Showing posts with label Tramping Equipment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tramping Equipment. Show all posts

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Tramping Equipment: What type of tramping stove?

Equipment for back-country cookery: Tramping/Hiking stoves

 There are a variety of ways to heat water and cook food while pursuing your outdoor adventures. The most obvious is the use of an open fire but due to the environmental impact of fire this is now a discredited method. While open fires are not illegal they should only be used to cook food in an emergency.

Camp-fire old as humankind.
Instead there are a myriad variety of stoves specifically manufactured for back country use. I thought it might be useful to look at these various types and explain what I use and why.

  So many types of outdoor cooker...

To start let us look at the types of cookers available. Note that the terms stove and cooker are interchangeable, you call them stoves we call them cookers!

 Iso-butane or gas canister stoves

The most commonly used stoves are those using iso-butane cannisters, these are often refereed to as 'gas stoves'.  A gas stove will consist of the gas 'bottle' and a screw on cooker unit which you attach to it. If it is very cold the gas can freeze making the cooker useless. Please note that the older 'pierced' type of gas cannister is very difficult to find in New Zealand, we all use screw on cookers.

Kovea Titanium Tramping Stove

There are two main types of gas cooker, those that attach to the top of the bottle and those that are free standing. Above is a Kovea Titanium stove, this is typical of the top attached cooker. As you can see it has a perforated burner head, with a control mechanism on the side to control the gas flow. There are fold out pot supports above the burner head. The button next to the Kovea branding is the piezo spark actuator.

My top fitting Kovea gas canister tramping stove at Packhorse Hut, 2016

Below is the MSR Whisperlite, this is one of the free standing variety of outdoor cookers. These are much more stable as they usually have wider legs/pot supports arms and have a lower centre of gravity. The downside is the extra weight, these are normally 100-200 gms heavier than a top fixing stove.

MSR Windpro free standing gas stove for tramping

Here is a different version of a canister stove, the Jetboil. A Jetboil is an integrated cooking system with stand, cook pot, burner and canister all in one.  You use a Jetboil to heat cannot cook in these. These stoves are good for Alpinists as they are fast and pack into quite a small package. They are also expensive and heavy which is why more people don't use them.

The Jetboil outdoor 'cooking system'

Iso-butane gas cannisters are highly pressurised so the cannisters must be made of steel to contain the pressure. This means the cannisters are heavy. An empty 225ml cannister weighs 145gms so that is a lot of wasted weight you have to lug around.
Disposing of empty cannisters is problematic. The empty cannisters cannot be recycled unless they are punctured- they need a hole in them to allow any residual gas to escape. If not completely empty they are liable to explode during the recycling process.

Various sizes of iso-butane gas: 100gms, 225gms and 550gms canisters

Apart from weight gas canisters can also be expensive, currently they cost from $15-$20 for a medium cannister. They do not perform well in cold conditions, as the gas can freeze if it is sub zero. If using them in an alpine environment it is common for them to be kept warm in your sleeping bag overnight.

Pros:Easy to use, quick set up, fast heating ability, relatively cheap, moderate heat control, widely available, many different models/makes, three sizes of cannister available in New Zealand

Cons:Fuel canisters are heavy, quite expensive, disposal of empty canisters is problematic, top fixing versions are unstable, not good in high altitude or cold conditions

Multi-fuel stoves

As the name implies a multi-fuel stove can use a variety of different fuels, this ranges from gas canisters, stove specific fuel, kerosene and even gasoline in a pinch. Some will only use liquid fuels while others are able to use both liquid and gas.

The MSR Whisperlite multi fuel hiking stove: Both fuel bottle and gas canister shown
You fill the fuel bottle with your fuel of choice, then turn this into a pressurised gas by pumping the pressure handle. The fuel is then lit with a match, lighter or piezo spark actuator.

Multi-fuel stoves are excellent for Alpine conditions as the fuel is not affected by altitude or cold. Their ability to use a multitude of fuels also makes them practical: gasoline is available everywhere in the world while gas canisters are sometimes difficult to locate.

These stoves tend to be a lot heavier, 300-800 gms as opposed to a gas canister stove at 70-150 gms. They can also be a cast iron bitch to light as the burner unit is prone to soot blockages. You must use good quality fuel and carry a cleaning kit and use both for optimum performance.

A MSR multi-fuel cooker service kit

I have to say though, there is nothing like the sound of a multi fuel stove blasting away on a cold a lot of us older trampers it is the sound of tramping itself.

