Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Choosing a cook stove for the Te Araroa: a discussion

Equipment for Back-country Cookery

 There are a variety of ways to heat water and cook food while in the New Zealand back-country. The most obvious is the use of an open fire. Unfortunately the negative environmental impact of fire has discredited this as a food preparation method.

Camp-fire old as humankind.
Instead there are a myriad variety of stoves and heating methods specifically manufactured for outdoor use. I thought it might be useful to look at these various types and explain what I use on trail and why.

  So many types of outdoor cooker...

To start let us look at the types of cookers available. Note that the terms stove and cooker are interchangeable, you call them stoves we call them cookers!

 Iso-butane or gas cannister stoves

The most commonly used stoves are those using iso-butane cannisters, these are often refereed to as 'gas stoves'.  A gas stove will consist of the gas 'bottle' and a screw on cooker unit which you attach to it. If it is very cold the gas can freeze making the cooker useless. Please note that the older 'pierced' type of gas cannister is very difficult to find in New Zealand, we all use screw on cookers.

Kovea Titanium Stove

There are two main types of gas cooker, those that attach to the top of the bottle and those that are free standing. Above is a Kovea Titanium cooker, this is typical of the top attaching varieties. As you can see it has a perforated burner head, with a control mechanism on the side to control the gas flow. There are fold out pot supports above the burner head and a piezo spark actuator to light it with.

My top fitted Kovea gas cannister stove in use at Packhorse Hut, 2016

Below is the MSR Whisperlite, this is one of the free standing variety of outdoor cookers. These are much more stable as they usually have wider legs/pot supports arms and have a lower centre of gravity. The downside is the extra weight, these are normally 100-200 gms heavier than a top fixing stove.

MSR Windpro free standing gas stove

Here is a different version of a cannister stove, the Jetboil. A Jetboil is an 'integrated cooking system' with stand, cook pot, burner and cannister all in one.  You use a Jetboil to heat cannot really cook in these. These stoves are good for Alpinists as they are fast, difficult to blow out and pack into quite a small package. Stoves similar to this are also made by MSR, Primus and Kovea.

It is a pretty good system, I see lots of TA trekkers using them. Unfortunately, a Jetboil can be  expensive and also heavy which is probably why more people don't use them.

The Jetboil 'cooking system'

 Iso-butane gas cannisters are highly pressurised so the cannisters must be made of steel to contain the pressure. This means the cannisters are heavy. An empty 225ml cannister weighs 145gms so that is a lot of wasted weight you have to lug around.

Disposing of empty cannisters is problematic. The empty cannisters cannot be recycled unless they are punctured- they need a hole in them to allow any residual gas to escape. If not completely empty they are liable to explode during the recycling process.

Various sizes of iso-butane gas: 100gms, 225 gms and 550 gms

Gas cannisters are expensive in New Zealand as most of them are imported. They currently cost around $10 NZ dollars for a small cannister, $15-20 for a medium and $15-25 for a large.

Pros:Easy to use, fast heating ability, relatively cheap, moderate heat control, widely available, many different models/makes, three sizes of cannister available in New Zealand

Cons:Fuel cannisters are heavy, quite expensive, disposal of empty cannisters is problematic, top fixing versions are unstable, not good in high altitude or cold conditions

Multi-fuel stoves

As the name implies a multi-fuel stove can use a variety of different fuels, these range from iso-butane cannisters, white spirits, kerosene and even gasoline. Some will only use liquid fuels while others are able to use both liquid and gas.

The MSR Whisperlite multi fuel stove, fuel bottle and gas cannister shown
To use a multi fuel stove you fill the fuel bottle with your fuel of choice. You then turn this into a pressurised gas by pumping the pressure handle. The fuel is then lit with a match, lighter or piezo spark actuator.

Multi-fuel stoves are excellent for Alpine conditions as the fuel is not affected by altitude or cold. Their ability to use a multitude of fuels also makes them practical: gasoline is available everywhere in the world while gas cannisters are sometimes difficult to locate.

These stoves tend to be a lot heavier, 300-800 gms as opposed to a gas cannister stove at 70-200 gms. They can also be a cast iron bitch to light as it is sometimes hard to get the pressurisation right. The burner units are also prone to soot blockages. You must use good quality fuel and regularly clean the cooker to ensure optimum performance.

