How I Cook My Food On The Appalachian Trail
Normally I have a low tolerance for “gear talk.” The last thing I want to do when I’m out in the woods is engage in the consciousness of consumerism. The absence of advertising language and images in the back country provides the beginnings of the serenity of nature. The birds sing or the rain patters relentlessly on the leaves or the creek splashes on the rocks all through the moonlit night. I go to the woods for inspiration, to saturate myself in the beauty of nature, and to inhabit my smelly, sweaty animal body. So no, I don’t want to hear about what brand fleece you bought from such and such website or the precise specifications of your space age rocket engine backpacker stove. In the words of Benton MacKaye, you should travel along the Appalachian Trail (AT) “to walk, to see, to see what you see.” Having said that, if I’m out on the AT long enough, I’m quite interested in (eating) what you’re cooking on that fancy stove. I’m okay though– got my own little stove going, my all-time best gear purchase ever.
While planning my 2011 thru hike, I discovered a durable, extremely lightweight stove made by antigravitygear. I believe, mostly by rumor, that they are an especially small company.
At the time (2009, 2010) I visited numerous outfitters in Kentucky, where I lived then. These sold various famous brand named stoves ascending in price from around a hundred dollars to the astronomical. Then I discovered numerous “do it yourself” (DIY) videos and found that people quite commonly make their own stoves. Most of the DIY stove designs I saw were fueled by denatured alcohol, a fuel which is laughably cheap and commonly sold by hostels and outfitters along the AT. I made perhaps a dozen different stoves of varying quality. None of them worked precisely. I make no claims to be an engineer. Even my best stoves would leak fuel which would catch fire. I grew frustrated and went back to shopping for a stove. Then I discovered, via the magic of the internet, antigravitygear’s alcohol stove.
In recent years antigravitygear.com has taken on a professional and polished appearance. As I write this, they sell a virtually identical product to my antigravitygear stove called the “Tin Man Aluminum Can Alcohol Stove.” The only difference I can tell between the Tin Man stove and mine, is that the Tin Man is made from recycled cans of Yuengling beer and mine was made from Bud Light. My antigravitygear stove cost $9.00 (US) and has lasted six years and traveled over three thousand trail miles. Although antigravitygear now makes numerous other products for the hiker, I can’t vouch for them other than to say that my little stove has been the best dollar-to-performance gear purchase I ever made. It was an insanely cheap purchase and has been a reliable tool.
Alcohol stoves are primitive. Some more than others. In my stove, the bottom of the beer can has small holes that feed fuel into a walled chamber formed from the beer can top fit inside the bottom. Just below the rim of the beer can are pinholes which, given a moment or two, fire up as jets acting exactly as a stove top gas burner does. Once the side jets fire, I place my small titanium pot (which cost $70) on top of the flaming jets. Normally I boil water: for coffee or oatmeal in the morning, or for pasta or instant mashed potatoes, or any number of hiker supper staples. My ultimate trail recipe is whole wheat penne pasta, with fresh garlic, olive oil and chunks of summer sausage. I don’t pour the water off the pasta– the sausage fat and olive oil form a wonderful brine with the water. On a cold evening hiking in late winter or early spring, my sausage penne provides delicate luxury to rugged living. The word “Primitive” is derived from the Latin “PRIMITIVUS” or first of its kind. To be primitive is to be tuned to the primal, first causes, the roots of being– simplicity. What is primitive, I would argue, is ideal.
Hikers with elaborate, expensive stoves sometimes kid those of us with alcohol stoves. It is true that alcohol stoves sometimes have trouble firing in cold, windy conditions. When the weather is blustery and frigid, I don’t feel like cooking anyway. I eat a few spoonfuls of peanut butter with a granola bar, get into something dry and warm up in my bag. The fat of the peanut butter will burn slowly in my body all night and keep my bag warm. Meanwhile, I watch people stand out in the elements in wet clothes showing off their rocket ship jet engine stoves with expensive (and bulky; and sometimes hard to resupply) fuel canisters. Sure, they fire up right away and cook hot food as fast as a kitchen stove top. I sometimes get the sense, though, that such hikers feel obligated to cook with their fancy stoves in the bad weather as if to say, “See? This was totally worth two hundred dollars.” By the time they are warm and dry in their bag, I have been warm and dry for over an hour. To my mind, there’s no reason to cook hot food when the weather is so bad. Just get warm in the bag asap.
Many hikers carry no stove at all and subsist solely on cold food. This method worked for the legendary Emma “Grandma” Gatewood over fifty years ago and continues to work for ultra light hikers to the present day. A hunk of cheese in your gut digested slowly and producing steady body heat throughout the night will aid your survival in the back country more than flirting with hypothermia trying to cook an expensive outfitter meal of Beef Stroganoff. Hot food is not a necessity, and in light of this fact, any gear related to cooking hot food must be considered a luxury. Some long distance hikers will insist that any luxury is simply not worth carrying. I will argue that a hiker requires certain luxuries– it may be a good phone charger for your cell phone, a small notebook for one’s brain droppings, a skinny paperback, a small radio or MP3 player. Long distance hiking gets boring sometimes. Music helps. Hot food helps too. For this reason the ability to cook hot meals a few times a week provides a morale boost worth the pack weight.
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