Saturday, March 31, 2012

Backpacking Stoves #2

 When I think of what equipment was like when I first started backpacking...well, it makes me chuckle.  Some of my first backpacking experiences happened on Girl Scout trips or at camp.  We carried BSA external frame canvas packs.  We made cooking stoves from #10 cans and called them gosh...buddy burners maybe but somehow I think that was the tuna can full of paraffin and cardboard which was placed under and provided the heat for cooking.  These little items were carried on the outside of our packs making us literally a clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caligenous junk!  We wore clodhoppers for boots which were heavy leather things with white cotton socks which caused massive blisters.  They were neither waterproof nor breathable.  Blue jeans were standard hiking wear with cotton tee shirts.  I have a mental picture of a 15 year old Vera on a backpacking trip which will always live in my memory and make me laugh. 

So, stoves today have come a long way.  I promised you a glimpse of some other types of high tech stoves which have come upon the scene in the last 10 years.  All small and fairly fuel efficient and can boil water in 6 minutes or less. 

Probably the first stove that people used before the alcohol stove became popular was the Esbit stove.  Developed by the military, I believe, as a lightweight cooking option it uses a solid lump of fuel either Esbit fuel or Hexamine/Trioxane.  I have to admit that in the beginning of my bping career, I did try this stove but quickly realized that the fuel smelled bad, was marginally, if not terribly, toxic and took a long time to heat water.  Many people still use this fuel and actually love it.  I do not, so I am not an expert.  Sgt Rock has some good information on this stove on his website.

Esbit fuel burns well in the cold but is, I think, difficult to light.  Putting it out is, I think, challenging and is hard to figure out how much fuel you will actually use at each meal.  You will have to bag or double bag the fuel to keep it from stinking everything up.  For more info, go to Sgt Rock's website, he has some great charts there with burning times and info.  Good stuff.  Oh and of course, carry a windscreen.

The Trangia alcohol stove was probably the earliest alcohol stove.  The original, as I recall, was heavy but now one version weighs 7 oz and comes with a 3 piece aluminum pot stand which comes apart for travel.  Made of brass it comes with a simmer ring which adjusts the flame and a lid which works great when you need to put the stove out and allows any unused fuel to remain in the stove thus reducing spillage.  A great stove and not at all expensive.  A good beginning alcohol stove.

Another stove which was used by many (still used by many) is the Sierra Zip stove.  Burning pine cones, bark, twigs, etc and accompanied by its forced air ventilation fan it will burn hot and efficiently.  Its 1 lb weight is heavier than most but it makes up for this in boiling water with available material in four minutes.  That means no carrying fuel, fuel canisters, worrying about finding fuel, spilling fuel or drinking fuel accidentally if you forget to label your fuel bottle. (it has happened)  The fan is powered by AA batteries or an optional D cell power supply will work for 35 hours.  A new stove in their line replaces the steel in the original stove with titanium reducing the weight of said stove to 10 oz. that makes a big difference!  You can check this stove out at

Now on to some crazy stuff...which I will disclaimer with, I have no idea how these things work if at all, in no way recommend that you buy them but include them because they are interesting options.  I found many while doing my own due diligence preparing to buy gear.  Some may even be out of business.  Bottom line is I just love gear and think I need to join some 12 step gearhead group.

Photo from ThermoJet website - The ThermoJet stove is an alcohol stove supposedly on steroids. I liked its compact design but think that the Caldera Cone might work using the same kind of principle. - The Biolite stove is a high tech wood burning unit which I am pretty excited about.  It is new tech which has applications not only as a backpacking/camping stove but also may be used in homes in developing countries.  Built to charge electrical gadgets while cooking, it truly may revolutionize the developing world and does provide a green fuel option.  Now I know wood in some people's eyes is not really a renewable resource BUT I maintain that it is not a fossil fuel based product.  That is a good thing in my little green mind.  Stated information from their website says that the packed size is 8.25" x 5" and weighs 2 lbs 1 oz (935 g) Ok, I agree that is one heavy stove BUT think about what it will charger, batteries etc.  It is due out this spring so there are no reviews but all you techweenies out there need to take a look at this puppy.

Make sure that while you are looking at this wood stove you check out the oldie but goodie...Nimblewell Nomad's wood burning stove.  This website will explain how to build your very own:

The following website will review a Vargo wood burner.  I met the owner/designer of Vargo stoves when he was not well known.  He is another example of someone who had a great idea, used modern materials and is making a living following his dreams. 

