Death of the Wood Stove

Apologies if you’ve clicked here thinking this post is about wood stoves for homes.  Even though I’m typing this post while sitting right in front of my toasty Jøtul Castine 4400 (winter really sucked this year) this post is about wood stoves designed for backpacking, which are just as interesting.  Care to read on?

I love backpacking wood stoves.  More specifically, I love my 5oz Bushbuddy Ultra.  Noisy, smoky, overweight Zip stoves are for dumpsters.  It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what I love best about my Bushbuddy, but I can draw up a straight story as to how I got to using the Bushbuddy over all other stove designs.

zip stove in action
Zip Stove: stop wasting my time.

I started my long-term relationship with long distance hiking as many do, on the Appalachian Trail.  I thought I’d try and go stove-less to start, but 70 miles and minus 8 pounds into the 100-mile wilderness, I realized that I hadn’t put enough though into what I was supposed to be eating on one of these adventures.  So I bought my first camp stove, a canister-based MSR something-or-other.  I’m pretty sure it was a Pocket Rocket (ew), but the name doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that I became suddenly aware of that vast, streamlined calorie delivery system known as Lipton and no longer suffered for lack of calories at the end of a long day on the trail.  With a click of my lighter, my stove lit up with a whoosh and I’d have water boiling faster than I could tear open my package of beef stroganoff, which my Californian hiking companions would lovingly refer to as “stroag” or “stroags (pl)” as if it was its own food group.

I carried the canister stove the entire way to Georgia, never spending more time than necessary on heating water and cooking stroag.  But something was changing inside.  When my canister ran out of fuel, I heaved it into the trash can in town and picked up a shiny new one for six bucks.  (Yeah yeah, I know that steel can be recycled, but what a pain in the ass!  Plus this was 2002.)  I hated relying on outfitters for fuel resupply.  Their hours were finicky and I couldn’t shake off the fact that I was dependent on a shelf being stocked with canister fuel so I could go on eating in the back country.  I had also, on my way to Georgia, encountered several hikers sporting home-made alcohol stoves.  Cooking dinner over cat food cans, they were the proudest hobos I had ever encountered…but the seed was sown.

By the time I started the PCT in 2007, I had become an alcohol stove convert.  I adopted a Pepsi-G stove design and, like some kind of backwoods jihadist, built one by myself with plans found on the internet.  Just another proud hobo.  But the stove worked beautifully.  To compliment my newfound do-it-yourself inner manliness, I built a pot stand/windscreen out of a turkey pan and bicycle spokes.  Dude!

dan with alcohol stove
Here I am about to enjoy a pot of mush heated with my homemade alcohol stove.

My trail diet didn’t change much for the PCT.  I was still eating the usual high-calorie high-carb vittles, but Lipton didn’t see one more red cent from me.  I had sworn off stroag, which no longer brought about anticipatory salivation.   Annie’s shells and cheddar was in as well as plain pasta with olive oil, salt, and some cheese, which thankfully, due to being closer to “real food” than stroag, I can still eat.

My love for the alcohol stove soon faded, thanks to the persistent alcohol stink and the intrepid spirit of a gentleman named Thomas.  I encountered Thomas in the High Sierra.  He was very excited about his new stove, the Bushbuddy.  He claimed that it boiled water just as quickly as my alcohol stove (it did), was lightweight (it was), didn’t require any fuel to be carried (true), and fostered warmth, cheer, and harmony with one’s natural surroundings (it did).  I ordered mine right away.

I carried a Bushbuddy Ultra from Northern California to Canada.  when hiking solo, I enjoyed Bushbuddy’s small fire on cold nights and learned to reserve dry tinder for fire building on wet days.  When hiking with companions, Bushbuddy kept us amused and in good spirits.  At one point, one of my companions pronounced that my cheerful stove would be named Sockbuddy and placed his old, dirty sock into the flame.  He got a smoldering sock.  We got plenty of laughs.

My wife and I had Bushbuddy to keep us company while out hiking the Montana section of the CDT in 2010.  Now, back home in the east, we take Bushbuddy out whenever we can, though using it here in Maine can be a challenge when there’s lots of wet weather.

While I think Bushbuddy enhances my backcountry experience, the wood stove hasn’t really taken off amongst long distance hikers.  I surveyed 323 thru hikers in 2013 and none of them reported carrying a wood stove.  Why would this be?

I blame a couple of factors:

Fire Bans

Wood fires are typically banned in the High Sierra above a certain altitude due to the lack of natural material for burning.  Yosemite bans wood fires above 9,600 feet.  Also, in the dry summer months, many western US land management agencies are quick to restrict campfires to designated areas or ban campfires entirely due to fire danger.  Most agencies do not distinguish between campfires and wood stoves, leaving the  wood stove user in a tricky position.  (Incidentally, according to the PCTA, alcohol stove users may soon come under increased scrutiny by land management agencies.)

Time to Boil

Although Thomas could get his Bushbuddy cooking in a matter of minutes, the speed at which a wood stove will boil water is highly dependent on the moisture level of the fuel in the environment.  Wet wood means a very long time getting a hot fire started.  This is unappealing to many long distance hikers, who, after stove weight, tend to value things like boil time, reliability, and ease of operation when choosing stoves.  Veteran wood stove users can get a hot fire in most anything except a hurricane, but the learning curve is very long.

Wood stoves will continue to find favor amongst a certain type of long distance hiker, but to most others, the wood stove is as good as dead…for now.



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