Carbon Monoxide

11:16 a.m. on March 9, 2012 (EST)
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Positively opportunistic and always worth going over:

I have recently found out that one of my stoves was burning inefficiently, to say the least: it was stinking and there was 'flame lift'. I set about investigating the way it burned with a slightly larger jet.* Now, there is no way I would use this stove anywhere near a tent. But the only way I discovered that it was burning 'inefficiently' in the first place was due to the fact that we had a black out/ power out and I had to make tea (of course), forgetting to open a window in the process and finding the entire house full of fumes.*

It appears that using a stove with confidence in the alcove of a tent is not unknown here in the UK, and I confess to having done this (and worse*) myself. Apparently, there are some cultural differences, possibly as a result of weather (and midges), between the US and the UK (see this post on a sub-Reddit), when it comes to perceptions of the dangers involved. A recent tragedy suggests these differences are not moot and any important points (such as whether or not adequate ventilation, escape, evacuation space and opening, is being assumed) should be hammered out.

Hence, I think it bears reiterating that the use of a stove inside, or even in the alcove, of a tent, is stupid, no matter how bad or good you think your stove might be at combustion. The same would apply for any gas powered lamps, lanterns etc. To demonstrate the cogency of this assertion, of this truism, we have the recent tragedy of a chap in the UK, who remains in a CO-induced coma as of the time of writing.

I must say, I was a bit shocked when I read about the above event. The shameful thing is, however, is that I was surprised more by the consequences of the action than the action itself. In other words, I am guilty of using a stove (not a lantern) inside or near a tent in the past, putting myself and others in some form of danger, of assuming that it "could never happen to me".

(And this is to say nothing of fire risk, or of the risk through falling asleep as you are 'simmering', and so on and so forth.)

Today I have the opportunity to learn from someone else's mistake.

Jon

PS: Could someone comment on the safety of those lanterns that burn on top of gas cannisters - I've never used one and never will (preferring mini-LEDs) - it would be interesting to know what people should be/are doing with them.

PPS: I was reminded of this by Hiking Jim's post in the kitchen forum.

*Danger: this is not a safe or intelligent thing to do!

12:19 p.m. on March 9, 2012 (EST)
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I use my little lantern


31vgy-qSNrL._AA300_.jpg

as a substitute for a camp fire when there is a burn ban in effect.



1:18 p.m. on March 9, 2012 (EST)
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I do beleive the Mantle operated camp lantern is very efficient at burning.  But correct me if I am wrong.

1:18 p.m. on March 9, 2012 (EST)
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What about the light weight of a CO2 and CO detector ?

2:36 p.m. on March 9, 2012 (EST)
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There is the debate amongst us all of us if it is wise to use a stove or any other item with an open flame in a tent. In the end each person will have to decide when and if they should do this or not. With that being said if one has a properly vented tent there is very little to no possibility of being overcome by Co2. I'm more and more amazed every day as I come across older tents from the 70's/80's/90's. After the 90's an amazing thing happened. We forgot what we had learned in regards to venting tents and went back to the drawing board and invented the non vented tent, which Americans seemed to relish with open arms. Of course European countries went a different direction and perfected the vented tent. It's so amazing that when people are designing new tents that so often they do not go back in time to see what works and what dose not work. It's amazing that with all the investigation that people do that they miss one of the very most important and basic rules in a quality tent, that they are vented properly. And yet today, people keep buying new tents that are not vented. But then again, if they make it people will buy it. Name brand recognition, yea gotta love it.

 

Callahan said: "I do beleive the Mantle operated camp lantern is very efficient at burning. But correct me if I am wrong."

You are correct, they are very efficient. One must remember that with a mantal lantern that they get very, very hot around the glass globe and one must give plenty of clearance so that you do not melt or burn your tent down.  This is comming from personal experiance as I burned a TNF Himilayn Hotel down in this manner.  One must also remeber that when a mantal lantern is running out of fuel the fuel to air raito changes giving the flame more oxygen than it should have and the lantern will flame out (the flame will get much larger)of the globe and very possibility burn the tent down.  This is what happend to me.  This is the only tent that I have lost in the field. 

