Ways to manage risks of cooking under vestibule

11:26 p.m. on March 1, 2011 (EST)
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Although I avoid it whenever possible, when the weather is truly bad like early/ late season above or north of the treeline I have on occasion cooked in my tent vestibule. The problem is that if the weather is truly bad enough to necessitate this, I’m probably some place remote enough that burning my tent down is more than an inconvenience. Because of this, I made up a small laminated checklist I follow when I am not able to cook outside. Many times I bring a backup butane stove with a small canister which I very much prefer to use in this situation. The only downside is that the canister needs to be preheated in the sleeping bag overnight before it will work in cold conditions.

The most likely issue with a liquid fuel stove would come from overpriming, which I would imagine would most likely result in some melted fabric if you’re partner was quick. The scary scenario would be an O ring catastrophically failing which although very unlikely would mean you would have to be ready to bail ASAP. I also realize that there is a risk from CO, but if I’m cooking under a vestibule there should be enough wind that we will have proper venting.  A small stick on CO detector on the floor might be kind of a neat idea though (the kind with the yellow dot that turns black when exposed to CO)

I also brief my tentmate what to do in the event of a fire. The items included are

  • They will have extinguishing means such as a water bottle or snow ready in case of a flareup during the start.
  • In the unlikely event of a catastrophic failure, how will we evacuate.

If I use the white gas stove here’s the list I follow.

  • Pack gear for evacuation
  • Sleeping bag and bivy
  • Daypack
  • Open exit on opposite side
  • Have method for quick extinguish of fire
  • Use smallest bottle available and preferably a full fuel bottle
  • Pump and sniff test for leaks
  • Separate bottle from stove as best as possible
  • Open valve and check for leaks
  • Use minimal priming

 

I’m wondering if anyone has anything additional anyone would like to add. I realize that there is a risk involved with this practice, but I’m hoping in that with proper precautions, the risk can at least be managed and brought down to an acceptable level.

6:03 a.m. on March 2, 2011 (EST)
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Given this practice, I would add to the prep list assuring you have good medical and disability insurance.  Life insurance wouldn’t hurt either.

You underestimate the risk and definitely overestimate the effectiveness of your precautionary measures.  Just read up on mountaineering lore to gain an appreciation for how frequent tent fires are, how helpless you will be despite any amount of preparation, and how these fires contribute to bad adventure outcomes in ways that are not obvious.  For instance: The Wilcox expedition to Denali, the worst single party tragedy ever on the mountain claiming seven victims, experienced a stove fire that destroyed a tent.  This mishap occurred days before the actual tragedy struck, but is considered by some as an important contributing factor, regardless the party had other tents where the dispossessed campers could hole up.  In fact the histories of Denali, K2, Everest, polar exploration, etc are rife with an unsuspectingly high number of tent fires from stoves.  Technology has little affect mitigating this risk; canister stoves have their share of mishaps as well.  If seasoned trekkers encounter this fate, what makes one think they can do any better tempting fate?  Such attitude my friend is called hubris.

But since you seem confident in your measures, let’s uncover some of the faults therein.

  • Have a means of extinguishing on hand.  Neither snow, water, or a less than all out attempt with a saturated blanket will put out a hydrocarbon fueled blaze.  Even if you had a real fire extinguisher capable of putting down fuel fires, it doesn’t take much fuel to create a fire that would completely fill a tent.  You will be more interested in getting out of that conflagration than battling it.  Don't believe me?  Try it at home uinder "controlled" conditions. 
  • Forget about an evacuation plan.  Testimony has demonstrated once caught up in such a predicament natural behavior is every man for himself, and you escape by any means necessary, including clawing one’s way past slower moving participants.  The only hope you have of executing an escape plan from this scenario is to pre-rehearse it, ad nauseam, like they do in the navy for ship and submarine fires.  Most people otherwise react with animal instincts to such a crisis.  So much for a plan.
  • Pack all gear for evacuation.  Packing your gear may save some of it by virtue it will not be in immediate direct contact with fire, but you will not be evacuating it with you for the aforementioned reasons in the prior bullet point.
  • Use the smallest fuel container.  The immediate danger is the initial fire, typically fueled by an ounce or two of escaped fuel at most.  That in itself is more than enough to get you into a bunch of trouble.  It is little use to limit the fuel vessel volume anyway, since one cup of gasoline will create a rather impressive fireball out in the open, or completely fill the confined space of a tent with flames for several moments.  And then there are the secondary fuel sources (e.g. clothing sleeping bags, the tent itself, YOUR clothes, etc).
  • Testing for leaks may preclude really stupid accidents, but many stove fires occur for reasons other than leaks present before the match is struck.
  • Use minimal priming.  Minimal priming often translates in practice to insufficient priming.  Then you have to re-prime, thus double your exposure to fires caused by priming mishaps.  A single healthy prime beats an insufficient prime.  But since priming is inherently error prone, doing so in a tent is a fool’s gamble.

