When I was asked if I would review the MSR Reactor stove system for Woods Monkey I was glad to do it, but I was unfamiliar with the unit. I had of course heard about MSR and even had some of their pieces of equipment. This particular system had escaped my equipment junkie’s radar screen somehow.
After a bit of web browsing I found out that the Reactor system was MSR’s attempt to innovate and take stove design in a new direction. MSR claims that their design was a revolution in the way stove systems are designed, touting boil times to match or beat every system on the market it almost seemed too good to be true. I tried to stave off my early judgments but the manufactures site literature made some bold claims. Suffice it to say that I approached this gear review with a bit of skepticism.
When I received the system I hefted it and found the whole system to be very low in weight for a group system. The entire system weighs in at just 21 ounces. This includes stove top, the pot, the lid, and about a 6”x 6” micro fiber camp towel. To call the pot a pot is actually a bit of a gross understatement. The capacity of the vessel is 1.5 liters with a maximum fill line of 1 liter for boiling. It has internal delineations at .5 liters, 1.0 liters, and 1.5 liters. The pot’s outward appearance is plain with a standard enough looking design. Once you look a little closer though you realize its bottom third is actually an integrated wind screen for the stove. The extreme bottom of the pot is a heat exchanger which is quite smoothly engineered to act as heat exchanger and pot stand. The lid for the pot is lexan with a vent hole and it has a recessed ridge for fit. The lid handle is rubberized and even at boil is well enough insulated to allow handling. A nice addition would be a strainer in the lid, but the vent hole works in a pinch. When the pot is stowed for packing the pot handle folds up over the top and is retained by a toggle that fits the end of the handle. This position also maintains a small amount of down pressure on the lid. When I used it I was able to fit a full size fuel container in on top of the stove, as well as a lighter, GI can opener, a bandana, and a titanium spork slid down the side.
Well, I had a shiny new toy in hand and was leaving on a camping trip the following morning to New York in the Finger Lakes State Forest. The first opportunity to try the stove was just a usage, not a trial. I didn’t set up a timer or take a temperature reading. Dinner consisted of a dehydrated meal I had brought which required ¾ of a cup of boiling water. My meal consisted of burger gravel, a half a pack of gravy mix, a portion of powdered milk, and a half a pack of instant potatoes – very good stuff. I did decide to fill the pot to the 1 liter line just so I could see how fast it was. Let me put it to you this way in terms of speed. I lit the stove and let it turn red; this took a matter of seconds. I placed the pot on the stove, went about digging out my utensils, grabbed a hand full of trail mix, and began talking to others that were making their meals. When I turned around to check how things were coming I was shocked to see that not only was it boiling but it was at a rolling boil with the lid vibrating and looked to have been for a few moments at least. There were fellow gear heads along on the trip so we sat over dinner and discussed this stove compared to that stove and the like. We passed the pot around and the stove to get everyone’s opinion.
Once everyone was fairly hyped up about it we decided to conduct a little more stringent test. The air temperature for our test was 58.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The water used was out of a bottle that had been outside for the duration so I believe it was the same temperature. We decided to use 1 liter for our test. It is worth noting that the literature with the stove claims that it will boil the first liter out of a fuel bottle in 3 minutes and the last boil in about 3:30. This is due to the fact that the stove has an internal pressure regulator that is designed to keep the fuel at a constant pressure through the bottles life. The stove was lit, the timer prepared, and as the pot was set into place the timer was activated. I have to try to express the funny thought I had as we all stood around and eagerly awaited the boil. No one was really talking or even looking away. This was a group of 8 men literally transfixed by the proposed speed of this systems boil. It was as if no one could look away from the pot for fear of the first wisps of escaping water vapor being lost. In the end everyone was pleased with the results. At a time of 2:45 bubbles began to form and at 3:01 the old adage of “a watched pot never boils” was broken 8 times over, and in roughly 3 minutes time. Quite a ways short of “never” I think you’ll agree.
I used the cooking system numerous times over that 4 day trip and since then a few times more. Something like 4 day hikes when I more or less took it along to make sure I got some usage time and another overnighter in the last month. I have drawn a few conclusions on this system and I can safely say they are almost all good. For starters the pot is sized to handle up to 3 people. If you are using dehydrated or freeze dried meals as a majority food source this may be your ultimate system. If you are using it for dry foods as well as just warming things it is still good, though you will want to be ready to stir very regularly. The heat conduction rate in the bottom is very fast and depending upon your dish it may scorch the bottom of thicker concontions. I don’t believe a back country gourmet wishing to simmer, bake, or roast anything in this system would be well pleased.
As a soloist system it is a bit bulky in size for one person, but the weight is marginal. I did have a thought that pushed me a little over this line to use it as a solo system. The speed of the system has made me rethink my water purification methods. I carry a Steripen as part of my regular ruck. It is small, light, and very fast. At 90 seconds for a liter of water it is hard to beat. However, if I use the MSR Reactor for my cooking system as well as for water purification; it would eliminate an additional item from my pack. By this rationale, I am doubly protected for water purification removing my dependency on batteries and bottled fuel.
