Thursday, August 3, 2017

Choosing Your First Backpacking Stove

Whether you are buying your first backpacking stove or looking to upgrade or downgrade, there is no shortage of products on the market to consider.


If you are the casual backpacker, like me, it's easy to get wow'ed by all the different choices out there.  We've got Canister Style Stoves, Wood Burning Stoves, Fuel Tablet Stoves like the Esbit, and Alcohol Style Stoves.  And I'm sure I haven't named them all.

The question is...are any or all of these worth the investment?  I'm like most any guy and I like to have stuff.  Having a few different style stoves is fun and can make the camping experience all the more enjoyable as you try one stove this trip then choose another the next trip.  But, like most others, I don't have unlimited resources so I've got to make choices on how and where to spend my money for this awesome hobby.

Before you run out and buy your first stove, I'd suggest you start off with the absolute rock-bottom investment and make your own alcohol stove.  Pair that with a dehydrated meal or two and you're off and running.  We'll talk about that homemade alcohol stove in a sec but first just let me digress for a moment.

Yes, eating a great meal is important to having a great time.  At least it is for me and my gang of backpackers.  We like to eat well at the end of the day and first thing in the morning a hot cup or two of coffee is super important to me having an enjoyable time.  With that said, you can have an absolute fantastic meal by going with a Mountain House, Backpacker's Pantry or Packit Gourmet Dehydrated Meal.  And all you need to enjoy one of those is about 12-14oz of boiling water.

Every one of the stoves I list below does a great job of boiling water.  There are about [5] Characteristics of Backpacking Stoves that make some the right choice for your needs and some not so much.
  • Investment - The Home Made Alcohol Stove is the front runner here in the short term.  You can make one for under $1 but you'll have to constantly invest in your fuel source.  Boiling 12-16 ounces of water takes about 1 to 1.5 ounces of Alcohol and that stuff is really inexpensive.
  • Pack Weight/Volume - That Home Made Alcohol Stove scores high marks here as well.  Even with a few days worth of fuel, you'll hardly notice it in your pack.
  • Fuel Source - Any of the wood burning style Backpacking Stoves top the charts in this category since you'll never have to pay for your fuel nor will you have to pack it in or out with you.
  • Wow Factor - The Biolite Stove takes first place in this category in my opinion.  Not only does it take an unlimited free fuel source [wood, pinecones, etc] it also has a thermocouple which can change that heat energy into electricity to charge your electronic devices.  That's really something to brag on.  There's been more than one occasion that I've almost pulled the trigger on one of these.
  • Speed & Finesse - The Canister Style Stove just as the MSR Pocket Rocket or Jetboil Flash are the winners here.  I've boiled two cups of water [starting at around 60F] in a whopping three minutes with my MSR Canister stove.  That's over twice as fast as my Alcohol stove.  Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Our first style stove is the Canister Style Backpacking Stove.  The Jetboil Flash is aptly named with lighting fast Boil Times of just over 2 minutes and is one of the premier canister style stoves in the market.

Jetboil offers quite a few models with prices starting near $80 and moving up from there.

Note though that those prices, although a little high include a complete cook system [minus the fuel canister] with a burner, canister stand, pot, lid and cozy.

That's not a bad deal for all that gear.  You're completely set for cook gear with one purchase.

One great advantage the Canister Style Stove offers in addition to it's duper fast boil times is a fuel control knob.  That adjustment allows quite a bit more finesse in cooking and sautéing over just the standard full on flame 'boil my water' play.  And it saves fuel.

Coming in as an honorable mention Canister Style Stove is the MSR Pocket Rocket.  I own it's little brother the Micro Rocket and it's a great little stove that packs up small and weighs next to nothing.

Both the Pocket Rocket and the Minor Rocket are very similar and as will all canister stoves, they both have that same standard fuel canister threaded connection which is universal for all different makes of fuel canisters.  So there's no worry about which fuel to buy - MSR, Jetboil and Primus are some of the most popular brands.
Next in our lineup of stove types is the Wood Burning Camp Stove Style.  The Toaks Titanium Stove is one of many, many brands and style of woodturning stoves but nearly all follow the same principle.

The distinct advantage of this style stove is the limitless supply of free fuel available.  In a downpour this style stove would be tough to use unless there was overhead cover and some dry kindling but all that aside this style seems to be a popular choice.

I doubt there will be one of these in my future as I'm all about the campfire at my campsite anyway.  For my needs, I don't see this style stove as useful.  They are relatively slow to start and slow to boil water.  And some wood burning style stoves are manufactured of titanium which can easily run in the $80-$90 plus range.

