I Got the Bug Again
Over the winter I thought I might give up going wild-camping, but my interests seem to be driven by the changes of season. As soon as the temperature in Yorkshire climbed from brass-monkey to merely nithering, it kicked in. I have a seasonal job over the summer, so when I start walking or cycling down the leafy lane to work in April I start looking into the fields, thinking, “That would make a nice place for a tent…” It took until Mid-may to get off for an overnighter, and until mid-June to write about it!
Where I camped isn’t particularly spectacular, and is only about 5 miles away from home, but it is a pretty spot and, once the recreational walkers, joggers and cyclists stop going by along the cycle-path (about 10 pm. on this occasion!) quite secluded. There’s a river and a small tributary stream to collect water from, and trees with enough fallen twigs to fire up a wood stove, and it’s nice and sheltered.
I don’t publish the location of my wild-camping (or stealth-camping) spots beyond indicating the general area, because I don’t want to encourage others to come to the same place (both for my benefit and that of the landowner).
I camped here just once before about 2 years ago, in the autumn with my son-in-law, when the area was chest-high with Indian balsam, which squashed down flat to make a natural mattress under the tents (it’s considered an invasive weed). I hadn’t been wild-camping that year and just wanted to fit one trip in before the weather turned, and Lee wanted to come with me. We’d been camping together once before, cycling about 15 miles to a little spot I know near Thruscross.
At this time of year, mid-May, the balsam was hardly noticable, and instead the area was mostly covered in nettles and brambles, the sharp thorns of the latter being a real nuisance. My tent has a very thin ground sheet built in, and I don’t use a “footprint” (a tarp under the tent). I have an inflatable mattress, which, although on top of my foam mat, sticks out over the ends of it, so I had to be quite careful not to put weight on the ends, where it could push the mattress down onto bramble thorns and burst it. Ray Mears says you should clear the ground down to bare earth before pitching to avoid such things, but he also says, “leave no trace”, and I don’t consider 20-square-foot of grubbed-up vegetation “no trace”. I’m pretty sure it would be difficult without a machete or something, too – not part of my light-weight kit!
My inflatable mattress weighs over one-and-a-half times as much as a standard foam bed-roll – 325 g. versus 210 – but gives so much more comfort and warmth on cold, lumpy ground that it’s worth it. I just wish it was shorter and wider. It’s very quick and easy to inflate, too, just blowing into it for about a minute.
Under this, my “tent carpet”, is one of those insulated mats made of two thin sheets of plastic with a thin layer of foam in between, edged with braiding. I fold this up and put it down the back of my rucksack, which doesn’t have any padding built in (another weight-saving device), and I also use it to sit on when out and about.
It had been a hot day, and the evening sun was warm. I tried my stove out with sticks for the first time, which was disappointing, but I managed to boil water for my dinner (quick-cook noodles with Thai Seven Spice from the kitchen – I didn’t use the supplied sachet on account of the ingredient, “chicken powder”, which I’d probably avoid even if I wasn’t a vegetarian!).
I switched to my homemade stove and meths for the remaining burns – one for coffee and another to fill my water bottle with hot water, which I wrapped in bubble-wrap bags and tucked into my sleeping bag.
This is a useful tip, by the way. If you put boiled water in an aluminium water bottle, it acts as a hot-water-bottle (better to give it plenty of insulation so that it’s still hot in the wee small hours), but it’s also sterile ready for a drink if you’re thirsty in the night or in the morning. If you can’t stand the idea of hot or warm water to drink in the night, just keep some in the kettle, which will soon go cold, but if it’s a really cold night you’ll be glad not to lose any more heat
Then, if you’re like me and gagging for a coffee or tea first thing, the water from your water bottle starts out at around body-temperature, so you can bring it up to drinking temperature much quicker than starting from cold, and you can stop at that temperature rather than boiling it and waiting for it to cool down again, since it’s been boiled already. It might cost a bit in weight for the aluminium water bottle, but it might save weight if it means you can carry a lighter sleeping bag or less clothing and still be warm at night.
I slept badly, taking an annoying length of time to get to sleep. I was concerned that it was a little chilly and would be getting very cold later, which kept me awake more than it needed to. It didn’t get terribly cold. After hours tossing and turning, I decided I was hungry and had some pecan nuts and Minstrels, which did the trick. I had my alarm set for about six, but put it off and slept in until the tent got too warm, I forget what time. As usual, I woke once or twice and tried to ignore the morning chorus – this time dominated by the monotonous, doleful song of wood pigeons.
