The Vargo Triad stove is a jetted but unpressurised alcohol stove with a lot of good things going for it. It is light, it is very robust being made of titanium, and it has really strong legs and pot supports. However, if it is used incorrectly it can be a poor performer that is hard to start and doesn’t bring water to the boil. In this review I focus on how to use the stove properly. With proper operation it is possible to use this stove to make cups of tea and soup for two people.
- Adequate alcohol capacity
- Robust construction
- Stable on the ground
- Strong – handles a heavy pot
What’s Not So Good
- Hard to get going
- Not very hot
- Needs a very close windshield to get going properly
- Priming mistakes can send boiling alcohol everywhere
- The instructions which come with the stove are very minimal (check the web site)
|Stamped, welded and riveted|
|Basic can with legs for stove support and pot supports as well|
|Can is 2 1/4" (58 mm) diameter by 3/4" (18 mm) high|
|28, drilled around top of rim|
|Open centre well holds about 1.3 fluid ounces (37 mL) of denatured alcohol|
|Claimed: 30 minutes when filled, but this depends on how the stove is run|
|One person, boiling water|
|Measured: 0.77 oz (22 g), claimed: 1.0 oz (28 g)|
I am not an expert with alcohol stoves, and at first this stove had me beaten. I simply could not get it to generate much heat, and there was always the possibility that the flame would go out. However, some email discussions with the designer, Brian Vargo, cleared up some major misunderstandings, and I was eventually able to get the stove going moderately well.
Before we get into that, let me point out here that the design makes the stove very stable. The fold-out legs can be dug into the soil a bit, after which the stove doesn’t move. The fold-out pot supports are just as rugged. I can confirm that the stove will support many pints (or litres) of water without a worry. However, if your pot has a base smaller than 3.6 inches (92 mm) diameter, it may not sit on the pot supports very well.
That said, the tips of the legs and pot supports are quite sharp and could damage other gear if not folded away carefully. As the photo shows, this can be done. I did worry a bit that the tips would gouge my aluminium pots. Of course, a titanium pot or cup would have no trouble.
The Vargo Triad titanium alcohol stove with legs open (left) and folded (right).
Field Experience – Part 1
I will start by describing what I did wrong. That way the significance of what Brian told me later on will have real meaning.
I set the stove up by opening the legs and pot support out, placed it on some sheet steel in my laboratory, poured alcohol into the well in the middle – and made a mess. I found I had to pour the alcohol into the well quite slowly: it doesn’t run down through the tiny central hole very easily. Now I had alcohol inside the stove, over it and under it on the sheet steel. So I lit the alcohol and waited for the stove to fire up. It didn’t: the flames went out. I think I had used too little priming fuel.
I reread the instructions, which say to ‘Carefully pour denatured alcohol into the centre until the stove is full and alcohol creates a small pool. Ignite the pool of alcohol (which acts as a primer).’ So once the stove had cooled down I did that, filling up the stove until the alcohol level was just above the bottom of the central well. However, again the stove failed to light up once the surface alcohol had burnt away. I think the amount of priming fuel I used was still not enough to heat the volume of alcohol inside the stove enough. Maybe I should have added yet a little more fuel to the stove.
To make this stove work you have to get the alcohol inside the container hot enough for it to be pushing vapour out of the holes. So I tried again with some alcohol on the steel under the stove as well as some in the middle of the stove. Well, I got the alcohol hot all right: it started to boil inside the stove and there were splashes of burning alcohol erupting everywhere for a while. Maybe this time I had used a little too much priming fuel underneath plus too much inside the stove? At least it was burning, so I put a pot of water on the stove and waited for it to boil. The flames died down to a low level and the water never got past the hot stage.
What was happening inside the stove was that the alcohol was boiling away, giving off vapour, and cooling down. Once the temperature of the alcohol drops below its boiling point there is relatively little vapour coming out through those little holes, and the stove will die. As far as I could see, there simply wasn’t enough thermal feedback from the flames to keep the alcohol boiling. They were going straight up in the air, away from the stove.
It was at this stage that I got some advice from Brian. He assured me that he manages to use the stove quite happily, but he emphasised the need for a close windshield right around the stove and pot, with holes at the base of the windshield. This is actually written on the packaging: "A wind screen is highly recommended to maintain flame". Read the instructions! What this windscreen does is to trap some of the flame between the stove and the windshield and recirculate some of the heat downwards, to heat the stove and the incoming air.
So I tried again, with a Backpacking Light titanium windshield around the pot about 1/2 inch (12 mm) away from the rim of the pot all around, and with small holes around the base of the windshield. I used a discrete amount of alcohol under the stove plus some pooling in the middle top. A flame was applied to the alcohol under the stove, and after a while the stove lit up. This time the stove ran continuously, right to the end of the alcohol inside it. There were little flames coming up the side of the pot the whole time. Success! The water in the pot got hot, even to ‘mostly boiling.’ That is, there were lots of little bubbles coming up, and even a bit of obvious boiling, although it wasn’t the typical ‘rolling boil’ you get with more powerful stoves.
