Category Archives: Philosopher’s Guide

Stove Boil-Off

You cannot walk far in the way of Ultralight Backpacking without running across those who are passionate about their alcohol stoves.  And why not?  They are extremely light and you can make your own at very minimal cost.  What’s more, there are many websites dedicated to showing you how to make and use your own stove.  One in particular is www.thesodacanstove.com.  This site has great instructions on how to make different stoves and it has a well done comparison between all the main types of cooking methods including open fire, wood stove, canister and liquid fuel, alcohol and solid fuel.  One thing that most of the websites I have seen are lacking is how the alcohol stove compares with others in terms of how much time it takes to boil water.  As you will see, this amounts to a significant omission.  In full disclosure, I am no where near achieving Zen status when it comes to the alcohol stove.  There are a lot of designs and I am sure some are more efficient than others.  However, the few videos I observed on the topic confirmed my results as being in the ball park.  For this test, I chose the popular cat food can design.  The website shows you how to make one.  They are really easy.

As for the other stoves in the test, they are from my own personal collection.  While there are many designs and technologies deployed today, I believe these models exemplify each type of stove sufficiently for this purpose.  They all have their advantages and disadvantages, which are pretty well known with minimal research.  The main purpose of this test is to compare boiling times, weight and general cost of each stove type.

The Setup

IMG_1592The test was conducted in my garage with the door open.  There was a bit of a breeze but not significant. The ambient air temperature was 63.7 deg.  The altitude of my garage is 1337 ft. above see level and the barometric pressure at the time of the test was 30.05 in. of mercury.  These parameters are significant in that they affect the actual boiling temperature and the time to boil the water.  In order to make sure I had a solid reference, I heated some water and tracked the temperature until it stopped at 208 deg. at a full boil.

Equipment

IMG_1594I used my trusty flat scale to insure I used a constant amount of water for each test.  I chose 12 oz. of water because that is typical for a single serving of freeze dried foods.  I used a typical digital oven thermometer to track the temperature of the heated water.  I used a two gallon bucket to hold plenty of water and the temperature of the water from the tap was 62 deg.  For timing, I used the stopwatch function of my wristwatch.  The container I used was my 16 oz. titanium cooking pot.

Testing Method

IMG_1595For each test, I dipped the pot in the bucket of water to make sure it started at the same temperature. The I used the scale to measure exactly 12 oz. of water.  After lighting each stove, I adjusted to full flame.  In the cases of the liquid fuel stove and the alcohol stove, I gave each enough time to warm up to the point of vaporizing the fuel.  I set the pot on the stove and started to watch, tracking the time until the moment the thermometer read 208 degrees.  It should be noted that I did not use a windscreen for any of the tests.  They are discouraged in the use of canister stoves for safety reasons.  For liquid fuel and alcohol, they can provide improvement but I decided to remove it as a variable.

The Stoves

MSR Pocket Rocket

This is my current go-to model and I love it.  It is a canister type and it is very small, compact and lightweight.

IMG_1596Specs:

  • Type:                                                 Canister
  • Stove Weight:                                  3.0 oz.
  • Fuel and Canister Weight:             8.0 oz. (4 oz. fuel)
  • Total Weight:                                    11.0 oz.
  • Cost:                                                  $39.95

MSR WindPro

I have been a white gas devotee since my Boy Scout days and I have used the MSR Whisperlite for many years.  It remains a great stove choice for extended trips, colder temperatures and higher altitudes.

IMG_1597Specs:

  • Type:                                                 Liquid Fuel
  • Stove Weight:                                  6.4 oz.
  • Fuel and Canister Weight:             9.8 oz. (4 oz. fuel)
  • Total Weight:                                    16.2 oz.
  • Cost:                                                  $99.95

Cat Food Can Alcohol Stove

It took about 15 minutes to make this stove with the can and a paper hand punch. The cat food, alas, was not necessary for the test and consequently, it was not spared nor donated for the benefit of any feline.