The stove top itself is a unique design which I presume is all about making the best of the heat transfer. It is not an open flame like a a lot of the popular stoves you will find on the market. Rather, it uses a reaction medium to diffuse the heat across the entire surface. It brings to mind the little Coleman catalytic heaters that have been available for years. This medium is protected by a wire mesh which is fairly thick; maybe something on the order of 16-18 gauge wire. The stove took a light from everything I tried – Bic lighter, ferro rod, and matches. Once lit, the reactor doesn’t take long to get to temp. The manual says to light it and then turn the valve to full open to heat the stove. I usually didn’t have the valve all the way open before the stove began to glow a nice red. Shortly after, the mesh top of the stove begins to glow as well. I found that the stove was very easy to adjust for most back country cooking needs, with the only exception being if you needed a really low heat. I was able to control the rate of boil very well and when I was cooking soup or noodles it was easy keep them from scorching. The only complaint I would make against the stove was the rather domed shaped of the mesh on top which precludes the use of other cookware. (Editor’s Note: From MSR–Because of the unique nature of the burner, and the use of radiant heat transfer, other cookware should not be used with this stove. Bright or reflective cookware such as stainless or un-coated aluminum will reflect much of the radiant energy back at the stove and canister which can result in overheating of the stove and/or canister. This is a dangerous situation and as such the Reactor has a built in mechanism that will disable the stove in the event that the stove is overheated. The dome shaped screen is present to discourage the use of non-Reactor cookware (as well as protect the burner material) and you will notice that there are no pot supports provided to hold standard cookware.)
The stages of my test were in a great time of year for temperature variance. We have had mornings as cold as 33 and days close to 80 this fall. I was able to make use of a few chilly mornings for actual testing. I left a bucket of water and the stove with fuel out one night when it was to get down to the low thirties. Rolling out of bed early I got a temperature around 5am of 33 degrees. Even in these conditions it still boiled 1 liter of water in 3:17. I stuck the fuel bottle in the freezer for a few hours on a different day and ran a test getting a boil time of 3:24. I failed to keep an accurate count of uses because it was just fun to boil water. It is fast enough to fascinate me even now and was just something cool to do when I sat down with my dog to take a break while hiking. A good guess would be that I used the system 25 times to boil water, the vast majority of which was at 1 liter. For actual cooking I would say I used it around 8 times all of which were on a lower setting.
In looking back over this it would be about the amount you would expect to use it for a 4-5 day hike presuming the bulk of your meals were dry needing no more than 1.5 cups of water and drinking the rest. The fuel bottle I have is still around half full and it is the same one I have used all along with this stove. The efficiency of the stove can really be seen in this alone. For a week long trip, even using it to purify water, I would feel safe taking one full size fuel bottle and a smaller bottle strictly as a back up. That is what I would normally take for a week, plus my Steripen. I had no means to test high altitude, but I would venture a guess that the fuel regulator would help out a lot there. There is an internal expansion chamber of some sort because I can hear the stove purge when it is broken down so pressure should remain a constant even on the verge of a boiled bottle.
A few other nice features that are worth mentioning are the strength of the over all construction. I am told that other heat exchanger systems are a weaker foil type and being as they are exposed the soft edges are always catching on things. I have seen this myself in other people’s equipment that have had to opportunity to check out. The fins on the Reactor are welded to the bottom of the pot. A conservative guess, and that is all it is, is that the surface area on the exchanger is twice what it would be on the flat pot bottom. The exchanger fins are also thick which helps them to gather and transfer heat into the pot. They appear to be about the same gauge as the pot itself. All of the fins are above the bottom profile of the pot’s stove-stand bottom; there simply is nothing to get it caught on. You can go from stove or fire to ground without worry of damage to the exchanger. I should say that the presumption about using the reactor in a fire is untested and certainly unmentioned in the manufacture’s literature. I sincerely believe it will work though.
Another item which is built for long use and rigid application is the handle. More specifically it is the folding joint of the handle. Even with the pot completely full of water past 1.5 liters you can hold it by the handle at full extension and rotate it to pour without any worry of the hinge breaking over. It stays locked into position until you are ready to stow it. This is really nice in transferring soups or hot beverages into a bowl or mug. The way the pot’s stove stand bottom engages the stove is a nice snug fit too. This allows for use on slightly uneven ground and you know in an instant that the stove is centered and engaged when the pot drops onto it. When you look at the MSR Reactor at first glance it is a very basic system. My take of it after using it for some time is that it is basic only in concept. They seemed to have been working off a check list of the many tricks people have used over the years to make their outdoor cooking easier, but more specifically more efficient. With integrated systems like the heat exchange, wind screen, and fuel pressure regulator it is very user friendly.
The weekend warrior could easily find advantages in eliminating flame outs, reduced fuel usage, and speed. While the outdoorsmen in all of us can appreciate the ruggedness of design and reap even higher benefits from the fuel efficiency, reliable operation, and consistent performance per fuel bottle. I won’t say that the MSR Reactor is the end all of stove technology, but they sure put a great deal of pressure on those trying to best it in the years to come!