by Rand Rasmussen

The SVEA 123 is a stove with a storied 100 year history. For many years it was virtually the only thing going in the mountain-climbing field. And, although in some ways it has been supplanted by newer, lighter designs, it is still being manufactured (Aerostich carries them @: and it is still the stove of choice for many—me included. If nothing else, the 123 may be the coolest looking stove on the market. To riders who earned their riding chops on EFI-equipped bikes and their camping bona fides on butane stoves with piezo-electronic ignitions, the SVEA may seem complicated and fiddly. To those of who have used the SVEA 123 stove for years—or even for decades—it ranks low on the “gizmo” scale because of its simplicity and reliability.

Descriptively, the SVEA 123 is a “white gas” stove with an internal fuel tank (true, the correct name is “Coleman” fuel or some other band name stove fuel, but most users call it simply “white gas” because, for the most part, that’s what it is). This unitized design means the tank does not have to be attached and detached before and after each use, which makes it slightly simpler. It is self-pressurizing, meaning no pumping is required to use it, also simplifying operation. The main perceived threat surrounding the SVEA 123 seems to involve the mythology about the best way to prime and light it. It is likely that many a camper has been scared away from the 123 because lighting it seemed too complicated or even scary. When looked at objectively, this fuss about the priming and lighting of SVEA 123 stoves has been blown far out of proportion to its actual complexity. And the directions are not a great help--at least they weren’t 20 years ago when I got my first one; maybe they have improved since then.

In order to light a liquid-gas stove, it must be primed. “Priming” describes the initial pressurization of the tank. Most stoves these days include an integral pump, and while there is a pump available for the SVEA 123 which screws into the filler neck, with the relative simplicity of priming and lighting the 123 (once the proper technique is employed) to my mind, the SVEA pump is unnecessary. SVEA had the whole pressurization thing figured out decades ago, without a pump. On the other hand, if you like the idea of just being able to pump up your stove and light it, well, have at it, I guess.

To prime the SVEA 123 without using a pump, a small amount of fuel is placed in the primer pan, which is a shallow indentation on the tank surrounding the base of the “vaporizer” (the vertical member connecting the fuel tank to the burner). That fuel is lighted and, just as the name says, some fuel is vaporized by the heat of the flame. You then light the burner, after which the stove builds and maintains its own pressure throughout the burning process. Ah, but therein lies the rub: what is the best way to prime the SVEA? If you want to start an argument among SVEA users, tell them you know the “best” way to prime one. You’ll be confronted with tales about how this works and that doesn’t, and each will swear on a stack that their method is the best. So let’s look at what we have here.

There are, in fact, several ways to prime a SVEA 123 stove. Besides the pressure pump, other methods include carrying a small container of priming paste (Sterno works great for this), and putting a dab in the primer pan and lighting it. Some bring along a small squirt-bottle of white gas and fill the primer cup that way. Some open the tank and draw out a small amount of gas using an eye dropper. All of these methods work (or at least most of them work; a method I periodically hear proposed, but which I find remarkably inefficient and time-consuming, directs the user to heat the tank by “cupping it in his/her hands.” I have never had this method work, but maybe others have). But, excepting the “cupping” method, all the above-listed priming techniques (including the pressure pump) share the disadvantage of adding small and, in my opinion, unnecessary pieces of equipment to your kit.

The method I advocate and use to light the SVEA 123 stove needs no accoutrements, and is both safe and reliable. I learned this method from the book The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher, (I believe now in its 9,000th edition) who, as William Sanders points out, stands in relation to back-packing as Luther did to the reformation. This method has several advantages. Firstly, it does not involve using any external fuel source such as priming paste or a small bottle of white gas. Secondly, assuming there is gas in your stove, you need not remove the pot stand/wind screen, or the tank cap. And thirdly, it works well every time. This instructional assumes that your stove has gas in it.**

  1. Make sure you rotate your pot supports (three small “L” shaped pieces of wire which look like they are made from cut-off nails) inward, as it is difficult to do once the stove has been lit.
  2. Open the control key fully, and blow across the stove just underneath the burner. Opening the control fully activates a “pricker” wire which clears the burner jet of any potential blockage, and blowing across it will eliminate any detritus in the area.
  3. Close the control key fully, then open it ¼ of a turn.
  4. Now, take a small piece of paper, a Kleenex, or, if you are Mitt Romney, a dollar bill and light it.
  5. Hold the concave bottom of the stove’s gas tank directly above the flame, so that the flame is touching the bottom of the tank. The idea here is that you are heating the gas in the tank, which will cause liquid gas to expand and run out of the nozzle (jet), and down the vaporizer into the primer pan. Some users simply apply the lighter directly to the bottom of the tank, but before you use the new pencil torch you got for your birthday, or some other semi-welding or soldering implement, remember that not much heat is required and that you are working with a brass tank filled with gasoline. In short, don’t get cute with innovations.
  6. When the primer pan is full, close the controlling key completely, and set your stove down on the paper remnant to assure it is extinguished.
  7. Light the small pool of liquid gas in the primer pan, and avoid the natural impulse to run away in a panic which occurs when you realize you have set the outside of your gas tank on fire!
  8. After 15 or 20 seconds, the flame will begin to atomize the gas in the vaporizer, and will also begin to pressurize the stove’s tank. You will be able to hear small “jetting” noises, but resist opening your control key before the entire pool of gas in the primer pan is consumed as it will result in a weak, guttering flame.
  9. Just before the priming flame dies out, open the gas valve and it will ignite the now-atomized gas shooting out of the nozzle with a pulsing roar. If you miss the window, have a match or small lighter at the ready. The stove will continue to pressurize itself for as long as there is gas in the tank and the flame is maintained.
  10. The “pulsing” roar is normal for this stove.
  11. The burner ring will heat to red, but will not melt. Once the ring is red, it will automatically relight the burner if it is extinguished by a gust of wind.
  12. Avoid trying to simmer until after the burner ring has reached temp.

There is a certain Zen in cooking your food over a camp stove. There is something about using a stove and making one’s own meals which seems to satisfy a motorcyclist’s primordial instincts and which also appeals to her or his attraction to what Indian Larry referred to as mechanical “gizmoness.” You may find, as I do, that there is a certain pleasure in the familiar ritual of priming and lighting your SVEA 123. Don Douglass, the late editor of the BMW Owner’s News wrote an editorial thanking BMW for not locking him out of the (then) new Oilhead engine (the valves retained their mechanical adjustment.) Don’s contention was that such maintenance activities keep a rider in touch with the soul of the machine. For me, lighting and using my old SVEA 123 is like that.

Riders today have lots of options for cooking. At absolutely the simplest, safest end are the alcohol stoves. They weigh practically nothing, have no moving parts and alcohol is a very safe fuel. At the other end of the spectrum are some of the multi-fuel stoves which must be assembled as a sort of “kit” to be used. Right in between is the SVEA 123. And now that you know the “best” way to prime and light it, maybe it will be the best choice for you too.

**You must never allow yourself to be distracted when filling tank, and never, but never put any other-than-approved fuel in your SVEA 123. Don’t ever forget that you are dealing with a pressurized gas stove and any neglect or cutesiness might send you to the Burn Unit.