Meals can be prepared by cooking on a stove or over a fire.
If your stove doesn’t work during the summer, you can still get water to drink. If the stove is inoperable in the winter, you can’t melt the snow that provides drinking water. Dehydration leads to hypothermia. Things can get ugly in a hurry.
Zenstoves.net has a great article entitled “How to Choose a Backpacking Stove”. The article addresses factors such as fuel types used, fuel availability, weight and fuel efficiency, speed of cooking, cooking needs, starting and long term costs, cold weather performance, ease of use, safety and health concerns, personal preference, environmental/eco concerns, and ability to build stove at home or on the trail.
A comprehensive list of stoves is covered including:
- Petroleum Stoves (White Gas, Kerosene)
- - -Liquefied Gas Stoves (Butane, Isobutene, Propane)
- - -Alcohol Stoves (Alky, Meth, Spirit)
- - -Chemical Solid Fuel Stoves (Hexy, Hexamine, Esbit, Triox, Fuel Tab)
- - -Wood Stoves
- - -Candle Stoves
- - -Solar Stoves
- - -Flame-less Stoves (MRE Heater)
- - -Electric Stoves and Immersion Coils (Heating Coils, Heating Elements, Beverage Heater, Heating Rod, Coffee/Drink Heater)
- - -Calcium Carbide Stoves and Lanterns (Acetylene Stove/Lamp)
A discussion of fuel types, fuel availability, and table providing a fuel comparison and weight/efficiency ratings follow. It is a long article (>8,500 words) and worth reading if you are considering stove options for winter camping.
Views from the Top ran an interesting survey last winter asking participants what type of stove they used for winter camping. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the 62 participants declared for a liquid fuel/white gas stove. They are reliable in cold weather.
White gas stoves dominate in winter cooking conditions.
The interesting part to me was the number of participants that cited success with canister stoves. From April through November I use a MSR Superfly stove that adapts to any Lindal valve type canister.
Use a windscreen and keep a lid on whatever you are cooking. A windscreen should deflect the wind from both the stove and the cooking pot. It should not totally enclose the stove: there must be room for air to get in and allow for excess heat dissipation. You can lay your pack or a sleeping pad on its side as a wind block or use aluminum foil.
The windscreen should reach a bit above the top of the stove and up the side of the pot. If you are using a large pot, as is normal, there should be a slight clearance between the pot and the windscreen. Don’t enclose the canister and flame together. If you make the gap between the windshield and the pot too small and have a minimal gap between the ends of the windscreen, you will be bottling up very hot air. This might or might not cause combustion problems, but will almost certainly transfer a lot of heat into the fuel tank or cartridge if it is inside the windshield, which could then get too hot.
A windscreen increases performance of any stove.
11.1.2 Using Canister Stoves
Canister stoves see a decline in performance in cold weather. During burning the fuel inside the canister evaporates causing the canister to cool. Moisture in the air will condense or freeze on the outside of the canister further chilling the gas inside the canister. The temperature inside the canister can drop to where the liquid fuel inside the canister won’t evaporate appropriately.
A canister stove can freeze over in cold conditions.
126.96.36.199 When to use a canister stove
Before discussing ways to combat cold weather’s effect on a canister stove let’s define what we mean by cold. In sub-zero temperatures, while the first 2/3 of the propane/butane blend canister will deliver as expected, the canister may need to be warmed to keep the flame going. At temperatures above 15, isobutene offers a more consistent delivery of fuel, without the need to keep the canister warm during the final 1/3 of its canister life. Above 40 degrees F and the issue is a moot one. In conditions less than 15F less use a white gas stove.
188.8.131.52 Type of fuel Canisters
The type of fuel canister is important as they are not all the same. Most canister stoves have some combination of n-Butane, isobutene, and propane. Here are the relative percentages for popular canisters:
- Primus: 50 % n-butane, 25 % isobutene , 25 % propane
- Peak1: 70% n-butane, 0% isobutene, 30% propane
- MSR IsoPro: 0% n-butane, 80% isobutane, 20% propane
- Snow Peak: 0% n-butane, 85% isobutane, 15% propane
Why is this mixture information important? Without the fuel in the canister being vaporized, there is no pressure to feed fuel into the jet. These fuel components all vaporize at different temperatures.