Pros: Can use many different fuels, much hotter flame, better flame/heat control, work well at altitude and in cold conditions, sound awesome when fired up

Cons: Much heavier, more difficult to operate, fuel must be pre warmed and pressurised before use, can be hard to light, more prone to stove blockages

  Methylated - Spirit stoves

  Methylated or spirit stoves have been around for a long time but are undergoing a resurgence in recent times. These can be commercially produced or home-made and consist of a burner unit with a series of holes in the top and sides. Once lit the flame will come out of these holes providing the cooking heat

A Trangia brand outdoor alcohol stove in action

As you can see in the photo below they are quite effective but with a number of limitations. The heat put out by methylated spirits is low, so cooking times are much longer. Once lit the flame cannot really be controlled so these are not ideal for simmering tasks. They are also easily extinguished by wind, you really need a wind shield if using a spirit cooker.

Home-made outdoor meths stoves made from aluminium cans

These stoves will use both methylated spirits and de natured alcohol, which is the American name for a similar product. "Meth's" comes in 1 litre bottles in New Zealand and cost from $6-$10 NZ dollars. Methylated spirits can be found in most service stations, hardware stores and supermarkets.

 De natured alcohol is usually only found in the larger outdoor equipment shops. It costs approximately $10-$20 NZ Dollars per 1 litre bottle. 

Methylated Spirits aka Denatured Alcohol
Pros: Fuel is cheap and widely available, stoves tend to be quite light

Cons: Not safe for use in huts, easily extinguished by the wind, often need a wind shield and stand for use, care needed when refilling, fuel only comes in 1 litre volumes so there is potential wastage.

Solid fuel tablets- Esbit Stoves

  Solid fuel stoves have been a mainstay of military forces worldwide for most of the 20th century. There are many firms producing both stoves and fuel including Sea and Summit, Coleman, MSR, Coghlans and cheap 'no brand' versions from China.

The most reknown brand of solid fuel stoves are made by the German company Esbit, so in Europe these cookers are called 'Esbit stoves'.

Classic Esbit stove from Germany
 The solid fuel tablets for an Esbit type stove are made of a compound called hexamide. Hexamide is  highly inflammable and relatively easy to light. It is basically a solid form of hydro carbon covered in wax to stop it evaporating. One if its downsides are the fumes it exudes: these are both poisonous and foul smelling. 

Classic Esbit fuel cubes

The beauty of solid fuel is that you need no stove, when I was in the military we just used a couple of rocks or sticks to prop our mess tins above the burning fuel cubes. My god... the smell of a 'hexie' tablet cooking some 'Spag and Snarlers' 'Corned Beef Hash' or 'Meat and Vegetables' is something every ex service person will remember...

An Esbit stove is bullet proof: it has no moving parts, requires no servicing and can be stored forever. That's why the military loved them.

An Esbit outdoor stove doing its thing...

Pros:No parts to break, can be stored till the end of time, need no cooker, slow steady heat, relatively light, can be lit when wet, fuel makes excellent fire starter so dual purpose, cheap (a stove and fuel is usually less that $10 NZ dollars.

Cons: Low heat output, noxious fumes, cannot be used indoors, not readily available except in outdoor stores, easily extinguished by wind

Portable wood stoves

One of the newer forms of stove are those that use wood as their fuel...much as our ancestors have done for the last 40 000 years. These are commonly aluminium or titanium and burn paper, sticks, leaves and small wood chips. 

There are many commercial versions but these can also be made by the outdoor hobbyist at home.
 These are most often used by survivalists, long trail hikers and in areas where other stove types are banned. I see very few people using them in New Zealand- it is wet here so no dry wood and there are often fire bans in place over summer.

Typical lightweight outdoor wood stove in action

 The beauty of these stoves is that fuel for them is all around you, all the time. They can burn paper, card, wood, coal, dry grasses, dry leaves....basically anything that burns and is dry. These stoves are most often used by survivalists, long trail hikers (especially in the US) and in areas where other stove types are banned.

Pros: No need to carry fuel, relatively lightweight, inexpensive if home-made, can be used in most outdoor situations, fold down versions take up little space, environmental impact slight

Cons: They require dry wood,  can get very sooty on the outside, fire risk- cannot be used if there is a fire ban, cannot be used in huts, bulky unless fold down design, commercial versions are expensive

Flameless ration heaters or FRH's

Flameless Ration Heaters or FRH's are a by-product of military style Meals Ready To Eat (MRE's).

