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Friday, March 26, 2010

Esbit Fuel vs. Wetfire cubes

I made a trip over to REI and got my hands on both of these products. Both are available with small stoves for cooking/heating with the fuel, so I figured a little testing was in order. I wanted to see if either were capable of bringing water to a boil, which burned the longest, and which was the easiest to get ignited and burning. These would primarily be used in survival kits and bug out bags for a compact, emergency source of heat and fire starting.

The stove I used was a POS little foldable piece of stamped metal that came is sold as an "emergency stove" with three Esbit tablets. I thought it looked like in might fit in one of my survival tins, but it was a bit too big. I should have just made a cheap pop can stove to use with these tablets, but that is another story. Conditions were warm (about 70 degrees--living in the desert has its perks this time of year) with a light breeze. No wind screen was used, my "pot" was a GSI Nalgene nesting cup, filled with 2 cups of tap water. No lid.

I know these are not ideal conditions--I could have used a better stove, windscreen, a lid, a cup of water instead of two cups, but I wanted to see what these cubes were capable of.

I took some pictures, but they didn't turn out well--I blame the piece of junk camera, not my photography skills :).

WetFire Tinder Cubes

You've probably WetFire Tinder Cubes sold on survival websites--they're the fire cubes shown burning while floating in a cup of water. These are marketed as the "best fire starting material available anywhere in the world." A little folding three-pronged stove is available for cooking on. The cubes come individually packaged and cost about $1 each. The cubes themselves are white, look a little like a packing peanut and have a dry, soapy texture. 

The directions instruct you to shave off a portion of the cube and then use that as "tinder" to help light the rest of the cube. I did so and was able to light the cube on my second try with a ferro rod. Pretty good.

The cube burned for approximately 6 minutes and 45 seconds before going out. It was not able to get the water boiling, but there was some small bubbles on the bottom and side of the cup. This suggests temperatures between 155F and 170F. I should have had a thermometer on hand, but I would be surprised if the water did not get sufficiently hot to pasteurize any bugs in it. You do not need to bring water to a rolling boil to pasteurize it--temperatures above 149F will start to kill the nasty creatures. Of course, boiling is an obviously safer bet--no guessing at the temperature of the water and hoping that it got hot enough for long enough to kill the creatures.

The Wetfire cube actually left a small nugget of fuel--I broke that open and found some intact fuel inside, which I was then able to re-light. This leftover fuel burned for another 15 to 20 seconds and then went out.

Esbit Fuel Tablets

Esbit fuel tablets have been around for a while--invented waaaay back in 1936 by a German scientist. They have been used by soldiers and hikers for decades. They come in a sealed pill-style packaging, and the tablets themselves are pre-marked to divide into quarters. They cost about 50 to 75 cents each.

I was unable to get the tablet to light with a ferro rod, despite several minutes of trying. Fair to say that these will not work for ferro rod tinder if that is your preferred fire lighting method. It lit fairly easily with a match...but that means you need to have a match/lighter or other ready source of fire.

The Esbit tablet burned for 10 minutes and 25 seconds, and the water looked quite a bit hotter than with the Wetfire tinder, but certainly not boiling. Just more tiny bubbles and some steam.


During the test conditions, neither product was able to bring the 2 cups of water to a boil. They did get the water hot, probably hot enough to kill any creatures living in it, and definitely hot enough to use for hot chocolate, a Mountain House meal, or a hot shave in the morning.  The WetFire tinder cube lit easily, the Esbit tablet were harder to light but burned longer and hotter. Esbit tablets are about 1/2 the price of WetFire tinder.

Between the two, which would I choose for my kits? The WetFire tinder. It's a very robust/water resistant tinder that burns so long that you can some basic heating/cooking on. With one of these and a source of sparks, you've got at least one very sure fire. In a survival situation, you would probably use only small pieces of the WetFire cube to start up each fire--stretching one little cube out long enough to start several fires. If my life depended on using a piece of tinder to get a fire going, this would be what I would use.

Why not the Esbit tablets? They are a little tricky to light--in pretty ideal circumstances, I spent several minutes trying to light the cube with a ferro rod and failed. Holding a lit match to it for a few seconds did the trick...so, basically, you need a ready source of flame, not sparks to get this thing going. And if I have an open source of flame for 5-10 seconds, I can light any kind of scavenged/brought along tinder. Sure, that tinder probably will not burn as long and as hot as an Esbit cube--you're not going to cook over a PJ cotton ball, dryer lint, piece of inner tube, etc., but you can use it to get a real fire going.

The Esbits are better for pure heating and cooking, but neither of these would be my first (or second or third) choice as a standalone cooking solution. As a real "stove," these don't cut it. They just don't have the oomph to do a whole lot--especially when you compare it to the tiny alcohol and fuel canister stoves out on the market, where you can actually cook and boil for not a whole lot more weight.

So, WetFire tinder cubes are the winner for me.

WetFire Tinder Cubes >
Esbit Fuel Tablets >