- n-Butane vaporizes at 31 degrees F
- Isobutane vaporizes at 11 degrees F
- Propane vaporizes at -43 degrees F
When you use your stove at or below 31 degrees is the n-butane will cease to vaporize and all the propane and/or isobutane will vaporize instead and that will burn first, leaving just cold liquid n-butane in the cartridge. Likewise, if you use your stove at or below 11 degrees, the propane will be the first to go leaving only isobutane and butane in a liquid form with no more pressure. Generally, you want less n-butane and more propane for cold temperatures. The choice of canister for below freezing performance becomes one with a high proportion of propane and little or no n-butane. In this case the MSR IsoPro or Snow Peak would be your best choice with the MSR having a slight advantage in temperatures above 11F.
184.108.40.206 Increasing Canister efficiency
Typically you can use a canister stove down to about 15F. To extend the effective range you can sleep with the canister or stow it within a down bootie, pre-warm the canister, using an insulated pad and windscreen during burning to keep the canister warm. The convenience of the canister stove certainly makes me want to try extending my use of it a few more degrees.
Setting a canister in a pool of water, it can be as little as an inch, it keeps frost from condensing on the canister and chilling the gas inside.
If your stove has a preheat stage, meaning the fuel line loops through the flame to vaporize the fuel before it goes through the jet, you can invert the canister so the stove functions as a liquid feed. Light the stove with the canister upright. Then turn the canister over and stabilize it. This is beneficial because the propane (which will vaporize in all but the worst conditions on earth) will stay above the liquid butane and isobutane, pushing it down through the fuel line into the stove. You don’t want to turn the stove on very much, as it will behave very differently with the canister upside down. Basically with the valve just cracked you will get a full roar, and you don’t have as much flame adjustment as you do with the canister upright. When you shut it off it will burn for a few seconds until all of the gas is out of the fuel line.
220.127.116.11 How hot is too hot?
How can you tell how hot you can safely allow your canister to get? All gas canisters must be able to take at least 122 F without any damage at all in order to pass European and American Standards, but it is best to keep the canister below ‘hand temperature’, which is about 86 F. Warm is OK, ‘hot’ is not. Typically, your hand can touch something below 113 F without it getting an ‘ouch’ response.
Put your hand on the canister. If it feels cold let it warm up a little bit. If it feels cool to mildly warm, that is good, but keep an eye on it. If it starts to feel hot or above a comfortable hand temperature, take action to limit the thermal feedback such as adding a shield. If the canister feels too hot to touch comfortably take action fast and shut the stove down at once.
If you hear the stove is starting to roar a bit, check the canister temperature. The roar suggests that the internal pressure is getting too high.
11.1.3 How much fuel?
The amount of fuel used is dependent on your stove, fuel type, air temperature, wind, whether you are using a windscreen, even the efficiency of the wind screen to say nothing of the types of meals and cooking time.
For planning purposes it is best to plan on at least 20 minutes of fuel for heating water for morning drinks and breakfast and at least 40 minutes of fuel for dinner. That adds up to 1 hour of fuel a day. To be on the safe side add an extra hour or two for making a special lunch, hot soups, a cold snap, or conditions that delay your trip.
The use of fires in the wilderness is controversial. A central principle of LNT is to minimize the impact of campfires. However, in the camping in the winter when it can be dark before 5pm a fire can provide a focal point, a source of heat for melting snow for water or cooking, and heat for drying and/or warming clothing.
11.2.1 Building a Fire in the Winter
The wood warms you three times: gathering it, cutting it, and burning it. A lightweight saw and/or an ax, along with the knowledge of how to use them, are crucial ingredients for building a fire. I typically cut firewood with a saw. A saw in the 15-21” range is adequate to get full efficient cutting strokes on larger poles with the trade off being additional weight and bulk. Saw blades do break, so make sure to bring an extra blade and/or have more than one saw available for your group.
A typical folding saw is the Sawvivor, a 15″ folding saw that weighs 9.6 oz and can cut 6″ logs.