2:39 p.m. on March 9, 2012 (EST)
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As the one link notes, the danger of a stove, lantern, or candle in a tent is 3-fold - fire (even if you think the mantle lantern is contained, it is still very hot - if you don't believe that, try touching the glass), oxygen depletion, and carbon monoxide. I have witnessed a couple of tents going up in flames, and have experienced being in an officially designated "cooking tent" that supposedly was well-ventilated where several people started getting drowsy until we opened the door fully. (Apeman, one of the tents that went up in flames was when I was in Chamonix - a fairly fancy Euro-made tent at that).

As for the CO detectors, as a pilot, we used to have the chemical "dots" that were supposed to change color in the cockpit. Then I saw a demonstration where CO was directed out of a cylinder directly onto several brands of the "dots" and did not change color significantly for several minutes of the nozzle being played directly on them.

As for the electronic ones, the ones intended for home use (which are now required here in California for all homes - they have to be both smoke and CO detectors) are a bit bulky for backpacking use (same size as the old smoke detectors). The ones made for inspection use are quite expensive, starting at about $170. In my experience, you have to go to about $300 or more to get ones that are dependable and passably accurate.

But since the simple solution is plenty of ventilation, and don't use appliances that use flames in or near the tent. Plus be careful of all that synthetic clothing you are wearing.

3:45 p.m. on March 9, 2012 (EST)
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Interesting. I wonder if these lamps would tempt people into bringing them inside a tent in order to read or even cook by.

I was told by a gas engineer that the 'dots' are useless, so it figures. Perhaps they should get Suunto to put a CO detector on their watches, now that they have nearly everything else on them and smart phones are stealing their thunder anyway. (I don't understand the technology - I'm being somewhat facetious.)

I have always been aware, at least since I started reading Trailspace, of the (sometimes extreme) divergence of views, and I still recall the photo that Ed posted once of his group cooking outside in a virtual whiteout. So, altogether, the seriousness of posts by respected outdoors persons has made me reassess my own approach. It doesn't do any harm to exercise a little caution, even when you think you have it 'all under control'.

Saying that, I am not sure of the degree of danger inherent in the (perceived) methods propounded by the various 'outdoor media' here in the UK. For example, the latest issue of TGO (UK backpacking mag) features an article on "Hill Skills", showing six solo tents, with five of those having a stove inside the alcove area and the door fully tied back. Along with a bullet-pointed paragraph on "Cooking in the Porch", it says, "Cooking in a tent porch may be necessary in severe storms..." It then goes on to give some detailed advice by the UK's doyen of backpacking, a very sensible and well-respected person, Chris Townsend.

However, what it fails to mention is what types of stove this practice may best be limited to.* Surely canister (I don't use alchohol stoves these days) stoves are the only ones safe enough for this? And if you cannot provoke the necessary acumen, owing to the nature of the medium of instruction, should it be communicated at all? In other words, why don't the editors just omit mentioning cooking in the alcove altogether (and leave it, along with all the other dodgy advice, to the blogs)? Moreover, the simpler it gets with dehydrated meals, the more you can just leave a pot out to boil in the rain, away from the tent. Or not?

You see, with new stoves like the Primus Express Lander, someone might now be thinking of saving money in the long term by using said stove with a cheaper form of white gas like Aspen 4t, and not know about the flaming ball from hell that such stoves can suddenly become.

I am going to assume that accidents from tent fires caused by stoves in the alcove are relatively rare in the UK, and that this is the reason magazines don't have a voluntary restriction on photographs and such (just as cycling magazines now show only helmeted riders). Perhaps they should do an article on CO (perhaps they did and I wasn't paying attention?).

* I know CT only uses a multifuel stove when he has little choice, so it probably has less to do with his own feelings than it has to do with the editor's concision.

4:05 p.m. on March 9, 2012 (EST)
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Apeman, it's funny you should mention venting and designs - I noticed something similar and that explains it.

A related or connected issue, would appear to be the 'complaints' about condensation in tents by Hilleberg, such as the Akto (solo tents seem to be the market leaders these days); whereas experienced users (again, Townsend) don't concur, suggesting that venting capabilities are not being fully exploited.

Edit: blimey, I wonder how much condensation complaining is a result of cooking inside an alcove badly vented in the first place - makes you wonder - a bit convoluted perhaps.

