Initial thoughts: A wee experiment with Fuel4 gel. An alternative to meths while backpacking?

Fuel4 gel
The rough set up to try out the new Fuel4 gel – an alternative to meths?

Well, I’m no scientist and don’t intend on being one. But today I had a play with some of the new Fuel4 gel that I talked about in a previous post HERE.

What I tried to do was produce a similar set up to one I’d use while out on the hills at camp. Which means, no measuring of the fuel, just an estimate (which comes with experience with meths, for example) and see which stove worked best and with which shield. And of course, approximate boil times with how much fuel is required potentially for a few nights outdoors. So a rough shod experiment, if you like.

I’m aware Chris Townsend has now got hold of some of this interesting alternative fuel while backpacking and will be conducting his own tests later today. I look forward to hearing his thoughts. So, do keep an eye out on his blog too. And it’s worth mentioning fellow blogger Gordon has been playing about with Fuel4 also HERE

So, am I still excited about Fuel4? Is it a realistic alternative to meths? Or even gas?

Fuel4 container 200ml
Flexible container for the gel – approx 200ml

First off, for this wee play I used 375ml of water in a MSR Titan kettle. This is the approximate amount of water I use for most types of meals when backpacking. It’s also worth remembering it’s important to read the instructions for using any fuel you choose to use. eg, just like meths, you don’t want to be pouring Fuel4 gel into a hot burner/stove as it could ignite.

As for the amount of fuel tested, I roughly use 30ml of meths to boil the above amount of water. Normally this means 5-6 short squeezes of my meths bottle when pouring into a stove.

The Fuel4 gel comes with (and can be decanted into from a 1ltr can) 200ml plastic bladder. I noted that 30-40ml of the gel is roughly 3 blobs or so when carefully emptied from it’s flexible container.

This unscientific but ‘real world-like’ experiment took place on a concrete floor within the confines of my garage, with an entry door nearby wide open to allow a good breeze to blow in which I figured could imitate similar air movement within a tent porch.

You can just see the jets burning from a mini Trangia behind a Vargo windshield.

The first test run was with a Vargo windshield and pot support and a Trangia inside, followed by a Trail Designs (TD) penny stove. To reach boiling point (bubbles appearing in the kettle’s base if you like), the Trangia took 6mins 6secs. And using a Trail Designs burner it took 6mins 24secs.

However, after giving it another go, the latter burner performed better than the Trangia (6mins 4secs for TD, 6mins 48secs for Trangia). And the times were similar on another attempt. It became apparent that despite the jets lighting up on the Trangia, the overall power of the flame and heat was not as great when compared to the TD one.

This may not come as a surprise, as the TD stove has larger holes within it’s structure to enlarge it’s overall flame while with the Trangia there is none but a narrow gap around the bottom inside and therefore less air intake for oxygen to burn. I can only assume that the TD stove is indeed designed as such to take advantage of it’s companion the Caldera Cone. Either way, you could argue there’s not that vast a difference between the two given my time results – even though the flamed jets on the Trangia were less than ideal (more of which later).

Though these figures proved satisfactory for me and comparable with methylated spirits (times were on average with meths – Trangia 6mins 26secs and TD 6mins 2secs – not rolling boil but on it’s way), I don’t actually enjoy using the above set up when camping. The Vargo windshield can be tricky to keep stable on uneven ground in a tent porch (if stuck inside during inclement weather) and alot of convective heat loss occurs with the outside of the kettle exposed to the wider colder environment.

So, now it was time for an experiment with Trail Designs’ Caldera Cone – albeit a rather battered one in my possession as you can see below!

The Trail Designs Caldera Cone

Performance for both stoves with the Fuel4 gel markedly improves when using the Caldera Cone. Whereas with the Vargo windshield it took 6-7 mins to hit boiling point, it took the same amount of time to reach a rolling boil and particularly so when using the TD burner. Average times were: Trangia 8mins 16secs and the TD 6mins 37secs. Some times were less, and between each the burners were left to cool outside for several minutes.

The TD stove’s greater flame envelopes and concentrates it’s heat on the Titan kettle much more than the Trangia. Carefully touching the sides of the cone proved this to be so – being hot to the touch with the TD burner and not particularly so with the Trangia.

Trail Designs stove with Fuel4 burning away. Note the large flame and burn inside.

Nice to see the jets working on the Trangia, but not as powerful a flame overall compared
with the Trail Designs version.

Both burners with Fuel4 light, side by side.