A safe way to handle firewood is to gather manageable lengths and haul them back to camp where you have good footing and cutting/chopping blocks available. An ax is useful for splitting larger diameter wood. When wood is wet or frozen on the outside, splitting the wood will reveal the dry inner portions that will burn and help dry the other wood.
Using an ax should not be done lightly. Nothing ruins a good camping trip more than lopping a finger or limb off while in the back country. A long handled axe is preferred over a hatchet for splitting wood. The length of the handle and size of the ax head is based on height and personal preference; I like a 28 inch handle and a 2¼ pound head..
When trimming branches make sure you swing the ax away from you and be aware of where the follow through is going. Plan each swing and guard against awkward swings that might deflect off a limb.
When splitting wood never hold a block end up with one hand and bring the axe down with the other. If the block does not stand up on its own, please use a holding stick in one hand, supporting the block upright with the stick, so that your hand is well away from the block. Then you can safely bring the axe down on the block.
Once the axe head is seated securely in the block use a length of wood as a mallet to hammer the axe head through the block and safely split the block.
A safe setup for splitting wood: Paul keeps the hatchet head secure in the block, Mark hammers the hatchet head with a wooden block and Jason clears away split blocks.
A fire for winter camping needs to be built on a platform, started with tinder and kindling and built into an appropriate style for the task at hand (heating, cooking, entertainment). If the snowpack is only a few feet thick, dig down to the ground otherwise plan on making a platform. Stamp the snow and make it flat where you intend to build this fire pit. This will give it a nice depression which will help with blocking the wind. Make sure that you get it nice and tight. The size depends on how big you want it. Now put down some logs on top of the fire pit this will now be your fire platform and you will build your fire on top of the logs.
Whether you are trying to promote Leave No Trace techniques and establishing a protection layer between the fire and the ground or shielding the fire from dampness or trying to keep it up out of the snow and direct its heat; a platform is all important.
The picture below depicts a good platform. It is built in the existing fire pit at the Tirrell Pond lean-to. It has a solid base of logs; getting it up out of the snow and a couple of reflective walls to channel the heat back to the fire and towards the lean-to. No wonder these winter campers are so happy, anticipating the pleasant evening to come!
A good platform built in an existing fire pit.
11.2.3 Fire starters
Always carry a lighter, matches, or sparking device or ideally more than one.
Tinder is the material that catches the spark from the fire starter. Tinder might include commercial products such as Wetfire, Esbit tablets or trioxane, candles or homemade aids such as my personal favorite cotton balls smeared with Vaseline or wood shaving cupcakes made. Natural tinder might include shredded bark or wood shavings. White birch bark from fallen trees is a reliable starter.
You can make your own tinder from wood shavings, sawdust and paraffin wax. Pack the shavings into a muffin tin. You can do this with or without muffin wrappers. If you want to re-use the muffin tins, use wrappers. This is a good task to do while the paraffin is melting. Warm the paraffin up slowly –you are just trying to get it to melt, not boil. It is best to avoid a future domestic scene and use an old pot as getting all the residual paraffin out can be problematic.
Fire tinder made from wood shavings and paraffin
When the last of the paraffin is melted pour it into the muffin tins. If the pot is very full dip the paraffin out using a disposable cup so you don’t end up with wax being poured everywhere. You can vary the size by controlling the amount of wax poured into the muffin tin.
The finished fire tinder cupcakes.
After the wax has cooled and congealed you can pop the wax and shaving cups out of the muffin tin and store them for future use. These tinder cups are long burning and burn hot.
11.2.5 Kindling and Wood
Gather only dead wood from downed trees and branches to feed your fire. Kindling wood should be 3D: dead, dry and dinky. The kindling should be no thicker than your thumb and snap easily with two hands. Don’t short change this step, you need two armfuls.
11.2.6 Fire Styles
The purpose of a fire – reflected heat, quick or long cooking or merely aesthetics – dictates the appropriate style.
