Friday, November 25, 2016

Why Every Backpacker Should Build an Alcohol Stove

Little satisfies quite like the accomplishment of building your own piece of backpacking gear.  That holds especially true for something that works well.  It wouldn't be very worthwhile to build something, no matter the cost, if it didn't accomplish what you set out for, right?

But in the way of backpacking equipment, the camp stove is such an easy build with so little investment of time and money that it really is absolutely essential that every backpacker out there at least give it a chance.
The Upgraded Cat Food Can Stove

Before we get started, first let me point out that the alcohol stove will deliver everything you need for a successful night out on the trail.  But it may not be everything you want.  For one, if you're the kind of backpacker that enjoys the simplicity of quick fix dehydrated meals, then this stove is for you.

If I could do it all over again, I'd save all the money and time I've invested in manufactured camp stoves and put all that toward equipment that will extend my backpacking season - like under quilts, tarps or cold weather gear.  The most enjoyable part of backpacking for me is just being out there.  And if with those saved dollars I can extend my season that's a huge win.

Here's the shakedown...  Even the simplest of Alcohol Stoves will deliver some amazing meals.  Manufacturers like Mountain House, Backpackers Pantry and Packet Gourmet make very affordable and fabulous tasting meals that come to life with Boiling Water only.  And I'm talking meals like Texas State Fair Chili, Spaghetti with meat Sauce, Beef Stew and Scrambled Egg Tortillas.  Those companies have put all the work in ahead of time so that with minimal effort you can enjoy a really satisfying meal.

And for folks like me who just have to have their coffee in the morning, the alcohol stove gets that does with ease as well. Whether I'm in the mood for French Press or Instant Coffee, I'm about 8 minutes away from bliss.  Now, it is true that canister stoves like the MSR series or Jet Boil Product Line will all beat the pants off your little alcohol stove in terms of how fast they can boil water.  But in the end I'm betting you won't miss those 4-5 minutes extra you'll have to wait.  We're out in the woods to enjoy the sights, sounds and peace anyway, right?  I promise you just won't miss those few extra minutes.

The homemade camp stove is no secret.  In fact there are probably 100 videos on You Tube showing you exactly how to make your own.  I'm here to reinforce WHY you should.  It's easy to get excited about some of those latest products and although I am in favor of supporting cottage vendors, I'd rather do it with equipment that I just can't build on my own.

A very reliable, lightweight, low cost camp stove is just so simple to make that I don't see a lot of benefit in buying a manufactured stove.  Even if there was a stove out there that could boil my water in under three minutes, I'm fine with waiting the extra time and in all likelihood, I'm having such great time out in the woods I won't even notice anyway.

Here are two versions of that super simple stove I'm talking about.  With $5-$20 in your wallet and a trip to the store you can build either of these in under the time it takes to read this blog post.  Note: To keep costs down to about $3, build the Simple Stove first.  Take it out for a few test runs then if you want, build the upgrade later.

Let's get to it!  Here's what you'll need:

Simple Stove:

  • Tools 
    • One Hole Paper Punch
    • Black Sharpie [not super necessary but helpful]
  • One Fancy Feast Cat Food Can
  • Fuel - Denatured Alcohol or HEET in the Yellow Bottle


1) For the Simple Stove, grab any Fancy Feast Cat Food Can.  Empty the contents, remove the label and rinse with water.  There will be some glue residue on the outside of the can.  No worries to remove it all.  It will burn off in time.
2) With the lid peeled off, there may be a relatively sharp edge on the inside of the can. You can knock that down using the back of a butter knife but no need to spend a lot of time there.
3) Now we'll prepare to cut holes in the can to allow the flame out around our boil pot.  To do that you'll need that sharpie.  A few things before we lay out the holes.  
          First, it isn't rocket science so there's no need to worry if they aren't all symmetrical or all in perfect alignment.  If that's your thing then by all means, but just a heads up that you haven't got to be super technical here for a great functioning stove.  
          Second, the one thing that is critical is that the holes are placed just under the top rim.  That's a 3oz can and we'll be placing 1oz of fuel in it so keep those holes up high to keep the fuel from spilling out.
Using the sharpie to lay out the holes isn't critical either but if you have one laying around it's not a bad idea.  With the marker in hand, think of the cat food can as an analog clock.  You'll be laying out holes at 6 o'clock, 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock.  Make sense?  Once those four are laid out, then just add the other hour marks so that you have 12 equally spaced on the can.
4) Using your single hole punch just punch out the holes in the can.  The holes will punch out with a little extra effort and you'll have to fiddle a little to get the hole puncher back out of the hole you made but with a little effort you'll soon have 12 holes in the can.
5) Now you can stop there or you can punch a second row of holes like I did here -->.  I haven't boil tested one set of holes versus two sets but odds are it makes no appreciable difference.

So there you have it.  Pretty simple and super, super low cost.  

Now it's time to try it out.  One very important thing to remember when using this stove: Never cook food directly over the flame unless you are using drinking alcohol as fuel.  Fuels such as denatured alcohol and HEET will deposit toxins on you food. So, no s'mores or hot dogs with this method of cooking.  For those, just light a campfire.  That's more fun anyway.

With the stove on a heat resistant surface [not like me above!!] pour approximately one ounce of fuel in the can.  This amount of fuel should last about 9 minutes and will bring 2 cups of water to boil in most circumstances.  Ignite the fuel with a match, flint striker or other then let it burn for about 30 seconds.  Most fuels will burn blue so they can be a little difficult to see in the sunlight.  Once it's lit and burning, you will notice that after about 30 seconds the fuel will begin to boil ever so slightly.  That's good.  Now it's time to place your pot [filled with water] on top.

1)  Stove/Flame Going Out - Be sure to wait that 30 seconds or so before placing the pot on the stove. And be sure to lower it slowly so the flame doesn't get snuffed out.  It takes a little practice.  Have fun with it an be patient.  After a few tries you'll have it down.
2)  Fuel consumed before Boil - Usually one ounce of fuel does the trick but in windy or super cold temps it can take longer, i.e. more fuel.  One thing to do to maximize efficiency is to keep the stove protected from the wind.  You can buy or build a windscreen which will cut down on boil time.

Upgraded Stove:
  • Tools
    • Hacksaw
    • Scissors
    • Measuring Tape
  • One Fancy Feast Cat Food Can
  • One Tomato Paste Can
  • Soldering Cloth aka Carbon Felt [Home Depot/Lowes/Ace Hardware]
  • Fuel - Denatured Alcohol or HEET in the Yellow Bottle 
Building this stove is almost easier than the basic stove but it does cost a few more dollars.  The biggest investment is the Soldering Cloth which can run about $15 for a 6"x10" sheet.


Clean out the cat food can as stated above.  Repeat with the Tomato Paste Can.  For this stove, the Fancy Feast Can is a must to use.  There are other similar cat food cans but the tomato paste can fits perfectly in the Fancy Feast.

Once both cans are cleaned out grab your measuring tape and measure the inside height of the cat food can then add one inch.  Transfer that measurement to the tomato paste can and using the marker, scribe that line all the way around the can.  Cut on that line either with a hacksaw or a strong pair of kitchen shears.  It's important to keep that cut very straight.  The additional one inch measurement is not super critical but you'll want to be close to that over or under.

