SHANE STEINKAMP'S BACKPACKING BASE CAMP
COOKING WITH WOODI have been cooking over wood fires for as long as I can remember. I've used a wood burning ZIP stove for a decade or more, and when I don't carry one I usually just make a small cooking fire on the ground. It helps to have something like the Finbar Fire Grate if you have no stove. Sometimes you can't have fires on the ground, though, and either a ZIP stove or a fire pan is required.
Cooking with wood isn't the right choice for everyone, but it is for me, and invite you to consider it. In the past, I did a lot of long distance hiking with very long periods between resupply. (Usually 15 days, frequently 20 days, and sometimes longer than that.) Carrying fuel just wasn't an option for me. Using wood is simple. Nothing to fiddle with. Nothing to break. You can't run out of fuel in the middle of a hike. Once you have the skills, it's less work that fooling around with a stove. I don't always eat faster, but I do always eat better than my tin-can stove using buddies. I like to eat real meals, having decided somewhere along the way that I could no longer stand the traditional swill that most hikers eat.
A cooking fire isn't a large fire. By definition, it's only big enough to get the job of cooking done. If the flames are more than three or four inches high, then the fire is too big. In rainy weather, I use a cooking fire under my tarp just like I would use any stove.
The benefits of cooking with wood are many. Let's look at some.
This is my primary reason for using wood as my cooking fuel, so I listed it first. This is the hook, so bear with me...
Cooking with wood allows me the following luxuries:
- I can melt all the snow I like.
- I can have a "personal campfire".
- All the hot coffee, tea, or cocoa you can drink.
- A little smudge fire will keep the bugs away.
- If I am particularly cold on some frosty night the ZIP stove makes a fine heater. (Just be sure to have proper ventilation.)
- I can boil all the water I like, which leads to some other things, detailed below.
- After dinner I can have all the hot tea, coffee, cocoa, etc that I care to drink while watching the moon rise on some chilly night while I am comfortably wrapped in my sleeping bag, propped against a few rocks or a tree.
- After tea, I may decide to have a nice cup of soup.
- Roasted marshmallows, a hot apple with a little cinnamon, s'mores, and all other manner of warm delights can be had for stargazing, talking with friends (new and old), or just enjoying some quiet time while the moon bathes the countryside in a sleepy glow.
- Hot shower? Anybody for a hot shower 100 miles from nowhere? You can heat all the water you like, pour it into a Platypus or other water bag, add shower attachment, and have a HOT shower anywhere you like. Of course, a 4L Platy is only about three minutes of a shower, but you can fill it as many times as you like. If you are clever about it, you've heated plenty of water ahead of time, and put another pot on to boil just before you start the shower. Then you get six minutes of hot water bliss. Of course, if I got a bigger bag, I could have a longer shower... I like to shower every day, and I like to have a HOT shower. How much fuel would I have to carry to do that? Of course, you have to carry the shower head, which is about a half ounce...
ALLOWS COOKING REAL MEALS
Using wood for cooking allows a lot of control. Cooking and simmering can be done indefinitely, allowing a hiker on a budget to use less expensive things like rice rather than more expensive, pre-prepared or freeze dried meals.
Any wood burning backpacking stove or fire grate will quickly pay for itself in fuel savings. Since you can cook real food, like rice and pasta, that are relatively inexpensive, then you can save money on special backpacking foods.
NO NEED TO CARRY FUEL
This is primarily a safety issue. I really don't need to be fiddling with a flammable liquid with cold fingers after a long day. I've burned up a few things that way in my time... My Whisperlite had a bad habit of becoming a roaring dragon as well. I also don't have to worry about finding a supply of suitable fuel at every resupply. I just grab a few twigs and I'm in high clover. You can't take fuel onboard commercial aircraft either, which means that you have to find fuel when you arrive at your destination if you fly.
COOKING WITH WOOD IS ULTRALIGHT
If we talk about the ZIP stove, you might say, "But it weighs a whole pound! My Pepsi can stove weighs almost nothing!" The key phrase is, 'for the kind of hiking I do'. My stove weighs a pound. It will always weigh a pound. The Finbar Fire Grate weighs less than eight ounces. Period. Your stove weighs nothing, but you have to carry your fuel. For 15 days, how much fuel would you have to carry? What if you were heating water for showers, tea, and all sorts of other luxuries? How much fuel would you have to carry if you were the only one with a stove in a group of five hikers out for seven days. (That's 35 hiker days, BTW...) A liquid fuel stove system keeps getting heavier in that situation, but mine still weighs the same. No matter how many days I stay out, I don't need to carry extra fuel.
COOKING WITH WOOD IS ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY
This may be shocking, but bear with me.