18.104.22.168 Tepee Fire
For a no-hassle fire, use the classic tepee method: In the middle of your foundation, sandwich a handful of loose tinder between two layers of kindling. Prop small and medium sticks, no bigger than your wrist, upright around the kindling, their tops meeting like the poles of a tepee. Leave a larger opening on the windward side to ensure enough air for the fire, and light the tinder. A teepe fire is suitable for quick cooking or as an entertainment fire.
22.214.171.124 Reflector Fire
A reflector fire a flat surface behind it to direct the heat back out past the fire. This surface is erected behind the fire and pointed, for example, at the face of a tent, lean-to or other shelter. This back reflector can be made out of a few large slabs of bark, several logs laid against supports and stacked upon each other to form the surface.
Lay a few logs on top of one another against the sloping back. Form a rectangle on the floor at the base of the slope as your fireplace. By lighting a fire in the middle most of the heat will be reflected back to the front of the fire, making cooking easy. Be sure that you build it so the ‘grate’ or fireplace faces the wind.
A good reflector close to the fire will help reflect the heat back towards you. In addition it helps to draw the smoke upwards instead of getting in your eyes. You can use this to your advantage by also reflecting heat into your shelter.
Don’t make a fire up against a large boulder or tree stump. Build the fire away from the rock/stump and place a reflector on the other side. As the rock reflects the heat onto your back, the reflector warms you to the front.
If there are no ‘natural reflectors’ simply build several reflectors of your own and place one behind you, then one on the other side of the fire.
126.96.36.199 Log Cabin Fire
A log cabin fire is made by stacking layers in alternating directions. Be sure not to stack the wood too close to prohibit air movement. A log cabin fire is suitable for cooking food as it provides uniform heat.
11.2.7 Maintenance and feeding
You can pre-heat and dry larger pieces of wood by laying them discretely alongside the fire before placing them in the fire to burn. If you keep at it you can dry out most wood enough to burn.
Fires by committee are notoriously problematic. Everyone has a different thermostat and style. A good approach is to appoint someone as “The FireMaster” and request the FireMaster for more or less heat.
Maintaining a fire requires a plan.
11.2.8 Cooking with a fire
Cooking over a campfire is one of those pleasures that is difficult to explain to others that have never done it. You see, touch, smell and taste your food in a much more direct fashion.
On a stick
|Impale your food on a sharp stick and cook over fire||Simple, easy clean up, easy to regulate cooking temperature by moving stick||Only suitable for a few food items. Too often green sticks are sacrificed.|
On a grill
|Food items placed on grill over fire||Similar to grilling on BBQ. Wide variety of foods can be grilled||Grill is required.|
Foil on coals
|Wrap food in foil and place on coals||Lightweight, can cook wide variety of food, easy to clean up||Hard to tell when food is done. Removing food from fire can be tricky. Foil must be packed out|
|Food is heated in a pot placed or suspended over the fire||Uses existing cookware. Similar to cooking with stove. Wide variety of meals can be stewed.||Temperature regulation can be tricky. Cookware gets covered with soot.|
|All metal oven is surrounded by coals||Can be used for frying, roasting, baking, braising, and stewing. Good for large groups||Heavy cookware must be transported|
Tips for cooking on a campfire
- Small fires are easier to cook on. Wait until the fire burns down to embers
- Avoid a direct flame since it will burn the outside of the food without properly heating the inside
- Increase heat by grouping embers. Decrease heat by spreading the embers out or by covering them lightly with ashes.
- While softwoods are good for starting a fire, hardwoods are better for making coals for cooking
- Use the side of the fire to pre-heat food or keep it warm while you make more food or begin eating.
11.3 Pots & pans and Utensils
Minimum cooking equipment for a group of four usually includes two nesting pots with covers; one for melting water and a 2nd for cooking a one pot meal. Depending upon the meal being prepared a pot cozies may prove useful. If you don’t have a fabric pot cozy a spare garment will work in pinch. Consider using plastic silverware as metal spoons and forks may become uncomfortably cold.
11.3.1 Vacuum Bottle
A vacuum bottle enables you to boil water at breakfast and it will still be hot at lunch and during afternoon tea. Plus, you can fill it after dinner and have hot water handy in morning.