A MSR multi-fuel cooker service kit

I have to say though, there is nothing like the sound of a multi fuel stove blasting away on a cold a lot of us older Kiwi trampers it is the sound of tramping itself.

Pros: Can use many different fuels, much hotter flame, better flame/heat control, work well at altitude and in cold conditions, sound awesome when fired up

Cons: Much heavier, more difficult to operate, fuel must be pre warmed and pressurised before use, can be hard to light, more prone to stove blockages

  Methylated - Spirit stoves

  Methylated or spirit stoves have been around for a long time but are undergoing a resurgence of interest in recent times. These can be commercially produced or home-made and consist of a burner unit with a series of holes in the top and sides. Once lit the flame will come out of these holes providing the cooking heat

A Trangia brand alcohol/meth's stove in action...

As you can see in the photo below they are quite effective looking but have a number of limitations. The heat put out by methylated spirits is low, so cooking times are much longer. Once lit the flame cannot really be controlled so these are not ideal for simmering meals. They are also easily extinguished by wind- you need a wind shield if using a spirit cooker outside.

Home-made meths stoves made from aluminium cans

These stoves will use both methylated spirits and de natured alcohol, which is the American name for a similar product. "Meth's" comes in 1 litre bottles in New Zealand and cost from $6-$10 NZ dollars. Methylated spirits can be found in most service stations, hardware stores and supermarkets.

 De natured alcohol is usually only found in the larger outdoor equipment shops. It costs approximately $10-$20 NZ Dollars per 1 litre bottle.  

Methylated Spirits aka Denatured Alcohol
Pros: Fuel is cheap and widely available, stoves tend to be quite light, stoves cheap if homemade

Cons: Not totally safe for use in huts, easily extinguished by the wind, often need a wind shield and stand for use, care needed when refilling, fuel only comes in 1 litre bottles so there is potential wastage if you want less than this.

Solid fuel tablets- Esbit Stoves

  Solid fuel stoves have been a mainstay of military forces worldwide for most of the 20th century. There are many firms producing both stoves and fuel including Sea and Summit, Coleman, MSR, Coghlans and cheap 'no brand' versions from China.

The most reknown brand of solid fuel stoves are made by the German company Esbit, so in Europe these cookers are called 'Esbit stoves'.

Classic Esbit stove from Germany
 The solid fuel tablets for an Esbit type stove are made of a compound called hexamide. Hexamide is  highly inflammable and relatively easy to light. It is basically a solid form of hydro carbon covered in wax to stop it evaporating. One if its downsides are the fumes it exudes: these are both poisonous and foul smelling. 

Classic Esbit fuel cubes

The beauty of solid fuel is that you need no stove...when I was in the military we just used a couple of rocks or sticks to prop our mess tins above the burning fuel cubes. My god... the smell of a 'hexie' tablet cooking some 'Spaghetti and Sausages' 'Corned Beef Hash' or 'Meat and Vegetables' is something I still remember with fondness...

An Esbit stove is bullet proof: it has no moving parts, requires no servicing and can be stored forever. That's why the military loved them.

An Esbit stove doing its thing...

Pros:No parts to break, can be stored till the end of time, need no cooker, slow steady heat, relatively light, can be lit when wet, fuel makes excellent fire starter so dual purpose, cheap (a stove and fuel is usually less that $10 NZ dollars.

Cons: Low heat output, noxious fumes, cannot be used indoors, not readily available except in outdoor stores, easily extinguished by wind, best used for heating water.

Portable wood stoves

 One of the newer forms of stove are those that use wood as their fuel...much as our ancestors have done for the last 40 000 years. These are commonly aluminium or titanium and burn paper, sticks, leaves and small wood chips. 

There are many commercial versions but these can also be made by the outdoor hobbyist at home.
 These are most often used by survivalists, long trail hikers and in areas where other stove types are banned. I see very few people using them in New Zealand- it is wet here so no dry wood and there are often fire bans in place over summer.
Typical lightweight wood stove in action
Pros: No need to carry fuel, relatively lightweight, inexpensive if home-made, can be used in most outdoor situations, fold down versions take up little space, environmental impact slight

Cons: They require dry wood,  can get very sooty on the outside, fire risk- cannot be used if there is a fire ban, cannot be used in huts, bulky unless fold down design, commercial versions are expensive

Flameless ration heaters or FRH's

Flameless Ration Heaters or FRH's are a by-product of military style Meals Ready To Eat (MRE's).

