Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

A new stove: Trangia mini

I had been a white gas stove guy from way back in the days of Svea stoves – yup, I just really dated myself! More recently I had used a series of fine little MSR stoves, but a few seasons back I was persuaded to try the little MSR canister stove. It is very small, light, quite simple, and it works very well for the most part. Since I usually can minimize the amount of time I need to run the stove – especially when I’m only cooking for myself – I’ve been able to complete fairly long trips with a single canister. Downsides are that it is still somewhat loud – which seems to be the price you pay for a hotter stove – and that the canisters are expensive, hard to manage (you can’t really know how much fuel is left after some use), and raise some concerning disposal issues.

A few years ago my ultra-light backpacking friends began showing up for trips with some stoves that I couldn’t have even imagined people using a decade ago. All of them were alcohol burning stoves and they ranged from simple, small burners from commercial sources to tiny, featherlight home-grown designs created out of soda cans. At first I was skeptical, having relied on more traditional equipment for some decades, but as I watched my friends use these stoves I began to see their value, particularly for the solo backpacker who mostly needs to simply boil a small amount of water.

I finally took the plunge last month and ordered the very inexpensive (about $20) Trangia mini stove. This consists of a small and simple aluminum wind-screen/stand and a small brass stove that is not much more than a fancy bowl into which you pour a bit of alcohol and then light the whole thing. (Yes, there are lighter stoves and lighter stand and windscreen options, but I didn’t want to begin by, for example, constructing my own stove – as some friends do!)

The “stove” fits neatly into the bottom of my tall Snow Peak solo pot and leaves plenty of room for my spoon, a lighter, a small square of cloth I use as “small towel and pot grabber,” and a tiny plastic bottle of soap. The wind screen is a bit more awkward, but I use the space efficiently by packing it with something else stuffed into it.

Fuel is simply alcohol that you can pick up at your local hardware store, though REI and probably other outdoor stores stock it as well. One can will probably last most people at least a full season. The fuel comes from agricultural sources rather than gas/oil wells, so while the actual effect on the world is small, it seems like a positive step. These stoves also save resources in one other important way. It would take many, many regular fuel canisters to power the stove for the same amount of time that one can of alcohol will last. So, one can of alcohol and one small bottle to carry what you need on the trail is all you’ll use.

The first time I tried it on the trail last week I found myself using more fuel than necessary – at first by a factor of two. Over the course of a four-day trip I got a better handle on how much fuel is needed to boil a particular amount of water, and once on the final morning I manged to bring the water for a cup of tea to a boil just as the fuel burned out. I carried 8 oz. of fuel for this trip and used about half of it – and didn’t use it all that efficiently. I think that it would be quite reasonable to use an ounce or less per day with some care. Unlike the home-brew stoves, the Trangia burner includes a screw-on lid that supposedly allows you to put out the stove before it finishes burning and then store it with the remaining alcohol available for the next use. I didn’t try this. It also includes a detachable top that has a rotating piece that lets you manually lower the flame to simmer. I would rarely have a need for this since I mostly just boil water on the trail.

The stove does take longer to bring a given amount of water to a boil – perhaps 50% or more additional time. If you travel solo (or travel with a group but cook individually) this isn’t a big issue since you’ll probably just add a few minutes to your cooking time. I quickly learned to get my water in the pot and start it boiling first and then to take care of other food preparation issues like getting out the dinner and so forth. Another advantage is that the longer cook time is essentially silent! You’d be surprised at what a difference this makes.

If you have ever had a stove “go bad” on the trail – yes, it happens – you may appreciate the retro simplicity of the alcohol stoves. There are no moving parts, no jets to clean – basically it just holds the alcohol and you light it.

My verdict after one use is that:

  • I’ll definitely use the stove for solo travel.
  • I did not find the slightly longer cooking times to be an issue.
  • I enjoyed the silent operation of the stove.