The pocket style Esbit or Fuel Tab Stove is lightweight and super inexpensive.  Some of these style stoves can run under $10 with Fuel Tabs costing under $1/ea.

Aside from the advantages of super low cost, super low pack weight and relatively low fuel cost comes the additional benefit of it's ease of use even in wet weather.

The Esbit Fuel Tabs take a flame very easy and burns for about 8 minutes which is ample time to boil 2 cups of water for that dehydrated meal and a quick cup of coffee.

The "WOW-FACTOR" award goes to the Biolite Camp Stove.  It certainly takes low marks on up front cost and in pack weight but if you're the kind of backpacker that likes a little more pizzaz in your gear, you might want to consider this Backpacking Stove.

The unlimited fuel source of wood and/or pine cones makes this a one time investment that's always at the ready.  And the super cool Thermocouple which converts heat energy into low voltage re-charge power for your mobile device makes this stove awesome.

I haven't seen any bad reports about poor reliability or short lifespan on the thermocouple so that's good.  But at $130 or so, this one just might need to be a gift to me from someone in order for me to own one.  Still, I'd have to say that I'd be really happy with one in my pack.

The real stand out winner in my list of Backpacking Stoves is the Home Made Alcohol Stove.  Designs vary but they all operate much the same way with the same general effectiveness.  They are super simple to make and require very few tools.

The only downside [and its barely that] is that there is no real flame control so once they are lit they basically burn at the same rate until the fuel is exhausted.  If you need to adjust heat, it all about moving the pan away from the flame.  Not a big deal to me since I'm almost always about boiling water and little else.

Boil times are also on par with the woodburing style stoves so there's no big advantage either way.  But at less than $5 to make even the souped-up styles, I just love it.

As I pointed out in the beginning.  If I could roll back the clocks, I'd save the money I spent on my canister stove and spend it elsewhere.  The Alcohol Stove does everything I need it to.  I hope that helps you make a good decision on your first or next Backpacking Stove.

Are you of the same opinion as me on the Alcohol Stove?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Sawyer Mini Water Filter versus the Katadyn Befree

I've had the Sawyer mini now for about 2 years and it has, without fail, served me well for the parts I choose to use.  One minor [and I mean minor] complaint with the Mini that I have is the Squeeze Pouch that's included with the purchase.  Other than that [and there are some really easy workarounds], the Mini earns a solid 10/10 for price, reliability and pack weight/volume in my opinion.

Whenever I'm on the trail and need to fill up from a non-potable water source, I always use my Mini with a disposable water bottle and my Nalgene.  My disposable bottle is always easy to identify as my 'dirty' water and the Nalgene always as the 'clean.'

I long ago replaced the Squeeze Pouch that came with the Mini with a smartwater bottle.  I've tried other bottles but the smartwater is the best because of it's thicker wall and higher water volume.  Sturdy is a good quality to have out on the trail because if the water bottle fails, I'm out of luck for purifying water - at least with the Mini.

I chose the disposable water bottle over the Sawyer Squeeze Pouch because it's much easier to fill.  The Pouch packs up fabulously and weighs next to nothing, but it doesn't lend itself well to filling up in a slow moving stream or brook.  I've tried it more than a few times and I can only fill it to about 50% capacity.  If I had any input on the design I would have increased it's volume by at least 50%.  That would have added marginal cost to the product but would have given it much higher marks in my opinion.

My setup here on the right is my absolute standard any time I hit the trail [less that Squeeze Pouch].  For me, the Sawyer Mini has proven itself to be a really great, low-cost option [~$20] that should last me a lifetime since it treats over 100,000 gallons of water.  That will produce more clean water than I'll ever drink on the trail.

But like with any new invention or product enhancement, the Katadyn Befree has certainly got my attention.  I already own a low cost, reliable solution so the BeFree would have to seriously tip the scales to have me reaching into my wallet.

I'm not entirely sure when these came out but one look and I can see my biggest complaint against the Sawyer Mini is solved.

The BeFree does come in three sizes - 20oz, 1L, and 3L so I'm certainly not limited to go with the 3L option.  But the price tag of $40 plus tax & shipping on the 20oz has got me a little hesitant.   

That's a fairly good investment over the Sawyer Mini and it's got me wondering if the BeFree's solution to my one little complaint about the Mini is worth the extra cash.  

My first reaction was to add one of these to the cart immediately and check out before they are gone.
But, after some careful consideration, I've decided to hold off.  The filter does has a noticeably faster rate than the Mini which is a slight advantage.  But as I've said before, I'm in no rush once I'm out in the woods.  If it takes me another 3-4 minutes to filter my water, that just doesn't add up to spending another $40 for a very similar setup to what I have now.

