Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Great Zip Ztove Debate

by Richard E. Mallery
After a recent debate over the internet on the pros and cons of the woodburning Sierra Zip Ztove, I learned that many people have a misconception of the device.

After 35 years of backpacking and using various stoves and fuel sources I have personally never found a cooking device more convenient or efficient. The Zip Ztove is basically a high-tech, double-walled, fan-driven hobo stove. Once you get used to feeding it the right amount of fuel, it works better than the gas stoves that force you to carry fuel.

I have used the Zip in wet conditions, and it works great. I carry a product called “Fire Ribbon” in a 35mm film canister to start the stove. The fuel is just about anything you can find in the way of ground litter. If it rains for several days, I put small sticks, pine cones and chips of wood in a open plastic baggie in my pack. This material dries out in a short time. Once the Zip is fired, the fan fueled flame becomes extremely hot. It will do its own drying and burning. This stove design is considered by the Forest Service to be a contained fire and not an open campfire. You are allowed to use a Zip Ztove in any area that allows the various gas backpacking stoves.

I have used a Zip for a number of years, most recently a 9 oz. titanium model, while hiking the CDT, the GDT from Mexico to Jasper, Alberta and across wet Ireland.

Finding fuel has never been a problem. The stove burns any ground litter you find at any altitude. It takes a little practice, but once you get used to it you will never go back to carrying fuel.

The most often asked question about my Zip is how to deal with the sooty pot. This has never been a big problem. I use a titanium cooking pot with attached handles. After finishing a meal and cleaning the inside of the pot, I nest the stove into the pot and package everything into a quart size baggie. This will work as well for pots that blacken from gas stoves that are not burning efficiently. I am so grungy after a week on the trail a little carbon on the fingers is unnoticeable. As long as I don’t pick my nose no one will ever detect my sooted appendages.

Another question is battery life. I always remove the one AA battery before stowing the Zip so that the fan does not turn on in my pack and drain the battery. I use my Zip for much more than water boiling. I enjoy lingering coffee breaks and sometimes cooking fish. One good battery will last easily 7 to 10 days. I always replace the battery when I resupply. I have never been caught sleeping with anyone else’s battery, but I always sleep with mine to make sure it is warm and ready for use on cold mornings. Battery condition is an integral part of the Zip design working at peak performance. The micro fan uses very little energy yet turns the fire pot into a blacksmith’s forge that quickly creates red hot coals for cooking.

I’ve been told, “I can appreciate loyalty to a specific product or thing that works for you. However, you can’t be serious if you think you can boil water faster than a propane/butane or white gas stove. It’s a simple matter of physics.”

I don’t have a great physics background but I win the water boiling challenge 90% of the time, so I will go with that math. It has little to do with the physics and everything to do with learning to run the stove efficiently, starting it quickly and feeding it regularly.

If fuel is fed to the fire properly the Zip does not produce a storm of smoke. However, it was not designed for cooking in a tent or trail shelter. It would be rude to fire up a Zip Ztove in a shelter. I found a shelter one stormy night along the GDT, at Egypt Lake, in the Canadian Rockies. There were so many people packed in the place that I considered firing up my Zip to smoke some of them out, but I was polite and cooked outside in the rain with wet wood. It took about six minutes to boil up my dried, refried beans, which in the end still cleared out the shelter, but that’s another story.

I have also heard, “I’ve tasted water boiled by the Zip Ztove and I have to tell you I prefer my meats smoked, not my water.” The reasons for this outcome would be burning the Zip inefficiently, creating a lot of smoke or melting snow improperly. After hundreds of meals, I have never experienced a smoky flavor.

Another question: “Do you have to scramble around for tiny wood pieces constantly?” Absolutely not. In most situations I can sit down and grab within reach enough material to cook a meal and boil water for a hot drink. You do have to constantly feed the pot. It burns material very hot and very quickly which is its design. But a lot of material would be a couple handfuls.

Another point of contention: “The Zip Ztove uses renewable energy...wood. Lets not forget it burns batteries too. Also it has more working parts (fan, connectors, etc.) than any of the gas stoves. More working parts, more to go wrong.”

If you use a Zip Ztove for your whole backpacking career you might burn a couple armfuls of campfire wood. The stove was originally designed for use in poverty stricken regions of the world where there is little heating fuel and a need to boil water. If the debate comes down to impact, you might want to research the methods used to extract and refine the fuels used in gas stoves!

I have yet to experience a part failure on my Zip Ztove. You would not have to be an electrician to repair a faulty fan connection. What actually triggered my interest in exploring this design was a failure in both my propane and white gas blowtorch type stoves. In the worse case scenario, I could still cook in my fuel pot as efficiently as an alcohol stove. Alcohol stoves are unique but they lack the quick cook time without the fan mechanism to continuously stoke the fire.

The Zip cools quickly. Before dinner is devoured there is nothing left in the pot but cool ashes and the pot itself can be slipped into a plastic baggie without melting it. Foraging is much too strong a word for gathering a handful of burning material for a Zip Ztove. Those who feel this product is a sacrilegious cooking device, breaking the “Leave No Trace” code above timberline, can stuff a half pocketful of sticks and pine cones in their pants at lower elevation and have enough fuel to cook dinner. And, you don’t have to look real hard to find enough trash to burn. It is obvious that some backcountry users have never adopted the LNT ethic.

I’m an environmental wacko and I have never found the Zip to be an impact problem. If they ever build a stove that will burn beer cans, fuel will never be a problem again. --Keep Smilin', Richard E. Mallery a.k.a. Dick E. Bird

Thursday, June 28, 2007