5:07 p.m. on March 9, 2012 (EST)
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Bill S said:

As the one link notes, the danger of a stove, lantern, or candle in a tent is 3-fold - fire (even if you think the mantle lantern is contained, it is still very hot - if you don't believe that, try touching the glass), oxygen depletion, and carbon monoxide. I have witnessed a couple of tents going up in flames, and have experienced being in an officially designated "cooking tent" that supposedly was well-ventilated where several people started getting drowsy until we opened the door fully. (Apeman, one of the tents that went up in flames was when I was in Chamonix - a fairly fancy Euro-made tent at that).

As for the CO detectors, as a pilot, we used to have the chemical "dots" that were supposed to change color in the cockpit. Then I saw a demonstration where CO was directed out of a cylinder directly onto several brands of the "dots" and did not change color significantly for several minutes of the nozzle being played directly on them.

As for the electronic ones, the ones intended for home use (which are now required here in California for all homes - they have to be both smoke and CO detectors) are a bit bulky for backpacking use (same size as the old smoke detectors). The ones made for inspection use are quite expensive, starting at about $170. In my experience, you have to go to about $300 or more to get ones that are dependable and passably accurate.

But since the simple solution is plenty of ventilation, and don't use appliances that use flames in or near the tent. Plus be careful of all that synthetic clothing you are wearing.

Bill, I would agree with you up to a point. As I like to take care of my tents I myself have never been in a situation where I've felt I needed to cook in my tent. However I would guess if your one of the people who feel you need to climb Mount Hood in the middle of winter and find yourself caught in a week long blizzard in which a foot of snow a day falls and the winds are 30-70 mph, I would guess this leaves one little options. Sure power bars are great as long as you have a week+ worth. Remember if your up on the mountain and 7 feet of snow falls you are not walking out for a while. Also, what if your bivouacked half way up a vertical wall and your hit by bad weather or a storm and can only cook in your shelter. It makes sense to say don't use an open flame in a closed shelter (tent,bivy,etc) in the back country in all instances when it is unnecessary. It does not make sense to say this only to find one unprepared when and or if it becomes necessary. Most of use here will not find it necessary, but a few will. It should be recognized that there are some very dire circumstances in which it might be necessary. In that case useful tips other than don't do it are helpful. One would be if you have two vestibules and the tent is vented, by lighting a match or lighter then one can see which way the air is flowing and can then cook at the end where the tent is exhausting the interior of the tent to the outside being very careful to make sure that the direction of the wind does not change and push the offending gasses back thru the tent. In any case one would want to use the stove at the end of the tent, vestibule or not, where the air is exiting. Another would be to use stoves that are less pron to flare ups and fire balls tht occur from priming. Yet another would be to try and open and fill your stove with fuel outside your shelter as once you spill your fuel inside your done as it will soak into the tent material and render the shelter then uninhabitable. And yes people every year try to climb Mount Hood in the Winter trying to cheat death, sometimes failing. Almost every year 1-5 people die going up that mountain alive and coming down dead. Almost all the deaths are from falls or hypothermia. Hot food would make the difference in the latter.  Now with all that being said there is one instance in which I recomend always cooking in a tent in all conditions if one wants............

 

The Mountain Hardeware Alpine Cook Tent.  Easton Poles.


DSC05330.jpg

The stove is a German made Juwel 84.


The front of the tent closed.  The window is clear that is just reflection.

DSC05332.jpg

Note the little vent/hand entrance.

 

with the door/window open.
DSC05333.jpg
In the rear we can see the uper vent/hand entrance so that on can attend to your pots/pans from above.

 

A side view.
DSC05334.jpg
Having a total of three lower vents/hand accesses and one upper, all have adjustable draw strings and closures.

 

Finally the rear of the tent.
DSC05331.jpg

As Rick noticed and remined me this tent can be double poled when the wind is blowing so hard as to flatten the tent out.

I do believe the make a tent for everything under the sun.