One note especially caught my eye, the notion of opening both exits of the tent.  This assumes you are using a tent with two doors, and they are spaced far enough apart to make such an effort worth the bother.  More significantly it beckons the question: why bother cooking inside the tent (or vestibule) if the doors are open permitting the weather to gust through anyway?  The tent is only a symbolic protection to really foul weather in that case.  And if you are doing this just to stay out of the rain, you should buck up and cope with it, or stay home and not risk your life over getting wet.

In any case there are very few instances where weather is truly bad enough for sustained periods where it warrants cooking near a tent, let alone inside it.  I am inclined to doubt you have experienced weather so fierce it mandated cooking in the tent.  We have cooked in gale winds at 17K feet in zero degree weather by building cooking stances outside in the snow pack, rather than risk out tents.  Likewise cooking inside snow caves is also asking for trouble, due to the confined space and the fact a fire may block your only exit.  It is very uncomfortable cooking while exposed to the elements, I'll grant you this, but so are second degree burns, especially when sustained days from the nearest relief.  Perhaps you should consider using solid fuels, but then you are back to dealing with harmful gas byproducts.

Ed



11:16 a.m. on March 2, 2011 (EST)
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Get a tarp. Prepare some "cold" food that dont need cooking. A small soda-can alcohol stove might be a better idea but I wouldn't know for sure, never tried em. They do look safer in that scenario (cooking under a vestibule). A good venting will help for the CO2 fumes.

Be careful. 

12:57 p.m. on March 2, 2011 (EST)
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I should probably clarify a couple of things. First, I do try to avoid cooking in a vestibule whenever possible, however from a risk management perspective, there is also a risk in venturing too far from the tent in whiteout conditions. The few times when I have used my stove in the vestibule, it would have been very difficult to light the stove outside. I do like the idea of bringing some food that doesn’t need hot water, but there is still the issue of melting snow for drinking water. I really like the idea of the solid fuel tablets, thanks by the way. I don’t have a ton of experience with alcohol stoves so I would have to play with them more before I felt comfortable with them.

Again I really like the solid fuel idea. Between solid fuel for water and cold meals it’s unlikely that I will have to use the white gas stove again in the vestibule. I’ve never been stranded in the tent for more than a day, but in the event of being stuck for an extended amount of time, using the stove would be a good alternative to dehydration if the fuel tablets run out.

A few other things I should clarify by the way.

First, I’m definitely not implying that it would be practical to fight a fire from a stove failure using a water bottle. On the other hand, if it’s simply a matter of overpriming, I’m thinking that a good amount of snow should do the trick if the other guy is ready for it.

When I mentioned keeping a door open for an escape, I meant keeping the opposite vestibule closed and only opening the door a 9 inches or so. Makes for a better visual than looking for small zipper pulls. The vestibule on the escape side would remain zipped shut keeping out most of the blowing snow if it’s on the lee side of the tent. If the bivy and daypack were sitting right next to the door or under the escape vestibule, hopefully you would have the presence of mind to grab it on the way out.

Also, my thought process for minimal pumping of the stove was that if there were any questionable o rings that made it past inspection, they would be more likely to fail with 30 pumps that 10. I’m thinking that if you use a fuel bottle with 1-1.5 ounces of fuel then you may have a better chance of salvaging the tent (still not implying that I would stay in the tent and fight the fire).

Again, I will do my best to avoid this practice and I may not have to do it again. Still, any advice in the event that I do would be appreciated.

Better yet, if you have any suggestions that would negate the need for running the stove in the first place please share them. So far, we have cold meals and solid fuel.

 

2:31 p.m. on March 2, 2011 (EST)
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I dont think there are that many ways to melt snow out there. Dehydration is never an interesting alternative in any case, neither is dying from fire. Risk management will dictate most of what you can do.

4:54 p.m. on March 2, 2011 (EST)
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Vestibule cooking is dependent on the size of the vestibule.  Beyond this, there are Three Places To Cook:

**  Outside and away from the tent.  Safe (usually).

**  In the tent vestibule.

**  Inside the actual tent body---risky.

 

I've done a lot of vestibule priming and cooking during blizzards (using an MSR Simmerlite), and you have to know the stove well to avoid mishap.  Generally, the colder it is the less it flares during priming, but in really hot weather gas ignites and seems to burn fiercely---so in-vestibule cooking is risky.  I rarely cook inside my tent---only once in fact in the last several years.  Mainly because I don't want an errant spark pinholing my thermarest or exped.

