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

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Mountain Safety Council and their online resources

The Mountain Safety Council

I was recently looking for some tramping information and see that the MSC website has been re developed.

The re developed MSC website, June 2017
The Mountain Safety Council or MSC is the organisation tasked with coordinating outdoor education in New Zealand. They used to run specific safety courses for example Introductory Bushcraft, Firearms Safety or Outdoor First Aid but have moved out of training now. 

The MSC can provide a lot of informative on-line and paper pamphlets, articles, videos and webinars about safety in the outdoors. All are written with specific New Zealand conditions in mind.

The MSC resource page on their website

As you can see there is a wealth of useful information on the site, including some in different languages. Most of the MSC guides are also freely available in DOC visitor centres.

Pages from the MSC Outdoor Activity Guide: Day Walking

If you are a newbie tramper, international visitor or just need a refresher I recommend you study these guides as they will assist with planning successful trips to the New Zealand mountains and bush.

The 'Get Outdoors' video series

The MSC in partnership with DOC have made a series of short informative videos about different aspects of the New Zealand outdoors. They call these the 'Get Outdoors Series'

The MSC page on YouTube

The videos can be found on YouTube as well as on the main MSC website. You should check them out for a short refresher before going on a tramping, hunting or fishing trip. 

Monday, 24 April 2017

Tramping Skills: Building a fire

Holy blazes.... fire starting, a vital outdoor skill!

The ability to build and light a fire when required is still a vital piece of tramping knowledge. Although the use of the fire as a cooking method has waned, fires built for heating, drying and survival purposes still have a place in the outdoors. 

Blazing fire in Lakehead Hut on a cold rainy day

I have no pretensions as an expert on the subject, what follows are just a few tips I have picked up along the way.

Do I REALLY need a fire?

 The very first question you need to ask yourself is 'Do I really need to light a fire'?

Most people will say yes, but actually for much of the year a fire is total overkill. Rather than lighting a fire why don't you put some more clothes on?

 If you are sitting in a hut and it is 30 degrees outside it would be madness to start a fire. You may laugh but this has happened to me a couple of times. One blistering hot summer afternoon I arrived at Boyle Flat Hut where two Swiss hikers had the fire going. The hut was 45 degrees hot! They had all the windows open because it was too damn hot in the hut to sit inside.

I suggested politely but firmly that possibly that wasn't an awesome idea...

Blazing hot 30 degree day on the St James- not a good day for a fire!

Again if you are camping and it is raining it would also be mad to start a fire. You are going to find it hard to find dry wood, the rain will dampen your fire and you would be sitting outside getting warm on your front and wet everywhere else.

You need to pick if and when you are going to light a fire carefully.

When is a fire appropriate?

Good question. Here are some things to consider when deciding if a fire is suitable:

  • How long is your stop? In the old days trampers made a fire every time they stopped for a brew, you can still do this but is it necessary.
  • Wood supply: is there any wood available? Often the answer will be no, especially around the well used non serviced huts and above the bush-line.
  • Temperature: Do you REALLY need a fire if it is 30 degrees Celsius?
  • Is there a fire ban in place? This is a lot more common now with climate change.
  • Is a small fire more appropriate than a large one? You may only need a small fire to heat the newer 'insulated to death' DOC huts. Don't go overboard and try to melt the window glass...

  Wood selection for fire making

  So, you have decided a fire is needed and now you are going to build one. You will need wood, so what kind works best and how much do you need. 

The quick answer is any wood that is dry- unfortunately this is often hard to locate. Look for standing dry wood, or wood which has been kept dry in a wood shed (at most DOC huts), under a large bush or over hang.

Do not bother with rotten wood, it will never burn even if it is bone dry. Bark is also difficult to light- keep it for when the fire is really blazing.

Wet, rotten wood will not burn...

Wood types that burn well are soft like pine, beech, manuka/kanuka etc. Native hardwood's such as Rimu, Totara and Matai are hard to light but will burn for a long time, keep them for when the fire is roaring.

You need three types of fuel for a fire:

Tinder: Tinder provides the fire-starter for your blaze- it might be paper, dry grass, dry pine needles, frayed twine, steel wool, birds nests or dry papery tree bark. I like native Fuschia bark, it is a light paper like bark that will take a flame well.

A tinder bundle made of dried grass
Kindling: Think finger sized or smaller;  sticks, branches or slices cut from a larger log. I usually use a mixture of sticks and slices. If the sticks have thick bark try to slice them in half so they catch fire better as bark is notoriously difficult to light.

Cutting logs into kindling, Lakehead Hut

Logs/splits: These will range in size from arm thick to thigh thick depending on the type of fire. All logs work better if they are split i.e. cut into several slices. Wood with edges burns better than full round logs due to the bark. If the fire is in a hut make sure the splits are short enough to fit into the wood burner.

Some log splits for the fire box

Tools of the trade

Once you have your wood sorted you need some tools to break it into manageable pieces.

Your first tool is yourself, break small branches in your hand, over the knee or around a tree. Slightly larger versions can be leaned against a rock and broken in half with your feet. Breaking wood this way is as old as humanity, we have used this method for the last 100 thousand years.

Other tools you will use are axes, saws and knives. If you are in a DOC hut there will probably be either an axe or a saw for firewood preparation. It is easier to saw any wood into manageable logs and then split them with the axe- chopping through a log is an exercise in futility!

Tools of the trade: Axe and saw
If you are camping you will need to make due with what you can find, break by hand or use whatever knife you carry. If you are a machete, parang or kukri carrier you are set...they are all basically small axes.  If like me you only carry a Swiss army knife hand broken wood is your only option.

