Optimus Svea 123 – The Best Ultralight Stove Ever Made?

by Christian

The Optimus Svea is a classic white gas stove. It’s a century old design, once the cult of climbers world wide, and hailed as one of the first ultralight stoves. Of course, these days the definition of an ultralight cooking stove is somewhat more restrictive concerning packing size and weight. Still, even with today’s standards, the Optimus Svea compares quite favorably and might be the right fit for a solo hiker looking for a rock solid and dependable stove.

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Bomb proof design

It’s made out of solid brass and is surprisingly compact. The scales show a weight of 550g including the small supplied pot. Admittedly there are lighter options out there, but for a white gas stove it’s still pretty good! I especially like the one-piece design of the Svea and in fact, on short fast trips you can leave the fuel bottle at home as the stove can take about 130ml of fuel. The fuel tank actually has a capacity of about 180ml but you are not supposed to fill it all the way to the rim while operating. You need some room left to build up the pressure. 130ml is enough for a burn time of around 50 minutes, which is plenty for a solo hiker or climber on a weekend trip.

Priming yes, pumping no.

There is virtually nothing that can break on this stove. It’s design is as simple as it is effective. Like most white gas stoves you have to prime this one, too. But there is no pump to build up pressure. After putting some gasoline or alcohol in the burning cup to pre-heat the stove you can ignite the gas coming out from the jet. And that’s it. Contrast that with lot’s of other white gas stoves and you can really see and admire the simplicity of this stove.

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Due to the lack of a pump the Svea maxes out at around 1.400W which is powerful enough to bring 1l of water to a boil in about 7 minutes (as always, cooking in a wind sheltered spot is advisable. Otherwise a lot of the heat produced by those 1.400W will simply blow out to the sides and not up the pot).
In comparison a MSR WhisperLite has 3000W and will bring that liter of water to a boil in half that time. In fact most of the canister stoves also have a power of 3000W when turned on wide open. But if you take the usual amount of water the solo hiker needs for a meal, you’ll probably have 5 minutes or so cooking time. That makes the Svea 123 a bit slower than a canister, but faster than an alcohol setup.

The parts

The Svea has a screw-on windscreen which also features the pot supports, the stove itself with the integrated fuel tank, a regulating key attached to a little chain, and a small sauce pan. What else do you need? I’d add a small bottle of methylated spirits for priming or perhaps a little dropper thing if you want to use the fuel of the Svea for pre-heating.

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Operation

  1. Make sure there is fuel in the tank
  2. Pour a bit of meths or fuel into the spirit cup at the base of the burner
  3. Make sure the filling lid is screwed tight and using the regulating key check if the stove is turned off
  4. Screw on the windscreen
  5. Light the alcohol/fuel to start the priming
  6. After 30-45 seconds or so you can gently open up the jet with the key. Have a lighter or match at hand in case the gas doesn’t ignite

Note: like other white gas stoves, if the vaporizer is not fully pre-heated yet, opening up the fuel valve will produce a bit of a fireball. That’s the nature of these kinds of stoves. So use them with care, not in the tent and always out and expect a bit of a fireball. Careful priming reduces this somewhat, but sometimes it is difficult to tell (if it’s especially cold or windy). Look at the video for a demonstration of the fireball).

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After a bit of sputtering the stove will warm up and go until the tank is empty. Simmering is possible up to a point, but not like your stove at home..

What’s to like about the Svea?

  • Small and compact for a white gas stove
  • Will take you down to lower temperatures without a problem, making it a 4-season stove for most conditions
  • Reliable piece of kit. There is fairly little that can break
  • Cheap, easy to gauge fuel (just bring as much fuel as you’ll need)
  • Don’t need to pump; this stove goes until it runs out of fuel

Video demonstration of priming and lighting the Svea 123

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-D_FIaFr07Y

My conclusion 

With all the high technology options one side and the ultralight fiddle-prone stoves on the other, I truly find the Svea 123 a refreshing and delightfully simple to use stove. It may not be the lightest, but it’s durable and reliable. I have no doubt you can get years of use out of the Svea 123. In fact, if you’re lucky you will find used ones on eBay or flea markets for great bargains.

  • Anonymous

    This a really interesting stove – I might have to take a closer look at it next winter :). Great review.

    • Anonymous

      Glad it spiked your interest – thanks for stopping by!