IMG_1598Specs:

  • Type:                                                 Homemade Alcohol
  • Stove Weight:                                  0.2 oz.
  • Fuel and Canister Weight:             5.0 oz. (4 oz. fuel)
  • Total Weight:                                   5.2 oz.
  • Cost:                                                 $1.98 for the cat food

The Results

  Model   Type Boil Time Weight Cost
  MSR WindPro   Liquid Fuel 2:15.40 16.2 oz. $99.95
  MSR Pocker Rocket   Canister 2:19.59 11.0 oz. $39.95
  Cat Food Can   Alcohol 11:32.10 5.2 oz. $1.98

Conclusions

It should be noted that the 1 oz. of fuel ran out during the alcohol stove test but I was able to refuel and relight within 15 seconds or so.  I left the total time because in the end, it did not seem to be significant.

There is a clear advantage in weight and cost of the homemade alcohol stove but a significant price is paid for boiling time.

For 6 oz. in exchange for 9 minutes, I think I’ll stick with the Pocket Rocket!

Lightweight 101 – Basics

On the heels of reading “Trail Life” by Ray Jardine, I decided to start a series of posts on the topic.  As we go, I will highlight aspects of my personal gear, how I chose to buy it and generally how well it has performed.  So to get things started, let’s talk a little about the essence of Lightweight Backpacking.

As any disciple of “The Ray Way” knows, it’s not about lightweight for it’s own sake, although every philosophy has it’s most ardent supporters (and shall we say extremists?).  The purpose is to lighten the load as much as possible to heighten the hiking experience, by extending the hiking day, adding mileage, reducing pain and injury and generally feeling better.

What Gets Left Behind

By far, the easiest and least expensive way to get started is to carefully scrutinize every piece of your gear and decide if you really need it or not.  In a typical 30 lb. pack, one can probably reduce up to 10 lb. by simply leaving stuff at home.  Here is a list of stuff I decided to live without:

  • Folding saw
  • Backpacking ax
  • Cooking kit (spatula, can opener, fork, knife, spice containers, extra lighter, etc.)
  • Backpacking coffee press (Yes, I am a coffee snob)
  • Stove windscreen
  • Poncho
  • Guide books (I photocopy specific pages and leave the book home)
  • Down booties
  • Teva sandals (man, those things are heavy!)
  • Candle lantern
  • Toothpaste (Water is fine for a weekend)
  • Filter pump (in lieu of lighter alternative)
  • Multitool
  • Repair Kit (wire, tape, string, extra tent pegs, stove repair kit)

I really liked my candle lantern...

I really liked my candle lantern…

There, after you list all of your unnecessary stuff, it really adds up.  This list represents about 9 lb.

The Scales Of Justice

Etekcity Scale

Etekcity Scale

The next step on the journey of lightweight is to purchase a scale and weigh everything else.  I found a good digital scale on Amazon: the Etekcity 9310  It’s only about $12 and it has a large surface.  Start a list of your go-to gear and weigh each item.  Just knowing the weight gives you useful information.  Those desiring to lose body weight count calories.  Just having awareness of this information has an impact on the choices you make when deciding to order desert after that great pasta meal.  Being aware of the weight of all your gear puts you in a lightweight mindset.  From then on, you make more informed decisions about what to carry on a day hike or weekend backpacking trip.  Is the fleece lighter than the insulated jacket?  Extra pants that are never worn are more likely to be left in the dresser drawer saving a half a pound.  That can of beer or soda… is it worth an extra pound?

Developing an awareness of the weight of gear also has a positive impact on your buying decisions when replacing worn out gear.  For instance, the weight of packs varies dramatically among vendors and models.  Bigger and more featured packs can weigh up to 6 lb. whereas there are excellent choices that weigh half that.  Ultra light models are less than 2 lb.

Beginning at the End

A great habit to lighten your load is to review all the gear you carried at the end of your hike.  Look for any unworn clothing or any unused cooking gear.  The book you carried and didn’t read.  Did you carry more food than you ate?  Did you end up with a half bottle of fuel? What about the candle lantern?

Of course some equipment like rain gear is carried in hope that you don’t need it. But it should still be scrutinized as to whether it was absolutely necessary.  I used to carry a poncho and a Gore Tex Rain suit.  OK, the poncho doubled as a ground cloth but I never used it in the rain and there are lighter materials for ground cloths.