Link below  if you want to check out the  the specs.

http://www.backcountry.com/mountain-hardwear-alpine-cook-tent

 

12:13 a.m. on March 10, 2012 (EST)
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Ape,

There are all sorts of things that one can "get away with" given some combination of luck, skill, and experience. As I state in the handouts I give in the High Adventure Leader courses I teach, there are a number of practices of experienced mountaineers that are risky enough that one should not attempt them until you have a lot of experience and guidance by a highly experienced mentor and have a thorough understanding of the risks and consequences. Using a stove or any open flame in a tent or snow shelter is one of them. Solo climbing, whether rope solo or free solo, is another, as are solo travel on glaciers, travel through potential avalanche terrain (especially immediately after a heavy snowfall), heading into high mountain terrain when a known storm is headed toward you (something SAR personnel do a lot), extended solo travel anywhere in the backcountry, kayaking through Class V or harder rapids, etc etc. I watched a program on Speed Channel on the deadly years of Formula 1, where something like 1/3 of the drivers died during the era - trained, experienced, yet a very high death rate including some of the world's top drivers.

Experienced people do these things and usually survive, but sometimes are seriously injured or die. I have done a number of the things listed above (no, I didn't drive F-1, but I did drive F-Jr and performance rally). I am reluctant to discuss these activities and how to survive doing them because far too many people will be tempted to try them, thinking that a bit of book-learning, or far worse, reading a website or a couple posts on a forum gives them the knowledge needed.

As I mentioned, I have seen exploding stoves and burning tents (had the "safety" valve on a Svea 123 let loose myself, luckily with no serious consequences).  Here is a photo of an XGK that was used in a common way by a group of professional guides:

StovFiRT.jpg
They were using a trio of XGKs under a large pot in a "cooking tent", and this one melted its pump. Luckily the tent did not catch fire.

The classic case was the tent that vanished in an estimated 10 seconds on the Wilcox Expedition on Denali in 1967. Yeah, they were careless in refueling the stove in the tent with a running stove nearby. The tent, a sleeping bag, and some down clothing vanished in a burst of flame in an estimated 10 seconds. There was a lot went wrong on that expedition, with 7 of the original 12 ultimately dying on the mountain.

The Web and forums (especially forums as open as Trailspace) are not the place to try to explain the risks and how to do things like cooking in a tent or snow shelter, solo climbing, climbing on soft sandstone, hiking the Grand Canyon in summer, traveling in avalanche terrain, backcountry travel in a full-on blizzard that lasts for several days, or how to land and take off a plane on a glacier. Even the best of books or a week-end course are not enough. These all require a lot of experience and a thorough understanding of the risks involved and how to mitigate them.

At best, the internet is only adequate to convey some idea of the risks involved, and that if you screw it up, you may die. What is "adequate ventilation" of a tent? Checking the direction of airflow with the bent flame of a match gives no indication of whether the volume of airflow is adequate to remove all the CO and provide an adequate supply of O2. Using an airflow meter to measure the volume of air moved gives some indication, but you have to understand the meaning of the instrument's readings.

CO is a very tricky and insidious gas. And as a few professional ski patrollers have found out at Mammoth, so is CO2 (several died in a single incident a few years ago on what was apparently an open area, thanks to a natural source of carbon dioxide).

While I believe it is incumbent on those of us with more experience to raise the red flags and alarms as to the dangers, it is potentially adding to the risk level to give the partial hints on how to cook in tents, traverse avalanche terrain, and climb solo without thorough personal hands-on demonstrations of the techniques, including at least simulated demonstrations of the consequences of incomplete knowledge and practices.

12:29 a.m. on March 10, 2012 (EST)
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Bill S,

             Would that be Rick Wilcox?

9:34 a.m. on March 10, 2012 (EST)
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Schlockmyr said:

Bill S,

             Would that be Rick Wilcox?

 Joe Wilcox.

Ed

11:05 a.m. on March 10, 2012 (EST)
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Bill S said:

..There are all sorts of things that one can "get away with" given some combination of luck, skill, and experience... ..there are a number of practices of experienced mountaineers that are risky... ..Using a stove or any open flame in a tent or snow shelter is one of them. Solo climbing, whether rope solo or free solo, is another, as are solo travel on glaciers, travel through potential avalanche terrain (especially immediately after a heavy snowfall), heading into high mountain terrain when a known storm is headed toward you (something SAR personnel do a lot), extended solo travel anywhere in the backcountry, kayaking through Class V or harder rapids, etc etc...