September 13, 2009 Posted by | Commentary, Equipment, Gear Reviews, Technique | , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

My Take on 'Sleeping Systems'

Having just read a post at the Mt. Whitney and Eastern Sierra Hiking Blog (see “On Backpacking…Sleep System“) I thought I’d add my two cents on this topic.

To my way of thinking, a backpacking “sleeping” system includes several components: sleeping bag, pad, ground sheet, shelter, clothing – and for some, a pillow.

Sleeping Bag – My current first-string sleeping bag is the Marmot Helium that I purchased a few years ago. This is a really fine sleeping bag with 800+ high-fill down, great design features, and a weight of around 2 pounds. The high-fill down decreases the weight and allows the bag to stuff smaller, taking up less space in a smaller pack. The version that I use has only a half zipper – this decreases the weight and cost a tiny bit and isn’t a significant drawback for me. The 15 degree rating is sufficient for me into the colder October season in the Sierra and is more than warm enough for typical summer conditions.

I have also used a lighter 30 degree bag, Continue reading

May 31, 2008 Posted by | Commentary, Equipment, Technique | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Take on 'Sleeping Systems'

Breakfast on the Trail

After seeing this morning’s Trailcraft post about breakfast I thought I’d offer my thoughts about breakfast on the trail.

For years I’ve valued simplicity above fanciness when it comes to trail meals, and breakfast is no exception. I’m generally uninterested in spending a lot of trail time preparing food. My standard breakfast has long been cold granola, perhaps supplemented by a cup of tea. I pick up granola in the bulk food bin at my local Whole Foods and re-bag it for the trail. To a single serving (maybe about 2/3 to 3/4 cup) of granola I add a heaping tablespoon of dry milk power. Since it can be hard to get dry milk to fully dissolve on the trail, I shake the sealed ziploc bag containing milk powder and granola until everything is evenly distributed. Fixing breakfast couldn’t be easier: Find a comfortable rock with a great view, sit, empty bag into cup/bowl, add water, mix a bit, and eat. (I’ve speculated that it might work to pour the water straight into the ziploc, seal, mix, and eat from the bag – but the thought of carrying milk and granola coated plastic bags in my trash bag has dissuaded me from trying this.)

On long pack trips careful food selection and packing become all the more important. On a short trip it isn’t a problem if you over- or under-pack a bit, but both are to be avoided on a long trip. You don’t want to carry any more food than necessary, but you sure as heck don’t want to run short. In addition, these days you have to think of how you’ll cram it all into a bearproof canister. A few years ago, while preparing for a long Sierra pack trip, it occurred to me that a meal of granola is probably slightly larger than a meal of oatmeal, with the downside that preparing oatmeal consumes fuel. However, if you are approaching the capacity limit of your bear canister, adding fuel bulk outside of the canister to extend the number of days worth of food you can fit in the canister can be a Good Thing. (I can get more than 10 days of food into a standard canister and I’ve been out for a week using only the small Bearvault.)

As a consequence of this slightly convoluted reasoning I often replace the granola with oatmeal on longer trips. While each ziploc of oatmeal is only a bit smaller than a ziploc of granola, on a long trip the difference probably adds up to at least on extra breakfast. I assemble my own “trail oatmeal” at home, again using ingredients from the grocery store bulk bins. I start with 1/2 cup of “quick cooking” (not instant!) oatmeal, to which I add some raisins (or perhaps date or apple pieces), a few chopped nuts (walnuts or perhaps almonds), some brown sugar, dry milk powder, and cinnamon. The whole thing cooks on low heat in three minutes or less on the trail, and I’ve come to look forward to the hot breakfast. If I’m going to have tea (see below) I start out by boiling enough water for both tea and oatmeal. After pouring out the water for the tea I add the oatmeal ingredients to the simmering water, and I drink tea while fixing oatmeal.