I go back and forth on camp shoes.  They are nice to have around camp but since I have started wearing lighter weight runners to hike, I often get home to realize the sandals I carried never hit my feet.  The same is true for hiking poles.  I used to carry a pair all the time but I began to realize that they were most helpful in fording creeks and the rest of the time, I was just carrying them.  I would get tired of that and lash them to the pack.  Now I find a good stick to get me across the creek and I toss it on the other side.

The Double Stand-in

Look for opportunities to get more than one use out of a piece of equipment so you can leave another behind.  Typical examples might include:

  • Using a rolled fleece jacket in place of a camp pillow
  • Using hiking poles for tarp poles
  • Wearing your rain pants to around camp rather than an extra pair of long pants.
  • Using a pair of whittled twigs as chopsticks instead of a fork (Only because I forgot my spoon but the chopsticks worked out fine.)
  • Eating out of food pouches and pots rather than carrying a bowl or plate.

So the first and most impactful step toward lightening your load costs no more than a cheap scale.  The next post will discuss tradeoffs and additional skills that are involved with lightweight hiking.

Reflections on “Trail Life” by Ray Jardine

Any cursory research into lightweight backpacking will inevitably lead to the name, Ray Jardine.  In fact, disciples of Ray’s hiking philosophy refer to it as “The Ray Way.”  Ray and his wife Jenny have logged numerous long distance trail hikes amassing over 25,000 miles.  Along the way they have systematically tried hundreds of equipment options and combinations to cut the overall weight of their packs to crazy minimum levels.  In the end, they make most of their equipment for a number of reasons but mostly, because they cannot find optimal designs in commercially branded products.

TrailLifeThe book is a combination of equipment and gear reviews, how-to DYI directions, a pictorial journal of several of their long distance hikes, all woven into an overall philosophy of hiking.  The whole lightweight thing is simply an enabler to enhance the hiking experience, making it possible to hike further with less effort and less injury.  The appendix includes their equipment list.  Ray’s base pack weight comes in at 8.44 lbs.; a far cry from the 40 lb. packs in the 90’s.  In a twist of irony, the publishers of the book produced it in beautiful coated paper with color photographs throughout.  The overall weight of the book is a whopping 2 lbs., 4oz.; something that definitely wouldn’t make the cut in The Ray Way.  Nevertheless, the book belongs, not in your pack, but in your library.  Here is a summary of the more notable tenets of The Ray Way…

Long Distance Does Not Mean Faster

Throughout the book, Jardine points out that although he and Jenny are able to cover 30 plus miles a day, they rarely hike faster than a normal day hike pace of 3 miles per hour.  In fact they probably rest more often then most, taking breaks every hour.  The combination of proper hydration, nutrition and light weight packs keeps them from exhausting themselves, which in turn allows them to hike several hours per day and still get a good night’s sleep.

Agony of De Feet

Jardine makes the bold statement that all of us know deep inside; Your feet are going to get wet!  There, it’s out there.  There is no form of footwear that will protect your feet from moisture and unless you are in special deep snow conditions, there is no need whatsoever for heavy insulated stiff soled boots.  All the heavy designs that include micro-pore membranes just add weight and cost.  Stiff boot designs actually hurt your feet by not allowing them to move in the way they were designed.  The ultimate solution is running shoes.  They are light, reasonably robust and when they get wet, they dry quickly.  They don’t build up heat and friction that can cause blisters the same way boots can.  And they break-in quickly which is good because on a long hike, you will run through several pair.

The Case for Tarps

Jardine makes the claim that tarps are actually drier and therefore cooler in summer and warmer in winter.  The basis for the claim is that tarps allow air to circulate and remove moisture generated by our bodies when we sleep. We exhale up to two pounds of moisture when we sleep. Tents accumulate this moisture causing more perspiration during sleep and higher moisture content in your immediate environment.  This higher moisture content impedes the warming efficiency of sleeping bags.  Furthermore, wet clothing dries much better under a tarp than in a tent.  Jardine is adamant that successful camping with tarps relies on the choice of the campsite, which is a topic he devoted much time to under the theme, “stealth camping”.