US military FRH from a Meals Ready to Eat (MRE)

Flameless Ration Heater: the chemical heater pad in a FRH

An MRE (jokingly called Meals Rarely Eaten) is a thermo stabilised retort pouch of food, with the addition of various drinks, snacks and side dishes. They are a one meal item i.e. you would need to eat three a day. The FRH they contain uses a thermo-chemical reaction to warm the main meals and any hot drinks. Most of the military forces of the world are now using these.

A US military MRE: Beef Pasta with Tomato Sauce

FRH's were specific to military circles until about 10 years ago when a number of outdoor companies started to produce them for hikers and campers. Back Country Cuisine are the only indigenous manufacturer of FRH's. You have to be careful with an FRH, these can get really hot to the touch- don't leave them on an unprotected tent floor!


A Back Country Cuisine Flameless Ration Heater

In New Zealand the commercial food ranges these FRH's can be used with are Kaweka Meals (also used by the NZ Defence Forces), Sun Rice meals and the MTR range of Indian meals. All of these come in thermo stabilised pouches. Freeze dried meals can also be heated if the contents are rehydrated with cold water first. 

Pros: Very lightweight (less than 20gms each), easy to use, you require no stove/fuel or pot if not heating water, can be used in a well ventilated tent, not affected by cold/wet/windy conditions

Cons:Horrible environmental impact, very slow heating, expensive, limited uses- only good with thermo stabilised retort pouches, hard to source in New Zealand, need salt and a cup of clean water to work

 No heat-no cook tramping 

One way to deal with cooking while tramping is to simply go without. I have meet a number of people practising no cook (or stoveless) tramping. Instead of your traditional hot meal they only utilise cold foods that require no cooking.

Typical 'no cook' foods might include: cold meat, canned fish, cheese, jerky, wraps/tortillas/bread/crackers, various spreads, energy bars, cereals, dried fruit or it could be dehydrated meals reconstituted with cold water.

Basically the sort of stuff you eat for lunch!

Some no-cook menu items: cereals, scroggin, energy bars, tuna, salami, drink powders, dried fruit etc.
I've tried this on an multi night tramp and decided it is not for me.  I like a hot drink in the morning with breakfast and soup and a hot meal at night. In extremis I would go stove-less but not out of choice. That's just my personal opinion by the need to decide what works for you.

I meet a guy on the St James a couple of years ago who had scroggin, whiskey and 24 peanut butter sandwiches for food- he had six sarnies per day- two per meal. would keep you going, but....

Do you fancy this at every meal for four days....

Pros: Lightweight (no stove/pot/fuel/cutlery), cheaper option as not buying fuel, easy to sustain yourself for short periods this way

Cons: 24 peanut butter sandwiches......who wants to eat that for 4 days in a row! Will not sustain you properly for more than a couple of weeks, could be unsafe if tramping in adverse weather conditions (hot drinks save hypo-thermic trampers as they used to say...), packaging...there would be a lot of it!


My personal choice of tramping stove

I've used all of these various cooker types before but my primary cook stove is a Kovea Backpacker gas cannister stove. I have been using this light weight stove since 1993 and it is still going strong.

The Kovea Backpacker stove

I usually couple this stove with a medium size MSR cannister, this combination allows me to boil water for both breakfast and dinner for 4-6 days. This stove cools fast and has a larger diameter burner head which I find advantageous when heating speed is of the essence.

My Kovea Backpacker stove in use at Nina Hut in 2016

 Why gas....? I just find it more convenient to use a cannister stove. You can have it out and going in less than 1 minute. A good breakfast is a fast breakfast if you know what I mean...! Any other type of cooker involves too much buggering around to get it operational.

Fixing dinner with my Kovea tramping stove at Mid Robinson Hut, 2015

If you are going to be using a cannister stove you need a Crunchit. A Crunchit is basically a big can opener which allows you to safely puncture cannisters to vent any residual gas. The 'empties' can then be recycled. I leave mine at home and take to my empties after the trip.

The Jetboil Crunchit recycling tool
I carry two Esbit cubes with me as an emergency backup on every trip. As I said earlier these can be used without a stove and because they only weigh 5 gms each are a useful survival tool.

My Esbit cubes: firestarter and emergency cook tool

A gallery of other tramping stoves I own...

I have an Esbit methylated spirits cooker which I will be using when I do some of my longer Te Araroa Trail sections because it is ideal for that kind of tramping. The fuel is cheap and more readily available in out of the way places.

My Esbit cooker looks like this...

 I inherited a Kovea Hiker stove from one of my brothers who moved to the US, it is an older design but still works well. She is a bit hefty for tramping but folds up into a nifty hard plastic container.

