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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Portable Pantry

Packing Heat — Fuel for Thought

By Tamia Nelson

March 18, 2003

Paddlers, like armies, travel on their stomachs. The human machine won't work if it isn't fueled, and it's fueled with food. Hot food is best. You can try to get by on cold rations during a Big Trip, of course, but this won't appeal to many paddlers. And hot food can be more than a comfort. In some circumstances, it can make the difference between life and death.

OK. Most of us like our food hot. That means we need to cook. But how? There are only two alternatives: wood fire or portable stove. Of the two, the stove is usually the better choice. Why is that? In a word — efficiency. A stove is almost always more efficient than a fire. It may sound like something that only an engineer could love, but efficiency is as important in the backcountry as it is in the boardroom. Wood fires require constant nurturing. Stoves don't. In fact, a stove is the only practical choice on routes where downed, dead wood is scarce. Moreover, the paddling season is often the fire season, too, and whenever the fire danger is higher than Low, a campfire flies in the face of common sense. It may even be illegal.

So, for both Big Trips and weekends, a stove has my vote. But which stove? There are dozens to choose from, after all. How can you find the stove that's right for you? Fortunately, it's not as hard as it seems. Narrow the field by defining your requirements and then choose accordingly. Spartan travelers just need something to boil water. Ambitious cooks, on the other hand, will look for a burner that simmers as well as roars. Minimalists will want a compact, lightweight stove, while all-season adventurers will need something that fires up quickly in below-zero temperatures, then puts out enough heat to defy a winter gale. Heading for Shangri-La? Globe-trotters will want to be sure they can find fuel in the most out-of-the-way bazaar or marketplace. Multi-fuel stoves really come into their own here.

The size of your group also makes a difference. Solo paddlers and couples will probably be happiest with single-burner stoves. No surprise. Singles are compact and lightweight. But if you travel with a crowd — and three can be a crowd, even in the backcountry — you may be better off sharing a two-burner model (or carrying two singles). It means more weight and bulk, to be sure, but it's almost always more efficient. One single-burner stove can heat only one pot at a time, and no cook likes to juggle pots.

Of course cost has to be considered, too. Paddlers on a budget will weigh price before all else. And if, like us, you're counting pennies, don't forget to count the cost of fuel, as well. Over the years, operating cost will easily outstrip purchase price in determining a stove's bottom line. With this in mind, let's take a look at some of the more common fuels.

White Gas. There was a time when most rural gas stations sold "white (i.e., unleaded) gas" for stoves. Nowadays nearly all auto gas is unleaded, at least in the United States, but not every stove can burn it. That's why many of us get our white gas in one-gallon cans at the local HyperMart. Coleman Fuel is probably the most familiar brand. It's efficient. It burns both hot and clean, no matter how cold the weather. But it's also moderately expensive, and although spilled fuel evaporates quickly, the resulting vapor can reach explosive concentrations in confined spaces.

Kerosene. It blackens pots and it's smelly, but this oily fuel is comparatively safe, relatively inexpensive, and reasonably easy to find, at least in rural areas. It's non-volatile, however, so spilled kerosene doesn't evaporate quickly, and many kerosene stoves require a separate priming fuel.

Propane. A compressed gas, propane burns hot and clean, even at temperatures well below freezing, though only in regulator-equipped stoves. Lighting and controlling the flame is easy — almost as easy as it is in your kitchen at home. But propane is expensive, and disposable fuel cylinders add to the weight and cost, particularly on Big Trips. (I don't need to remind you to dispose of empty cylinders at home, do I?) Large parties may find that refillable aluminum bulk tanks are both weight- and cost-efficient, however. If the idea interests you, check out marine supply catalogs.

Butane. Sold in thin-walled disposable cartridges, this compressed gas burns clean. Like their propane-fueled counterparts, butane stoves are easy to light and regulate, though the flame is somewhat "cool" and heat output falls as the temperature drops. Unless mixed with a more volatile gas, therefore, butane is a poor choice whenever you expect the thermometer to dip below freezing. Be warned — not all cartridges fit all stoves, and many brands are hard to find. Very expensive.

Alcohol. Though the flame is cool and smoky, alcohol is easy to light. Unfortunately, it's also expensive and often hard to find. (Rubbing alcohol should not be used.) Most alcohol stoves are non-pressurized and difficult to regulate. They're good for heating water, but not for much else. Alcohol is considered a "safe" fuel, however: the vapors are not normally explosive. They may, however, be toxic. Adequate ventilation is imperative.

Once you've decided on a fuel and chosen a stove, read the instructions and then take some time to get acquainted with your new appliance. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Some stoves have piezoelectric igniters. Many don't, however, and igniters have been known to fail. A stove that you can't light is worthless, so always carry plenty of matches or one or more lighters. If your lighter is the old-fashioned kind, carry extra lighter fuel and flints, too. A word to the wise: "strike-anywhere" matches are often nearly fireproof. They're also illegal in some places. If you're relying on them on a Big Trip, try a sample from each box you buy, before you leave home. Then, once you're under way, divide your supply between several waterproof containers. (And always have a filled matchsafe in your pocket.)

  • If you're using white gas or other liquid fuel, minimize spillage by carrying a funnel with an integral filter, in addition to the pouring nozzle — also called a fuel faucet or fuel filler — which fits your fuel bottle. And remember that spilled fuel can be explosive (white gas), oily (kerosene), or toxic (some alcohols).

  • Stoves are complicated things, so be prepared for occasional trouble. Carry a kit of spare parts and know how to make repairs.

  • Once you leave the put-in, fuel is precious stuff. Conserve it by having all the ingredients for your meal ready before you light your stove. While cooking, cover pots to retain heat and use a folding windscreen to supplement your stove's built-in protection, then turn off the stove promptly when you've finished. And if that's not enough, use a pressure cooker or a heat exchanger.

Most important of all — never forget that every stove is a potential bomb. A moment's carelessness or inattention is all it takes to make your camp kitchen into a close approximation of a war zone. Don't let this happen. Safety first!

  • Never leave a stove unattended when in use.

  • Burns are no fun. Use a pot-grip or pliers when handling cookware.

  • All stoves give off poisonous gases when operating. Never use a stove in an unventilated or poorly-ventilated enclosure.

  • Don't permit unsupervised children to operate any stove at any time.

  • Never refuel a hot stove. If you run out of fuel while cooking, allow your stove to cool completely before refilling or changing the cartridge. Better a late meal than full-thickness ("third-degree") facial burns.

  • Match your pots to your stove. A pot that's too big will be unstable. It may also reflect dangerous amounts of heat back onto the fuel tank or cartridge.

  • Make sure your stove's pressure-relief valve points away from you at all times.

That's it. Study the catalogs. Read the reviews. Ask your friends. Then make your choice. New stoves are introduced every year, but efficiency and reliability count for most in the long run. A good stove is (almost) forever. My favorite is now in its third decade, and it's still blazing away, warming the inner man (and woman) just as well as it did when I first took it out of the box. Now how's that for packing heat?

Hungry? Whether you live to eat or only eat to live, you'll want to check out our "Alimentary, My Dear" archive.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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