There are certain pieces of kit that are iconic to the bushcraft crowd: Mora knives, Zebra pots, Gransfors Bruks axes and the Kelly Kettle. The last is an item that always intrigued me and that I’ve seen in use on trips now and again but I’d never gotten to work with one before. That all changed recently when I got a Kelly Scout Kettle in for review from Kelly Kettle USA and had the chance to pit it to the test in the late winter and early spring of this year.
Having a good reliable method of cooking and boiling water is key to a successful outdoors expedition, at least if it’s to be done with any degree of comfort. While there are a myriad of different style stoves using liquid or gas for fuel a wood burner is extremely simple and uses fuel provided by nature. As long as you’re in an area that has any sort of trees or brush to provide small branches and twigs you’re good to go. Although gas and liquid stoves are very efficient these days liquid fuel is heavy and both it and gas depend on what you’re willing to carry with you. If you run out while in the field you’re pretty much stuck. That’s where the beauty of a wood burning stove really comes in to play. Fuel is readily available and on a small stove like the Kelly Kettles you don’t need a lot of it to work with.
Generally speaking anything thumb sized and under is about perfect for fueling your Kelly Kettle. You can fit stuff a little bigger but the smaller stuff is easy to gather either off the ground or by snapping off dead, low hanging branches from trees. I like using a set of pruners and snipping off low branches personally. It’s fast and easy and the dead twigs still on the tree are often drier and not rotted as opposed to what you sometimes gather from the forest floor.
Now, there are a lot of different types of wood stoves available these days, and you can obviously cook right over a camp fire as well, so why chose a Kelly Kettle? The key is the Kettle design. A design that dates back to the 1890’s when they were first used by fisherman on the West Coast of Ireland. The Kettle looks something like an old metal milk container but in fact is a pretty slick system where the double walled water vessel actual surrounds a hollow inner core that acts as a chimney for the stove portion of the kettle. Think of it like a volcano with hollow walls. In fact Kelly Kettles are sometimes also called volcano kettles for that reason. The system consists of two main pieces. The first is a base piece which is essentially a metal bowl or pot with a round window in the side for airflow and for feeding fuel into the stove. You build your fire in this base piece and then once it’s going well you sit the top piece, the actual kettle on top. The kettle portion has a carry handle on it as well as a rubber stopper for the fill hole on the kettle. Capacity varies depending on model from a compact Trekker model which holds 17 to 19 ounces of water in aluminum and stainless steel respectively, a mid-sized Scout model that holds 44 and 37.2 ounces of water in aluminum and stainless versions, and the large Base Camp model which holds 54 and 50.7 ounces in aluminum and stainless. Which model is best for you would depend on how much space you have and what you’re willing to carry. For testing I received a stainless steel Scout model which is a fairly handy size. It’s compact enough to easily store in a gear box of your truck, or boat, and not too big to carry for an overnight or two although I probably wouldn’t want to lug it on an actual backpacking trip. The Scout is a bit over 10 inches high, 7 inches in diameter and weighs 2.2 pounds. All of the Kettles come with a nylon carry bag to make transport easy and keep your other gear clean once you use the Kettle and it gets a little grimy. Always make sure to let your Kettle cool first though before putting it in the carry sack! Prices range from $64.99 for a small aluminum Trekker model up to $89.99 for a large stainless steel Base camp Model, which isn’t bad especially when you factor in that you never have to buy stove fuel again.
When it comes to using the Kelly Kettle it’s incredibly simple. Find a flat safe spot for the Kettle base, spend a few minutes gathering a good supply of sticks, twigs and tinder and you’re ready to roll. I used a ferro rod and one of the Pathfinder Mini-Inferno fire starters that I tested here in SRI a while back and quickly had a fire going in the base. Once my fire was burning well I filled my kettle to just below the fill hole with water and placed it on top of the base. Make sure that you don’t have the rubber stopper in place when you’re boiling water! Once you do this you know have a nice chimney which protects your fire from wind and weather and, combined with the feed hole in the base, provides a nice updraft which helps your fire to burn efficiently. When it comes time to top off your fire you can either feed sticks in through the hole on the side of the base or drop them straight down the chimney of the Kettle. Actual time to boil on the Scout model seemed to vary a bit depending on how good my fire was but was generally in the 8-10 minute range. I suspect you could shave some time off of that depending on the fuel you feed your Kettle. I just used sticks and twigs and some pieces of batoned wood from my wood pile. When you’re water comes to a boil lift the Kettle off of the base by using the handle positioned at a 90 degree angle away from the side of the Kettle. To pour use the handle and then grab the chain from the stopper. Keep the Kettle steady with the handle and lift up on the chain to tilt the Kettle and pour boiling water from the spout. I generally have a pair of leather gloves in my field kit which helps too, but once you master the lift and pour technique you can do it safely even with bare hands.
Now, for just boiling water this worked great. The Kelly Kettle uses a minimal amount of parts, is easy to use and set up and boils water pretty quickly. And honestly for most of my camping that’s all I need. I eat simple in the woods. If it requires more than boiling water I don’t bring it. Backpacker meals, cup of soup, oatmeal, tea or instant coffee and the Kelly Kettle will have me covered. If you are a little more adventurous than me thought Kelly Kettle USA has you covered though. With my Scout model they provided a couple of interesting accessories. The first is a Cook Set which contains a pot, a frying pan which also acts as a pot lid, a gripper handle and a two piece grill. It comes in two sizes, a large version which works with the Base Camp and Scout model Kettle and a smaller one for use with the Trekker Kettle. The grill adds versatility to the Kettle because it allows you to use the fire base as a sort of hobo stove that you can now cook directly on. Just drop the two half-moon shaped grill pieces into the top lip of the fire base and you’re ready to set either the pot or the frying pan on top and commence cooking. You could even use the grill to cook something simple like hot dogs or other meat directly on the grill if you wanted. Although it somewhat defeats the purpose of having a Kelly Kettle you could even just take the fire base, grill and a pot if you needed a more compact stove for a trip. Another neat accessory that I got to try was a Pot Support which consists of two flat pieces of steel that slide together and slip into the top of the Kettle s chimney. With this in place you can now set the pot or frying pan of the cook set directly on top of the complete Kettle. This way you can boil water and heat up food at the same time. The Cook Set nests with the fire base for compact storage and those along with the Pot Support easily fit in the nylon carry bag.
If you’re looking at getting away from liquid or gas stoves, or just want to try a neat but extremely functional piece of field kit the Kelly Kettle is well worth looking at. They’re well made, efficient have the distinction of having over a century of field testing behind them. What other piece of gear your using now can say that?
Kelly Kettle USA
As seen is the Woods Monkey Gear Review column of Self Reliance Illustrated Issue # 21! Click here to see the issue!