US military FRH from a Meals Ready to Eat (MRE)

Flameless Ration Heater: the chemical heater pad in a FRH

An MRE (...semi jokingly called Meals Rarely Eaten...) is a thermo stabilised retort pouch of food. The complete meal also includes various drinks, snacks and side dishes. They are a one meal item i.e. you would need to eat three a day. The FRH they contain uses a thermo-chemical reaction to warm the main meals and any hot drinks. Most of the military forces of the world are now using these.

A US military MRE: Beef Pasta with Tomato Sauce

FRH's were specific to military circles until about 10 years ago when a number of outdoor companies started to produce them for hikers and campers. Backcountry Cuisine are the only indigenous manufacturer of FRH's, they are $15 each in New Zealand. 


A Back Country Cuisine Flameless Ration Heater

The New Zealand commercial food ranges these can be used with are Kaweka Meals (also used by the NZ Defence Forces) and the MTR range of Indian meals. Freeze dried meals can also be heated if the contents are rehydrated with cold water first. 

Pros: Very lightweight (less than 20 gms each), simple to use, you require no stove/fuel/pot if not heating water for hot drinks, can be used in tents with adequate ventilation, not effected by weather (rain, wind, cold)

Cons: Horrible environmental impact, very slow heating, expensive, limited uses- only good with thermo stabilised retort pouches, hard to source in New Zealand, need salt and a cup of water to work

 No heat-no cook tramping 

One way to deal with cooking while trekking the Te Araroa is to simply go without. I have meet a number of people practising no cook (or stoveless) tramping. Instead of your traditional hot meal they eat foods that require no cooking.

These might include cereals, dried meats/cheeses, jerky, bread, tortillas, crackers, spreads, power bars, nuts/dried fruit or it could be dehydrated meals reconstituted with cold water.

Basically the sort of stuff you usually eat for lunch!

Some no-cook menu items: cereals, scroggin, energy bars, tuna, salami, drink powders, dried fruit etc.
I've tried this on an over night tramp and it is not for me, I like a hot drink in the morning and soup and a hot meal at night. In extremis I would go stove-less but not out of choice. That's just my personal opinion by the do what works for you!

I meet a guy at Anne Hut a couple of years ago who had scroggin (trail mix), tea bags and 24 peanut butter sandwiches for food. His menu was scroggin for breakfast and two sandwiches for lunch/dinner. would keep you going, but....

Do you fancy this at every meal for four days....

Pros: Lightweight (no stove/pot/fuel/cutlery), cheaper option as not buying fuel, easy to sustain yourself for short periods this way, relatively wide menu choices available even in New Zealand

Cons: 24 peanut butter sandwiches......who wants to eat that for 6 days in a row! Will not sustain you properly for more than a couple of weeks, could be unsafe if tramping in adverse weather conditions ( drinks save hypothermic trampers...this is an olde tramping truism...), packaging...there would be a lot of it!


My tramping stoves

I've used all of these various cooker types before but my primary cook stove is a Kovea Backpacker gas cannister stove. I have been using this light weight stove since 1993 and it is still going strong.

The Kovea Backpacker stove

The cooker weighs 110 gms which is a bit heavy but I really like it. I usually couple this stove with a medium size MSR cannister. This combination allows me to boil water for both breakfast and dinner for 5-6 days on one cannister. The stove cools fast and has a larger diameter burner head which I find advantageous when cooking.

My Kovea Backpacker stove in use at Nina Hut in 2016

 Why gas....? I just find it more convenient to use a cannister stove. You can have it out and going in less than 1 minute. A good breakfast is a fast breakfast if you know what I mean! Any other type of cooker involves too much buggering around to get it operational.

Fixing dinner with my Kovea stove at Mid Robinson Hut, 2015

If you are going to be using a cannister stove you need a CrunchIt. A Crunchit is basically a big can opener which allows you to puncture cannisters to vent residual gas.  A CrunchIt weighs a mere 45gms and is available on-line and at many outdoor stores.

