I’m convinced that 50% of a guy’s motivation for camping is the opportunity to burn stuff in a campfire and 45% has to do with camping toys (otherwise known as “equipment”). The remaining 5% is likely connectedness to nature and other touchy-feely stuff like that. I believe that these completely arbitrary percentages are just as true for hikers as they are for car-campers.
How do I know? Look at how much time a hiker spends researching gear, especially cooking systems. When I started assembling my own gear after an inaugural hiking trip, my first really engaging gear conversation was regarding a DIY alcohol stove. A friend told me about this web site with instructions on how to build a super lightweight alcohol stove from a catfood can. In daily life, I’m a bit of a minimalist and quite frugal (some call it “cheap,” others would refer to me as an aspiring dirtbagger), so I was immediately interested. After a scan of the instructions, a trip to the store, and a little time playing with my toys, I had a functional cat can stove.
However, I began to question my allegiance to the cat can after using it on my first AT trip. The trip was short – only two nights – so I fired it up twice while on the trip (I did use it several times at home before I left). The first night was a terrible experience, the second night was considerably better, mainly due to my own learning curve.
I used my cat can on my second AT section hike, and I was able to work it considerably better. However, even after successful use, I still flirted with the idea of swapping methods. For now, I have put my cat can on the shelf in favor of a pocket-rocket style canister stove that sells for less than $10 on Amazon. Here are four reasons why:
I don’t want to set forests on fire.
Shortly after my introduction to the cat can stove, I began listening The Trail Show, which has now become one of my favorite podcasts, regardless of topic. I remember an episode early in my listenership when PoD said something like, “Get rid of your alcohol stoves, people!” (Paraphrase… I should find that episode so I can properly quote her.) The hosts talked about the dangers of forest fires from alcohol stoves that are accidentally kicked over. The fact that this stove is a small, lightweight can holding an ounce (or more) of burning fluid causes it to be a likely candidate for Smokey the Bear’s most-wanted list. Not only is it a can of pourable fire, the light weight that makes it attractive to hikers also makes it easy to be accidentally kicked over or be blown over by the wind. If your pot is somewhat large, it can be unstable on top of the can, again making the whole setup susceptible to being knocked over. It seems that this stove is begging to start a forest fire.
I don’t want to set fingers on fire.
My first point sounds very noble, right? In all honestly, one of my main motivating factors for leaving the cat can stove is the fact that I burned the CRAP outta my fingers the first night I used it on the AT. It was a bit breezy at Hawk Mountain Shelter and the wind was blowing my aluminum wind guard around. As I tried to grab stuff that was flying away, I knocked over my pot (sitting quite insecurely on the cat can) and the can-o-fire itself. When I realized I was about to burn down Hawk Mountain, I instinctively grabbed the cat can. Then I instinctively let go because THAT JOKER WAS HOT! Yep, somehow I forgot that a little can full of liquid fire would be hot itself. Now I had to worry about blisters on my feet AND on my fingers!
My cat can over-promised and under-delivered.
Maybe I didn’t follow instructions well. Maybe my hole pattern was wrong. Maybe it’s a design flaw. Somehow, my cat can always seemed to use more fuel than it was supposed to in order to boil water. I started with a stainless steel pot, then moved to an anodized aluminum one. Efficiency went up and boil time went down when I changed pots, but the stove still used more fuel than others said it would. One of the drawbacks to the alcohol stove is the fact that the alcohol and its container will weigh more by ounce than other fuels, but this is offset by the minimal weight of the stove and the fact that you can carry just enough fuel for the trip, as opposed to a full canister that holds more fuel than needed for a section hike. However, I blew up my fuel estimations every time I used it. I began to feel like I need to carry a full bottle of Heet (yellow, not red!) just to make it through two nights of hiking!
When I get to camp, I don’t want to fight with my stove.
As a newbie hiker, I learned quickly that there is a lot of fighting inherent to hiking. You have to fight your laziness to train before the hike. You have to fight your muscles when they want to quit halfway up Blood Mountain. You have to fight your mind when it won’t stop screaming, “YOU TOOK YOUR VACATION TO WALK FOR MILES IN THE WOODS AND THIS HURTS AND YOU SHOULD STOP!” You have to fight your desire to buy more gear for EVERY trip. You have to fight your schedule to keep stuff inside the boundaries so you have time to hike. Hopefully you have a supportive, preferably hiking-enthusiast spouse and you don’t have to fight there. With all of these battles going on already, I don’t want to fight with my stove when I get to camp. I’ve cut pack weight in several other areas and I’m happy to carry a little extra so I can click a piezo lighter and boil water quickly. I want my pot to sit securely on my stove. I like for my fire to be easily extinguished and for my fuel to be contained.
I will continue to tweak my gear and play with other configurations for everything. I’m sure I’ll try other stoves… and may even revert to the cat can at some point. The cat can has its merits, and even professional adventurers endorse it. When I hike with my wife, I’ll carry a canister stove and she’ll carry a cat can to ensure that we are covered if the canister stove fails for some reason. But, for now, I’m choosing an extra half-pound of comfort at camp at the end of a long day of hiking.
What cooking method do you prefer on the trail? Why?