Now, taking the measuring tape, measure the outside diameter of the cat food can.  Transfer that dimension to the carbon felt along with the inside height measured previously.  In essence you will be cutting out a strip of carbon felt which will line the inside of the cat food can.  When the felt is cut out, fit it inside the cat food can and make any necessary adjustments.

Next, grab the One Hole Punch and stand up the tomato paste can so that the cut side is on the bottom.  Make one hole in the top of the can just under the rim.  It doesn't matter where the hole is so long as it is just under the rim.  Next, add 2-3 holes in the bottom of the can.  It doesn't matter exactly where - space them out evenly and keep them right at the bottom.

Lastly, remove the carbon felt from inside the cat food can and wrap it around the bottom of the tomato past can [near the cut edge].  You should find that it is a near perfect fit.  If it overlaps, trim accordingly.  If there is a gap no worries.  With the carbon felt wrapped around the tomato paste can, insert the can into the cat food can in a twisting motion [like you are 'screwing it in].  Take your time here and don't get frustrated.  It can be a snug fit which is what we want.  It will take a little coaxing to get the felt and the tomato paste can fully inserted.  After a few minutes you should be all set.

Now, your stove should look something like this --->.  Notice that hole in the top of the tomato past can?  That's important.  You only need the one but make sure it's on the top.

Add one ounce of fuel in the bottom and wait approx 30 seconds.  Don't light it yet.  What we're waiting for is for the fuel to soak up into the carbon felt.  After those few seconds, light the stove on the outside by the felt.  The flame should spread all the way around the can.

Unlike the Simple Stove you don't need to wait for the alcohol to heat up.  Just set your pot on the top of the tomato paste can and off you go.

This stove is much easier to ignite and with a built in pot stand [the tomato paste can] you don't need to wait to put your pot of water on it.

A few notes before we're done:
  • There is no real difference in boiling times between these two stoves.  They boil water typically within 6-7 minutes with a wind screen.  And both use the same amount of fuel.
  • Keep these stoves on a level surface when in use.
  • I always store my fuel alcohol in a separate location from my food and cooking pots.  It's toxic to ingest but completely safe to use.
  • The fuels I suggested for use do not scorch your pots/pans nor are they overly aggressive burners.  That means they won't 'explode' when you light them.
  • Denatured Alcohol and HEET work best when they are reasonably warm.  If you're out in the woods when it's cold, keep the alcohol in a safe, small container next to your body for a few minutes to warm up before use.
  • Don't store/bring fuel in unnecessarily large volumes with you when camping.  Figure you'll use about 1oz every time you need to boil water and plan accordingly.  Keep in separate small containers and be respectful that it is flammable.  Keep unused fuel away from campfires, candle lanterns and any heat source.
Make a few of these stove and have fun!  Save that hard earned cash for other stuff for the trail!

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Hammock Equipment: The Underquilt

For those of us that absolutely love to hammock camp, there is a decidedly big difference in what it takes to keep warm in the colder months over tent camping.  When outside temps drop below 60F [for some 65F], hammock camping can get downright uncomfortable.  Even what may seem like a mild temperature during the day can cause a major chill in the wee hours of the night when your body slows down and that can make for a really horrible experience.  Trust me, I've been there.  Being cold when trying to sleep just doesn't work.  If you can't get warm, sleep won't come.

My Warbonnet Blackbird and Hammock Gear Incubator 20F
But hammock campers like you and I need not retreat for the season.  With the proper equipment, the hammock season can very easily be extended by 4-8 weeks or more.  And for those that just never say quit no matter the weather, there are means and methods to stay warm in some of the bitterest temps.

One of the  most popular and most effective methods to keep warm is through using what the industry calls an "Under Quilt".  Sometimes referred to as the UQ for short, the under quilt is a layer of insulation [sometimes goose or duck down, sometimes synthetic materials] that is positioned under the hammock and that provides an insulation barrier between you and the wind sweeping underneath.  The thicker that insulation layer, the more protection and warmth you'll receive.

For those that aren't in the know about how insulation works:  Insulation's ability to keep us warm degrades quickly when compressed and most types of insulation also lose thermal value (warming ability) when wet.*  The loft, or thickness, of the insulation layer creates a barrier that heat and cold do not quickly or easily penetrate.  So, keeping that layer between you and the cold keeps the heat your body generates reflected back to you and on the side exposed to the cold, that lower temp air won't easily pass though to you.

*Side note:  I've seen proof that Wiggy's trademarked insulation material called Lamilite actually does not lose it's insulating value even when wet.  That's super impressive and I'm keeping a close eye on their product line as they've recently started a hammock friendly line of insulating products.

As with most anything, if costs aren't a consideration then keeping warm and comfortable is a breeze if you'll pardon the expression.  Down [either from duck or goose] is arguably the best insulation material known.  Again, Lamilite, I'm quickly learning might be a serious contender in the hammock game.  But, by and large, down is the most popular insulating material in Under Quilts and it comes at a fairly high price tag.  Since loft, or thickness, plays a big part in insulating value, the more down in an under quilt, the lower it's temperature rating and the higher the price tag.

Under Quilt "Jargon" Explained:

There are a few buzz words that float around in the Hammock world that made me feel a little uneducated so here's my attempt to get you in the know on all those terms.

Baffles - Most under quilts have pockets of duck or goose down that are sewn into the quilt to keep the stuffing in it's proper place.   Imagine a pillow.  That's one big baffle and if you grab one end of it and shake, the stuffing can tend to move and make the pillow lopsided.

Thus the 'invention' of the baffle.  Some under quilts have more baffles than others and in some synthetics I've seen have none.  I'm a baffle fan.  It makes sense as it keeps the down from moving where you don't want it.

Temperature Ratings - Most manufacturers publish a temperature rating on their under quilts and it's fairly subjective as to how warm you'll be in any of them.  That's not to bunk the ratings that they're given, but rather to just let you know that some people sleep warmer than others.  What might be warm for you might be too warm for someone else or vice versa.  Needless to say, the lower the temperature rating, generally the more down the under quilt contains.

Temperature ratings will hold true looking at under quilts from one manufacturer.  But put two 20 Degree under quilts side by side from different manufacturers and one may very well contain more down than the other.  There doesn't seem be any 'rules' for establishing temperature ratings.

Fill - The term 'fill' is a measurement of the loft or thickness of the down fibers.  Shop around and you'll see ratings of 500, 800, 850 and more. And those numbers correspond to how much space 1 ounce of their fully expanded [non-compressed] duck or goose down takes up in cubic inches.  The higher the number, the more loft and the more insulation value.

Whoa, that's a lot of space you might say.  Yes it is but down is incredibly light so remember that old pound of lead, pound of feathers brain teaser?  The pound of feathers is a great big bag full.

And here's the million dollar question:  Will a 20 degree bag with 700 fill be warmer than a 20 degree bag with 500 fill?  Answer: Not exactly.  The 700 fill bag will have used less down to achieve the 20 degree rating and will weigh less.  But both bags will still get the job done.  When carrying weight is important, the higher fill down products tend to win out.

[Note: all info above on "Fill" courtesy of Eastern Mountain Sports]

Primary and Secondary Suspension - That there's a mouthful.  But in simplest terms, the 'suspensions' in an under quilt are those cords and ties which 'suspend' the insulation under your hammock and keep it snug under you.