Photo from Biolerwerks website
The last new stove, is a little beauty from a company called Boilerwerks.  Their stove is called the Backcountry Boiler TM and is billed as the first lightweight chimney kettle.  It is a nifty looking piece of gear which resembles a metal water bottle and evidently can double as a water bottle.  Once you boil your non-potable water keep it in the kettle, put the lid on and walk on.  Pretty cool, eh?! When you see it for the first time, you might think to yourself, how can this be a stove?  Well, I am excited, this thing looks like a rocket and may even boil water like one.  The designer states that, "Once this thing gets going , its like the bellows of Hades."  He works from a green and sustainable manufacturing ethic...I love it.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to learn about and compare gear options.  Just take some time to google the item you want to learn about then read, read, read, talk to gearheads/read their blogs and reviews.  Join a yahoo interest list, go to events, talk to gear manufacturers, read Backpacker magazine reviews.  ACK!!!, those of you who are purists say, but I used to sleep with my Backpacker mag when just a newbie.  Most of all it is important to go out into nature as often as possible even if its just to wander around a park or a can test your rain suit while walking in your yard in winter.  Wandering in nature acclimatizes you to the non-nonsense attitude nature has is what it is and the trail is the matter how much you complain you just have to walk.  And that attitude is what will get you up the trail not how good your gear is.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spring is Sprung

 I heard a Woodcock's call twice this week, once at Tallmadge Meadows MetroPark as I was pulling out of the parking lot and then again as I pulled the mail from my mailbox.  Barely, I heard the "peeent" from across the field that for me hallmarks the beginning of spring.  Some people count the skunks lined up dead on the side of the road as spring's beginning, for other's its the first crocus. I know spring has arrived when I first hear that plaintive "peent" coming from across the field. 

Woodcock's Field
Each of the past 2 springs at dusk, I'd walk to the end of the driveway starting in mid-April through mid-May and listen to that call, night after night for hours that one lone Woodcock would send his mating call into the air hoping to attract a lovely female.  Why he picked that field I have no idea.  Living at the edge of a highly used golf course, sitting next to the party tent, in my mind, is not a good place to set up housekeeping.  But non-the-less that is where his instincts drew him and he has stayed there.  I have no reason to believe that he has been successful there raising a family yet I have hope because he keeps coming back.  The cool thing about nature is that if something doesn't work, it will send an animal seeking a better situation.  There is none of this craziness of doing the same thing over and over again in hopes that the results will change.

And in my yard there are other signs of spring.  The Magnolia tree, crocus, daffodils, hyacinth AND even the Azalea bush are blooming.  Tiny, green Hosta buds are peeking out through their leaf mulch months quicker and I have no time to pull out the old stems and pull off the mulch.  Generally, in between the rain and cold, in a normal Ohio March, I have lots of time to do yard chores S-L-O-W-L-Y and get my winter drugged body up and running, so to speak.  This year, in one day I had to pull millions of those irritating white-flowered Bittercress weeds before they go to seed and send their billions of seeds into the air spreading more weed pulling misery for me.  Also, that day, I planted lettuce, peas, arugula, spinach and radish seeds.  Which meant I got to play in the dirt!!  Although, the surrounding yard was a waterlogged swamp, all but one of the raised beds were workable.  That initial foray into my spring garden is a time for celebration.  It means like the Woodcock that spring is here. 

Possible Swamp Sparrow
Wednesday, I spent the day birding with a friend.  Traveling south about an hour to flooded field area which has been set aside as a permanent wetlands area for migrating waterfowl on this beautiful, sunny, 80 degreed day was my first opportunity to bird in a long time.  I was carrying my camera, tripod and borrowed, better binoculars.  Still they were not enough to identify any of the hundreds of birds floating amongst the abandoned corn stalks at Funk Bottoms.  My camera worked well at capturing images of floating ducks, revealing the magnitude of life which depends upon the beautiful spot for either a stopover snack or as their yearly nesting area.  I found when I downloaded them at home that I'd gotten a clear picture of a Northern Pintail duck and mate which was a "'life bird" for me.  Also, we bagged a Swamp Sparrow. I can't wait to blow up a few more to see if I can identify others. 

Toad Singing His Love Song!

Despite our collective lack of preparedness for this realllly early spring, Mother Nature moves us irrevocably forward into a new season bringing new life and the hope that renewal brings.  I am grabbing onto this energy and moving forward into the unknown with Ben-Gay and heating pad firmly in hand!

