Friday, October 5, 2018

Ditching the Stove: Five Reasons to Leave it Behind

Before starting the Appalachian Trail in 2013, I built myself a little backpacking stove. It was made out of a couple Heineken cans, and I took the time to do it right. That little stove lasted all the way up the AT, and I was justifiably proud of it. I cooked dinner every night - generally Knorr Pasta Sides, instant mashed potatoes, or something of that ilk.

However, when I got to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I changed strategies a bit. I knew I'd have a few opportunities to eat dinner at a series of huts, operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club. However, I didn't know how often I'd get to eat there, and consequently, how many dinners I'd have to cook for myself.

Not pictured: hot food. Gummy bears, even melted ones, are better anyway.

My solution, of course, was to not bring any dinners at all, and if I wasn't at a hut around dinnertime, I'd just eat for dinner the same kind of food that I ate for breakfast and lunch. This decision turned out to be more consequential than I realized. The first night out, an intense thunderstorm hit right as I was setting up camp. I threw everything in my tent, crawled inside, and began chowing down. I didn't need to worry about using any of my limited water to cook, and didn't have to worry about cooking inside my tent (a big no-no). I could simply burrito myself in my sleeping bag and begin eating. And I didn't have to get up after dinner to clean my cookpot.

Since that evening, I've probably spent about 350 nights in the backcountry. I think I've used a stove on maybe five of those nights. The rest of the time, I've left the stove at home. Here are my reasons:

1) It's one less thing to put in my pack. A stove, fuel, pot, and windscreen are space intensive, generally taking up at least a liter of space, even if they're all neatly nested. More to the point, the more objects I have in my backpack, the more annoying it is to pack and unpack everything, and the easier it is to lose things.

2) It doesn't make that annoying metallic rattling all day long. This may seem trivial, but while hiking, I've never been able to completely stifle the annoying jangling coming from my pack.

3) It simplifies prep. In a lot of small towns, especially those that aren't on a popular trail, stove fuel may not be available. For weekend trips, I never have to make a last-minute run to the outfitter to buy a fuel canister. And if my timeline changes, I'm not stuck with too many or too few dinners. All my food in my food bag is available to eat at any time. I like that flexibility.

4) It reduces fire hazard. Many land management agencies in the arid West routinely ban the lightweight, alcohol-powered stoves that lightweight backpackers prefer, as they're too dangerous to operate when one spark can set ten acres on fire. Even heavier canister-type stoves can easily set a dry patch of grass on fire if they're knocked over. In dry environments, the safest stove is no stove at all.

5) It saves time. It takes a few minutes to bring even a small amount of water to a boil, and once dinner's done, a few more minutes to clean the cookpot. Those are additional minutes I could have spent actually eating more food. I'm a slow enough eater as it is; I don't need to make dinner take longer than it has to.

None of this is to say that everyone ought to go stoveless. Some people just can't bear to give up a hot meal at night. Others enjoy the morning coffee ritual. I personally find that I crave town food, whether or not I have a stove or not. And the preceeding five reasons give me pretty good grounds to leave it behind. Try it; you just might like it!

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