A quick note:  Even the most expensive, best filled, loftiest under quilt made won't keep you warm if it's not suspended properly under you.  It needs to be snug and right up against your body.

The Primary Suspension is the two cords running along the length [the longest part] of the hammock.  The primary suspension is pictured above as the top cord.  This is the cord that attaches your under quilt to the head end and foot end of your hammock.  Think of it as the under quilt is a hammock for your hammock.  You won't tie the primary suspension to the trees like you do with your hammock.  Instead, it attaches just above the gathered end of your head end and foot end.  The primary suspension keeps the under quilt from falling to the ground.

Most under quilt manufacturers attach the primary suspension to the quilt in a channel. [See Hammock Gear's photo above].  Putting the primary suspension in a channel allows you to slide the under quilt up toward your head end or down toward your foot end to keep it positioned where you want the warmth.

The Secondary Suspension [pictured under the primary suspension] stretches your under quilt from your head end to your foot end.  It elongates the under quilt to keep it snug underneath you and also to give you the most coverage.

Shock Cord - I think this is one of the neatest terms in the Under Quilt [and Tarp] industry.  Shock cord [also called bungee cord] is a super cool way to name elastic cord.  Shock cord is stretchable yet strong and it's elastic value is relatively high.  There aren't any shock cord 'values' or 'weights' as there are in describing down, for instance but the cords do come in different thicknesses - 1/8", 3/16", etc. to give you some idea of their strength.

Shock cord is a great product that keeps tension on hammock equipment like under quilts and tarps without using static or non-moveable lines.  Having under quilt suspensions made with shock cord keeps them very forgiving and easily adjustable from one hammock to another.  And having shock cords set up on tarp tie out lines makes for less severe tripping hazards and more taut tarps.

The Main Players in the Down Under Quilt Business:

Loco Libre Gear:  George Carr manufactures all types of Hammock related gear out of Lindenwold, NJ.  All is 100% US Made which is a big winner with me.  I don't own any of his gear yet but it won't be long.

Loco Libre has two main styles of under quilts - The Habanero and the Carolina Reaper.  You can order them with either Duck Down or Goose Down and he's got just a ton of options on colors, fill, stitching and more.  One big thing I see that seems to set him apart is that he sews the under quilt baffles in the direction of how his customers lay in their hammock.  And Loco Libre is also the only manufacturer that I've seen offer a "Chevron" shaped baffle which, according to Loco Libre, keeps the down positioned the best.

Hammock Gear: Adam and Jenny Hurst and team are another fine cottage vendor of hammock 'gear' especial.  Based in Reynoldsburg, OH they also manufacture their product line right here in the USA.

Hammock Gear also has two types of under quilts; the full length Incubator and the 3/4 length Phoenix.  Each of these quilts is customizable and boasts one of the widest variety of color options for inside and out.  If you're looking for colors with a bit more pizzazz such as orange, blue, purple or yellow, here's your place to shop.   But they also offer all the other popular woodland color options for those looking to keep things stealthy.

All of their down filled products come with numbered temperature ratings - 0F, 20F, and 40F but as I mentioned above, those figures can be a bit subjective so keep that in mind.  With all of their under quilts equipped with 850 fill Goose Down they remain super lofty and ultra light weight no matter the choice.

I personally own and use their full length under quilt - the Incubator 20F.  The quality is top notch and I've kept warm when using it.

Jacks 'R' Better: Jack & Jack are both prior service US Army Officers with over 50 years of duty between them.  Founded in 2004, Jacks 'R' Better has been churning out one great product after the next. In addition to their [3] most popular under quilts they also manufacturer a bridge hammock and numerous tarps.  Jack and Jack both have extensive product knowledge and you can tell that their knowledge and experience in the outdoors shines through the product line.

All of their under quilts use 800 fill power goose down and they also offer as an add option, a treatment called Activ-Dri which keeps the down drier [it is the most effective when the driest] without sacrificing loft.  And as one would expect from these experts, they've got some very interesting data on the added performance benefits that the Activ-Dri offers.

One very important note about Jacks 'R' Better is that they, unlike most other under quilt manufacturers, keep an inventory of their under quilts at the ready giving them the distinct advantage over their competitors when a customer is in need of an under quilt quickly.  Lead times from other vendors can creep into the 8-9 week range so plan ahead.

Warbonnet Outdoors:  Warbonnet Outdoors manufacturers three under quilts - the Yeti, the Lynx [for Bridge Style Hammocks] and their newest add to the lineup, a product they call the Wooki.  As many know, Warbonnet Outdoors is also known for manufacturing one of the best gathered end hammocks on the market - the Blackbird [and the Blackbird XLC].

All of the Warbonnet under quilts are filled with 800 fill Activ-Dri Goose down and are made to order.  Warbonnet offers a limited color choice [brown, olive green or grey] and generally categorizes their under quilt temperature ratings as "3-Season" or "Winter".

In addition to their ever-popular hammock, Warbonnet also offers a respectable line up of tarps and hammock accessories.

So, if you are looking to extend your hammock season by 4 weeks or more, the under quilt is really the most effective way to keep warm and comfortable as the temperatures drop below 60F.  There are, of course other ways to keep warm but the under quilt is one of the most effective.

To set the record straight there are two main types of hammockers - backpackers and campers:

Backpackers, like the name, enjoy packing up a few choice belongings, carrying them on their back then hiking to their destination.  That hike could be two miles or ten miles.  If you've got all day to devote to an adventure, backpacking is a great time and is often rewarded with peace, solitude and whatever victuals you've opted to bring along to enjoy at the end of the day.

Backpackers opt to keep their packs light so the light weight down under quilts are one of the lightest, warmest options out there.  Synthetics also provide warmth but at a higher weight value.  And the compressive quality of goose or duck down wins over most synthetic materials as many of the under quilts I mentioned above can easily compress into a stuff sack just marginally bigger than a football.

[Note: Storing down in a compressed state will degrade the insulation value so be sure to keep your under quilt out of its stuff sack when it's not on the trail with you.]

Hammock campers, on the other hand, often spend far less time reaching their destination and often opt to drive right up to their camping site.  The reward for them is not only the hammock experience and all the pleasures of the campaign experience, but also the fact that they are nearly unlimited with what luxuries and comforts of home they can 'tote' along.  With the campsite so close to the car, hammock campers can bring whatever their car can carry.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Hammock Upgrade to Warbonnet Blackbird

I have a tendency to jump both feet into my interests.  Sometimes it's a good thing and sometimes not so much.  For me - getting a new piece of backpacking gear is like opening a Christmas present and I can't wait to get it out on the trail to try it out.  That's one of the fun things about any hobby and we all tend to enjoy that part.

But sometimes I pull the trigger on a new piece of gear without having the luxury of enough experience to know if that's the best piece for me.  Ever done that??  It happens to the best of us.  But now that I've got some experience under my belt, my hammock selection went even better this time.

If by some chance, this blog post happens to catch you before you buy your first hammock then have a read at why the Warbonnet Blackbird was the best choice for me.  I'm convinced that there just won't be a need to upgrade again - this is the hammock that will be with me on all future trips.  Note: I'm not being paid to offer my opinions here nor was I given a Blackbird to write a review on.