Kovea Hiker stove, mine does not have a piezo
I also have an Outer Limits Huntsman stove, which I brought when I got back into tramping in 2010. I really like this stove but I just have a sentimental attachment to my Kovea Backpacker so this one doesn't get used very often. 

An Outer Limits Huntsman stand alone stove

I hope that gives you some ideas to consider when choosing a new tramping stove.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Tramping Skills: River crossing

The New Zealand disease...

In Colonial times drowning was referred to as the New Zealand disease because so many people died trying to cross rivers etc. It is hardly surprising given the number of beaches, lakes, rivers and streams in this country.

Drowning remains a major cause of fatalities amongst kiwi trampers to this day.

Contemplating a crossing of the Otira River

Because of our profusion of water you need to be able to assess a body of water and have the skill and experience to pick safe crossing points.

Here are some tips I have learnt over the years about what to look for when you approach a water body and how to decide how, when and where you will cross.

To cross or not to cross?

The most fundamental question you need to ask yourself is Do I need to cross this? This seems obvious yet I'm sure some people have never stopped and thought about why they are crossing some water body. As soon as you enter a river you can potentially find yourself in trouble so asking yourself why you cross is important.

How and where will I cross...?
If there is any possible way to avoid entering a river, stream or lake you should take advantage of it. Is there a bridge nearby you could use, can you reach your location without crossing water or is there an alternate route that avoids water crossings. These are all questions you should ask yourself.

Nice...can be crossed easily at this point!

Every river crossing is dangerous: regardless of the amount of aids, training and experience you have. Even veterans with 40+ years of experience have been swept away by rivers so never assume you are immune. Take every crossing seriously.

Crossable with care as part of a group (...why...there is a bridge 100 meters up-river!)

Cross these rivers? Don't even think about it!

As the Mountain Safety Council (MSC) say... "If there are any doubts about the safety of crossing, don't cross - it isn't worth the risk"

Approaching a river

Develop your own process for assessing rivers, streams and creeks when you are out tramping. If you have a mindful process you are much more likely to use it every time you arrive at a river or stream.

Always stop and assess any body of water- never jump in without stopping and formulation a plan to get you safely to the other side. I will often stop for a drink or snack at a river crossing point. This means I am rested before attempting to cross and gives me time to really eye up the river I'm thinking of crossing.

Brew up before crossing a river

Never attempt to cross a river that is swollen, discoloured, where you cannot see the river bed or if there are debris floating in it. These are all signs of a flooding, dangerous river.

A discoloured Alfred River...

If you approach a river and hear a low rumbling do not cross. the water is moving rocks along the stream bed, these can easily injure you.

Look for a safe place to both enter and exit the river. Avoid steep or undercut banks, debris piles and areas with dense vegetation as these will be difficult places to enter and exit. 

Not a safe exit point, too much debris to negotiate
Be careful of marked fords- rivers are changeable beast and what was once easy going may now be a certain death trap. An example is the ford over the mouth of the Travers River in Nelson Lakes NP. The ford is marked, yet if you follow the marked path you are led straight into a swift waist deep channel.

The Travers River ford- deep channel near far bank!

If you go 30 meters downriver it is only knee deep right across the river. It is always worth the effort to explore alternate crossing point before you commit.

The MSC have more information about assessing possible river crossing points on their website.

Cross as a group or solo?

You can cross a river by yourself or as a group. The MSC do not recommend crossing a river solo. The reason for this is that a single person does not have as much stability as two or more. A group is heavier and has more points of contact with the bed of the water course. Even having two makes your chances of successfully crossing much higher.

Obviously there will be times when you must cross rivers singly but you should do everything in your power to avoid doing so.

Group crossing

If you are part of a group you should cross using the mutual support method.

Using the mutual support method

Follow these rules when using the mutual support method:

  • Choose a crossing leader before entering the water. They control the crossing- all group members listen close for instructions.
  • Choosing a crossing point is a group decision- discuss your options.
  • Strongest person to be at upstream end of group
  • Upstream person slightly forward of next, you want a shallow incline to the group
  • Second strongest person at downstream end of group
  • Hands grasp neighbours pack-straps/clothing around their body
  • Group should be parallel to the flow of water, this will minimise the force of the water
  • Maximum river depth no more than thigh deep. The only exception would be in very slow moving waist deep water. If it is deeper than the thigh DO NOT CROSS regardless of the group size!
  • Take small shuffling steps all the way across the water.
  • The group moves as one unit- all the way across.
  • Move diagonally downstream with the flow of the water. Don't fight the river flow- conserve energy!
  • Pack straps loosened and sternum strap undone
  • Can be used by 2-5 people, if more than 5 then you need a second group
  • Suitable for even and uneven river beds, your neighbours stop you falling into too deep of a hole.
  • Always wear footwear as rivers can be slippery.