The Kukri I carried in the Army- awesome knife but bloody heavy!

If you have a suitable knife, grab a piece of hard wood and use it as a hammer to drive your knife through thinner pieces of wood.

Using a knife and a log to split wood, photo Paul Kirtley
Regardless of the tool always be safety concious- take care using any sharp blade, don't let minors cut wood, wear boots when chopping and try to get home without losing a finger, hand or limb....

Types of fires

 There are many different formations you can use when you first start a fire, the most common are the teepee, log cabin and upside down pyramid. All of these use the same basic premise; a structure is built around and above the tinder. Once the blaze is going well the larger splits will collapse forming a good bed of coals for large pieces of wood.
Some different types of fire formation

Another type is the star fire. The star fire formation is a good choice for a slow burning fire in areas with little wood or where only larger logs are available.

Classic star fire set up
Once the fire is burning the various logs are slowly feed into the centre maintaining the fire.

Building an outdoor fire

The skills used building a fire indoors or outdoors are very similar, you use the same process in both cases.

A scratch camping spot with fire circle near Mt Richardson, Canterbury

When building an outdoor fire you need to follow these steps;

  • Locate a site for your fire. Using 'leave no trace' methods this should be in an existing fire circle, or on a hard impermeable surface such as rock, compacted sand or compacted soil
  • Gather your wood: you need tinder, kindling and fuel wood. Make sure you have more than enough wood to maintain the fire until it is going well
  • Place a bunch of tinder in the middle of your camp-fire site, if the ground is damp construct a wood platform for the tinder to rest on using larger kindling
  • Form an initial teepee of small kindling around your tinder regardless of the form of fire you are building
  • Add kindling to the pile, working up to pencil sized pieces
  • Create a larger teepee/log cabin/upside down pyramid around and above your kindling teepee using fuel wood,
  • Light your fire. If you have some type of fire starter (rubber tube/candle stub/soaked cotton waste) this is when you should use it.

Different types of firewood ready for use

Lighting a classic 'pyramid' fire outdoors

A small campfire at the Ryde Falls camp-site, November 2012

Make sure that you:

  • Conserve wood- only use what you need, when you need it- don't waste wood just because it is there. 
  • Keep fires small, they use less fuel and usually do the job perfectly adequately.
  • Don't use smooth river stones in a fire circle- they may explode as they heat up and expand.
  • Don't light a fire on humus (the dry, crumbly soil you find on a forest floor) as it can smoulder and eventually catch fire long after you are gone. 
  • Watch your fire, never leave it unattended in case it gets out of control and starts a larger fire. 
  • Make sure it is fully out before departing: use the douse, crush and mix method. Put the fire out with water/soil/sand then crush the embers with your feet. Mix it around with a stick to make sure all embers are out. Repeat until fully doused.

Building a fire in a hut

Almost all DOC huts will have a heat source of some sort, generally these will be open fires, pot belly stoves or wood burners. A few of the Great Walk huts have gas heaters, usually only during the Summer season.

The classic 'corker cooker' wood burner, Magdalen Hut

In general terms you need the same resources for a hut fire as a camp fire: tinder, kindling and wood. If you are lucky (for instance I was at the hut before you) you will arrive to find a supply of all three ready and waiting. If you are unlucky you will need to gather your own.

Fire prep done and wood laid in for when needed

Your first port of call should be the hut woodshed; most serviced and standard huts will have one, wither there is any wood in them is a different matter. If there is no wood shed or it is empty start foraging in the bush for your wood.

Partially full wood shed at Nina Hut

Look at that beauty: a full wood shed at John Tait Hut

Construct your wood burner fire as you would for a camp fire. Use either a tee pee, pyramid or log cabin. The tinder goes in the centre with small kindling stacked around and over it.  Have a supply of larger pieces of wood on hand for when the fire takes. Once you have a base of coals in the fire box you can start to add these larger logs as they need intense heat to ignite.

Basic framework for your fire- log cabin type

Ready to go: tinder and kindling added

Slightly shambolic stack but it will work!

Supply of wood ready for when fire requires it...
Some huts will also supply coal for the hut fireplace. I'm constantly surprised by the number of people who have never used coal before, when I was young everyone used it on their open fires so everyone knew how to use it. 

A bag of coal in fire wood shed, Lake Daniels Hut

To use coal, first build a fire as described with wood. Once you have a nice bed of hot embers evenly spread a small shovel full of coal over the top. Take it easy with that shovel though, too much and you will smother your fire.Watch the coal dust as it can be explosive in the right conditions.

Coal being used in an open fireplace

I know there are environmental issues with using coal, but it is much more efficient that burning wood. Coal will give you a long, slow and even burn and it puts out a lot more heat than wood so if it is available use it. 

 Practice makes perfect

It is really important to practice your fire construction skills, even if you don't actually light the fire. Take the opportunity when you go for a tramp to locate and prepare fire starting materials. Chop wood at huts, and split some for kindling- you are practising your skills and making someone else's visit easier.

In the firebox and ready to go, Mid Robinson Hut

 Keep an eye out for good tinder, I collect Fuschia bark every time I see one of these trees as they make excellent tinder. I have a couple of kilos of it at home now drying.

Paper like bark of the native Fuschia Tree

When I am tramping in the summer months, when fires are less of a necessity, I always take the opportunity to cut & gather wood when I get to a hut. Cut some kindling and gather dry branches, put these in the woodshed, under the veranda or under the hut if possible so they can dry.

Best way to stack ready use wood- cross hatch stack- it dries faster

 I wont need it but I'm providing for leaner times when dry wood is not so easy to locate. If you pass a likely looking log close to a hut by all means carry it with you, chop it up and put it in the wood shed.