Reasons Why Your First Hammock should be the Warbonnet Blackbird:

Left and Right Side Pull Outs on the Warbonnet Blackbird keep the netting away from your face.

First off, let me say that I'm going to be pointing out some of the big things and some of the little things that make this hammock one of the best choices out there.  The little things may seem obscure and unimportant, but its the small details that make us aware of the manufacture's attention to detail and their extensive knowledge of what makes a difference in hammock design.

Flat Lay Design -
One of the first things to take note of is the fact that the Warbonnet Blackbird is designed specifically for the diagonal lay sleeper and as such it has a definite head end and foot end.  The foot end is manufactured with extra material and is aptly named the 'foot box' to give the diagonal layer more room to position their feet and also contributes to the overall flat lay.  Laying flat for me is more comfortable and although you can adjust your lay in any standard gathered end hammock, Warbonnet is the only manufacturer I know of that has a design that improves the flat lay over the standard gathered end style.

The Double Sided Stuff Sack - Here's one of the minor points but it's a nice touch and I'll tell you why.  First, because the stuff sack is double-sided, it's natural to stuff the hammock back into the sack with the head end on one end and the foot end on the other.  Stored like that you can easily distinguish one end from the other without having to pull the entire hammock out of the stuff sack.  That's a small detail but it does reduce hammock set up time and with a little practice you can set the hammock up without having any of it touch the ground.  Once I've hiked to that perfect spot with that stunning view I can pick out my trees and attach the head end of the hammock to one tree while keeping the majority of the hammock in the stuff sack.  And if I'm careful, I can walk to the foot end tree slowly letting the hammock out of the stuff sack while keeping everything off the ground.  It is the small stuff but still it shows attention to detail.

Suspension Straps Come With - I've used and seen a few different types of suspension and all of them get the job done one way or another.  The Blackbird comes with a very adequate, simple to adjust suspension system that you get as part of the package.  And the tree straps are both long enough and wide enough to protect the tree from damage and to keep your options open on where to hang from.  I've seen some other hammock manufacturers sell suspension systems separately, most likely to keep the costs down.  It's true that Warbonnet is a higher cost hammock but it's included items like these that make the higher investment worth it.

Built-In [Removable] Bug Net - I like the idea of purchasing one product that works year round right out of the box.  Although the Blackbird won't be your single source for keeping warm in the winter, the bug netting is a huge plus to allow you to use your hammock spring through fall without having to purchase anything separately.  And because it zips on and off easily, you can move it out of the way or take it completely off during those times you won't need it.  Again, the folks at Warbonnet Outdoors provide a product that keeps you out on the trail without having to buy add-ons.

Double Zippers - Another one of the small things but worthy of making note of is the double zippers on the bug netting.  Double zippers allow you to position the closure point of the bug netting anywhere you like.  I put it right about where my elbow is when laying in the hammock.  That's a super easy and comfortable spot to open and close the entry.

Side Entry - Coming from a guy who has used a bottom entry hammock, let me say that the side entry is a huge winner for me.  Bottom entry was slick and unique but I wasn't able to sit in that style hammock like a camp chair and more importantly, my choices for underquilts were severely limited for the bottom entry hammock.  If you're going to be a 4 season hanger, the side entry will keep the most options open for underquilts which are a necessity for winter camping.

And being able to use the hammock like a camp chair is important to me not only for comfort but it also allows me to sit up in the hammock when I'm having my meals.  And if you've got company or a nice view to look at, sitting up in camp chair style gets that done a lot better.

Side Pull Outs - Warbonnet has put some brainpower in the design of their side pull outs on the Blackbird as well.  Most bug netting options do a fine job at keeping the mosquitos out of the interior of the hammock, but if that netting collapses close to your face, you will hear mosquitos buzzing around your head all night.  The Blackbird solves that problem with two self-equalizing pull outs with easy to adjust tensioners that pull the bug netting a minimum of 8-10" away from your face.  So even if it's buggy out the netting is so far away from your head that you won't hear them.  Again - here we go with the small things but it's a well-thought out detail that I have yet to see on many other brands.

The Shelf - One really neat little bonus to the side pull out feature is that Warbonnet has incorporated a shelf into one other pull outs.  While accomplishing the much needed task of pulling the bug netting away, Warbonnet added a little extra netting and ripstop material to create a very accessible and convenient shelf for all your at-the-ready gear.  Lots of hammockers use Ridgeline Organizers to store phones, headlamps, books, etc and you could easily add one to the Blackbird but the storage shelf is again one of those well thought out extras that make this hammock a little more functional.

Double Layer Fabric - Here's one design feature that Warbonnet presents as an add option on their hammocks that I've got on mine.  If you're a one to two season camper, the added cost for the double layer hammock, although not super pricey, probably won't be an option you'll need.  The double layer is ideal for the hanger that wants to stay out on the trail when the overnight lows start dropping below 70F.  That double layer by itself won't offer much of any protection from the cold, but what it does afford is a great place to add a foam pad, air mattress or body length piece of reflectix that can add a bundle of warmth to your sleep system.  The double layer isn't mandatory to add these pieces under you, but by sandwiching any or all of these components between the hammock layers, it keeps them in place in the event you shift around at night.  Just to be fair, Warbonnet isn't the only manufacturer to offer the double layer, but they see the value and offer it as an option.

The Warbonnet Blackbird will be my go-to hammock many an adventure since it delivers so many little extras that keep my outdoor travels as comfortable as possible.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

3 Ways to Stay Warm in Your Hammock for under $25

The Hammock, although one of the most comfortable sleeping systems you can bring with you out on the trail, can get too cool to use when temps drop below 70 degrees.

That may seem like a warm temp to be sleeping cool in, but it can happen.  It does depend on the type of sleeper you are [warm or cold] and how much exposure to wind you have.  Some sleep warmer than others and a well placed tarp or careful site selection can increase your comfort.  But when temps start hovering around that 60-70F mark, you've got to be prepared for adding something to your hammock sleep system or you can end up too cold for comfort.  And that's not what anyone wants.

I was out for an overnight back in early March with overnight lows at 32F.  I was completely unprepared and had nothing other than my 5F degree sleeping bag and a blow up mattress to keep me warm.  It was one of the coldest nights I'd ever spent outside and though it was miserable, I did survive and learned a ton of lessons.

Now, I was just out for a night this past weekend and the overnight low was 73F.  For me, that temp was perfect as I stayed warm and comfortable the whole night and even had part of my 5 degree sleeping bag left open.  Those nights are disappearing quickly now in Upstate New York so it's time to add a few pieces to my sleep system to keep me out on the trail all season long.

The simple, yet somewhat pricey answer to staying warm when temps start dropping is the down or synthetic down under quilt [pictured above].  You can look to spend between $100-$250 on a 3 season under quilt which can take you comfortably down to 20 to 40F but I've got a few low-cost ideas to extend your season into the 50F range without spending more than $25.

I've got to first tell you that I'm a cool season camper.  I'd much rather be out when it's below 50F and even during mid winter it's more fun for me.  I've had some hard times learning how to stay warm in my hammock over this past season but I found a few ways that are super effective and very low cost.

The Nalgene Bottle Method - One sure fire way to not only stay warm but to also heat your body quickly is by using your Nalgene water bottle, boiling water and a wool [or other] sock.

