“Flame on!” Even after 42 years, I can still hear the words bellowed by my fellow Appalachian Trail thru-hiker as I moved a match toward my Svea 123 stove. Then, a near-tectonic whoosh, and the pleasant woodland noises that served as a serene soundtrack at camp would be auditorily obliterated until my meal was cooked.
If you began backpacking in this century, it’s likely you’ve never heard (or heard of) the Svea 123. But 40 years ago, it was the go-to stove for many self-propelled outdoor recreationists—its decibel level more than mitigated by its reliability, solid construction and, well, coolness factor.
Sure, there were few options for backpacking stoves in the late 1970s, but the Svea was—quite literally—the gold standard. You could boil a quart of water in minutes while still throttling it down to a gentle simmer. Most importantly, it was built like a tank, so it lasted in my pack for more than 20 years.
Mine was the first real piece of backpacking gear I owned, and the first item I ever ordered from REI. That was in 1976, shortly after I joined the co-op. The Svea’s golden, ribbed edges glinted beneath the flame on the catalog page where I first laid eyes upon it. An integrated metal cup fit neatly atop the stove, so I could ditch the cook kit if I only needed to boil water for coffee, instant oatmeal or freeze-dried meals. But, if my menu was more elaborate, several companies made cook kits to hold the Svea, thus saving space in my pack. Mostly, I ordered it because everyone I knew who carried a pack into the wilderness considered it the best stove on the market.
I never regretted the decision.
The Svea’s roots trace back more than 100 years to a company whose first products were—appropriately enough—blowtorches. (If you’ve ever lit up a Svea 123, you’ll notice a resemblance.) In the late 19th century, Swedish industrialist Carl Richard Nyberg expanded his company’s offerings to include the first generation of portable kerosene cookstoves.
Sometime between 1952 and 1955, the company, then known as Sievert AB, introduced the 19-ounce Svea 123, the first-ever compact backpacking stove to use white gas. Unlike the kerosene and regular gas used in most backpacking stoves at the time, white gas burns cleaner and packs a slightly higher BTU punch. It also works better in cold temperatures and at high altitudes.
All that added up to a stove that kept me nourished during my 147-day hike from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. It never once let me down while cooking in the dust of Badlands and Grand Canyon National Parks, in the snowy forests of northern Montana, in the heat of Death Valley in August and on more nights than I can count in my backyard woods: New Mexico’s rugged Gila Wilderness.
Once, while camping on a beach in Pacific Rim National Park on the western edge of Canada’s Vancouver Island, a friend and I, after having perhaps enjoyed a few too many libations, set our tent up a bit too close to the Pacific Ocean. High tide hit just before dawn, inundating our camp. Among the items that were soaked with seawater was my Svea, which, after being rinsed of sand, followed by a couple turns of the cleaning needle, fired right back up. While our sleeping bags remained waterlogged, the Svea delivered a hot breakfast.
But no piece of gear is perfect, and the beloved Svea undeniably had its quirks. For starters, the stove held about 4 ounces of fuel, which, under most circumstances, burned for about an hour. That might be OK for an overnighter, but anything longer necessitated carrying a separate fuel bottle. You also needed a custom spout to funnel that fuel into the Svea.
And because the fuel tank had to be preheated and pressurized before use, the complicated process of lighting the stove prompted epic arguments over the most efficient method. Some used the warmth of their hands to prime the pump. Others dribbled a small amount of fuel into a tiny part of the stove called the primer pan. Pour too little, and the flame would sputter and die before the stove was fully primed. Too much, and your campmates would run for cover.
Once lit, the signature trait of the Svea manifested itself: its noise. The sound of a Svea at full throttle has been likened to a jet engine. Harvey Manning, the late writer and activist who edited the first edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, once described the Svea 123 as a “Swedish hand grenade.”
And woe be unto you if you ran out of fuel halfway through dinner preparation. Were such a transgression to occur, you had to allow the stove to completely cool down before commencing the refueling process.
Like most backpackers, I eventually converted to the ease and simplicity of isobutane canister stoves. Now, I own one that’s about the size of a thimble and ignites with the flick of a lighter. But it’s flimsy and finnicky—if so much as a drop of rainwater lands on it, its performance is compromised. You could submerge my old Svea in a muddy cattle trough and it would emerge no worse for the wear.
I recently reconnected with a person I met on my AT thru-hike in 1979. We started talking about the gear we brought to the trail in those primitive days—voluminous packs, heavy leather boots, 60/40 parkas, 5-pound tents and persnickety stoves built like tanks.
That conversation inspired me to Google some of the items that accompanied me on the AT. I found few traces of my tent, pack or boots, but to my joyful astonishment, I learned that the Svea yet lives, sort of.
Outdoor stove maker Optimus bought Svea many years ago and continues to manufacture a version of my old stove, now called the Optimus Svea. The original Svea 123—that golden hand grenade—exists in second-hand shops and in some forms of digital classified ads.
It was difficult to pry my eyes from the photos of the brass Svea adorning the various websites I perused. In its shiny exterior, I saw reflections of my youth, when my body had no compunction whatsoever about schlepping 50-pound packs up and down mountains all day. I slowly pulled out my credit card.
Then I put it back in my wallet.
Sometimes, memories are best left where they were.
All photography by Andrew Bydlon. For more odes about our favorite stuff, check our Gear I Hold Dear series.