The only person I met, a guy walking his dog, asked if I’d seen the fallow deer come down to the river, which they usually do at about 6 am. Damn, if only I’d got up early I might have seen them. My best wildlife sighting was a pair of greylag geese, also pretty noisy, on an island in the river with their goslings during the evening. As promised, I bought a new camera, so the photos are a bit better than last time:
…and just by the cycle track, the wild garlic was going crazy…
Since I’d used all my 50 ml. of meths and wasn’t about to try burning wood again, breakfast was basically skipped. I mixed coffee and coffee-whitener with my body-temperature water and got my caffeine fix, which was all I needed for the 20-minute ride home. I had forgotten to pack porridge oats anyway!
This was the view down the river in the morning:
And my pitch…
Stove Test and Plans
I know I seem to be obsessed with stoves, but in wild camping and backpacking, so much depends on your choice of cooking methods. It’s also because I’m obsessed. I’m not alone – quite a few stove makers say it gets addictive!
After gazing over hedges looking at potential camping sites and thinking how wonderful it is when things finally start to turn green and the birds are singing, the next development in my spring camping bug is usually to start building a new stove, and this year was no different. It’s mainly for burning found wood, but with an eye to having alcohol as a backup. I’ve not used alcohol (er, as a fuel) much, so while at home, I got out my old Trangia burner, but, when I weighed it, I made my own alcohol burner out of Red Bull cans and cotton wool (10 g. instead of 80). I gave it a trial run (with each burner) in the back garden, burning meths, which worked rather well.
The outer part of the new stove is made from a piece of galvanized steel garden mesh from Homebase, which rolls up into a cylinder in use and unrolls to store flat. It has a section cut out in the front for adding sticks or getting to the alcohol burner. This mesh is just wrapped with kitchen foil at a convenient position when setting it up, with gaps for airflow top and bottom. On top of the mesh sits a disc made from the lid of a suitable steel container. I cut a hole in the centre just big enough for my beer-can kettle to slide through, but not the string wrapped around the top, so the kettle just hangs in the hole by the stringing, with the heat from the burner or wood all around the sides. The disc protects the string from the heat so it’s easier to take out when it’s boiling. Or that was the idea…
The disc, the flattened mesh and foil all just slip into a large envelope to store down the back of my pack inside the folds of the foam mat. The stove (mesh, disc and foil) weighs about 55 grammes. With the kettle weighing in at 20 g. and my alcohol burner at 10, that’s a complete cooking set weighing only 127 g. (including a protective plastic pot, at 42 g. to stop the kettle being crushed in my pack). That is extremely light compared with most setups.
Unfortunately, I didn’t bother doing a test at home for how it performed on wood. I left that for this quick overnighter down by the river. It wasn’t too bad, and a few tweaks might improve it, but I’m thinking of abandoning it already. Burning wood, it wasn’t too great. The 10-minute boil time went up to about an hour, mostly cooking on dry hogweed stalks because anything larger wasn’t taking too well.
The main problem is probably that it doesn’t have a grate, I just put sticks on another layer of foil. This is, after all, how a normal campfire is built (without a grate, I mean, not on foil), but it doesn’t scale down well.
Worse still, the fire coated the kettle in tar, which then didn’t slide out of the hole in the stove top! Okay, simple fix: make the hole a bit bigger. However, this then means that the stringing is in danger of sliding down the hole. Okay, simple fix: make the string thicker. The trouble then is that the string will have flames lapping at it as it plugs the larger hole, which is likely to char it.
It could be fixed with the right kind of string, perhaps, but I decided it was time to dump the beer-can kettle. I thought it was a good idea because you can, in theory, get heat to the sides as well as the bottom (and, of course, it’s extremely light), but its height causes a few problems, and, being crushable, its lightness is offset by having to store it in something un-crushable!
If I switch to a pot or pan for boiling water (like wot normal folks use), much better options come into play, like a wood-gas stove, which is more efficient and cleaner-burning. Then, tar isn’t such an issue, and less smoke attracts less attention. A pan also gives options to simmer or fry something instead of just boiling water to put on dried food. Even though dried is a lot better for weight-saving, some types need simmering. The pan’s sides can be given a pot-cosy to stop the heat radiating out too much. This will all be heavier, but it’s probably worth it.
A common type of DIY backpacker’s wood-gas stove is made of a couple of tin cans that fit one inside the other, with holes drilled or poked in at the right places. This produces wood gas (a mixture of combustible gases that the wood gives off as it heats up), which is sucked downwards, through holes into the gap between the tins, and up again to emerge near the top as jets of flame, now pre-heated and mixed with fresh air. There are loads of versions and build videos on youtube.
In up-coming posts there’ll be something about my favourite free (or cheap) navigation apps for the great outdoors, my camping gear review video, and more tips on lightening the load without lightening your wallet…as well as a glowing report on my next, absolutely perfect, backpacking stove, of course.