Nalgenes are great to bring along once the weather really starts dipping down because they are super robust and will resist splitting even if you leave water in them and leave them out in the cold.

But a reasonably well-known trick for staying warm is to first heat up 2-3 cups of water to boiling then pouring it into your Nalgene before retiring for the night.  The wool sock is great at insulating you against burns and in prolonging the time that the water stays warm.

When it's time to cuddle up with your Nalgene for the night, stuff it in that wool sock and cradle the bottle in your crotch.  It may sound a little strange but running down the inside of both your thighs is the femoral artery which is a major transport artery for blood to the body.  By placing the Nalgene there you're actually warming the blood as it circulates through your body.

Warming yourself up this way is especially effective when you're already cold as that warmed blood reaches out to all your extremities, especially those cold feet.  And you can expect the Nalgene water bottle to keep you warm for up to 8 hours.

Chances are you already own a Nalgene and a wool sock so you haven't even spent any money yet.  Note that the bottle has to be a Nalgene - others will melt and deform if you place boiling water in them.

The $5 Five Below Yoga Mat - I like it when stuff that doesn't cost a lot has multiple uses.  And not that I'm a Yoga guy, but this $5-$10 Yoga Mat can mean the difference between a comfort or misery when temps drop near 60F.

No matter how much down you've got in your sleeping bag or what it's rated for, when sleeping in a hammock that insulation under you gets compressed and renders it near ineffective.

Down's loft is one of the qualities that makes it so effective at keeping the body warm and you just can't keep it lofty when it's between you and the hammock.  The Yoga style mat, however, with it's closed cell foam, excels at staying lofted even when compressed.  Most yoga mats are either 1/4",3/8" or 1/2" - the thicker you can find, the better.

Slip the Yoga Mat under your sleeping bag before you get in and that extra 1/2" of closed cell foam can make it feel 10 degrees warmer.  Add the Nalgene bottle and you'll be good down to 60F.

The Reflectix Pad - One increasingly popular choice for the cold weather Hammock Camper is an HVAC Insulation barrier called Reflectix.

Reflextix is a super low weight, low cost insulation that is carried in most home improvement stores in 24" x 10'-0" rolls for under $20.  Normally used for ductwork insulation, there are many hammock campers, including me, that swear by it's heat reflecting properties.

To make it the most effective, cut a piece to length according to your height, tapering the head end and foot end similar to a mummy bag shape.  On the sides from shoulder to elbow, add a second piece from the leftover scraps about 6" to 8" wide and duct tape it in place.  When in you hammock, those 'wings' will cradle the backs of your arms and shoulders to keep them warm.

There are some members of Hammock Forums that attest to Reflectix keeping them warm even when night temps dip into the 30s.  A camping buddy of mine made me my reflectix pad after I told him about that super cold night in March.  It's been an amazingly effective, low cost solution to keeping me on the trail even when the nights get cold.

If you've got a double layer hammock, the yoga mat and reflectix are best placed in between the hammock layers.  When it's tucked away in there it won't shift around and even if you move around at night, both will stay comfortably beneath you.  If you're using both, keep the reflectix above the yoga mat so that it can best reflect your own body heat.

Any one of these measures can add 5-10 degrees to your hammocking season.  All three could add an entire season and you won't spend more than $25.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Gear Review: Sawyer Mini Water Filter

Let me start off by saying that Sawyer engineers have really got their act together.  Right out of the box, the entire concept of Mini, Portable, Affordable, Long-Lasting Water Filtration is a winner.  For $20 you get what very well be the last water filter you'll ever need.

Before you run out to grab your first or next water filtration system, have a read...

Direct use water filters like the Life Straw are great products, but here's why I'd choose the Sawyer Mini over them.  If you're looking to filter water not only for drinking but for cooking as well, then products like the Life Straw aren't your best choice.  The Life Straw works exactly like a straw.  You dip one end into the lake, stream or pond and suck clean water through the other end.  You're the 'engine' to pull clean water through.  If you're looking to fill a cook pot with clean water for cooking, well, the Life Straw won't get that done.

With a squeeze type filter like the Sawyer, you gather non-filtered water in Sawyer's supplied collapsible bag or even a standard water bottle then attach it directly to the Sawyer Mini.  The 'dirty' end of the filter has a fairly universal female screw connection that fits nearly every plastic water and soda bottle out there.  That's a little more than brilliant.

Water is super mission critical to any outdoor adventure and Sawyer ensures our safety with their line of water filters.  This Mini Water filter is an absolute no brainer for anyone to own.  Even if you are not one to test your mettle against the outdoors, having a standby water filter is never a bad idea.

For me, this filter was one of the smartest purchases I've made and without a doubt, I'll have it with me on each and every trip out on the trail.  It's so small and lightweight that I never notice I'm carrying it but it sure comes in handy.  And here's the other bonus:  When I'm hiking out for an overnight to an area I know has an abundant water supply, I can pack a little less water on the way in, drink it on the trail, then re-fill my Nalgenes at the campsite's water source.  That's a great trade off for that small $20 investment.

Gear Specs & Perks
  • Ultra Light - 2 ounces
  • Compact - Fits in the palm of your hand
  • Filtration - 0.1 Micron
  • Long Lasting - filters up to 100,000 gallons of water
  • Cost - Approx $20
  • No Chemicals
  • Rechargeable
  • Attaches to most water/soda bottles
How It Works:  Using technology similar to blood dialysis, the filter media inside the small housing traps all particles greater than 0.1 Microns.  That's one millionth of a meter.  Water molecules, being much smaller than .01 microns, pass easily through the media while other unwanted and potentially harmful matter is trapped behind.

The Sawyer Filter comes with an easy to use, lightweight backwash kit that you'll use when the filter becomes clogged or passes water difficultly.  Note that if your water source is quite cloudy or muddy, then the filter won't pass water through as efficiently and will need backwashing more frequently.

It's always the best idea to use a water source that's clear and moving like a stream or creek, but the Sawyer Mini will filter pond water too.  If you have run into a water source that is extremely turbid and you have time, let your gathered water settle for a few minutes then transfer the water to a second bottle leaving as much sediment behind as you can.  Alternatively, use a handkerchief or a piece of clothing to run the pond water through into your collection bottle.  That will trap the major sediment as well.

Note: The Sawyer Mini and most related style products are for water filtration and not desalinization.  That means although they are perfect for filtering contaminants out of fresh water sources, they will not make ocean water safe for drinking.  For that you'll need a desalinator.

What's in your backpack for water filtration?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove Upgrade

The Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove has got to be one of the easiest and low-cost alcohol stove builds out there.  Coming in at a whopping $0.57 out of pocket and taking under 3 minutes to build, it's a stove that every backpacker and camping enthusiast should try.