At every level, burning wood is more environmentally friendly than any other fuel source - except perhaps yak dung. No fuel source is "pristine." The environmental advantage of the Zip Stove is more than "marginal," because of its forced draft design. Even without the ZIP stove, however, a small wood cooking fire has an environmental advantage over EVERY other fuel source used in the backcountry. Petroleum fuels mean an oil well somewhere. Wood produces less pollution when considered in the entirety of the production cycle. Alcohol and other liquid fuels require energy to produce and transport, and require metal or plastic containers which have to be produced and discarded. Wood does not.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change concluded that, "Although it produces a large amount of carbon dioxide, burning wood (and other biomass) contributes less to climate change than does burning fossil fuel. [W]ood appears to have the highest emission coefficient. However, while the carbon contained in fossil fuels has been stored in the earth for hundreds of millions of years and is now being rapidly released over mere decades, this is not the case with plants. When plants are burned as fuel, their carbon is recycled back into the atmosphere at roughly the same rate at which it was removed, and thus makes no net contribution to the pool of carbon dioxide in the air. Of course, when biomass is removed but is not allowed to grow back - as in the case of massive deforestation - the use of biomass fuels use can yield net carbon dioxide emissions."
The particles in wood smoke are heavy and quickly fall to the ground. The gases that escape to the atmosphere are identical to the gases that would soon be emitted anyway were the twigs, chips and cones allowed to decay naturally.
Alcohol comes from fermented grains. The grains are certainly renewable. But where does the heat come from that evaporates the water and concentrates the alcohol? We are dealing with a net energy loss. Alcohol is a viable fuel only because the manufacture is artificially subsidized by taxpayers, from grains grown mostly by giant factory farms, nurtured by powerful Midwestern (mostly Republican) house and senate members repaying campaign contributions. Who knows what pollution load this manufacture entails? I find it hard for to believe that burning a few twigs found along a trail is more polluting.
Most of the gas for Whisperlites and other such stoves comes from the middle east or middle and South America. This country has fought and fomented wars to keep that supply. Hundreds of miles of coastline have been polluted by tanker spills.
I don't have any specific knowledge about where the butane and similar gases come from - fossil fuels probably. But just the manufacture of the metal containers causes more pollution, I'm sure, than my handful of twigs.
Argue convenience of alcohol, white gas, Esbits, and butane, if you want. These are all legitimate considerations. But I have yet to hear any persuasive evidence that these things are less polluting than my Zip or a small cooking fire.
Some people escape liquid fuels by using Esbit tablets, AKA Hexamine. Good old C6H12N4... Releases Formaldehyde and Nitrogen Oxides when burned... Skin irritant... Eye irritant... Formaldehyde is a carcinogen... Manufactured mostly in second world countries like Iran that don't have environmental standards... How much pollution goes into making that little white cube I wonder...
Did you know that Hexamine is used in the manufacture of nylon? One of the things that is poisonous to burn? Did you know that decomposing Hexamine releases methylamine HCl? Did you know that mixed with other things Hexamine is a primary explosive? Are you aware of the process of and waste products from its manufacture? It isn't very nice stuff.
COOKING WITH WOOD CAN BE LNT COMPLIANT
I had the LNT bug for awhile. Now, I'm not so keen on it. There are limits. There is no such thing as ZERO trace. I am a natural animal, and anything I do as a natural animal can't really be considered 'bad' within certain limits. I don't feel guilty for picking wild berries, for instance. I've gone from LNT to DNH (Do No Harm) which is a little more realistic, and easier for most people to accept.
If you're hiking in an environment that is so fragile that it can't withstand your presence, then you shouldn't be hiking there...
One of the arguments against wood fires is that ever increasing number of hikers taking wood for cooking fires devastates camping areas, which is unfair to all that follow.
Understand, though, that we aren't talking about building bonfires. We're talking about small cooking and warming fires. I have never been unable to find the small amounts of wood needed to fire my ZIP stove. In my area there are so many blowdowns that it's almost a shame NOT to have a fire.
Boiling is an excellent method of water purification, and by using wood, this method becomes possible for backpackers. This allows backpackers to leave heavy filters, harsh chemicals, and pricey gadgets at home - saving weight and money.
SOME EXTRA WORK
Sometimes finding dry wood to burn is a little extra work. I, personally, have found that it's less work in most cases to build a small cooking fire than to fiddle with liquid fuel. I sometimes eat just as fast - and usually better - than my buddies with tin can stoves.
BAD IDEA IN VERY DRY PLACES
Down here in the South East, there isn't any such thing as a forest fire. Unfortunately, out West, this isn't the case. Burn bans are often in effect, and sometimes it's just not a good idea to have a wood fire in very dry or very windy conditions. Use good judgment.
WOOD CAN BE HARD TO FIND IN SOME PLACES
Trying to use wood for cooking where there aren't any trees - like in the Arctic or in the Sahara Desert is obviously unworkable. I have found enough dried suwarrow skeleton and other things to burn in the desert Southwest, but this isn't always guaranteed.
POTS GET BLACK FROM SOOT
This can be messy, but with a good stuff sack is easily manageable.