Happy Spring, everyone!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Backpacking Stoves, Part 1

My friend Judy Gross & I at a Backpacking Feed.
Photo Credit:  Shelly Huskey
FOOD! It's always on the mind of any self-respecting backpacker.  Food is what fuels you, it's what you have to keep in balance, weight vs calories to keep you going and eventually it becomes a piece of gear just like your sleeping bag.  Thus, anything that has to do with food or food prep becomes extremely important.  Take stoves, for instance, the different types, fuels available, shaving minuscule ounces of a stove's weight, which one burns, faster, more efficiently, all these things become part of the debate which circulates around what stove is the best one for backpacking. 

MiniBullDesign M4 Alcohol Stove by Tinny
Photo Credit:  H. Dean Clark

In this blog post and a couple more, I'll talk some about the pros and cons of a few of my favorite stoves and also, bring into the mix some of the newer stoves that have come on the market lately.  These stoves may be old news to you but they are new to me.  Like the gearhead that I am they must be examined. 

All opinions are mine and mine alone and only you can determine after hours of your own research and trials in the field which stove is best for you.  Everything I know, btw, I've found on the Internet or by personal time spent at gear stores, reading Backpacking magazine or talking to people.  When you have hiked many miles, you, too, will come up with what works the best for you and possibly your own mantra for judging gear like me, mine being, NO TWEEKING.  I want, especially my food system, to be fast and easy.  When I get into camp I want food, bata-bing, bata-boom, hot, fast, no tweeking.  You will have to find your own style and thus a cooking system that works for you.  Hopefully, some of what I write in these gear blogs will help you along your journey to more enjoyment and greater heights. 

Stoves fall into a couple of basic categories based on what kind of fuel they use.  I'll write today about the 3 stove types I am most familiar with which are white gas, canister gas and alcohol stoves.  There are some new up and coming stoves which I will mention that use wood and other material, later.  

First, there are white gas stoves which use a liquid petroleum product,called by many  "Coleman" fuel.  It comes in a metal container and has to be poured into a fuel container. After the stove is primed, it is then pressurized by pumping.  This fuel burns hot and fast and is at the least easily ignitable and at the worst explosive.  The clear liquid, if spilled while filling a canister, can ignite and engulf the stove in a fireball so care should be used during the filling process. However, this long-standing favorite has fueled many a campstove in the past, works well in the cold and is a dependable fuel.  Stoves which use this fuel like the MSR Whisperlite, Dragonfly, Coleman PEAK stoves are bottom line, "go to" stoves due to the international availability of this kind of fuel.  Stoves which use this fuel, if regularly maintained and cleaned will last for years, giving you hot water when you need it, quickly.  They do need parts which need replacing periodically so if planning for a societal collapse....find parts now and hoard them.
Optimus Crux Stove

The second type of stove, which has become extremely popular due to its ease of use, portability, "safer" operation and small size , uses a canister containing either butane, propane or more often a mixture of the two.  Canisters are available in backpacking or outdoor stores thus are not as readily available as white gas which often can be found at gas stations or truck stops.  However, depending upon the size of canister most will last for 4 days to a week depending upon how often you cook, will heat a pot of hot water in 2 to 4 minutes, do not have to be primed and are easy to attach to a stove.  The metal closed canister is less likely to catch fire since there is no need to pour liquid fuel from one container to another. These stoves are ideal for short trips where resupply is easily available.  Due to the greater weight of the fuel canister and their size most backpackers only want to carry one at a time.  Canister stoves are small, light, extremely portable (will often fit into a cup) and can come in titanium versions which make them weigh even less. 

Some disadvantages are that you have to place the canister on an even surface otherwise they will tip over and are inefficient unless used with a wind screen to block the breeze.  The fuel canisters are not as reliable in cold weather often needing to be "warmed" to get them to light.  (do NOT heat them with fire..put them in your shirt next to your skin!) If, in an effort to keep the canister warm you overheat it, it can explode, although I have not experienced this occurring.  Again, MSR, Primus, Snow Peak, Jetboil to name just a few manufactures, have produced efficient, quality stoves for many years which will, when used correctly and under the right circumstances give you hot water quickly and I think easier than white gas stoves. 