If you haven't built one yet, I highly recommend that you do for the following reasons:
  1. Low Cost - At under a dollar, the cat food can stove won't break the bank.  Heck, you'd probably spend more on a pack of gum.
  2. Easy to Build - Without going into a long dissertation, there are a ton of alcohol stove builds out there that you need specialized tools and skills to build but not this stove.  It's super simple to build and is very forgiving in terms of the builder's accuracy.
  3. Strength and Stability - The diameter of the can and it's low-to-the-ground profile make it super sturdy and able to hold many times its own weight.  Some manufactured stoves can stand six inches or more off the ground after you've spun them on the fuel canister.  This little gem just won't tip over.
  4. Lightweight - This stove is so light, you won't even know it's in your pack. That means you can carry other stuff like mini speakers, camp lighting or other stuff that will make your backpacking experience even better.
  5. Quiet - Most of us backpack for the little bit of tranquility and peace and quiet we get out on the trail like nowhere else.  The alcohol stove is whisper quiet which means you'll be able to hear that babbling brook, those birds chirping or woodpecker pecking.
Hopefully, I've got you interested in building one for all the reasons above and if nothing else, it's fun.  The stove does have its limitations, but for the low cost and minimal time investment, I'd still recommend that everyone build a few of these stoves if nothing else than for the fun of it.   

Before you begin building, there one small drawback of the standard Fancy Feast Alcohol stove that I've found.

As great as the stove is and as easy as it is to build, I found that one drawback is how finicky it can be to keep the stove lit when you initially put your cook pot on it.

I give my stove about 30 seconds to 'warm up' after I light it.  That added time gives the alcohol a chance to heat up which makes it vaporize more easily and in turn forces the flame to move through the holes in the stove easier.  Even still, I've found that I've got to very slowly set my pot on it to make sure I don't snuff the flame out.  It takes a little timing and technique but after a few attempts, I've got the hang of it.
There is a popular stove modification that I found while poking around on YouTube that solves this issue completely and even makes the stove a bit more efficient.

Tools You Need:
1 - Fancy Feast Cat Food Can
1 - Tomato Paste Can
1 - Length of Carbon Felt 1" wide by approx 7" long
Kitchen Shears or Hacksaw
Paper Hole Punch or Drill

Building the Modified Fancy Feast Cat Food Stove
  1. Instead of drilling or punching holes in the Fancy Feast can, you'll want to leave it just as it is.  Sure, take the top off and wash it out, but other than that, you're done with that part of the stove.
  2. Next, you'll want to grab a tomato paste can and open both ends.  I like using the can openers that don't cut down into the lid but rather score around the edge so you can lift the lid off.  With both lids off, clean the can out completely.
  3. Now, measure the height of your fancy feast can and add 1".  Mine measures 1-7/16" so adding 1" makes it 2-7/16".  Transfer that measurement to the tomato paste can and cut to length.  Heavy duty kitchen shears will do the job as the tin is fairly thin.  And no worries if your measurement is a little off, just make sure your cut leaves the can standing flat.  You'll be resting your pot on this piece so you won't want it lopsided.
  4. Don't worry about leaving a sharp edge where you cut the tomato paste can.  That cut edge will be down inside the fancy feast can so no issues about getting cut.
  5. On that cut edge of the tomato paste can cut 4 identical upside down 'vees'.  Position each one at 12 O'Clock, 3, 6 and 9.  Those four notches will allow the alcohol you pour in the bottom of the can to wick up into the carbon felt.
  6. Finally, just under the top lip of the tomato paste can you'll need to cut a small hole.  I'd suggest a hole no smaller than 3/16" as this hole is necessary for pressure relief.  You'll only need one and it makes no difference where you cut it as long as it's near the top edge.
  7. Before we get started with our carbon felt, a few words on what it is and where to find it:  Carbon felt is otherwise known as soldering blanket and will by far be the most expensive part of the cat food stove modification.  I purchased mine in the plumbing aisle at Home Depot and spent about $15 on it.  Granted, the blanket was about the size of a sheet of paper and will easily make about 10 of these stoves.  It looks like thick black felt [about 1/4" thick] and withstands about 2000 degrees F.  Cool.
  8. Now, cut the carbon felt to a width of 1" and length of approx 7".  You can use those kitchen shears to do that.  Wrap the felt around the bottom of the tomato paste can where the notches are.  You'll find that the 7" length is nearly the perfect length to fit around that bottom circumference.  If it's a little long, trim it off.  If it's a little short, the felt will stretch.  Otherwise, it's not a huge deal if it is a little off.  That won't matter much.
  9. With the felt wrapped around the bottom of the can, fit the tomato paste can into the cat food can.  The layer of felt will make the fit a bit snug.  Take your time and twist the cans to make them slide together more easily.  That snug fit is what you're after.  When the cans bottom out, the felt should be down inside the lip of the cat food can by just an 1/8th of an inch or so.  Perfect.
And that's it, you're done.  Even if that was your first time building an alcohol stove I'd bet it took you under 10 minutes once you had all the parts and pieces together.  That's not a bad time investment.  I've had mine for a few months now and with proper care there should be no reason it doesn't last me for years.

Now for the reason behind our upgrade...  That tomato paste can now acts as an internal pot stand which lifts the cook pot off the stove by about one inch.  And the carbon felt liner acts as the new burning surface for the alcohol giving the flame easy access to all the oxygen it needs to burn freely.  So, there's no more waiting to put your cook pot on the stove once you light it.

So, give this upgrade a try and let me know what you think.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Gear Review: MSR Micro Rocket

Instant Backpacker Gear Review: The MSR Micro Rocket

Date Purchased: 11/4/15

Source: Cabella's 
Price Paid: $40
The MSR Micro Rocket has been a staple in my backpack for all my trail hikes and overnights. MSR engineers have done their homework on this little marvel making it super lightweight and compact while delivering high power to cook your meals on the trail. Be sure to add this gem to your list of 'mission critical' equipment.
I give the MSR Micro Rocket 5 out of 5 stars for its lightweight design, reliability and high output burner.  There are many other stove options out there for far less, but not all of them deliver all the bells and whistles that the MSR Pocket Rocket does.
The pot base is created by unfolding the Micro Rocket's three foldable arms and is stable enough to support 1-2 pounds but I would skeptical putting much more weight than that on it.  The fold out arms are manufactured out of a light gauge metal to keep the overall weight down but they are strong. The base created once the arms are unfolded is just out of the sweet spot for balancing my Stanley Outdoor Adventure Camp Cookset but would fit many other cook pots on the market.
Of note is the fact that stoves like the MSR Micro Rocket require an outside fuel source such as butane, isobutane and propane.  Fuel choices are relatively abundant and are becoming popular for many of the larger stores to carry in stock so finding them locally is very possible.  The fuels offered are slow burning and efficient and come in different mixes to suit cooking in different seasonal temperatures.  Although the fuel sources are not as sustainable as cooking with wood, the MSR Micro Rocket is still a great option for the backpacker looking to cook a quick meal.
If you're one to want to stay in tune with your surroundings, know that the Micro Rocket is quite loud when burning.  The sound can easily overshadow that nearby running brook or wildlife.  Fortunately, the Micro Rocket does such a quick job of boiling water [just over 3 minutes] you won't have to listen to it for long.
  • Reliability
  • Compact, lightweight packaging
  • Speed and power
  • Relatively small base
  • Need fuel source
Setup: The MSR Micro Rocket sets up in under a minute ready to get to the task of cooking your next meal.
Ignition: The Piezo lighter that comes with the purchase is only marginally effective at igniting the stove. Since it is unreliable, I choose to use either my own hand lighter or flint and steel to get the stove running.  It does ignite very easily by my means.
Flame Control: The built-in adjustment lever does a fine job of adjusting the flame through a fairly wide range. And with flame control like this, not only can you conserve fuel when a full burn is not needed, but the flame control also allows the chef-in-you a little more finesse with your trail cooking.
Cooking: In prime conditions, the MSR Micro Rocket can bring 2 cups of water to full boil in just over 3 minutes [assuming start temp of 70°F].  And the flame control stated above allows you to make temperature adjustments easily.  Winner winner, chicken dinner!
Wind: Although the MSR Micro Rocket does not come with a wind screen, building your own out of light gauge metal or several layers of tin foil is easy to do. Wind screening will make your PocketRocket more efficient, but I've found that it's not a necessity to have one.
Lifespan: I've owned my Micro Rocket for nearly 6 months and have had it with me on around 4 excursions.  It shows no signs of wear and I expect a long lifespan from it.
Base/Stability: The fold open pot base is quite secure and opens/closes easily. I did find, however, that the Stanley Adventure Camp Cook Set Pot does not fit very well on this base. The cook pot bottom diameter is a bit too small for the fold out arms and the pot does notify securely on the arms. Larger posts will do much better on the MSR Micro Rocket.
All in all, I'm a big fan of this MSR product. It has been a very reliable piece of equipment that delivers every time I expect it to.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Alcohol Stove Cookoff

