Campers: Why pay for propane refills when you can cook with free wood?
Naturally, you might might say that a propane stove is way more convenient than starting up a campfire and all that entails -- collecting wood, getting it started, tending the fire, and all that -- just to boil a cup of water for coffee. And you'd be absolutely right! Campfires are fun when you're a weekend camper. But when you're a full-time camper, you really don't want to be dealing with all that for every meal. But check this out --
What if you still had another way to cook with free wood -- twigs even -- that you could get going instantly and be cooking immediately, so that your 4-minute coffee prep might take, say, 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Would that be appealing to you?
Note: This info applies whether you're camping in an RV, truck camper, camper van, bug out vehicle, VW bus, whatever! If you plan to do any wilderness camping, you can use my mobile off grid cooking ideas to dramatically reduce your costs. For more tips for getting off the grid fast for dirt cheap, Download My Book "Get Off The Grid Fast".
Video Transcript Below
Hey there, it’s Mobile Rik. Let’s talk a little about campfires! Chances are, if you’re like most people, you think about a campfire when you think about camping and how you’re going to cook your food… you imagine your campfire and all your accessories and stuff, maybe how you’re going to start your campfire, or maybe you have some of the usual trickery like lighter fluid and stuff, or maybe you’re advanced, you think about tinder and kindling and all the different phases of getting the fire going, and you’re someone who likes to sit there and stoke the fire… Any way you do it, it’s a little bit of work! And the question I want to raise to you is…
Is it actually necessary to have a campfire just to do something like cook your food?
You just want to boil a kettle of tea… make some coffee… just heat up some water to stick in your oatmeal or something… is it necessary to have a campfire to all that kind of stuff? The purpose of this video is to introduce you, if you’re not already acquainted, to a couple of other ways that were started, kind of invented by backpackers basically, and especially ultralight backpackers, to have ways to start campfires without carrying a lot of bulky equipment or having to do it the pure “roughing it” kind of way. Though some do… and literally carry nothing more than like a simple stainless steel mug or maybe even something lighter than that… There’s a couple of different ways I want to show you that will make things a lot easier for you if all you want to do is cook your food. Like campfires are nice, right? You sit around them and tell your ghost stories and all that. But if you’re, like, a solo camper, and you don’t necessarily need to have the whole party going on every single time you cook your food… you just want to cook! There are a couple of easier ways that don’t involve wandering around the woods looking for your logs and your tinder and kindling, and all that stuff just to spend 4 minutes boiling a pot of water. So one of these methods is called a Hobo Stove. It’s a really simple, little kind of thing… instead of a huge campfire, you’re going to make just a little tiny campfire right here and put your pot over it. I’m going to show you how I do this. And there’s another stage where I’m going to show you something else. All we need to do in this case is, instead of getting lots of big logs that are going to burn all night, and you eventually have to figure out how you’re going to put them all out, which you know, they recommend 5 gallons of water to put out your campfire so that you can be sure that it’s “dead out”. Anywhere you camp, they want your campfire dead out. I see so many people who are breaking the rules and just being assholes basically by leaving their campfire smoking after they leave. You don’t want to do that. You want to have something that’s very contained, and… if this [hobo stove] isn’t a great fire ring, then I don’t know what is! Your fire is contained right there. And all you need to do is instead of getting all these logs is just to grab yourself some twigs. You don’t need logs — you just get some twigs and you stick them in there along with some starter material, like tinder. You still need to have your starter phases. If you’re like a lot of campers, if you’re a car camper, you probably have a lot of these things already, just things like some wads of paper or something, right? So just get some wads of paper, or in this case I have some cardboard. And you know, if you’re going to camp in your car, why not just have some lighter fluid, and just cheat. You don’t have to be Survivorman every single time, to cook your food. Right? Unless that’s your thing. If that’s what you want to do, and you’re trying to prove to yourself that you can go out in nature and survive, then that’s something you do on occasion. I certainly like to practice that stuff too, survivalist stuff, but not every single time I cook. It’s not necessary. I camp in a vehicle, so I can carry stuff. I also cooking on a propane stove in my camper, when I’m stuck inside, when it’s too cold to be outside. I’m going to stick some cardboard down into here, even though it’s not necessary… I’m going to stick some lighter