This means is that the Triad simply isn’t a ‘high-powered’ stove. Will Rietveld’s testing of alcohol stoves also found that the Triad stove wouldn’t work very well in windy conditions. The hot air is not being trapped sufficiently to heat the stove. But if all you want is simply to heat up a cup (or two cups) of treated water for some soup, it probably doesn’t matter whether the water reaches a rolling boil.
Field Experience – Part 2
I subsequently tried using a little aluminium cap (green out, gold inner, visible below) off a bottle to hold the priming fuel instead of sloshing it around. This let me monitor how much I was using for the priming, and I found that I really needed only a millimetre or two of alcohol in the cap. As soon as the alcohol in the priming cap is lit I poke it under the stove, where it makes a nice controlled flame. Usually, the vapour at the top of the stove is lit by the flame from underneath, once the alcohol is hot enough, especially if I put the priming cap at one edge rather than right under the middle of the stove.
I found that the further out I put the windshield, the smaller are the flames. The greater the space inside the windshield and the greater the gap between the windshield and the pot, the less the thermal feedback, as the flames are able to escape upwards more easily. So just where you put the windshield is fairly critical. In windy conditions the windshield is especially critical, and holding it down becomes part of the exercise! By using a tight windshield (about 1/2 inch or 10 – 12 mm gap all around) I am usually able to get a satisfactory flame from the stove and boil two cups of water for morning tea and coffee for my wife and myself. But it takes much care.
I ran some tests under controlled conditions in my laboratory at about 20 C (68 F) using a 6 inch diameter (150 mm) Trangia Kettle and two cups (500 mL) of water. I used common ‘methylated’ alcohol for the trials: this does not contain much water. For each trial I used a measured 1 fluid ounce (28 mL) of alcohol. About 1 – 2 mL of the alcohol went into the priming cap, with the remainder in the stove. This amount of alcohol filled the stove to near the central filling hole. The specifications claim up to 1.3 fluid ounces (37 mL) can be put in the stove. This is pushing it a bit, but is possible, and the alcohol is then visible in the central well. I surrounded the stove with a 3-inch (75 mm) high windshield with holes around the base. This was positioned to give a 1/2 inch (10 – 12 mm) gap around the edge of the Trangia Kettle.
An ‘exploded’ view of the laboratory test arrangements for the Triad.
I lit the alcohol in the priming cap and pushed it under the edge of the stove so that the flames just came up the side of the stove. I also tried to light the alcohol in the central well, but this was not always possible at the start when the alcohol is cold. In my tests I found it usually took about 2 minutes before the alcohol became hot enough for vapour to start coming out of the jets: the flame from my priming cap is rather small. I could usually hear the alcohol starting to boil inside the stove just before the flames appeared from the jet. It is important to understand that until the alcohol is near boiling inside the stove, little vapour will come out the jets. The amount of priming fuel I was using actually seemed to last about 4 minutes, which helped to get the stove hot enough to sustain operation.
The stove is a bit slow to get going once the jet flames appear: it is still heating up. However, after several minutes of operation the water in the kettle would be heating up at about 10 C (18 F) per minute. About 11 minutes after I lit the priming fuel the water would reach boiling. That’s about 9 minutes of jet flame time. The measured quantity of fuel continued to burn generally for a total of 16.5 minutes after the jet flames appeared. The specifications claim that a full tank will burn for 30 minutes, but under the test conditions I used I was not able to get the jet flames to burn for more than about 21 – 22 minutes. If the windscreen was placed further out so the feedback was lower and the flames smaller, the 30 minutes could possibly be reached. But it would take longer to boil the water like this.
These test conditions give me two cups of boiling water. This is enough to make soup or tea/coffee for two people, and dinner for one person. So for day walks this stove would be sufficient for two people. But the windscreen is essential for the stove to work.
- The packaging claims that the stove will boil 1 1/2 cups of water in 7 minutes. This depends on the conditions under which the stove is running: how hot you keep it. But it certainly can be done.
- Dual fuel operation: tip the stove upside down and burn solid fuel tablets on it. This was not tested.
- The packaging claims you can decant unused alcohol by pouring it back into a bottle using a leg as a spout. I managed to get about half the alcohol into the bottle; the rest went everywhere. And there was still some left inside the stove: the holes were too small to let it all drain out.
The Vargo Triad, unlike many alcohol stoves, is very sturdy.
Recommendations for Improvement
- I would prefer a stove which didn’t have to be cosseted so much, and had a little more power. (The Vargo Triad XE is worth considering.)
- You will need a windshield and a metal layer under the stove, and the small priming pot is very useful. It would be nice if these were included with the Triad.