A Rant on Brands

Jardine is fiercely anti-name brand.  In a well thought out argument, he points out that the brand name equipment providers are in business to make a profit and one of the variables in making a profit is to minimize costs.  This manifests in cheaper and less quality components in even the best brands of equipment.  Zippers, seams, glues, fabrics, coatings; all things that are weak points in equipment thats lasts and performs well.  If he uses a branded product at all, he will take the time to cut off the label or scratch off the decal.  Equipment designers will compensate cheaper with heavier or larger.  Tents have way more fabric than they really need to do their job.  Sleeping pads are usually cut too big.  Clothing rarely fits well as it is sized to the average, including shoes.

If You Don’t Like ‘Em, Make Your Own

The Jardines ended up making most of their equipment and they generously provided their designs and patterns in the book.  They make their tarps, sleeping quilts, packs, and most of their clothing.  What equipment they choose to buy, Ray will make substantial modifications to eliminate useless parts and unnecessary weight.  All adjustment straps are cut off.  Tongues are cut out of shoes.  Waist belts are eliminated because they are not necessary with a pack weighing less than 20 lbs.

Mary Poppins Would Be Proud

Perhaps the most notable pieces of equipment the Jardines carry are their umbrellas.  They provide protection from rain, shade from the sun and when held properly, a little wind protection.  When hiking in the rain, there is virtually no way one can keep dry by donning rain gear.  The Jardines attest that an umbrella will keep the upper body generally dry, which is the best solution they have discovered.  Desert hiking can be treacherous and once again, the umbrellas are better than hats and sunscreen, especially when you adapt a piece of mylar (Space Blanket for the brand conscious) to fit over the top of them.  The mylar substantially reflects the heat away from the body.  Ray makes rather extreme modifications to the umbrellas by cutting off handles, springs and tyne supports.

ScoutCraft

Ray Jardine’s equipment designs require some skill in their use and in some cases, a change in the typical methods.  Using tarps requires some skill in choosing a site and in the setup.  Using non-processed foods requires a lot of preparation ahead of time.  Making your own equipment takes time and effort.  In every case, Ray provides the rationale for his choices along with details about how he employs the specific piece of equipment.  There are even chapters devoted to finance, choosing partners, personal hygiene, high milage hiking and what they term, “trail shock,”  which is the combination of physical and mental stress one goes through when embarking on a long distance hike.

The Ray Way is more than just a long distance hiker’s folklore philosophy.  There is plenty of wisdom for day hikers and weekend backpackers.  There are enough adventures and life stories to keep it a fun and light read and the pictures are beautiful.  Just don’t take it with you to read on the trail.

The Philosopher’s Guide

When I thru-hiked the AT in 1984, there was a guy who published a small book called “The Philosopher’s Guide to the Appalachian Trail”.  It had all the low down on where the cheap hostels were in town and the AYCE restaurants.  It had commentary on shelter conditions where the short cuts were that got you in and out of town quicker.  It became as indispensable as the trail maps and the Data Book.  I’m not sure if he got the idea from Douglas Adams but the core idea resembled the idea of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It is in the spirt of all these fine literary works that I offer the Philosopher’s Guide section of the 900milerblog.

REIThis year REI came to Knoxville.  I have been a member since high school, a time period I now measure in decades.  REI and our local outfitters have done a great job of providing us with more gear options and technology than we can consume.  My generation of long distance hikers has grown up to become entrepreneurs designing great high-end equipment that is durable and lightweight.  The clothing manufacturers have taken notice and now there are dozens of lightweight shoes and high performance fabrics available.  I have been fortunate enough to be able to try a number of different technologies over the years.  I pass a lot of it along to my son and occasionally, a local Boy Scout troop get’s a windfall.

In this section of the blog, I’ll share the equipment I have chosen and my general philosophies that shaped the choices I made.  I’ll convey how well it works and whether or not I would buy it again.  Although I am not much of a do-it-yourselfer, I have friends who make their own tarps and packs and stoves so when I come across something of interest in that respect, I’ll try to pass it along.

Other points of wisdom may find their way into the Philosopher’s Guide as they reveal themselves along the way.

IMG_0917

I have long carried a candle lantern despite the weight and limited utility. There’s something comforting about fire at night.