Cooking With(out) Gas

The Sierra ZZ wood-burning stove. With the fire out, you can see the construction. Air is blown into the surrounding chamber, and then into the furnace through holes in the walls. That pile of firewood is enough to cook a couple of meals.

by Terry Wieland

In 2008, I drove to the Yukon to go hunting with my old friend George Calef. We backpacked into the mountains behind his cabin, duly licenced for Dall sheep and grizzlies.

In previous enterprises, such as backpacking in the Chugach in 1990, my guide and I carried variations on the old Primus stove, that fixture of early Arctic exploration that burns naptha gas. And, way back in the 1960s, I’d acquired an “improved” version called the Optimus. Today, you can buy similar outfits that burn propane, carried in cylinders.

The one thing all have in common is the weight of the fuel (even empty canisters are heavy, and you have to carry them home) and the unavoidable mess. The Optimus, for example, required that you pour some fuel into the tray around the burner and set it alight, to heat up the element and the fuel inside the tank, building up pressure so it would operate.  Try pulling off that little operation in fresh snow outside the tent, with your fingers numb and your shivering frame in an uncaffeinated state.

Leif burning heather-shoots to cook. This little devil throws heat you wouldn’t believe.

George Calef is a Yukon resident who has worked there for many years. A wildlife biologist by trade, he wrote the definitive book on barren-ground caribou. His two modes of travel are canoe, if there’s a convenient river, and backpacking, if there isn’t. There is little about the outdoors he doesn’t know.

When I asked about cooking, and divying up the fuel and so on, he gave me a knowing smile and said not to worry.  We traveled the first few miles by canoe, then stashed it and headed up a trail into the mountains.  Along about noon, we stopped for lunch, and George unpacked his cook stove.

“Never seen one of these?” he asked.  “Noooo…” says I. The third member of our party, Leif, a professional guide, was busy gathering what appeared to be mere twigs, and some didn’t even rate that flattering description. They were in a little pile beside George’s stove.

It looked to me like a piece of stovepipe with some holes drilled in it, mounted on a flimsy stand, all of which George was carrying in a little soot-stained bag. He set it up, took a piece of oily cotton batten out of an old 35mm film canister (Gawd, them things was handy — especially the aluminum ones with the screw caps from the 1950s) and then piled tiny twigs around it.  When the cotton was burning fiercely, he flicked a little switch, turning on a tiny fan. The twigs caught, and with the air forced in from below, it was soon burning fiercely.

Above treeline in the Yukon. Doesn’t look like there’s much to burn, does there? In fact, fuel is plentiful.

The stove is the Sierra ZZ, and it’s been in production for years. It comes with various accoutrements, such as a saucepan and frying pan of commensurate size, and works on the same principle as a blacksmith’s forge and bellows. The little fan, powered by one AA battery, forces air up into an external chamber, which in turn is blown on the flames through holes in the wall of the ‘furnace.’

To say it “burns fiercely” is to understate severely. Like a forge, it glows red hot and the heat will boil water in no time.  For fuel, you use twigs ranging from the size of your little finger down to a matchstick — or even fuel that is not wood at all.  Later, when we were above the tree line, we burned the dead shoots you find around the base of mountain heather bushes, and cooked entire meals on it.

You feed the fire continuously with new twigs, since they burn to ash very quickly.  Your “woodpile,” gathered in advance, could fit into a small grocery bag.  Even damp wood will catch and burn once the fire’s going.  In fact, it will accept anything flammable.

Leif with his fine full-curl Dall sheep, which he carried into camp single-handed in one of the most remarkable feats of endurance I’ve ever seen. He then grilled the kidneys for us on the Sierra stove, and delicious they were, up there above treeline, in the rain.

George told me one of his skeptical Yukon friends challenged him to a contest, to see if the Sierra would boil water faster than propane.  The Sierra won.  It will boil a quart of water in four to five minutes.

If the Sierra has a weak spot, it’s the use of the AA battery.  I don’t trust any battery, any time.  Fortunately, two or three spares don’t weigh much, and according to the Sierra literature, one battery will last up to six hours.  There are two fan speeds, which helps conserve power.  You can do a lot of cooking in six hours.

The other weak spot is the switch and wiring, which seem rather flimsy to me.  Let me extend my distrust to all things electrical.

There is an auxiliary unit available that uses a D-cell for longer battery life, and its mechanism appears sturdier.  Of course, that’s added weight.  Every time I’ve looked, though, it’s been out of stock.

It seems to me that a worthwhile addition would be a backup mechanism with a gear-and-crank arrangement, allowing you to power the fan by hand if you don’t have batteries available, but there doesn’t seem to be one.

One way they have reduced weight, and increased durability, is offering the stove in titanium as well as stainless steel.  Of course, when I got home from the Yukon I immediately ordered a stove from the manufacturer.  I figured it would be useful insurance in the event of a power failure, or even to carry in the car for emergencies.

You can find this ingenious and eminently useful little item by Googling “Sierra ZZ.”  It’s a little confusing figuring it out, but you’re a woodsman.  You’ll get there.

Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland is a self-confessed addict of back-up systems, and a technological Luddite cum skeptic who distrusts everything with a battery or electrical switch. He makes an exception for the Sierra ZZ: It’s that good.