The Jetboil Crunchit recycling tool
I carry two Esbit cubes with me as an emergency backup on every trip. As I said earlier these can be used without a stove and because they only weigh 5 gms each are a useful survival tool.

My Esbit cubes: firestarter and emergency cook tool
I have an Esbit methylated spirits cooker which I will be using on the longer Te Araroa Trail sections. The fuel is cheaper and more readily available in out of the way places, making it ideal for that kind of tramping.

My Esbit cooker looks like this...

A gallery of other stoves I own...

 I inherited a Kovea Hiker stove from one of my brothers who moved to the US, it is an older design but still works well. She is a bit hefty for long trail trekking but folds up small into a nifty hard plastic container.

Kovea Hiker stove, mine does not have a piezo
I also have an Outer Limits Huntsman stove, which I brought when I got back into tramping in 2010. For a free standing cooker it is light at only 150gms. I really like this stove but I just have a sentimental attachment to my Kovea Backpacker so this one doesn't get used very often.

An Outer Limits Huntsman free standing stove

I hope that gives you some ideas to consider when considering what stove to use on the TA.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Fancy a cuppa...? Tramping drink ideas

You are what you drink, or the tale of many beverages...

Does your beverage of choice say anything about you? Trampers have a diverse range of preferences, some people like tea, others coffee, or some other variety of hot or cold drink. I have seen people drinking soup for breakfast, liquid jelly for dessert and you often see tramping parties having a quiet tipple as well. Tea seems to be the leader with coffee, fresh or instant, a close second.  


Hot drinks for tramping...

My preference runs towards Early Grey tea, black with sugar and in large quantities. I don't care if it is bagged or loose just so long as it is hot and sweet. My brand of choice is Dilmah but even the roughest gumboot tea will suffice in an emergency.

My choice of tea, Dilmah Earl Grey

I sometimes take packets of instant hot chocolate or cappuccino mixes with me as they make a nice change from tea at every meal. If I can find them, I like the Nestle Hot Chocolate with marshmallows the best.

Nestle brand hot chocolate
I usually carry either Nescafe or Jarrah coffee and cappuccino sachets, both are freely available here in New Zealand. The individual sachets weigh 5 gm's and make a perfectly acceptable version of a coffee.

Nescafe Cappucino sachets- 20 per pack

I'm also partial to a mug of hot Raro or Vitafresh fruit powder drink with dinner. I know this sounds strange but its really good!

Classic Raro Sweet Navel Orange

Water, iced tea and a hot coffee, Lake Isabel Hut, 2014

Sweeteners and condensed milk...

I used to carry sugar for my hot drinks but now I use Splenda sugar substitute. One tablet is equal to 1 teaspoon of sugar, the packet below holds 100 tablets or enough for 50 cups of tea/coffee. The packet is the size of a matchbox and weighs only 22gms, by comparison 100 teaspoons of sugar weighs 640gms.

Splenda sugar substitute

If I have a instant coffee it would be sweetened with condensed milk. This is a drink I picked up in the Army, it dates back too before WW1, the only way to drink coffee in the outdoors IMHO. It is also excellent in a brew of tea as well.

Update: Since I posted this in 2012 I have struck several people who also carry condensed milk for their coffee. It really is delicious- no need for sugar or milk with this product. In fact I have seen Ray Mears the survival expert using it on his TV programs.

Forget stupid syrups, classic old timer coffee additive

Condensed milk is still a part of both New Zealand and Australian Army field rations to this day.
Having a coffee at the Davies Bay campground, QCT in 2016

Cold tramping drinks...

.....(actually cool as you have no refrigeration to chill your drinks)
There is nothing better than water for quenching your thirst, but sometimes you want something different.
Powdered fruit drink packets are very popular, there are a wide range of flavours and several brands. My preferred type is Vitafresh especially their Peach Iced Tea, Orange Mango, Blackcurrant and old fashioned Lemonade.
Orange Mango Vitafresh

Raro is the other well known range available here in New Zealand. 

A Raro drink powder three pack

I also use isotonic drink powders, these are basically fruit flavoured mineral replacement drinks. Vitasport is one of the more common brands available here. 

Vitasport isotonic drink powder

I will generally carry one packet of Vitasport/Raro/Vitafresh (12 gms) per day and have it with my evening meal.