As noted above, there are some areas where I wouldn't light a fire. Sometimes the risk is too great, sometimes the ecosystem is too fragile. In areas where I chiefly hike now, none of this is a concern, so YMMV. That's not what I'm talking about. For me, and the areas where I hike, I'd like to address some points. People who are uneducated about proper fire use have caused a lot of destruction - and have ruined the perception of those of us who know what we are doing.
Some folks are concerned with sterilization of the ground. Sterilization does not happen with a single campfire. Otherwise brush fires would be extremely bad - which they aren't. Same thing with fire stains and charcoal nubbins. Since every area has had a brush fire within the last few years, you'd think that this 'damage' would be everywhere. It isn't. In any case, a proper fire leaves neither stains nor black nubbins. They all get burnt to ash. This is a matter of education.
If using a ZIP stove, there is no danger of this in any case.
Long-standing fire pits or fire circles are certainly sterilized, which means that if you are going to build a fire, you should build the fire in that established place. You aren't doing any harm by doing so. The ground is already sterile. Even that isn't a permanent condition. Given time, mother nature will reclaim it.
Concentrations of half-burned nasties, plastics, foil, etc. are also an education problem, not a fire problem. Just because I see a lot of paper trash in the backcountry doesn't mean that I'm going to stop carrying paper. It isn't a trash problem, it's a people problem. Consider yourself educated. You cannot burn - Cannot Burn - CANNOT BURN plastic or foil, and you must PACK IT OUT, Pack It Out, pack it out!
Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule... Some kinds of plastic trash can be burned in a campfire - and be truly burned up. You can actually burn some kinds of plastics safely. Polyethylene, for instance - what Ziploc bags are made of. When you burn one the component parts break down - namely ethylene, propylene, and methane. The binding agent is silica - glass. A joint study by the Dow Chemical Company and the Fire and Safety Research Institute in Chicago showed that there is: "no substantial difference in toxicity between burning cellulosic materials and burning polyethylene materials and this is sufficient basis to conclude that fires involving polyethylene present no more of an inhalation toxicity risk than wood" Look it up if you don't believe me... The reference is: [Kuhn, R.L., Potts, W.J. and Waterman, T.E., "A Study of the Inhalation Toxicity of Smoke Produced Upon Pyrolysis and Combustion of Polyethylene Foams - Part II, Full Scale Fire Studies", Journal of Combustion Toxicology, 5, p.434 (1978) Nov.]
Some stuff you can burn...some stuff you can't. It's about education. If you aren't sure, then don't burn it!
When I light a fire that isn't inside my ZIP stove, I try to find a fire circle. Barring that, I very carefully roll the forest detritus up, and build the fire on the ground directly. That fire is allowed to burn out, until nothing is left but white ash. That ash is collected and scattered over a wide area, and the detritus is replaced. When I'm done with a campsite, you cannot tell that I have been there unless you look VERY hard and know what you're looking for. I have used and re-used campsites like this many times. In re-use areas, I build the fire in a different spot each time. I could take you to those places and you wouldn't see any sterilization, trash, or deforestation.
It isn't the fire that's the problem. It's the people. It's short sighted, in my opinion to say, "Simply don't have a fire. Fire BAD!" I'd rather educate people on proper methods. People are more likely to respond to you if you try to educate them about their fire rather than try to take it from them...
In areas where I hike, you could increase the hiker traffic by 1000%, all of them using wood for fuel, and you'd never see an appreciable impact. There is a LOT of dead wood that falls every day. Sometimes right on your head.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Bottom line? Carry what you like. As for me, I want real cooked food, hot tea, hot showers, a warm tent and various other amenities. If you want to save a pound and not have all that, who am I to judge you? ;)
Not everything is good everywhere, and not everything is bad everywhere. To be honest, down here in the swamp, you could light huge bonfires everywhere and come back three weeks later and not find a trace. The ecosystem turns over so fast that it's amazing.
THE PREACHER'S RANT
If you want to claim, as you have above, that fire pits are unsightly then that's your right. I don't find them any more unsightly than the trampled camps that surround them. If you are trying to claim that they pose the threat - real or imagined - of tremendous impact, I'm afraid that I just can't buy that argument. In those places where large fire pits exist, large campsites do too. The fire pit is a very small percentage of the impacted campsite - and that impacted campsite is in turn an extremely small percentage of the environmental area we are talking about - so small as to be zero. In very fragile areas you shouldn't be building a fire of any kind - or lighting any stove for that matter. If the area is that fragile, you have to consider what might happen if your stove blows up...
Now, having said all that, I'm quite sure that you have probably been brainwashed by the chemical companies into thinking that you are doing the right thing. Now that I have shown you the light, as a Minister of the Holy Flaming Zip Stove, I can grant you forgiveness but you have to convert now. This is a limited time offer... ;)
Thank you for your time,