Backpacking sucks. Humans are not meant to carry heavy loads on our backs over long distances. Even the word backpacking conjures up images of pain and suffering. Unlike climbing, kayaking, skiing, which are all super cool and totally fun. Back…packing?
The thing about backpacking is where it takes you. Literally the most amazing places to sleep, camp, wonder about the universe, swat mosquitoes, etc. Figuratively the way it can transport you across the time/space continuum.
Then of course our heroes: Ed Abbey, John Muir, Johnny Appleseed. All backpackers.
Nowadays we’re lucky. I have an “anti-gravity” pack. My sleeping bag is ultralight 850 fill. I have a two-person tent that only weighs 2.5 pounds. Luxury. John Muir carried a bag of nuts but I like my coffee, my beef jerky, and freeze-dried lasagna rules, not to mention some hot chocolate with a splash of Scotch for drifting off to dreamland.
Which brings me to the stove. Critical. I started with a Svea. Remember those? Then along came MSR and the Whisperlite. Great stuff and endless fiddling with the jet and who remembered to bring the stove-cleaning needle-thing anyway? I thought you brought it?
They were great but then Jetboil! Boom! Stand back and watch me bubble water in three nano seconds! Do you have your ear protection handy?
Are my eyebrows still there? I love my Jetboil and still use it often, but as I researched going lighter and lighter and farther and longer I stumbled across twig stoves.
The first thing I read was: “…the best, single, piece of kit that I have ever bought. It’s that good.”
It was the English use of the word “kit” that sold me. Those Brits know something about suffering. Scott, Shackleton, Livingstone. If a Brit says it’s a good piece of ‘kit’ I gotta get me one.
Well, that was in 2010. I was skeptical at first so I took it on a little four-day solo trip. No backup, just gonna go for it. It worked perfectly. I was pleasantly surprised. Start with a little dry grass, and build up to sticks the size of your thumb. I’ve learned it doesn’t do well when full of coals. It likes flame. If you have more than two or three people you need to empty it out after every two or three liters of water and start over. But you can just toss in some little coals to get her goin’ again. And simmering? That’s tough. You can do it but it takes constant vigilance. I like that the process is a bit slower, a bit more work. It’s quiet, and watching a small flame is therapeutic. After all isn’t that why we are out there anyway?
I like to have some hors d’oeuvres, then maybe some soup, than a main course, then some tea or the afore mentioned hot chocolate avec nip. Since then I’ve used a Bushbuddy twig stove (made in Canada) hundreds of times. Forget those canisters and how many to carry. No more fuel anxiety.
My Bushbuddy weighs in at five ounces. Inside a one-liter, titanium pot, my whole set up is only nine ounces. I’ve used it on a 27-day trip with up to three people. I can boil a liter of water in about seven minutes with a handful of twigs the size of a small bouquet of flowers. Sure, it’s a little slower than your flamethrower but what’s the hurry? It’s all about being here now, right?
Wind can be a problem with twig, or, to be more precise, biomass, stoves. Sometimes you have to find a sheltered spot to set up your kitchen. Or build something. I doubt it would work well in the Pacific Northwest, either. But for the canyon country it’s perfect.
That doesn’t mean I want you to go online and buy one with one click. On the contrary. Most people are not qualified to use a twig stove. They take practice and patience. They take a certain finesse. Can you imagine if the general public were to use fire? It’s too troubling to think about. But for the savvy hiker it’s the thing.
And then there’s that: fire. The hearth, the giver of life, and warmth, and coffee. A place to meditate. The center of camp and as darkness closes in the center of the universe. Sure, you have to baby them, keep feeding its bottomless appetite for twigs. Different kinds of wood burn differently. Remember BTU’s? British Thermal Units. Those Brits again. And you need to be careful, mindful, worthy. It’s a tool, and a beautiful one at that. It deserves respect and it will serve you well. They burn down the twigs to white ash that you can toss to the wind. You cannot tell I’ve had a fire even when camping on slickrock. They leave no trace if you are up to the task.
Bushbuddys are hard to find these days, although there is a great one called the Solo Stove. Slightly heavier but a lot stronger. Built to last. Steve likes the titanium Firefly, which folds flat and weighs just three ounces. The Vargo is also titanium, weighs 4.1 ounces, and is sold by people wearing green vests. Point is, there are lots of options. Poke around.
And backpacking? Well, not all of it sucks.
Or, there’s the beer can stove
Cat food cans, pop cans, beer cans…there’s all kinds of ways to repurpose tin into a lightweight, affordable stove. In this video, long-distance cyclist Tom Allen shows you how to make one in just five minutes.
And the Biolite
It’s not light, but it does burn twigs and create energy to power your devices, too. The Biolite stove runs about $130.
Photos by Ace Kvale