Beer,  spirits, wine anyone?

A quick snort of something is as old as tramping itself, and is a Kiwi tradition. I would imagine even the sainted John Muir carried a flask of something to make the evenings more convivial.

The outdoor 'Saint'- John Muir, father of the US National Park movement!

Personally I am of two minds about alcohol and outdoor activities, I like a drink as much as the next person but in the right place and at the right time.  A glass of a nice red with your freeze dried meal is good, a litre of Vodka with lunch not so much.

I'm partial to a river cooled can of beer and have taken several with me in the past. Nothing like finishing the day with an ice cold brew in your hand! Oh yeaahhhh!

Using nature's beer chiller....

I also enjoy a snort of whiskey or rum normally in a coffee. Leave the hip flask at home and carry it in a tightly sealed plastic bottle. Hey, its not going to compromise the quality any worse than humping it around in a pack for a couple of days.

Just a final word; carry out your empties! Nothing worse than arriving at a hut to see a pile of empty beer cans or wine bottles cluttering up the bench. If you carry it in, please carry it out.


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Mountain Safety Council and its resources

The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council

You will find a lot of on-line information about visiting New Zealand but precious little of it is specifically about tramping/hiking/trekking here. One of your most important sources should be the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council's website.

The re developed MSC website, June 2017

The role of the Mountain Safety Council (MSC) 

The Mountain Safety Council or MSC is the organisation tasked with coordinating outdoor education in New Zealand. They used to run specific safety courses for example Introductory Bushcraft, Firearms Safety or Outdoor First Aid but have moved out of training now. 

The MSC provide a lot of informative on-line and paper pamphlets, articles, videos and webinars about safety in the outdoors. All are written with specific New Zealand conditions in mind.

The MSC resource page on their website

As you can see there is a wealth of useful information on their  website, including some in different languages. Most of the MSC guides are also freely available in DOC visitor centres.

Pages from the MSC Outdoor Activity Guide: Day Walking

If you are new to tramping/hiking, an international visitor or just need a refresher I recommend you study these guides as they will assist with planning successful trips to the New Zealand mountains and bush.

The 'Get Outdoors' video series

The MSC in partnership with the Department of Conservation (DOC) have made a series of short informative videos about different aspects of the New Zealand outdoors. 

They call these the 'Get Outdoors Series'

The MSC page on YouTube

The videos can be found on YouTube as well as on the main MSC website. You should check them out as a source of information when planning your Te Araroa trek.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Bounce Box storage: Boyle Outdoor Education Centre

Food box storage at the Boyle Outdoor Education Centre

Boyle Village lies at the mid point between St Arnaud and Arthurs Pass on the Te Araroa Trail. At usual TA pace you have 6-7 days travel either way to get to trail head villages.

Calling the settlement at the end of the Boyle River a 'village' is a misnomer as the majority of homes there are un occupied. There are NO shops, stores or petrol stations. The closest actual resupply point from here is either Hanmer (50 km's south-east on SH 7), or Murchison (nearly 100 km's north west). 

What you do have is the the Boyle Outdoor Education Centre or BOEC.  

Boyle Outdoor Education Centre web page

 The BOEC offer a number of services to trampers including accommodation, showers, clothes washing, DOC hut tickets and a 'bounce box' storage facility. They are located directly opposite the carpark at the end of the St James Walkway. Send a box of food supplies to yourself and you can collect them on the way through. Storage costs $10 per box, the cost is payable on collection (cash only).

Entrance to the Boyle Outdoor Centre

You can contact them at ph: 64 03 315 7082 or at Boyle Outdoor Education Centre, Private Bag 55002, Orchard Road, Christchurch, 8154. I would ring or email them before you fire a box off.

Boyle Outdoor Education Centre (BOEC)

Their collection times are from 8am-11 and 1.30-6pm, there may be staff available at other times but it is not guaranteed. 

One of the volunteer warden huts at BOEC

I note that there are NO outgoing postal services from the BOEC, so this is for resupply only, not a traditional bounce box.

My car parked behind the centre
If you want a zero day off the trail I recommend Hanmer as it has a number of cafes, bars,  restaurants, great accommodation and a small supermarket. There are also the famous hot pools- the reason the town is there. The road is quite busy so hitching possibilities are better than normal.