DIY robust retro backpack stove: background - Frank Groffie's miscellany

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This do-it-yourself (DIY) project begins as parts from a big-box, two-burner Coleman® base-camp stove and yields a small single-burner wilderness stove. While heavy, it’s robust and dependable and packs a lot of power and thus is suitable for large parties, lengthy backpacking treks, or when temperatures are too low for a canister stove. Plus, it's cute, quirky, and retro, a hybrid of mid-20th-century and early 21st-century stove designs.

I intended it for a party of five, which seems “large” to me, since my experiences are usually solo, duo, or trio treks. For the large party I’d be hosting in summer 2010, I wanted a powerful, sturdy, dependable system running on tank fuel (liquid, white gas). Over the 2009-2010 winter, I stared at and mulled over a big old two-burner Coleman
® base-camp stove of mine, a Model 425B, which dates to 1962 or possibly even a few years earlier.

The big base-camp stove has two burners, a main one and a secondary one, inside a green, steel, flip-top box, and a fuel tank and controls hanging off the front side. I obtained mine at a garage sale around 2002 and used it thereafter on many a family car-camping expedition. Coleman’s basic design hasn’t changed much in the 56 years since my 425B was made. We’ve all used or seen these camp stoves in various incarnations on car-camping expeditions, although nowadays, they've mostly got a propane cylinder hanging off. They’re classic, traditional, dependable workhorses, particularly the old white-gas versions: Coleman's patent drawings for this design date to 1924, which makes the basic concept nearly a century old.

The removable tank and generator of my suitcase-style Coleman 425B, I decided, would become the core of a wilderness stove. I also took the main burner assembly from a broken Coleman 425F and then attached a few minor extras. The result is a “bomb proof,” heavy-duty wilderness stove. (View DIY stripped-down two-burner stove to see what I eventually did with the auxiliary burner and big heavy grill of the 425F.)

The tank incorporates a pump as do most liquid-fuel stoves and all of Coleman’s. It also incorporates Coleman’s ingenious fuel mode selector switch. This is not the big, round, black plastic flame adjuster knob. The mode selector is a small control rod that lets the stove operate using only fuel vapor from the tank for its first minute or so of operation. This initial mode heats the (vaporizer) “generator” tube, which is oriented across, within the stove flame. Once warmed enough by the flame, the generator turns any liquid fuel passing through it into vapor, which is jetted out the end of the tube, mixed with oxygen, and ignited at the burner head. These provisions and operations take the place of old-style external priming (which is burning fuel or paste in the open air on the burner head).

Operation is all pretty sensible and simple once one gets the hang of it: (1) Pump, to pressurize the tank, (2) flip mode selector up for vapor mode, (3) open fuel supply (turn black knob left), (4) light, (5) run at least 1 minute, and yes, you may place on your pot or pan at this time, and finally. (6) flip mode selector down for liquid mode operation. I’ve never seen a flame on any outdoor stove stronger than that on a Coleman liquid-fuel base-camp stove running in liquid mode. Fuel is Coleman Camp Fuel, inexpensive and easily found in gallon cans in stores.

I depended on this stove to serve a party of three, two others and myself, at about 8,000 ft elevation in the Sierra Nevada (California), over 4 nights total in summer 2010 and 2011. And it served perfectly.

Note that many modern wilderness stoves on the market are tank-beside-burner designs that seem(?) to be derived from this by-now-ancient Coleman design. Most noteworthy was Mountain Safety Research (MSR), which first came out, in 1973, with a stove that used a pump-pressurized tank connected to a burner off to the side, both of which sit on the ground. MSR did away with any big box and grill and pared down their burner to basics. The MSR’s tank and controls were also altered and made lighter. While the first MSR model used a straight, stiff fuel line similar to that on the big-box Coleman stove, most modern remote-tank designs use a flexible hose to deliver fuel from tank to burner. MSR has continually updated their designs, and several other manufacturers have followed in their footsteps, for example Snow Peak, Brunton, and Primus. Coleman too, beginning in 1992, with their Apex and later their Fyrestorm and Denali models.

Thus, this DIY Coleman derivative stove may be thought of as a robust version of all commercial remote-tank wilderness stoves. (It’s not in all ways superior, however: it’s heavy.)

Alternatively, it may be labeled retro. Consider it a semihistoric anomaly, a primitive throwback, a reimagining of what might have been. It’s what Coleman might have initially developed in the 1960s after gazing into a crystal ball and foreseeing future stove developments for backpacking in the 1970s.

Click on Construction and Operation for details on how to build and use your own DIY project stove. Watch the 13-min. video. Click on this link Coleman stoves if you’re curious about Coleman’s current lineup of stove products, or this link Zen Backpacking Stoves if curious about other DIY portable stove projects.


Execute this project and use any resulting product solely at your own risk.

This web page and the information therein have received no input, authorization, or endorsement from,
and the author has never had affiliation with, The Coleman Company Inc., or any other mentioned manufacturer.

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