AGG Coke can stove
The last type of stove I will talk about are alcohol stoves.  These tiny, denizens of efficient cooking were born from the minds of ultralight backpackers who wanted a stove that used easily attainable fuel, were easily replaceable, made from materials which one could find on the side of the road and burned hot, boiling water quickly.  The stoves themselves are made in many different shapes and sizes, made from beer cans to high tech materials.  Their inventors spend hours testing them to make them more efficient and have secrets which make their stove the hottest burning and use the least amount of fuel and will bring water to boil in the least amount of time.  How these inventors came up with the ideas and designs I don't know ...all I know is that they work and work well.  Using a fuel called, HEET (use the YELLOW bottle only, which is available at even the most out of the way gas station or convenience store, these high tech babies can boil water in under 5 minutes with 2 oz of fuel.  HEET (use YELLOW bottle only) is clear which makes filling your stove and possibly lighting yourself and others on fire a possible issue because you cannot see the fuel if you spill it.  Also, putting out the stove, letting it cool down before refilling is an absolute rule.    
Caldera Cone

There are many designs, makers, directions and already built for you alcohol stove out there on the Internet.  My friend and 2012 thru hiker wannabe, Dean Clark has kindly taken pictures for me of the stove contraption he is going to use on trail this year.  I'll post them if I can figure out how to insert a slide show!!  He is going to use a Tinny stove.  I like AntiGravity gear's set up which comes with a pot and cozy and stove.  One thing to remember about alcohol stoves is that it is very important to be efficient so a windscreen will save you fuel and add to burn time.  AntiGravity sells a Caldera Cone which is well worth checking out as a windscreen and supercharged heat distributor and addition to any alcohol stove.

Some of the links to websites and things are in my favorites here on the blog...I'll add some more to the backpacking page in the future. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Time, Time....Its Tickin'

Growing up in Indiana, I never had to worry about the time change.  It never did.  Seasons came and went with a natural rhythm and we humans adapted.  Farmers plowed in the pre-dawn light and we stood outside on the cold street in skirts in the dark waiting for the bus to take us to school.  We huddled in clumps for security and warmth, girls on one side of the street, boys on the other.  Sometimes, when it was really cold, we stood together on a neighbor’s porch, thankfully, running to board when the big, yellow bus came to a stop.  No one worried about us out there in the dark by ourselves…it was a growing up ritual, waiting for the bus in the dark.  And time marched decisively over us with no thought for our petty concerns.
Indiana succumbed, finally, to the pressure of the world and adopted Daylight Savings Time in April of 2006.  Thinking that it was more important to manipulate time for its own purposes than to live by the cycles of nature, they caved to all 48 of the other states need to control nature.  The first year I ‘sprang’ my clocks forward I was never right.  It was like my body said, “what the ????” and refused to ever catch up that lost hour of sleep.  It wandered the halls in confusion, sleep deprived and slightly “off” for the 7 months of Day Light savings time.  I kept encouraging it to get with the time but it refused.  You could tell it was not just me that was suffering because everyone spent that first summer feeling just a little like they were always in some kind of time warp.  Glazed eyes and yawning we welcomed the fall and its change back to ‘normal’.
I live in Ohio now so Buckeyes have been springing forward and falling back since time began evidently without consequence.  I still feel slightly boggled the first week or two after the switch but feed my body extra caffeine and use the time switch as an excuse to sleep more and be late to work.  “Oh, yeah, I’m trying to catch that lost hour of sleep”, I tell my boss….he’s not buying it.

So, those of us old enough to remember when time didn’t change because we wanted more daylight to do business with New York, to remember when neighbors didn’t mind if cold children huddled on porches, old enough to remember that darkness really isn’t scary and that sunrises can be inspiring, will need a little latitude from you for a few days as we wander around trying to find our place in time again, muttering under our breath about how we don’t understand why we have to change time to begin with.   Don’t blame it on the farmers because they have always done there thing by the sun’s rhythms and will continue to do it whether the clock says it’s time to or not.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Blog Restrictions

Its taken me a bit of time to figure out a solution to the whole issue Blogger seems to have with customizing one's blog.  I have an idea in my head but my non-understanding of HTML is keeping me from realizing my dream.  So, then, how to get around it.  I think I've figured it out.

I am going to post gear reviews/how to use gear posts in this regular section of the blog, allowing me visibility and ease of entry.  Then behind on the "technical pages", I'll insert websites, blogs, pictures, etc as a "go here for more information" section. 

Look for the long-awaited stove discussion coming later this week.  It appears to be a 2 part-er.  I expect to stir up some good discussions and get some good information exchange going on.  Please feel free to post a comment and/or pass it on if you think the info is valuable.  For those who are non technical and not a gearhead like me...well you'll just have to hold on for a bit ....