I am even more conservative than Bill on operating stoves and lanterns in tents.  I have done my share of high altitude winter mountaineering, some in fairly extreme settings, a couple included situations that resulted in members of the trip sustaining frost injuries.  And I have done all of the ill advised activities Bills equates stove-in-tent with, except kayaking and solo glacier travel  (Solo glacier travel - really stupid!)  But so is stove-in-tent.  I think we tend to resort to options like stove-in-tent too quickly.  There are four basic reasons why I think the stove-in-tent option should be considered only when the alternative is probable cold related injuries or death:

  1. The risk/reward quotient doesn’t equate. 
    The overwhelming examples where people opt for stove-in-tent are not life threatening situations.  This is practiced mainly to avoid suffering some weather exposure.  The problem is, should things go wrong, the result often becomes a crisis, with one’s shelter destroyed, and frequently one or more campers sustaining burns.
  2. You can reduce your reliance on stoves
    It is easy to devise a contingency plan that permits the group to forgo stove operation for one day.  This buys you time to take action that permits operating a stove without doing so inside a tent.  Trips into extreme environments should always have several days of food that can be eaten cold.  Likewise we try to plan water provisioning such that we have one quart per climber left at the end of each day’s activity.  This makes for extra haul weight, but is a good practice for this and other reasons too.  The group can then use this time to dig a snow cave, or fabricate a cook stance that permits operating the stove outside the tent.  I have never been on a trip where a bomber cook station cannot be devised in 24 hours.
  3. Stoves malfunction.
    It happens.  Even to fastidiously maintained stoves.  It doesn’t help that matters are exasperated by the extreme temperature contrast between hot stove parts and extreme frigid environment.  Hoses and gaskets get brittle, lubricating grease freezes, and metal parts work harden.  All of these failure modes can occur no matter the condition the stove was in before the trip.  Often there is no means to detect all these problems before failure occurs.  Additionally casual handling accidents, like dropping the stove, can set the stage for a subsequent cooking accident.
  4. Human error.
    Most stove accidents are the result of human error.  Yea, go ahead and say you won’t make a mistake.  The problem is you already did – by getting yourself into such a predicament that forced you to stove-in-tent mode.  But wait, there’s more!  Try manipulating a stove in sub zero weather.  Let’s just say you will be compelled to rush, which is an open invitation to error.  Add on top of this you may be really exhausted and not mentally operating with a full deck.  Or your tent mates (yea we often cram three or four into a two man tent during meal time) may contribute to a situation that results in a stove mishap.

Alas this is not to say people don’t do this and get away with it.  People drive dunk, have unprotected sex, dove hunt while drunk, all without inciden MOST OF THE TIME.  Are they experts or lucky?  While I have seen only two stove accidents, I know of no one who has nominal outdoor experience who has not experienced a stove handling error.  It isn't worth the risk.


stormwalls.jpg

Above:  Cooking dinner OUTSIDE: Mt Langley @ 13,500’ late January,
air temp: -6°F (day time) wind speed: ~45mph.  Certainly this qualifies as extreme.  Have cooked outside tent in worse conditions.

12:00 p.m. on March 10, 2012 (EST)
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A friend of mine, Clyde Soles, wrote in an article about stoves in a climbing magazine some years ago the advice that you should "treat all stoves like the barely controlled explosions that they are" (I am quoting him with his permission). He also said "there are two kinds of people who use backpacking stoves - those who have had an incident and those who will."

Ed makes some excellent comments above. It does not matter whether your stove is alcohol, compressed gas, white gas, or kerosene. And accidents can happen with wood fires as well. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. If you do a lot of cooking, sooner or later, you will have an incident. When people tell me that "I have used backpacking stoves for years and never had a problem", I immediately respond with "yet!"

Most frequently, the incidents involve lighting or refueling. Some involve improper use of wind shields, some involve improper pot size.

Oh, looking back at the OP, most stove users are unaware that when a stove is first lit or when you first place a pot on the stove, the CO production of the stove is hugely increased. If you are melting snow for water, the burning efficiency has been measured in experiments to drop by half when the pot of snow is first placed on the stove (remember to have a bit of water in the pot so you don't scorch the pot!). The reason is that the cold pot partially quenches the flame.

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