What about beverages? Many years ago I used hot chocolate mixes (e.g. “Swiss Miss”) and even carried Tang, the industrial strength pseudo-orange-juice powder. Yuck! The chocolate mixes are too bulky and heavy, and don’t really taste all that great. Tang is, well… Tang. Let’s not go there. For a short time I carried a very small single-cup espresso maker – wonderful coffee, finicky operation, too much weight. These days I only carry a few tea bags. They are small and light and even a confirmed coffee addict like me can learn to like tea on the trail – in truth, I don’t miss espresso at all on the trail now. I usually carry a few herbal mint teas (especially good in the evening) along with some stronger caffeinated teas for breakfast.

September 17, 2007 Posted by | Technique | Comments Off on Breakfast on the Trail

Recent Pack Trip – What I Learned (part 1)

After nearly 40 years of backpacking (starting at the age of 1 month? or not? ;-) you’d think that there wouldn’t be a lot more for me to learn about the techniques of this endeavor. However, after nearly every trip, and certainly after every season, I do discover new things – about the places I visit, the techniques I use, the weather and climate, and my equipment.

So, what did I learn on last week’s 6-day trip into the Ansel Adams wilderness? Well, my pack weight has been increasing once again as my ability to carry heavy weights decreases. Yes, I’m getting older. (Sorry to say, but so are you!)

Some years ago my equipment underwent what seemed at the time like a major change. “Back in the day” many internal frame packs weighed around 7 pounds what with heavy materials and thick padding that was then thought necessary. But eventually people began to wonder whether this was really necessary, and we saw a first wave of weight reduction in equipment. I caught this first wave, and I ended up with an excellent Mountainsmith Auspex pack and quite a bit of other relatively lighter gear.

However, I have since developed a two-fold problem. First, the amount of gear and the weight of said gear has steadily crept up. Although my pack hasn’t gotten any larger, the load has become denser. Partly I have tended to err on the side of having a bit too much extra stuff. While carrying a bit extra, say, sun screen won’t add much weight… carrying a bit of extra sunscreen, insect repellant, toothpaste, first aid gear, repair equipment, water, stove fuel, food, and clothing will. It is time for me to reduce that margin a bit – I’m carrying too much stuff “just in case.”

The other factor is photography. While I reduced the weight of some of my backpacking equipment, I have more than compensated by adding photography gear. I now carry what I regard as minimal (for my approach to photography) kit of Canon 5D, 17-40mm and 24-105mm lenses, small tripod, a filter, extra batteries. The weight is likely in the 12 pound range. Sigh.

For my remaining summer/fall 2007 trips I will make a few more changes. Unless really bad weather threatens I’m going to use my new and quite light eVent bivy and a 7 ounce SilTarp instead of a tent, and I’m leaving the ground cloth at home. I’m going to try out one of the very small MSR canister stoves. Realizing that I never actually wear all of the clothing I carry, I will make a few reductions there. I returned from the 6-day trip with too much leftover lunch/snack food, so there is room for some reductions in food weight. I’m going to go through my first-aid and repair kits, which have ballooned over the past couple years, and cut them back down to size. I’ll leave the book at home. I’ll repackage things like sunscreen and bug repellant into smaller containers.

And, with luck, maybe I can get the pack weight down to what it was before I added the camera gear…

August 1, 2007 Posted by | Environment, Technique | Comments Off on Recent Pack Trip – What I Learned (part 1)

In John Muir's Footsteps


A Santa Cruz couple are hoping to restore some popularity to one of the classic early views of Yosemite, reopening a 19th century door on what Muir came to regard as a holy vista — the “sanctum sanctorum of the Sierra.”

Donna and Peter Thomas, a husband-and-wife team of artists who spend most of their time producing hand-bound fine-press books, have rewalked a long-forgotten trail from San Francisco to Yosemite that Muir took, also mostly on foot, for his first Sierra visit in 1868. The couple spent two days last week on the last — and certainly most spectacular — segment of the trail into the valley, the culmination of a guidebook they’re writing to help others follow Muir’s footsteps.

Eventually, they’d like to see directional signs and even overnight accommodations along the 300-mile route they are calling “John Muir’s trans-California ramble” — as reminders of the continuing power of Muir’s legacy and his infectious love of Northern California’s outdoors.