fluid in there. [Moving camera] Light it up, and there we go. And the thing is, you can start cooking right now. You see it took, like, 2 seconds… whereas that campfire might have taken some time to really get the fire going so can really get cooking. So we just put these little … just take some skewers basically and lay them across the top, and there you go. You got a campfire… instant fire, it’s all contained, nothing complicated to put out. Now… I don’t know if you can see that… smoke? Well, obviously it’s a campfire, right? There’s going to be smoke. But at least it’s all contained in here, and that’s cool. The smoke by the way is a sign that it’s not burning hot enough. By the time that it’s burning hot enough then you shouldn’t see any smoke. If you have a really efficient fire, then you shouldn’t see any smoke. There are however many reasons why this isn’t a particularly efficient fire. In fact, this isn’t a proper hobo stove. A proper hobo stove actually has holes in the bottom to feed air in a chimney fashion up and through. But there’s a reason why I’m using this, and it’s a completely different purpose that I’m not going to cover in this video. But… so you do the same thing. Basically what you do is…. I forgot my bits, but [retrieving bits]… Grab a few bits like this… [showing “step bits”] It’s a kit that you can get at Harbor Freight. There are more expensive versions, but this is a set of 3 that you can get, different sizes, and you just take these and get a power drill, and drill yourself some holes in there, around the top and also around the bottom, and you’ll have yourself a Hobo Stove. Another way you could do it is to get yourself one of those utensil holders for a dishwasher made of stainless steel, you can get it at Walmart, the price was less than $5, crazy good deal, and it will basically function as a Hobo Stove. But it has way more holes than this, so it’s not going to be as efficient. It’s not going to create a single draft up from bottom to top. It’s going to be leaking heat all over the place. But you’re still going to have a very contained fire that is going to heat up your dinner. Oh, I think it just went out… I haven’t been feeding it. We’ll just keep feeding it like this… and there it goes. So again, it’s really smoky. And you might be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, it’s a fire. Of course it smokes.” Well, the fast of the matter is, it doesn’t have to smoke.
What if I told you, you can have a perfectly good campfire this size that’s not smoking. It’s completely smoke free. (*Almost* completely smoke free) and burns almost exactly like propane, because it’s essentially just gas… I’m going to show you that right now.
Here’s a different type of stove. Looks pretty much the same, right? I’ve got ring of holes around the bottom, no holes at the top. [Tending to Hobo Stove] It’s kinda running out of fuel. This is actually becoming so annoying that I’m going to pull it out of the way. (I should not have picked it up with my hands, but I’m kind of distracted making a video.) Anyway, what we have here is a stove called a Gasifier. And what this does is that it separates the processes of combustion. There are two things that go on when something burns. [Holding a stick and lighter] You think of this as like… You set it on fire and then the wood burns? Technically the wood doesn’t burn. Or the burning process is actually two different things. One is called pyrolysis, and the other one is combustion. Pyrolysis means that when you heat it up, the wood will begin to release gases. Basically the carbonaceous chemicals that are inside the wood will begin to release gas. And gas, when it mixes with oxygen at a high enough temperature… then it will combust. So there’s two different things going on whenever you burn anything. [Holding gasifier stove] This separates that process. So what you have is an internal burn chamber right here where you put your wood, and then as it heats up, it will release the gases up here. And then what these holes are for… it’s actually a double chambered thing… There’s two chambers that allow it to go up inside there [in the inner wall], it travels up, as well as giving just a little air for the combustion inside the combustion chamber, but then the secondary air travels up these channels and then come out inside here, see that? There are holes on the inside, so the air comes in from the outside, comes up in the inside, and this is secondary air, that once the hot gases rise and then they combust only at the top, and only combusting the gases. So this is really… this is heating up the wood, it releases gases, and in this respect it becomes like a propane stove. It’s "wood gas” instead of propane, right? So we can do the same thing. We fill it up with wood the same way, and we can use all sorts of other things. One of the things I usually use is pellets that work really well. Just for the sake of demonstration I’ll just fill this partway up. And then I’ll throw just a little bit of lighter fluid on there. [Holding lighter] I normally use a longer one, but all of mine are missing right now, that’s ok. And then… One of the other things to mention about this is… You notice I lighted it from the top rather than doing something where like going over to the bottom and lighting it from the bottom. This is a… you