I'm having a great time building and experimenting with home made alcohol stoves and today I ran an experiment with two very easy to make and low cost models.

The stove in the front of the photo is made from one cat food style can [Fancy Feast], one Tomato Paste Can [Contadina] and a strip of carbon felt, otherwise know as soldering blanket.

The stove to the rear is another version of the cat food stove but made much more simply.  I refer to it as the 'original'.

I started with the original version because it was so easy to make and so low cost.  I've been cooped up the last few weeks unable to get out on the trail so experimenting with home made alcohol stoves has been really fun.

Although both stove we are relatively easy to make, the Tomato Paste Can and carbon felt version took me about 10 more minutes to make [not a big deal] and I had to invest about $17 on an 8-1/2" x 11" piece of carbon felt.  This model was a serious money upgrade since the original style cat food can stove only set me back a whopping $0.57.

So, was the upgrade worth it?  I put both of these home made alcohol stoves up against one another in a water boil off to see which one would come out on top.  The results certainly surprised me.  Have a look at my video to see what I found out.

I wanted to get a little more scientific than just putting the pot on and setting a timer so I invested in a Chef Alarm Temperature Monitor [$50 from Thermoworks].  It's got a remote temperature sensor and an alarm function which chimes when the probe reaches the desired temp which in this case was 212 F.

For purposes of the experiment, I used the same volume of water, the same cookpot and left the lid off in both cases.  Note: I'm sure the water would have come to a boil faster if the lid were left on but for the purposes of the experiment it wasn't super critical.

To sum up my findings, see the chart below:

This certainly brought back memories from High School Chemistry Lab even if it wasn't quite as controlled.

As you can see, the Carbon Felt stove technically wins although if you watch the video, you'll see that the Original Fancy Feast Stove looks to boil around the 6:50 mark.  If I had been in the field without a temp probe then I would have called them both nearly dead even.

But with all that said, I took away a few really good pieces of data.

  • For starters, both stoves look to put out on average of 23 BTUs per minute. [BTU equals the amount of energy to raise 1 pound of water = 2 cups 1 degree F].  There was a little fluctuation on that [minimum 17, max 31]
  • The Carbon Felt / Tomato Paste modification although a little more costly and a bit more difficult to build, does make a better stove in my opinion.  The Tomato Paste Can Pot Shelf leaves a ring of free area where the alcohol can burn without fear of snuffing the flame out.  With the Original Cat Food Stove you've got to be a little more patient to let the stove bloom first before putting your water on it.
For me, the carbon felt, tomato paste modification was a big success and that one will be my stove of choice moving forward.  Of course, I'll still tinker with some further modifications to see if I can coax a few more BTUs out of the stove.

If you want to see where my experimentations go, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube Channel and give me a thumbs up [I'm on Facebook too].  I'll be running more experiments like this one with different stove models, different fuel types and whatever else I can think of.  And I'll be throwing in some reviews of all the gear I am currently using too.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"No-Brainer" Backpacking Equipment Under $5

There is little doubt that backpacking can get expensive given the chance.  Outfit yourself with a brand new backpack, a sleeping bag, a tent system or hammock and you could be looking at lightening your wallet by about $300-$400+ easy.  Granted, there are finds out there as far as equipment is concerned.  Around most any holiday or change of season, outfitters like, Sportsman's Warehouse, L. L. Bean, Mossejaw and more will offer some rather enticing sales.  I've certainly bitten on a few of them.  And to a point Craigslist can be an avenue to more cost effective outfitting but there are some items I probably wouldn't buy second hand.

There aren't too many shortcuts to a good backpack or sleeping system.  Those you've got to bite the bullet on and if you skimp a little too much then you might have to replace or upgrade later.  Shelter however, can be one equipment item that you can improvise on.  A tarp can be an alternative if the weather is right and a Lean To makes for good protection against the elements in most cases.

But, you'll need other essentials to make the most of your backpacking experience and before you shell out all that hard earned cash, have a look at some of my cost savings ideas on backpacking equipment.  There are some very, reasonable alternatives to the expensive equipment out there that won't make you feel like you're giving up on a lot of frills.  And the money you'll save here can go toward that upgraded sleeping bag, backpack or tent that may have been just out of reach before.

Water Bottles - Here's one of the simplest ways to save a few bucks without a ton of sacrifice and there are some definite benefits by 'downgrading' your water bottle selection.

The "Nalgene" is a super popular brand of water bottle that is BPA Free and very robust.  The closure cap usually comes permanently attached to the bottle so there's no way to lose it and the cap attachment also serves as a great way to carabiner the water bottle to a backpack.  That's a good bonus.  Retail Price $8.99 plus shipping.

One other very distinct advantage of the Nalgene is that it's thicker construction allows you to use it as a warming bottle for those really cold nights.  If you're planning on 4 season camping then owning a Nalgene comes in handy.  If you pour nearly boiling water into your Nalgene, shove it in a thick wool sock, and sleep with it between your thighs, the heat given off will keep you incredibly warm during the night.

With these perks on the Nalgene, you might be persuaded to drop $8-$10 per and that would necessarily be a bad thing, but if sleeping outside in cold weather isn't on your list of to-do's then you could save the $15-$20 dollars and put them toward one of the big three.

Instead of the Nalgene, consider bringing along a pair or more of the everyday store bought water bottles [$1 or less].  Some brands are super thin so beware of those but Smart Water, for instance makes a fairly resilient bottle which means you can reuse it again and again.

Another reason to bring along that common water bottle is the threaded connection it has fits the Sawyer water filtration system perfectly.  If you're out on the trail for more than a day then bringing along enough potable water just isn't practical and if there isn't a potable water source on the trail then you've got to invest in a water filtration system.