The only other technique I can offer is having the pot placed on top of the stove during priming.  It dissipates the flames and keeps them low.  Blackens the pot, though.

7:58 p.m. on March 2, 2011 (EST)
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I am afraid I have to be really harsh on this topic (not that I have ever been less than blunt on safety issues). I largely agree with Ed, but I would go farther in observing that you have some very wrong ideas in your list.

First thing is that unless you are really familiar with your stove and maintain it very well and frequently, don't even think of using it in your vestibule or, as Tipi says, even worse, in your tent. This is true for both liquid fuel and compressed gas stoves. There are serious risks you haven't mentioned.

Second, unless you can consistently light your liquid fuel stove with the maximum flame less than 3 inches above the burner, absolutely do not try lighting your stove within 20 feet of any fabric - tent, vestibule, tarp, shade, etc. (this is a National Fire Code recommendation). You may not be aware that some of the most highly rated tent manufacturers are forbidden from selling their tents in certain states because they will not pass those states fire safety requirements.

Ed mentioned the Wilcox Expedition's tent disaster. What he failed to mention was that the tent basically vanished in seconds. One of the survivors stated in his book about the expedition that when the fireball ignited, he dove for the door of the tent, but by the time he got there, the tent was completely gone, along with a sleeping bag and a couple of parkas. True, the incident was caused by what in retrospect was gross stupidity (refueling a hot stove within a few feet of a running stove). But I have seen tents quickly vanish during the lighting of the stove. I have also seen stoves with a dedicated safety valve release the valve (due to overpressure) with a resulting 5 foot jet of flame. And I have been near a compressed gas stove that had the canister explode, sending shrapnel in all directions, due to overheating resulting from a poorly thought-out method of countering the low temperature problem of butane.

You plan, you say, to douse any fire with a water bottle or snow. Apparently you are unaware (yes, I am being really harsh here) that oil and gas float on water, and that throwing water on the flame just spreads the burning flammable liquid more widely. Snow will work only if you toss several full shovels full on the flaming stove in quick succession (will you have a large shovel handy with plenty of snow?).

If you are going to pack your gear with the thought of grabbing it as you escape through the back door of the tent (that is, assuming you have a back door), which you are skilled enough to unzip in a fraction of a second without jamming the zipper (try this without a fire at your heels to see how well you do) plus cleanly getting the pack through the door without it slowing you down (try this one, too), well, maybe as suggested you and your partner should do several fire drills on every trip. Or maybe you should just pack everything and place it outside your tent at the recommended 20 foot distance. 

Oh, yeah, the Fire Safety people recommend doing any refueling a minimum of 20 feet from any operating stoves, with the stove fully cooled down and in a well-ventilated area. Again a case where I have seen people refueling at one end of a picnic table, spilling some fuel in the process, and watching the flame zip from the lit stove to the refueling can and stove being refueled in a blink of an eye (literally). You doubt what I am saying? Try it yourself, or ask the survivors of the Wilcox incident (however, I accept no responsibility if you should do such an experiment).

And the CO stick-on plaques - When we owned our own plane, I bought those. What I found was that they do not remain effective for very long after opening the plastic wrap. And you need to monitor them constantly, since they respond pretty slowly (I checked this by sticking one up to a car exhaust - this was in the days before catalytic converters were required on cars).

I agree that I am being very nasty and harsh here. But this is such an important safety issue and stoves are such high risk that it calls for being blunt. Be very aware of the risks. As a friend of mine, Clyde Soles, a highly respected outdoorsman and gear expert for many years, wrote in a review of stoves and cooking systems in Rock and Ice magazine, "Treat all stoves like the barely controlled explosions that they are."

8:20 p.m. on March 2, 2011 (EST)
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Plus, there's a difference between a Simmerlite and a Svea 123.  I would never prime and use a Svea inside my vestibule or even anywhere near the tent, period.  It truly is a bomb waiting to explode.  The fun part is when its little midget tank runs out of fuel midway thru cooking and you think you've let it cool long enough to refill and re-prime---BLAM!!  A big old gas fireball similar to the Wilcox Explosion.  I don't know if the MSR stoves have one, but there's a blowoff emergency relief valve on the Svea that WILL detonate when able or angry or moody or for whatever other reason.  This will kill your gear.