could almost say it’s a new type of stove, just in the history of stoves. This is one of the newer designs, which are designed to burn off the top rather than burn off the bottom. And like I said, it’s because it heats the wood up and releases the gases so that only the top is burning. Rocket Stoves are also a type of stove that burns only from the top. And this one is called a Top Lit Updraft type of stove. Because it’s depending on the draft going up. So we have a little fire going on, and I think even if we zoom in I don’t think you’d see any smoke, whatsoever. Just looking at that… it’s always fun to look at the fire… So now I’m going to wait and see if it combusts on its own. Well if let this go on, and I’m not going to do it in this video… I’ll have other videos in my member section. (In fact lemme hit that with some lighter fluid.) So right now, we don’t have any secondary combustion going on. Right now we kind of are “burning the wood”, it’s kind of all happening all at once down in the combustion chamber. If we had a more uniform source like pellets, we would really see the gasifying effect. That’s pretty much how I cook all the time, and you immediately see that all of these things on the top [the ring of holes] on the inside, they’ll start shooting out from inside there. Total evidence that you’re dealing with a secondary burn. And you can kind of see it right now. I don’t know if the camera will pick up. Well, not quite yet. But you’ll see a definite flame pattern of air coming in through the sides. Ok, so how do we do this [holding a ring-shaped piece of metal can]… Well one way to do it, it’s not how I usually do it, but I’m doing it just for demonstration because it’s similar enough to other products, for these types of stoves, is that here’s a pot stand, which is basically like a can cut to size so I can fit in a ring around here. (Normally I would put this on before I … before I light it. Just sit it on top like that, and now we got a stove that has no smoke at all, and is totally contained in this little spot. So there we go. And like I said, I got a couple of other ways that I show in my member videos, which I’ll post a link to --OffTheGridFast.com/cooking — maybe even in the video if I can figure out how to do it — that will include how I make this system. It’s really easy, actually. What it is… it’s a paint can… and you can look this up on Google, there are plenty of people explaining how to do it, lots of YouTube videos etc…
Ok, I’m seeing a little smoke, why am I seeing smoke? Smoke indicates that it’s cooling down, so something about the fire is cooling down, and it’s preventing full combusion. So I think it might be burning off stuff that’s inside… oh, I think it’s just burning off stuff on the pot, so I’m not real concerned about that. There’s very little smoke, but when you see it, it means something is inefficient about it. And honestly whenever you use twigs — When I use pellets, it’s extremely efficient — just using the twigs, everything is uneven, so there’s lots of air in the combustion chamber, things are all different sizes, there might be different degrees of moisture… moisture is usually a good reason for creating a lot of smoke. But anyway this is a paint can, a quart-sized paint can, and a Progresso can. So you can look up Progresso and Paint Can stove in YouTube, and you’ll find a lot of people explaining how to do it. Basically, it’s just a paint can [I meant soup can] and besides putting holes in the bottom of this or by some other means, I have my own special way of doing this… and then as before, you just make your holes at the top, and then you just shove it up in there — there’s just something about the way this [the soup can] fits in the paint can, it wil just jam itself in there really really tight. In fact I tried to take it apart just a little bit ago for demonstration, and I couldn’t do it. It’s locked in there so tight. And I’ve been using this for like 4 years now (Is that right? at least 3 years.) So it works really really well. So besides the member videos, if you’re interested in learning more — OffTheGridFast.com/cooking — or if you’re a total do-it-yourselfer, you can go onto YouTube and figure out how to make the Progresso And Paint Can Stove, you can go ahead and do that on your own. One thing I also will mention… Is that there are also companies who are making commercial versions, and one of the cool things is… You see how it’s all rusted out, it’s sort of dirty and stuff… I mean I would love to have, like, a stainless steel version of this. Though I’m personally such a Do-It-Yourselfer that this is fine for me. But if I was, like, giving someone a gift, then I don’t think I’d really want to give them this, unless they were just like me. But a company called SoloStove, they make one that’s basically the same design. This is sort of a… these designs are a "knock off" of a concept of a stove, the original one was called the BushBuddy. And this is sort of an adaptation of the BushBuddy idea, SoloStove did their own adaptation of that, and… One of the cool things is that they made it out of one solid piece of stainless steel, so it’s really nice, and it’s not going to get all grimy, dirty, rusty, like this one is… I’m going to have to replace this one really soon, even though it’s served me really really well.