And one other serious question I have is the 'toughness' value of that bottle.  I didn't see any info on any manufacturer warranty.  I know that REI would stand behind it forever so that's not a major concern, but unlike the Sawyer Mini that fits most any disposable water bottle, I don't have an endless supply of water containers.  If the BeFree container springs a leak I'm up the proverbial creek until I can get a replacement from the distributor.  

So I guess I'm in a holding pattern for now.  If my Mini fails me or gets lost then the BeFree would be a contender for replacement for sure.

Use another filter system or have some comments about my take on these two?  Let me know in the comments section.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Trail Meals - Dehydrated or MREs?

One of my favorite parts of heading out for an overnight is the food.  I feel a little like a 12 year old Boy Scout heading out for an adventure and making my own dinner out there in the woods is just kinda cool.

I've tried dehydrated meals from several vendors, US Military MREs and bringing my own food [either raw or cooked] and all have their pros and cons for the backpacker.

I'm a fan of all of them for sure and there's no right or wrong food to bring for the most part.  Probably the most important aspect to remember is that ANY food can attract animals.  To keep yourself and your equipment out of harm's way it's best to prepare, eat and store any foodsource at least 100 yards from your campsite.

I've never had an issue with any animal getting into my food but following these simple rules is a great idea to keep that from happening.

I recently tried a dehydrated meal from a company called Packit Gourmet - Shepard's Cottage Pie.  I've got to say it was extremely tasty and fairly easy to prepare.  It was, however, not inexpensive.  After shipping [which was super fast], I probably had invested $10 into that meal.  Was it worth it??  Maybe for the convenience and for the experience, yes.  But their products probably won't be a staple in my backpack.  That's not to say I won't treat myself from time to time.  And to conserve on shipping fees I ordered three of their meals so I'll be having more experience with them.  Pasta Beef Bolognese is the next on my list and from what I hear, it's one of their best sellers.

But I'm here to make the case for the good 'ole MRE or Meal Ready to Eat.  Coming in around $50 - $60 for a case of 12, they can be considered a bargain, especially if you find them locally.  I've got an Army-Navy surplus store just a few miles from me so I've got a source.

For about $5 a package, the MRE has some decent upgrades over the traditional dehydrated meals.  But let's get the cons out of the way first.  I'll bet by the time you see everything the MRE has to offer, you'll be headed out to grab a few for your next trip out.

Here is really the ONLY 'legitimate' downside I see to the MRE and that is the weight.  With most MRE's you're looking at adding a pack weight of about 1 pound versus 8oz - 9oz with a dehydrated meal.  Understand though that to eat that dehydrated meal I will have to bring along around 12oz to 14oz of water.  Now, maybe I can find that water out next to my camp area and maybe not.

Next to the Shepard's Cottage Pie [or any other dehydrated meal], let's see what that potential additional pack weight really brings to the table.

Here's the contents of the MRE:

MRE: Vegetable Lasagna
8.0 oz Vegetable Lasagna - Main Entree
4.5 oz Pears
Poppy Seed Pound Cake
Wheat Bread
Peanut Butter
French Vanilla Cappuccino Instant Powder
Raspberry Kool Aid
Toilet Paper
Moist Towelette
Iodized Salt
Chewing Gum

Just in taste variations alone, the MRE wins hands down in my opinion.  And since all of these items are individually packaged, I can choose to eat them at my leisure or leave them home / pack them out.

Here's what I see as major advantages in the MRE over the Dehydrated Meal:
1) COST - We hashed this one around a bit already - $5.50 versus $10+
2) VARIETY - With the dehydrated meal you get one meal, the MRE offers [normally] a main entree, side dish, dessert, beverage [or 2], snack and more.
3) CALORIE COUNT - I've gotten to the bottom of many a dehydrated meal wishing for more at the end of a long day but the MRE has always delivered more than I wanted.  Sheer calorie volume should be a scale tipper for some of us.
4) FIRE FREE - If you choose to leave behind [or forget] your alcohol stove or canister stove, the MRE has a water activated heat source that can heat your entree.  If you stop and think about it, the dehydrated meal absolutely requires a campfire or stove.  That is an additional time or money investment you may not want to deal with.

So, I've found the MRE hard to beat.  And with 12 different MREs per case, I'm sure to find plenty of variation and something I'm in the mood for.  If you have not tried one yet, check out the local craigslist ads.  I've found them for sale on there for either an entire case at a time or even just a handful of meals.