Nicely done- group using the mutual support method

Crossing solo

If you must cross solo use the solo supported method. Grab a pole at least your height, use this as an extra leg to give you more stability. Shuffle your way across the river maintaining two points of contact at all times.

Solo supported using a pole...
...and in deeper water!

You should really angle this pole across your body with the upstream end planted on the bed of the river.

Solo supported method, pole anchored on river-bed

Walking poles can be used in ankle to knee deep water but are not long enough for anything over knee depth.

Crossing using trekking poles for support

If you have the option of crossing as a group or solo ALWAYS cross using the group method.

General river crossing technique:

Take care to remember these points when crossing any body of water:

Having decided on your crossing point make sure all gear is secured inside your pack. Loose items on the exterior can be lost or drag you under once waterlogged.

NO! Stow that shite in the pack....

New Zealand's steep terrain and large watersheds mean that rivers can rise and fall quickly. Watch for the first signs of impending floods: discolouration and floating debris. Do not camp to close to riverbanks if there is rain forecast for the watershed you are in, floods of up to 10 metres have been recorded before.

Equally, if a river is too high to cross find shelter and wait. It is highly likely that the water level will be much lower after a couple of hours of fine weather. Comprise a striking haiku as you wait... to my ears
is the rain droplets falling
in the inky night...

Undo any sternum straps and loosen but do not remove your waist belt. Sternum straps are a possible choking hazard as the buoyancy of your pack can force them up towards your neck. The waist belt will help with stability if you fall into the water.

Sternum straps as a choking hazard...

Avoid wearing loose clothing that could gather weight from the water. Remove it and stow it until you reach the other side. I'm thinking about fleece trousers and wet weather pants here.

Always wear your footwear. Rivers can be slippery and they also conceal sharp rocks etc. on their beds. I know you like dry boots but safety comes first.

Wet feet but safely across the river!

Dont skip from stone to stone or walk along logs. You are far more likely to end up in the river doing this and may injure yourself. I have seen numerous people take a full immersion bath just because they wanted to keep their boots dry.

Bad crossing technique: don't do this...

...don't do this...

...and do not do this!

Use a plastic pack liner or water proof dry bag to keep your pack contents dry. Make sure you will still have dry warm clothing and a sleeping bag for the end of the day.

Standard MSC pack liner bag

Pack showing my plastic pack liner

What if I fall mid stream?

Good question. Every tramper is going to experience the buttock clenching shock of going adrift in a river at some time, I certainly have.

In 1998 I was part of an Army group crossing a swollen river in the Kaimaniwa Mountains. Three of us got swept downstream for about half a kilometre. I am not ashamed to say it frightened the be-Jesus out of me as I am not a good swimmer at the best of times. We were lucky and all managed to reach the river banks but not everyone has such luck.

If you do fall use your packs natural buoyancy to keep you afloat. Get onto your back, face downstream and use you arms in a sculling motion to work your way to the river side.

Sculling to safety after a river mishap, photo from MSC website

Once there carefully remove your pack and slowly work both it and yourself up the bank to safety.

If you do not have a waist belt or it is undone use the older MSC advice as it is equally effective:

Pushing straps to stabilise pack

Lean back on back and face downstream
Push down on the bottom of your pack straps to keep your pack on your back
Keep your legs in a running position and head diagonally towards the bank
Remove pack only if you lose control of it/or it pushes you under. In that case grasp it to your chest and use it as a pack float instead.

Once you are safely out of the water you need to get dry and warm as quickly as possible. Hypothermia is a real risk after a total immersion on even the warmest, sunny day. If required you should stop, erect some shelter, get into your sleeping bag and get some warm food/drinks into you. If you are part of a group you can also light a fire to warm you and dry out clothing.

Regrouping and drying off after river crossing

For more information on river crossing technique see the MSC website.

Practice makes perfect, but....!

Even with mastery of crossing methods and a lifetime of experience people still have problems from time to time. Learning about rivers and how to cross them really is a lifelong learning experience. Hey, I have been tramping for over 25 years and I am still learning new things every time I cross a river.

The best advice I can give you is to take a NOOA, NOLS or MSC sponsored river safety course. These will teach you the basic skills you need to survive in New Zealand rivers. This knowledge will be enhanced with the experience you gain every time you cross another body of water.

Be safe out there!