So yeah, I totally recommend, if you want to get someone a gift, check out SoloStove, and see about their really nice stoves that allow you to do exactly what we did right here, as well as… they have a lot of other different pots and stuff that work together really well with this same system. They’re all made to go together, fit into a common pouch, so that you can have a little self-contained system… Which THIS (my DIY system) kind of is, and I’ll explain how I do that in my own member videos. But they have their own system, which especially makes it good as a gift, or… you know, for yourself too — I personally would love to have one as a gift, and I would probably use it instead of this, though I would use this as sort of my experimentation-with-combustion and stuff like that, working on just some cool schemes. So … some different options for you if you want to learn more about making your own stoves, or buying some stoves, or getting gifts for people … stuff like that. So I hope you’ve found this helpful and informative, and I hope I’ve given you some more options other than this campfire, which has gone out because I haven’t been tending to it, as happens… unlike these little stoves. All right?
Want fresh ideas for simpler more economical ways to cook when you're living off the grid?
Look into the cheap and powerful homemade backpacking stoves used by inventive campers like this guy. They're made to be easy to assemble from common items in your recycling bin for just a few bucks at most, and they run off alcohol or free wooden twigs you find lying around. All in all, much quicker and more efficient than setting up a whole campfire just to boil some water!
But what if you live in a camper like me?
As a matter of fact, my truck camper's cooking system is designed around backpacking principles exactly like the ones you see in the video!
When building a small camper, you want to keep things small and light. There's so little space inside that you'll do yourself a huge favor if you can find ways to eliminate unnecessarily bulky items. And when you apply backpacking principles to your cooking, you can really boost the overall efficiency of your operation.
Small lightweight cook pots will heat up much faster than your standard household pots, saving you lots of fuel. I personally use an anodized aluminum backpacking cook set that fits inside a 1 lb. coffee can sized ditty bag (about the same size as in the video). While I often use "bowls" (that are actually just those little plastic "Twist n' Loc" food storage containers), I'll just as often eat straight out of the pots.
While I do have a small homemade "range" made out of a portable propane burner for when I need to cook inside, I'll more often cook outside on my mobile workbench using a wood gasifying version of the Hobo Stove from the video. And likewise, it's made to compactly nest together into a 1 lb. coffee can sized ditty bag for storage.
You might not think you have any use for a "wind screen" when you're cooking inside your camper, but you'd be wrong! A metal "wind screen" serves double-duty as a heat-reflector, containing the heat close to the pot so as to dramatically improve your fuel efficiency, allowing you to get considerably more usage out of every ounce of fuel, whether it be propane, butane, alcohol, white gas, or wood.
Use a lid! Even a simple lid made from a tin can or cut of aluminum foil will improve your cooking time and conserve more fuel.
Little alcohol burning stoves like the DIY Pop Can Stove in the video are really handy to have around as clean-burning backups that can be used indoors (with proper ventilation of course). Backpackers love them because they pack light and tiny along with a few ounces of fuel (denatured alcohol from the paint section), so you can easily use them for day-hikes.