Bill S has good cautionary points and the warnings should be duly heeded by the great majority of backpackers reading this forum.  But there will continue to be times when severe weather induces people---or backpackers or climbers---to whip out the stove and cook inside, either in the vestibule or god forbid the tent body.  And in terrible conditions at -10F or worse, there's a lot of snow that needs to be melted and guess where most of it is done?  Tent vestibules.

11:04 p.m. on March 2, 2011 (EST)
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Further dispelling of errant notions:

Sorry if it seems we dog pile on, but as Bill and Tipi state, this is one of the most serious backpacking issues we address in these forums. 

In your reply to my intial post you stated you will avoid tent cooking whenever possible.  You also state you have never been tent bound longer than 24 hours.  I would say your experience thus far does not warrant any cooking in a tent.  If you are practicing proper hydration up to that point, and didn’t overextend yourself to the point of total exhaustion, you will be at less risk going thirsty and hungry for an evening than flirting with a tent fire.  No one died of dehydration foregoing fluids for one night.

You also mention the risk of getting lost in a whiteout.  If this is really a concern, tether yourself to the tent with a cord; you need only venture a short distance from the tent to safely operate a stove.  Just make sure both ends of the cord are securely attached.  We had a camper who spent an uncomfortable night in a drift, because his cord came untied.  Our solution henceforth was properly attaching the cord to the tent when camp was initially established.  A carabineer is then properly attached at the other end.  The user simply clips the carbineer to their person, thus eliminating the possibility of hasty ill-executed knot tying done in the midst of other distracting activities.

Bill restated my cautionary advice regarding the difficulty of extinguishing a fuel fire.  I will double his call, and state it is impossible to snuff a stove fire in real world conditions before it has burned long enough to do a lot of damage.  Stove accidents can happen at any time, not just during start up.  They are hell fire waiting to make misery of anyone’s life who is complacent enough to accept this danger.  Unless you intend to have a fireman standing full time outside the vestibule with a shovel full of snow at the ready, consider extinguishing the fire as an activity performed as a formality after everything has been burned, and enough time has passed to treat the injured and regain composure.

Relying on only an ounce or so of fuel sounds like it will limit the danger, but that is only a symbolic nod toward safety.  In fact this practice may double your risk of accidents.  Charcoal BBQs are started using maybe two ounces of starter fuel, which is sufficient to burn for several minutes.  If you instead used the same amount of gas to start your BBQ, your neighbors may be compelled to call the fire department when they notice the glow of flames lighting the night sky on the other side of their property fence.  Even a little gas is too much to manage in an emergency, and more than enough to destroy a tent.  Furthermore if you run out of fuel in mid session, you will need to refuel and restart, both of which are the most risky activities involving gas stoves.

You conclude soliciting advice that will preclude cooking in your tent.  I have several:

  • Buck up!
    It may be really cold and uncomfortable, but RARELY are conditions so epic the only viable alternative is cooking in the tent.
  • Bone up!
    Perfect your fire starting technique.  A well crafted wind break will enable starting a stove in high winds.  Imagine a structure that looks like a cylinder on end with a small hole in the bottom on one side to access the stove, and an open top to access the cooking pot.  The top can be covered with a slab of snow when priming the stove, as can the access hole at the bottom if need be.  Certainly if cowboys can light a stogie on horseback in the elements, you can fire up with this set up.  Tip: Hurricane lighters or those wand-like lighters used to start BBQs will make this task somewhat less difficult. 
  • Gut up!
    Bring food that doesn’t require preparation.  Not as satifying as a hort meal, but certainly adequate.
  • Drink Up!
    Embrace the elements!  It may not seem very enjoyable, especially after spending the day slogging around in foul weather, but there is something enigmatic about hanging out in a gale, waiting for the snow to melt, meanwhile enjoying a smoke, and some fine whisky and chocolate with your fellow partners in folly.  These have been some of the more memorable moments of my times out near the edge, where you can experience the full awe, glory and bluster of nature without the distraction of having to go anywhere, worry about getting lost or getting caught out in the open without shelter.  Heck weather is one of the attractions to camping in the winter in the first place.  If you like it so much why then cower in a tent during your free time?  If you don’t like it – well what are you doing out there anyway?!

PS: And this coming from someone who actually hates being cold!

Ed

1:49 p.m. on March 3, 2011 (EST)
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Bring some peanut butter and jelly with you. You will be amazed how far your can get on a PB&J. Sure it isn't the Ritz Carlton. But you can also pack some Ritz crackers. If you simply have to cook (your all out of sandwiches)  I would setup a tarp and cook under it.

 

 

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