coarse. This is an elegant design which ticks all the boxes for those who love playing with fire.

I love the Caldera Cone system and continue to be impressed by how well it performs. It's easy to see why the Cone has such a huge reputation.

CONTINUED USE

So will I continue to use the Gram Cracker stove? Sadly, no. As I've mentioned a couple of times, the odour makes me nauseous. Esbit is also significantly more expensive than denatured alcohol. When I factor in the costs, boil times and ugly residues, I find the scales balance heavily in favour of denatured alcohol for me. That's not to say this is true for everyone, but it certainly is for me. If those things weren't a consideration, I'd see the Gram Cracker as a work of art which is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. I imagine that those who do love Esbit would truly love this stove.

That concludes my Long Term Report on the Trail Designs Gram Cracker stove and the Caldera Cone cooking system. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Trail Designs and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to be a part of this test.

This report was created with the BackpackGearTest.org Report Writer Version 1.5 Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

Read more reviews of Trail Designs gear
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