There are even great lessons in backpackers' food choices. When prepping for long trips, ultralight hikers focus on foods that are lightweight, easy to prepare, and don't require any special storage arrangements like refrigeration to stay edible. So they'll typically pack 1) dry foods that can be eaten as is, like trail mix and crackers, 2) dry foods that can be cooked or reconstituted with water, like noodles or freeze dried foods, 3) heat-and-serve meals like MRE's -- which are basically the same as canned meals but in a pouch rather than difficult-to-pack tin cans. The lesson is that by focusing on these types of foods, along with vegetables and other foods that don't require refrigeration, you can dramatically reduce your energy requirements. (ex. Vegans have it easiest, because animal products almost always require full refrigeration, whereas uncooked plant-based foods generally do not.)
The pot cozy in the video isn't just for keeping your coffee warm. You can also use a good cozy instead of "simmering", saving a lot of fuel. (Not shown: You can use a thermal food jar stuffed into a sleeping bag when you need to simmer for a really long time. I do this all the time to cook rice. It's called "thermal cooking." Instead of boiling and then simmering for a half-hour, I just spend four minutes boiling, then stuff it all into the center of the roll and pull it out a few hours later completely done and still steaming.
The Takeaway Lesson (Big Hint!):
If you're a vehicle camper and want to reduce your boondocking expenses, look into what backpackers do. Not necessarily the ones who spend thousands on equipment (though you can get ideas from them too), but specifically research "DIY backpacking gear". What I've learned has been invaluable.
P.S. That chair he's sitting on, the one he calls the "Amazing Wilderness Camp Chair", is also part of it! It's a clever piece of fabric that takes up zero space in his pack, but is designed so that he can use it to quickly construct a tripod hammock chair out of four branches wherever he goes. Gotta love it!
(Yep! It's Yet Another Article + Video About The Iconic 'Pop-Can Stove'!)
Since I first learned about backpackers making lightweight cooking stoves out of aluminum cans, I was hooked. And probably like other "stovies," the one that really caught my attention was the "Pepsi Can Stove."
No doubt the appeal is that it's not only ridiculously cool to be able to fit together a couple of recycled cans that way, but because the end result is so compact, lightweight, and burns exactly like the burner on your home stovetop!
In fact, this video could have been a lot shorter had I chosen the popular and dependable "crimping" method to fit the two halves together.
But I was interested to try a few methods I'd seen in videos that allowed you to very elegantly fit the two sides together perfectly, one inside the other, without any glue/epoxy and avoiding the slightly tedious task of crimping one of the halves neatly all the way around the sides so that it could fit into the other half. In the end, I eventually succeeded, but it took some experimenting with different fitting methods to make it work.
Conceptually, it's pretty easy to make and use a "Pop Can Stove."
Cut the bottoms off of two aluminum cans (about 3/4")
Drill a small hole in the center of the "top" for refilling with alcohol
Fit them together tightly
Make tiny holes around the upper ledge
Lighting It Up:
Fill with alcohol and plug the fill-hole firmly (ex. a screw or "penny")
Prime the can by dripping extra fuel onto the top and bottom (using a priming pan or wick) and light the priming fuel
Once the can is hot enough to boil the alcohol inside, the side burners will light themselves, and it will behave like a familiar stove burner.
From a birds-eye perspective, it's not too complex. But each of those steps has quite a few variations you could experiment with.
It's tough not to be totally enchanted by elegant simplicity of DIY Alcohol Backpacking Stoves!
For quite some time, backpackers and teenage troopers have been using these little devices -- made from assorted recycled cans configured in clever ways (like the iconic Pepsi Can Stove) -- as lightweight and clean-burning cooking gear, that despite their size, can cook up a meal as well as any full-size kitchen range. But outside of "ultralight" backpacking circles, it seems a lot of campers don't know about these amazing little stoves that you can easily make yourself.
While I love taking them on backpacking excursions, by far the bulk of my own interest in compact cooking isn't for out on the trail, but to completely replace the kitchen in my "tiny house", i.e. my homemade truck camper.