“In 20 years, hundreds of people could be doing at least parts of this trip, maybe thousands,” Peter Thomas said as he and his wife walked the last portion with a Chronicle reporter and photographer.

The <a href="In John Muir’s Footsteps“full article is worth a read… and the whole trail sounds like it might be worth the walk!

June 4, 2007 Posted by | Places, Technique | Comments Off on In John Muir's Footsteps

Advice for Newbies…

… and for those taking them backpacking, from Trailcraft:

Less intuitive tips for the new backpacker.

Here’s a classic situation. Someone who hasn’t been backpacking (or it’s been a really, really long time) gets invited to go with one or more backpackers that go regularly. The newbie shows up with about two times too much gear and food, in less than optimal shape, and has brand-new boots. The trip ends up being miserable because he or she is carrying the heaviest pack, is in the worst shape and is fighting blisters. Sounds like fun doesn’t it? Not really.


Hit the link for the full post. It include a short but, I think, very practical list of things to pay attention to if you are introducing beginners to backpacking – things that will help ensure a successful and fun first experience.


February 5, 2007 Posted by | Technique | Comments Off on Advice for Newbies…

Two From Stienstra

Today’s SFGate features a couple of interesting pieces by Tom Stienstra:

Walking — and other outings — in a winter wonderland. Trying to climb 14,179-foot Mount Shasta in the winter can be like deciding you’re a great-white-shark dentist who scuba dives at the Farallon Islands to administer teeth cleanings. You better bring an assistant to pick up the leftover pieces. But the… By Tom Stienstra. [SFGate: Tom Stienstra]


As the sun begins to set / 5 best photo spots From Berkeley to Bolinas to the South Bay, these are the places for stellar scenic shots. “Dear Tom, I am wondering if you could recommend some places within an hour or so of San Francisco that you think are best for photography. When I shoot nature I prefer early a.m., around sunrise, and late p.m., minutes before sunset.” — Sam Zaydel… By Tom Stienstra, tstienstra@sfchronicle.com. [SFGate: Tom Stienstra]

I have to admit I hadn’t thought of the places he suggests for sunset photography in the Bay Area.

December 28, 2006 Posted by | Technique | Comments Off on Two From Stienstra

A Food Drop – My First

As I wrote yesterday, I’m taking a 14-day Sierra pack trip later this summer. I was going to try to carry 14 days of food – as I did when I was (much) younger. I know from my 9-day trip last summer that I can definitely carry 10 days of food and I think I could get a few more into the pack if pressed.

However, my friends, either being lazier or (more likely) smarter than I, have decided that we’ll do a food drop at Muir Trail Ranch. This means putting about 5 days worth of food into a 5 gallon bucket and mailing it to Muir Trail Ranch about 3 weeks before I’ll pass through there.

This raises a couple of interesting questions. First, I recently read a trip report by someone who did this a few years back – and arrived at Muir Trail Ranch only to find that the food cache had not made it there. This hiker was doing the complete Muir Trail and, unfortunately, ended up bagging the trip and hiking out at that point. Ouch! I hear that I can get a return receipt from the Postal Service and that MTR may be willing to confirm receipt by email. I think I’ll try to get my cache in the mail a bit early.

The second issue is what to pack. Some of the things I typically rely on probably would not survive 3 weeks in a plastic bucket – much less a trip through the postal system and then by pack trail to MTR. For example, I love to carry a few pieces of good cheese with me. That would never last long enough to include in the cache. So I’m going to have to rethink some of my food practices for the final 5 days of this trip, particularly regarding some of the perishable foods that I often carry for lunch.

On the other hand, it just occurred to me that I could put more food into the cache than I think I’ll need and include a few items that may or may not survive. If they do survive I’ll use them. If not, I leave them and take the backup food.

Now I just need to figure out the very best treat for nine days into a pack trip. Hmmm…

June 30, 2005 Posted by | Technique | Comments Off on A Food Drop – My First


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