The Sawyer mini [pictured right] is priced under $20 and will purify up to 100,000 gallons of water.  That's an absolute bargain for that investment.  And what tips the scale for the common household water bottle over the Nalgene is that the Sawyer filter fits on that common bottle, not the Nalgene.  Sawyer does offer a small collapsible bag free of charge with the Sawyer mini filter kit but I've found it way too small and difficult to fill.  Instead, I bring along 1-2 Smart Water type bottles to use to fill up from the creek, pond or stream then screw on the Sawyer filter and squeeze the purified water into my Nalgene.

Camp Stove - #2 on the list of ways to save is in your camp stove.  One of the more common camp stoves on the market is the MSR Pocket Rocket style stove [pictured left]  I've owned one since last year and love it.  Retail price $39.99 plus shipping.  Not completely outrageous, but there are ways to save a bunch here.

Of course, the most cost effective way to cook would be to build a campfire.  That's certainly one way to go and not a bad choice.  Before we dive into all the ways to save money, let's consider for just a moment, everything that that $40 investment in the MSR gets you.

First, in the way of camp stoves, it's a big winner terms of weight.  At 3 ounces, you won't even notice it in your pack.  And it packs down into the size of a small tomato paste can.  What's more, it can boil two cups of water in under 4 minutes.  The engineers did their homework on this baby.  It lights up very easily, requires only a marginal wind screen [the more protection it has, the quicker it boils water] and the fuel adjustment knob allows the chef in you a little finesse when cooking up that camp meal.

So, $40 might not be a huge investment for all those perks, but if you'd rather spend those two $20s on upgrading your sleeping bag to a 3 season or opting for the 2 man tent to give yourself a bit more room, then perhaps consider the home-made alcohol stove as an alternative.

For a marginal investment of about $0.57 you can pick up a can of Fancy Feast Cat Food and turn that empty can into an excellent little camp stove that is a great option to the conventional.  Building one on your own will take you all of 5 minutes and apart from purchasing a burning fuel [heet, denatured alcohol, etc...] you're off and running.

Mini Bic Lighter - There's no shame in carrying a mini bic lighter with you on the trail.  If you're into starting fire with other means, that's perfectly ok, but the insurance that a mini lighter gives is well worth it.  And for under $1, it's something that should be a staple in every backpacker's front pocket.

Dryer Lint - not only is dryer lint free, it's also invaluable in starting camp fires.  If you've been out on the trail longer than expected and daylight is waning, dryer lint can get your fire going in no time. It's weight is nearly negligible and even with just a pocketful you'll easily start 2-3 campfires.

Sleeping Pad - Having a rough night sleeping out on the trail just isn't an option for those that plan on staying out for a few days.  If you're going to re-fuel and re-charge for another 10 miler to the next lean to, your night has to be restful and your sleep system has to deliver without tipping the scales too heavy.

Thermarest was one of the first self-inflating backpacking mattresses created in the early 1970's by two former Boeing engineers [ref Wikipedia] and they've got no less than a dozen models currently on the market.  Although they are stellar, the don't come cheap. Retail $19.95 - $229.95

One definite option to consider is the foam Yoga style mat.  For some it may not offer enough padding for a good night's rest but for others it may do the job just fine.  And if you're using a hammock then you may not even need anything under you.  Note that a foam mattress will provide some insulation against the cold and will extend your hammock camping season.

Pocket Hand Sanitizer - stores like 5 Below and the Dollar Store offer some surprisingly inexpensive backpacker essential items like travelers toothbrushes and toothpaste which I find are necessities for me.  And pick up a bottle or two of pocket hand sanitizer while you're there.  It's great for disinfecting bug bites and scrapes and if getting a fire started is difficult due to damp wood, squeeze out a few handfuls of hand sanitizer on your kindling.  It ignites easily and burns hot.

Handkerchief / Bandana - Another no-brainer to add to your list of backpacking essentials is a bandana or two.  I like wearing mine around my neck.  Soak it in water to keep you cool.  Spray it with Off! to keep the bugs at bay and use it as a washcloth or hand towel for cleaning up.

So there you have it.  These $5 and under backpacking essentials will certainly add to the comfort and safety of your next backpacking trip and won't break the bank.

I'm putting together an alcohol stove series on my YouTube channel so if you're interested in learning more about them or want to build one for yourself be sure to check it out and subscribe.

See you on the trail!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Gear Build: Alcohol Stoves

The MSR Pocket Rocket vs. The Alcohol Stove
The camp stove is one of those critical pieces of equipment on every backpacker or trail hiker's list and the alcohol burning stove does a nice job of getting your meals prepared or coffee made in the morning.  It may not have all the bells and whistles of a stove like the MSR Pocket Rocket, but it certainly gets the job done.

One really fun thing to do, especially when you're itching to get out on the trail but can't, is to build your own alcohol stove.  You certainly can buy a pre-engineered, precision manufactured alcohol stove that will last for years and years, but for the do-it-yourselfer, making your own alcohol stove is fun, rewarding and far less expensive than buying.

Common Household Cans for the Alcohol Stove
There are no shortage of everyday household items that you can use to build a stove of your own.  I've seen videos and blogs on no less than a dozen home built alcohol stoves made from mini beverage cans like Ginger Ale, Red Bull, and Venom to Fancy Feast Cat Food cans and the like.

Odds are if it's made out of metal and held food or fluids at one point, then you can build your own alcohol stove out of it.

Some alcohol stove builds take more skill, tools and precision than others.  The good news is that for the most part, even the simplest design can still bring very useable results.  But if you like getting into the engineering about vaporizing fuel and orifice size for fuel jets then by all means have fun with it and go for something more complicated.

Before you dig in too deep though, understand that most alcohol based stoves are going to boil 2 cups of water in anywhere from 4 to 8 minutes and use roughly 1 to 1.5 ounces of alcohol.  You can science it up and reduce that wait time and/or fuel consumption but if you're in no horrible rush to boil your water for a meal or for that coffee, then even the simplest alcohol stove build will get your water ready in about 6 minutes.

My advice to the first time stove builder is to start with the most basic and simple model and practice that build a few times. Once you've mastered your first stove, feel free to go ahead and up the difficulty and experiment with it.  That is certainly part of the fun.

The Fancy Feast Stove
If you're building on a budget, the simplest and most inexpensive of all the builds I've seen is the Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove.  Armed with a can of Cat Food, a Drill or Hole Punch and a Black Felt Tip Marker you can make an Alcohol Stove for well under $1 [minus the fuel].  And don't let the simplicity and low cost of this stove make you think you are settling for an inferior stove.  On the contrary, not only is this stove the simplest, it also boils 2 cups of water in under 6 minutes.  That's assuming you keep it well wind protected and keep a tight fitting lid on your water pot.  And that's not that far off from many of the other more expensive, more time consuming and more difficult stove builds.

Here's a link to see one of the many How-To Videos on Building a Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove.

I too started with a Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove and have had it out with me on many a hike.  Although I am completely content with my current stove, it's always fun to try out new ideas and builds.    That's why I'm going to be adding a new component to my stove - carbon felt and an interior tomato paste can.  I'm not so much looking for an improvement over my stove as much as I am just interested in trying something new.

And I'll be making two of the fancy feast - carbon felt - tomato paste can hybrid stoves.  One is for me and the other one I'll send off free of charge to anyone who chimes in below with a comment on what type of stove you use.  After a week or so, I'll pick a winner at random and get in touch so I can send you a free stove.

Thanks for reading!  See you on the trail.