By Uncle Dave
Over the last few years, our families have become very interested in fire cooking using wood burning stoves. In this post we want to share with you the wood burning stove that we recommend for backcountry families.
The wood burning stove category has exploded over the last decade and there are all kinds of wood-burning stoves on the market. Most of them are geared to the solo hiker or hiking pair sharing a cook kit. The vast majority of these are too small to do any meaningful cooking for a group.
One stove that stands out from the crowd is the Littlbug Senior. The senior version of the Littlbug is large enough to hold a 4-6 L pot or even a 12” Dutch oven making it possible to cook meals for the whole family.
The Littlbug consists of 4 curved panels made from stainless steel, which stack together, and nest nicely around your pot set. Littlebug Enterprises sell a separate envelope style nylon pouch that is handy to keep soot off the rest of your cook kit and we recommend purchasing it with the stove.
The Littlebug can be used as is in an existing fire pit or with the optional fire pan to practice leave-no-trace and avoid leaving a fire scar. We have the old fire pan, which was basically a steel pie plate type unit. The old fire pan was heavy and prone to rusting, and we really can't recommend it. However, Littlebug Enterprises now have available a new fire bowl which appears to be modular and made of stainless steel. Once we've had a chance to test out the new fire bowl we will report on how well it works.
Besides the optional storage pouch and fire pan, there is available a chain for hanging the stove off the ground while cooking - an option which we don't consider viable with small children ambling around camp. There is also available a pot sling designed to lower your pot deeper into the stove for use with an alcohol burner - an option which we haven't tested.
Assembling the stove is easy and intuitive. For wood-burning mode, simply attach the pot supports to the upper closed slots in the stove sides, and then connect the sides together making sure all three edge tabs go inside the stove and all three assembly rivets enter their respective holes.
When lighting the stove there are several options. Since the stove has no bottom one can simply light the tinder bundle, place the stove on top and then continue feeding it from the top. In case of a strong wind one can place the tinder bundle in the stove, light the stove while it is on its side, and then tip it upright once the fire has started (my preferred option). With a long match one can also light the loaded stove through one of the air holes along the bottom. In all these scenarios there is no need to stick your hand down from the top while lighting the stove - a definite plus.
The Littlbug will accept all manner of fuel collected from around camp from small twigs to pinecones etc. Our boys love splitting wood to make fuel for the stove and since the fire is nice and controlled we don't mind letting the kids get close to put sticks in to keep the fire burning.
Our main use for the stove is to boil water, purifying it for drinking, washing dishes, rehydrating meals, and, of course, for the required hot beverage on cold mornings. The stove is fast and effective at boiling water thereby saving a lot of fuel for our white gas and canister stoves as well as saving wear on our water filters.
With practice one can learn to control the heat output quite effectively and when I don't mind the extra work of operating the stove (vs. canister/white gas), I enjoy using it to cook my morning eggs. The stove is definitely capable of serving as your primary stove if your fire skills are up to the task. In practice, we use the Littlbug as a supplemental and backup stove to our white gas or canister stoves, and it fits that role nicely.
If there are any downsides to the stove they are the typical ones associated with this whole category. One must possess sufficient fire starting skills to light and sustain a small fire - no small feat when it has been raining for days and all available fuel is wet. The stove needs a steady source of fuel to keep it going but is considerably more fuel efficient than an open fire. Also, fire cooking is inherently messy as your pots will get blackened with soot and there will be a little soot on the pot support panels of the stove. In the event of a fire ban the stove would likely be classified as an open fire, relegating it to serving as a pot support for an alcohol burner. More specific to the Littlbug: since the top of the stove is open it is not possible to cook your day's catch directly on the stove without some sort of additional grill.
That said, the Littlbug is a joy to use. Besides its practical cooking capability, the Littlbug easily provides that uplifting campfire ambiance when there is no time to collect large quantities of wood for a larger fire, and it provides a surprising amount of heat on a cold and dreary day. We love the way the little bug engages the kids in meal preparation and how it provides a controlled environment to teach the principles of fire starting and fire cooking. At 585g (including storage sac) it can easily save you that much and more in white gas/canister stove fuel on a longer trip, and it provides a maintenance-free backup in case of gas stove failure. Over the years this stove has earned a permanent place in our tripping kit.