Below are some photos with both stoves but this time with meths burning within.

Note the flame appears much the same on the TD stove (left) as in use with the Fuel4 gel, while the Trangia’s flame
is considerably more powerful when used with meths.

Clearly a Trangia is geared up for meths rather than something like Fuel4 gel.

Boil time reached in little over 6 mins with the Fuel4 gel, Trail Designs stove and Caldera Cone set up.

At 8mins and with a little more Fuel4 added in one test I did for fun and curiosity the steam was pouring out the tops of the Caldera Cone.

Admittedly, I’m a little disappointed the Trangia didn’t perform as well as the TD burner – namely because it’s a bomber bit of kit! Granted, Fuel4 does indeed work with it and well enough too. But not as efficient as the TD.

I’d have liked to tried out other penny stoves too, but given these are the ones I currently have in my possession and use I have no choice.

True to Fuel4’s word, the gel does not smoke, produce soot or smell.

It also lights instantly just like meths. Surprisingly so I have to add. Maybe it’s the way my psyche is, but my eyes popped when just the tiniest spark or flame was adjacent to the gel and it quickly ‘whooshed’ into life.

Note too, that as meths likes to be primed for a real good burn, the Fuel4 is also similar. It crackles away for a minute or so before really soaring away.

Therefore, given my modest experiments today to imitate what I’d use and how at a wild camp, it’s obvious that Fuel4 is indeed comparable to meths as an alternative fuel for backpacking. It’s safer and greener which is a bonus. And millilitre for millilitre they’re almost identical when it comes to burn time. There were variations – but hey! My garage isn’t a laboratory and I’ll admit both burners could probably have done with a good clean (they were lined with black crap).

Fuel4 appears to be genuinely an alternative fuel for backpacking. Alas, for it to work to it’s full potential it does require the right set up and burner – that much is apparent here in this post and hopefully other bloggers will experiment differently and perhaps show more efficient methods for use. I’d certainly be interested in seeing them.

So, on that note I’m happy with what I learnt today and will be taking some Fuel4 with me on my next Lakeland trip later this week. My only thoughts are, how much fuel to take. And of course, how long will it last. I’ll be up in the Lake District for at least 2 weeks and likely longer.

It’s not like I can just stroll into the Barn Door Shop at Wasdale Head and collect some more of the gel. Or can I? I don’t know. Not seen it in there. But you get my point. But I suppose if I was desperate, I can always switch back to meths with the above set up while out for several days. Meths unlike gas, can be found in the remotest of stores nationwide. Handy for long excursions. That’s something to seriously consider. Not for weekenders I’ll admit, but what about TGO Challengers?

All said and done, if you’re a fan of gas stoves then you’ll not find this post of much interest at all. Bar the complicated and intricate debate on gas v meths – on the whole it’s still the easiest, speediest and most convenient of cooking set ups for most people when backpacking. And at times I find myself within the fan club for gas.

But generally, I’m in no rush when it comes to boiling water in less than 2mins or keeping a damn eye on a gas stove – set ups like above the above in my experiment means I can wander elsewhere around camp, take in the views or what have you, then come back to get a hot drink, knowing only the necessary required amount of fuel is spent and water is ready.

I aint no fancy cook at camp either. I don’t like the mess. I much prefer to boil water, pour it in a freeze dried meal or just add some substance or other – job done. Meal ready. Other will disagree and feel more inclined to do otherwise at camp for sure. So, do take all the above as a guide and note they’re just my own thoughts.

In a nutshell, it’s as good as meths performance wise and may well be better (I couldn’t possibly conclude that for sure today). But you’ll need the right stove and set up to get the most out of it. Much like meths really. At least Fuel4 has other benefits. Such as the following:

NON SPILL
NON TOXIC
SMOKELESS
RENEWABLE AND ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY
WORKS AT ALTITUDE

SAFER THAN METHS (TOXIC AND SPILLS EASILY), GAS (EXPLOSIVE TO NAME ONE) ETC ETC.

Anyway, you can’t beat a good field test and I look forward now to giving Fuel4 a go out on the Lakeland fells soon. Keep an eye on my Twitter feed, as that will be the first place I’ll be sharing my thoughts and pictures of the product in action.

I may even try to use rocks near camp to produce a make-shift stove and boil water from that set up. After all, Fuel4 can be poured onto such a surface, it won’t spread and will still burn as a fuel.

Now there’s a thought……time to ditch a stove completely?

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