My good friend Patrick Smith of Kifaru and Mountainsmith fame is one of my favorite sources of wilderness knowledge. Having shared a few campfires with him, he has provided me some fantastic insight into the world of long-term and long-range backcountry travel. One topic that comes up frequently is the concept of a stove. Like all stoves, fuel is a serious consideration but with this consideration comes another, resupply. White gas and canister stoves burn efficiency and boil water quickly but where do you find extra fuel when you are miles from home among the mountains and trees? Patrick’s company is known for titanium wood-burning stoves but his heated shelter solutions are top of the line but not for everyone. Still, the idea of using a small stove fueled by wood is compelling and worth examining. I’ve been a fan of the compact Bush Buddy stove for some time now and believe the same logic and rationale for a larger wood-burning stove can be applied to this smaller backpacking model. Here are a handful of tips to help you on your next trip into the backcountry.
Twigs and shavings are the easiest source of fuel for your backpacking wood stove. Remember the expression, “If it doesn’t crack, throw it back.” When you are collecting fuel, think about the differentiation between hardwood and softwood. It is ok to use a small amount of softwoods such as cedar or hemlock twigs but remember they leave soot behind more so than hardwoods. Ideally, you want to find maple, oak, beech, or other hardwood twigs as your main source of fuel. Should you not have an abundance of twigs, don’t be afraid to use your blade to get at the wood inside larger branches. For this blog, I used my Fiddleback Forge Hiking Buddy with a 3/32” thick blade to shave down branches I broke to a manageable length. Those shavings can be made very quickly with a keen edge and they burn nicely. Don’t go too big too quickly with your fuel and let that stove build heat, begin gassifying (how the Bush Buddy works), and then add larger fuel sources. In time, you should be able to gather enough fuel for a boil burn in a matter of minutes.
Pack a Small Folding Saw
As much as I love big chopping blades like machetes and axes, I know one of the most practical tools is the simple saw. I always have my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket and that little saw is perfect for turning branches into easily split rounds. Inside the vestibule of a tent or in the dense woods, it may be difficult to swing an ax but it is generally easier to use a saw with far less of the risk of accidentally cutting someone or yourself. Also, a folding saw is usually much lighter to pack than a heavier ax and shorter than a saw. For small branches, small teeth cut cleaner than large teeth. Think about cutting “D”-cell battery sized pieces of hardwood you can split into quarters. When your fire gets going, place these quarters upright in the stove. You’ll find these dense pieces of wood burn hot and long.
With enough heat, even wet wood can burn. In a large campfire, you can toss just about anything into the coals and watch it steam, char, then eventually ignite. With a small wood-burning stove, you need to maximize the small burn chamber and reduce the amount of moisture in the wood you select for optimal performance. When you are using small rounds of wood split into quarters, it makes sense to remove the bark as it holds the moisture more so than the dense wood found inside. Don’t worry about doing this with twigs; just focus on using the driest twigs you can find. On a somewhat related note, you may find dead standing wood with easily stripped dry bark. Also, birch bark in small quantities can be used to get your fire going but don’t rely on it as your sole fuel source. The oils in birch will soot your pot just like the resin found in softwood previously mentioned.
Mind the Wind
If the wind is blowing strongly, the flame from your wood backpacking stove will lose its efficiency. For this reason, you may want to shelter your stove from the wind in a small nook or by creating a rock or log wall. Wood burning stoves burn hot but they don’t burn as hot as white gas or isobutane canister stoves. You need to be mindful of the wind or the amount of time you spend boiling water will be excessive. You can spend time nursing your flame and shielding it with your body as another option.
Think about Nesting
Pots and pans take up space and stoves take up more. I found the Toaks 1100 bailed pot is the perfect pot to pair with the wood-burning stove. It holds just enough water for a freeze-dried meal and a cup of coffee in a single burn. As a bonus, the Bush Buddy fits perfectly inside the pot for safe storage and packing into the backwoods. Nesting is the way to pack more into the woods in all available spaces. The top of the Bush Buddy stand fits into the burn chamber, pre-made tinder tabs can be packed inside as well. The stove fits into the pot and all together the setup is packed into a small stuff sack. Nesting is a concept that extends past your cook kit. When you start really analyzing your gear and how you carry it, you’ll find other ways to nest your personal loadout. You’ll start looking for places to tuck a spare emergency blanket, extra cash (how many readers of this blog have a $20 bill in their phone case?), a spare ferro rod, or other items that take up empty space than just air.
As I get older and wiser, my equipment reflects weight considerations as well as long-term sustainability. I enjoy well-made knives like the diminutive hiking buddy I used in this article and I like gear I know I will have with me for the literal and figurative long haul. A wood-burning backpacking stove makes sense and it allows me to practice making fires every time I want a cup of coffee or a packet of freeze-dried food. I get to use my knives, hone my firecraft, sit back and get transfixed by the small fire I feed until the water boils.
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Kevin Estela is a Survival Instructor at Estela Wilderness Education. Kevin is a frequent contributing writer for publications such as RECOIL, Athlon Outdoors, and Beckett Media. He is a Sayoc Kali Associate Instructor Level 5, as well as a BJJ Purple Belt.