Unlike a full-size RV, I'm limited to the space in the bed of my truck -- about 5'x6' or 30 sq.ft.! Why take up that space with a "range" or even a relatively bulky "Coleman stove" type setup? By using my backpacking cook kit, I can condense my entire kitchen to fit in a large camp mug!
This video explores a variation on one of the simplest alcohol stove designs. Essentially, it's nothing more than a "tin can" filled with alcohol, with an absorbent wicking material to hold it in place and regulate the burn, and a screen to hold it all in place. (The Starlyte (by Zelph Stoves) is a really nice implementation of this idea.)
This project is a quick-and-dirty implementation of the same concept.
The main variations I used in this project are:
a Sucrets tin (compare to an Altoids tin)
mineral wool (aka "rock wool") as the wicking material (instead of fiberglass or Perlite)
a simple pot stand made from a coat hanger, cut and bent into shape
While not as ridiculously simple and elegant as the SuperCat stove design (which doesn't even require a separate pot stand), the Sucrets Stove is about as simple as it gets. It also has the benefits of stowing its own pot stand and being easily "turned off" by shutting the lid.
You could just as easily use an Altoids tin (or any other similar candy tin), but depending on the size of your cook pot, the dimensions may change the way the integral pot stand needs to be bent in order to both support the pot and fit neatly into the tin for packing.
Watch the video to hear my commentary and see how it all fits together!
There's obviously something primal about wondering -- if my life (or at least my dinner) depended on it -- if I could summon the spirit of McGyver and jimmy up a primitive fire out of twigs and leaves (and some random found object) like we've all seen on TV.
It's like a basic human curiosity.
If I had to... Could I do it? Could I start a fire from scratch?
Interestingly, I posted the Pump Fire Drill graphic (below) to Tumblr on a new account with only a handful of followers. Within 20 hours, it was reblogged more than 50 times and was "liked" over 200 times. Obviously, something about conjuring fire from our bare hands hits us deep. Like an instinct-level insecurity about our fitness as a human being. It's probably why Survivor has survived on TV for so long!
"Fire Pump Drill" - (From: 7 Ways To Light A Fire Without A Match, Field & Stream)
So there's a start -- Six primitive ways to start a fire by either drilling with a stick or hitting the sharp edge of a piece of flint against the sharp edge of a piece of high-carbon steel, like a knife. Plus some extra tips about ensuring that you've got some highly "flammable" material to catch a spark.
(It's weird that I should put quotes around "flammable" -- Did you know that the correct word is INFLAMMABLE? But when you say that, too many people think you mean it won't burn. It actually means that it's "capable of becoming inflamed".)
If you're most interested in primitive methods of making fire from nothing but a stick and soft wood, there's at least one other really cool and efficient method I found a YouTube video for. It's really similar to the pump drill method, but slightly less complicated and works like a combination of a yo-yo and a top. Despite being totally primitive, nobody has seen it before -- it seems to be brand new!
But lest you think matchless fire-making is limited to "primitive" ways, let's mention that there are lots of other really cool ways to light fires without matches.
You're probably familiar with one of them from childhood: Using a magnifying glass!
Works great, but unless you're out in the wilderness to study insects, you probably aren't carrying a magnifying glass on you. Or are you?
You could in fact easily carry a small flat Fresnel Lens to use as a magnifying glass. But chances are, you're already carrying around something that can readily substitute: An ordinary water bottle!
If the sun is intense enough and you can get the bottle at just the right angle, you may able to focus it enough to light some tinder, especially if you've got some ready-tinder, like some char-cloth or vaseline-soaked cotton swabs.
Have you thought of lighting a fire with a battery?
Nowadays, there's a good chance that in an emergency situation, you actually have a battery or two lying around or stuffed into the bottom of your backpack. If you have a 9V, you're in luck, but even with an ordinary AA or AAA, you can McGyver a small match-free fire. All you need in addition is some thin conductive material, like foil from a gum wrapper, steel wool, or your foil emergency blanket, and some kindling, and you're set. The idea is to send some current through the conductive material, but with just enough resistance to make it heat up the way a light bulb does and apply it to some kindling.