Enjoy the spring weather.  Birds are singing, the raccoons that evidently live in my chimney are tap dancing on my roof and it looks like a big storm is brewing outside the coffee shop window.  AHH, its March...our friend the west wind is blowing everything about and soon all the hikers will be be blowing up the Appalachian Trail in an effort to beat him to Mount Katahdin.  These gear blogs are dedicated to my friends who are soon to be starting another grand adventure.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Take a Picture of THAT, Nelly!!

When I went to New Mexico for the first time in 2010, I fell in love with the Land of Enchantment.  It mesmerized me, captivated my imagination, drew me into its red rock canyons and in dreams, landed me on top of a coral pink mesa engaged in conversation with one of the ancient stone people, I was bewitched.   Like a dog in the front seat, head hanging out the open window, I rode for miles in a magic carriage, eyes turning this way and that trying to capture the awesomeness that is New Mexico in September.  I was unsuccessful for even the finest of cameras cannot do this splendor justice.  Upon arriving back home, I vowed that in 2011 there was no way I was going to go back without a big, digital SLR camera.

I acquired my new digital camera a week before I left for New Mexico in September of 2011.  Using my Target card in a desperate attempt to discharge my vow, I purchased a Nikon 3000 on sale, it was the demo camera and I was ecstatic!  Immediately, I started snapping things, approaching thunderstorm, winter clothes stacked in piles in the living room, weeds and other miscellany.  By the time I arrived, I was proficient enough with the camera that I knew how to turn the dial to change into various "auto" settings and what the little pictures on the dial meant.  Like last year I spent the whole week with my head and the camera out the window snapping pictures of things I'd seen last year.  New sites meant exciting opportunities for composition.  I was pretty happy with some of the photos.

But I knew that my camera could do a lot of other stuff.  So, when I went to Florida in January, I was frustrated with my inability to capture the correct colors of the sunsets.  Still, the little dials and myriad settings in the menu scared me and I refused to read the manual.  Sometimes it just seems like there is too much information and that my brain is full and can't take anymore without dumping some.  Hmmmm, what to dump? My kids names, phone number of my chiropractor, favorite pizza delivery? Hard decision.  My reluctance meant I missed some awesome shots. 

Still I procrastinated
I've started interacting with others who are better photographers than I because some of my friends who know things say I have a little bit of talent or at least the "eye" for composition which evidently is a result of my DNA.  A contest, finally, catapulted me out of my fog of fear and into reading the manual.  Some of the following photos are a result of my free fall into the scary world of turning the dial and changing menu settings.  Tell me what you think...I'm giddy....

If I can figure it out, tomorrow I will put up a slide show of some of my favorite photos.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cosmic Display

When awesome cosmic things settle in the sky on a clear night especially if its clear for 3 nights in a row, well I guess I should pay attention.  As I pulled into the driveway last night to competing lightening and thunder, billowing clouds darker than the darkening sky hurrying from east to west, I finally took real notice of the crescent moon with its two extremely bright trailing planets directly in front of me in the western sky.  Soon the giant cumulus clouds would cover the celestial anomoly and possibly it would be gone and I would have missed it.  I went inside and pulled out the camera.  I am not an accomplished night sky photographer yet I wanted to give it a try. 

There is something surreal about this event, in my humble opinion.  The first night I noticed the show in the sky, the moon was a tiny, sliver of a moon with Jupiter and Venus as bright as a bright can be trailing along in an otherwise dark sky. My thought was, Star Trek.  Their appearance was so spectacularly other-worldly that it seemed as if I had been transported to alien world.

But wait, that's not all that is going on in the sky.  At the opposite end of the compass point, rising in the east are Mars and later Saturn.  Big, bold Mars, God of War in Roman culture actually is a loving kind of god, who considered war only as a way to secure peace.  Separated across the night sky from his lover Venus who rides on the toga tails of Jupiter, I find it coincidental that there is such a separation between not only Venus but also his non-father Jupiter.  Juno, in retaliation for Jupiter's brainiac conception of Minerva, had the goddess, Flora rub a magic flower across her stomach and brought forth Mars.  No wonder they all keep their distances.  
The beauty didn't last and soon the clouds approaching from the southwest overshadowed the clear, white light of Madame Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn.  The wind kicked up, rain beat on the house until eventually the lights flickered wildly and then winked out just like their spectral cousins leaving everything as dark as an alley in ancient Rome.

Evidently, tonight is one of the best nights to see the stellar march of the Gods across the sky.  For more information about these celestial events, here is a good website.