      • Bonzodg

        Hi

        • Bonzodg

          Hi,just my shilling’s worth here.
          Been using a Svea for a while now.
          I’m a moto-tourer so it’s unleaded petrol(gas for the U.S.folks)for me.
          What an excellent stove!
          Everyone should have a go with this little gem.
          As a motorcyclist I have side cases for my gear,one of which I use for cooking.
          I generally cook in the tent inner so as a precaution I prop the lid a third open with a tent peg so if there’s a flare it’s easy to knock the peg out and the closed lid will starve any flare up.
          Yes,I’ve had a couple – the most recent 3 days ago at Durness(top of Scotland) on a hot day when we’d had a coffee followed by rib-eye steak supper…..yes the little flame appeared at the back so the simple soltion was to turn the key off and pour cold water over the stove to cool it.
          Sorted that!
          Depressurised it was easy to open the filler cap to equalise the pressur and restart it.
          No panic, no big deal.
          Don’t let the health/safety gurus frighten you!
          Either that or stay at home with everything guaranteed…………….. 
          Have fun,life’s for LIVING!
          Cheers

  • Anonymous

    Good stove, But I tend to cook inside my tents ( Vaude Power Lizard in the summer & Hilleberg Soulo in winter) so I would be a bit worried about flare ups with this type of stove. Reminds me of the Primus stove I had as a teenager 30 years ago. Good review.
    Mark

    • Anonymous

      Good Point, Mark. There certainly can be some flaring until it is
      warmed up. After that the Svea behaves quite well, but I also wouldn’t
      want to use it inside the tent or block the entrance with it.
      Also, the Svea takes both hands to regulate, so it is not especially
      easy and quick to turn off (fit the regulating key into the nub, hold
      the stove, turn the key..).

  • Michael DeMarr

    Thanks for your review.  You have promted me to buy one.  I am taking it to Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore for a weeklong trip.  Stove looks nicely crafted in the pictures and video.  Thanks for sharing.

    • Anonymous

      Hey Michael,

      looks like a great destination! I suggest to get familiar with the operation
      of the stove prior to your trip. Nothing to difficult about it, but there is
      a bit more to it than using a canister stove.

      Have a nice trip and thanks for your comment!

      • Tedpeterson8

        Have used many different stoves over the years – this one is still tough to beat, all things considered.

        For my money, earlier iterations of the 123 are the way to go. At some point in the design, a “self cleaning” feature was added – a convenience to be sure, as carrying (and not losing) the little wire pricker was required sometimes, to keep the tiny jet orifice free of carbon or debris and whatnot.

        Anyway, the wind up is, the precision-ness of flame adjustment was lost along with this modification, the new models just won’t throttle down to a low flame quite as well. A small detail to some, but noticeable to persnickity types, and perhaps most Svea adherents would qualify! They seem to have better output at full-bore too, but of not much consequence.

        The early “better” models can be identified in the way the ON/OFF flame adjustment valve looks – it’s considerably less beefy, and at a noticeable downward angle, rather than 90 deg. as on the newer models. Even earlier models (1950s) have SVEA engraved on the windscreen itself.

  • ChrisH12

     A small aluminium pump was available to pressurise the fuel tank through a modified filler cap (the part of the cap holding the relief valve was machined to accept the pump). With the pump there was no need to use priming paste as by opening the valve CAREFULLY a small amount of fuel could be expelled via the jet and allowed to fill the priming groove. I purchased mine from Paddy Pallins in Sydney around 1985.

    • christian_s

      Sounds like a useful addition to the stove. It’s a great piece of kit. 

  • Matt

    I’ve had mine for 30 years, still going strong and ever reliable, just a little beaten up. Replaced the seal on the tank filler cap as a precaution two years ago before heading out on the south coast track, Tasmania.
    Matt

  • Jacob Zurawski

    I’ve been quite happy with the performance of my 123, Although the chain that keeps the valve key close at hand can make it tricky to reattach the windscreen after you’ve filled and lit the burning cup. For my upcoming bike trip, I think I’m actually going to leave this one at home and make a “hobo stove” from an aluminum can. Now THAT is an ultralight! It’ll save me a pound of pack-weight and over 50% in volume.

  • Craig

    I purchased mine in 1978 (for $17) and have used it every year since. That’s 34 years with no maintenance or problems. I have some other “new” burners, but if I had to keep only one, it would be the Svea 123. From the Arctic circle to the Sonoran desert, it always performed. I use only Coleman fuel. By the way, motor fuel in central Europe is called “benzine”. I would buy another in a heart beat if mine were stolen. You can’t go wrong with perfection.

  • 14peaks

    After reading this decided to give one a try. I have a Whisperlight, Optilight-ti, Coleman Peak 1 “400”, and Pocket Rocket. Got the Svea 123 off ebay. Looked old, dirty, well used. Thought I would have to overhaul it. Took it out, filled it with fuel, primed as instructed, and it started with no problems. Boiled almost a litre of water in a Primus 1L ETA pot in 3 1/2 minutes. That is the equal of all the above stoves except the Opti-ti which is about a minute less. Weight was not significantly different than the MSR and Primus, particularly with bottles. Much less than the Peak 1.

  • Jeff Jones

    Don’t remember where I got mine some 35 yrs ago when I was backpacking in my 20’s. Got back into camping and backpacking in my mid 50’s through scouting. It had been packed away all that time… Put some fresh fuel in it and it fired right up! Still using it….

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