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Monday, May 09, 2011

The Obligatory Cooking while Camping/Touring Post

The camp kitchen from the Portland-Vancouver tour, May 2009
Every once in a while (like over on the Adventure Cycling Forum or over there at the question comes up: Should I bring a camping stove and all the accoutrements or not? And then begins a lively discussion between those who cook while touring and those that don't. It's sort of the equivalent of the endles "Pannier or trailer" debate (or the perennial transportational cycling chesnut "Helmets: Good or Evil?") As with the other debates, there is no right or wrong answer, just a matter of personal preference.

And if you read my last post, it's pretty obvious that I come on the "pro-cooking" side.  How would I make coffee in camp without a stove? So this post talks about the "pros" of bringing a cook kit, and what type of kit I bring.

Why cook while bike camping/touring?
  • Bringing a stove adds versatility to your eating experience.* Yeah, there's plenty of food options out on the road, but it's nice to be able to cook a meal, or make tea or coffee, whether at a rest stop or in camp.
  • Sometimes those pickins be slim, especially if you have food allergies or restrictions. It's fairly easy to find something to eat in any store and restaurant when your omnivorous and have no allergies. But what if you are vegan? Gluten free? Allergic to nuts? Lactose intolerant? Well, you may find little to nothing to eat. For example, when I toured central and eastern Oregon last year, there was a good stretch where the only lunch/dinner options I could find were either a tasteless iceberg lettuce salad or grilled cheese. This can get old fast. It's nice to be able to have a back-up source of food.
  • Food to cook can take up less space than prepared food, and may last longer. A sandwich is a sandwich, and there's not much you can do to make it smaller besides having less stuff on it. You'll need to eat it soon since it'll get banged up in a pannier and start going bad. But dehydrated soups and such are compact and have a long shelf life. It's not the most appetizing thing, but will work when you need it.
  • It's cheaper. Just like off the road, it's cheaper to make a meal at home rather than eat out. A nice meal while touring is a great treat, but will tax the budget, just like motel rooms will. To get a "decent" meal at a fast food joint, you'll spend at least $5 if not more, and at a more formal sit-down establishment, it can be $10-15 per person. And you will inevitably eat more than normal, since you are hungry.
I'm not going to talk about what I cook on this post, this will wait for another time.  Now let's get into stoves!

There are four primary types** of camping stoves suitable for bike camping/touring and also backpacking: Canister fuel, liquid fuel, solid fuel, and alcohol/spirit. I'm going to talk about the two types I have experience with, canister fuel and alcohol.
My Vargo Titanium stove with teakettle

Canister fuel stoves consist of a canister of compressed gas, stored in liquefied form, of propane, butane, or a mix of the two. The burner screws on to the top of the canister. There's no priming needed, all one has to do is open the valve and light a match to ignite the flame. The valve can regulate the flame, so you can do a fast boil or slow simmer. And it's so compact: my stove and fuel canister nests inside my cooking pot!

There are a couple drawbacks to this system. The canisters are not refillable, which isn't environmentally friendly. And the fuel canisters can be hard to find. They generally are found in camping or outdoor stores, though stores like Fred Meyer do carry them. I usually always have an extra canister with me so I don't run out. But for cross-country touring, there will most likely be long stretches where I won't be able to resupply, and I'm not going to have a pannier full of canister!

With that in mind, I decided to re-try alcohol burning stoves. I used the ever popular Soda Can Stove for my first couple tours.It's a stove made out of...a soda can. While small, I didn't like its limitations. For this time around, I decided to get a Trangia stove. Trangia is a Swedish stove maker who have been making alcohol burning stoves for seemingly forever. The simple burner is a brass reservoir that holds denatured alcohol. The burner itself is cheap, around $15, yet seemingly hard to find in the US. After a long search, I managed to find one at a local store. I already had the outer assembly (a lightweight foldable kit) from Russ and Laura of the Path Less Pedaled, so I was ready to go!

I've only tried the Trangia a few times, and it's worked well. It's only "on" or "off", but you can control the flame by using a simmer ring. You can turn it off by pouring water on it or placing the simmer ring over it to snuff the flame. If there is any extra alcohol left, it can be stored in the stove with a screw-top lid. And the best part is the fuel is cheap and easily available: denatured alcohol can be found in any paint or hardware store, or you can use drygas/gas line antifreeze from gas stations.

There are drawbacks, though, besides the lack of adjustable flame control. Alcohol burns "colder" than other fuels, so it takes longer to boil. And there can be soot on the bottoms of pots and pans, especially with cheaper alcohols. Plus, you need a windscreen to make sure the flame doesn't blow out. And throwing the simmer ring on a burning stove to put it out...well, I manage to get it on right 50% of the time, the other 50% I need to use a utensil to push it on.

For a smaller tour I would take only one stove, but for the Big Tour we'll take both. Initially I was looking at the Trangia as the backup when canister fuel gets scarce. But using both stoves means we can do more at once. Last year when we biked the Olympic Peninsula, we had only one stove. On mornings we decided to make both coffee and pancakes, we had to boil water first and then cook pancakes on the frying pan. With two stoves, one can boil the water for tea and coffee and the other for making pancakes, which means it won't take as long to cook in the morn.

As for cookware, this is what I've been using:
GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Soloist pot: Holds a litre of water, and my stove and fuel canister fits inside of it.
GSI Outdoors Teakettle
Some generic 8 inch non-stick frying pan

Add a non-obtrusive plastic plate, something that can be used as a bowl (I'm partial to these Ziploc screwtop containers), a cup/mug, and utensils, and you got yourself a cook set! 

*Man, that sounds like it just came from a marketer, didn't it?
**Yeah, there's probably more. Sorry.

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