Brunton Optimus Nova
Best Folding Design
One of the most noticeable and impressive features of the Brunton Optimus Nova is its intelligent folding design. The three folding pot supports are curved so that they fold neatly around the center of the stove. As a result, the supports contribute virtually no bulk to this stove when they're closed, yet feel reassuringly solid and wide when openedmore than sufficient to support even a two or three liter pot. Saving space without sacrificing performance is a rare but wonderful thing. In my mind, the Optimus Nova has the best folding pot support design of any liquid fuel stove on the market.
Also nice is the fact that Brunton packages the Optimus Nova with an included carrying case. The soft padded case makes it easy to protect the stove from dirt and damage, and includes belt loops that backpackers will really appreciate because they can strap the stove to their belts instead of having it take up space in their packs. For kayakers, the case will help protect the stove as it bounces around inside a dry bag or day hatch.
Quick Set-Up, Easy Priming
Setting up the Optimus Nova is a breeze. The pot supports fold out in a second and the fuel line is already attached to the stove. All you have to do is connect the other end of the fuel line to the snap-on valve on the fuel bottle (Brunton calls it a "quick coupling"), give 25 pumps to pressurize the bottle (or more if the bottle is low on fuel), and open the flame control knob momentarily (about two seconds) to squirt fuel onto the burner for priming. Light the squirted fuel, let it burn until the flame stabilizes to a tiny blue flame down inside the burner, and turn the flame control knob back on to start cooking. Because the fuel line is permanently attached to the stove and quickly snaps on to the fuel bottle, I would say this stove sets up about 30 seconds to a minute faster than other, comparable liquid fuel stoves like the MSR DragonFly and the SnowPeak GigaPower WG. Priming seems easier and quicker than on the MSR DragonFly, but compared to the easy-lighting, no-priming-needed design of the SnowPeak GigaPower WG, the Optimus Nova comes up short.
Superb Flame Control
Spend just a few minutes cooking with the Optimus Nova and you'll soon discover that the flame control is outstanding. Without fuss or sputtering, the flame can be dialed up to a roaring torch, down to a candle flicker, or anywhere in between. The Optimus Nova really shines when you need to heat delicate sauces that other stoves would scorch, or when you just want to keep the food in the pot warm. And, of course, it's no lightweight on power. Dialed all the way up, the wide blue flame kicks out the BTUs like a champion and brings water to a boil with ease.
Noise and Vapor
In my mind, there are two potential drawbacks to the design of this particular stove. The first is its noise, which is not quite as noisy as the MSR DragonFly (which rattles and buzzes like an engine), but also nowhere near as quiet as the SnowPeak GigaPower WG (which whispers a low hiss). While cooking with any substantial flame, the Optimus Nova sounds like an espresso machine or a toy rocket. It's not annoying exactly, nor harsh, but it might be loud enough to wake your camping companions in the morning. Since banging pots around is probably going to wake them anyway, I don't really see this as a particularly serious problem, but some campers may.
The second drawback, however, is more serious, and it stems from the snap-on valve design of the fuel bottle, or more specifically, from its lack of a master shut-off valve. In order to detach the fuel line from the bottle after cooking, you must first de-pressurize the bottle by flipping the bottle over to the "off" position, allowing the fuel to bleed itself out of the line, and letting the pressure inside the bottle flow out through the stove. During testing, it sometimes took 30 seconds for the flame to burn itself out and up to an additional two minutes for the pressure in the bottle to purge itself through the stove. During this time, white gas vapors were also radiating out of the stove, which means that if you were to use this stove inside your tent (yes, you're not supposed to cook in your tent, but honestly, who hasn't?) you would probably end up asphyxiated. If you don't go through this de-pressurization process, the alternative is to simply shut off the stove and disconnect the fuel line. Unfortunately, with pressure still inside the bottle, this means you can expect to get a brief-but-irritating bath of white gas (as well as another quick squirt when you try to re-connect the fuel line later). On other stoves, you can simply turn off the master shut-off valve on the bottle (which the Optimus Nova lacks) and disconnect the fuel line safely while retaining pressure in the bottle. This means much less preliminary pumping later, especially as your fuel supply runs low. In the case of the Nova, however, your choices are either to fully re-pressurize the bottle every time you cook or get sprayed by fuel and spend the rest of the day smelling like white gas.
I love this stove, but it's a slightly-flawed gem. If Brunton simply added a master shut-off knob to the bottle pump, I would consider it fully equal to my favorite liquid fuel stove: the SnowPeak GigaPower WG. Even without this revision, I still rate it higher than the MSR DragonFly, partly because it's quieter, partly because it folds and sets up smarter and faster, partly because it's easier to prime. The quality of the Optimus Nova is indeed impressive. If you're looking for a really great liquid fuel stove, I don't think you can go wrong with this one. It even offers one glaring advantage over the SnowPeak GigaPower WG: in addition to regular white gas, it can also burn kerosene, diesel, jet fuel, auto fuel, and rape seed fuel. So, if there's even a sliver of a chance that you might someday find yourself out of fuel, hungry, and needing to siphon gas from an old truck in the middle of nowhere, this is probably the right stove for you. Like all stoves, it has its idiosyncracies, but there's really little to complain about when you're dealing with a stove of such fantastic quality. As for me, I'll stick with my SnowPeak GigaPower WG, but every time I set it up, I'll remember how much quicker and slicker I could set up the Optimus Novaand feel a twinge of envy.
[Editor's Comment: Thanks to Brunton for loaning us the equipment for this review.]
© 2007, Wesley Kisting