Improvised backpacking stove

Squarely in the "Other interesting topics" category for this site, I can tie all this summer fun back to hacking a little bit. This is about improvising a little bit to solve a problem. It's also about trade-offs, fire, and building stuff in a cheap and hackish nature. So there. With that out of the way, this post will have almost nothing to do with technology.

I love camping, and usually when I go camping with family and friends, it's the all-out party at the lake kind of camping, just short of sleeping in an RV. I can tether my LG Chocolate to my MacBook, plug in my La Fonera running Jasager to mess with WiFi-toting campers, keep everything charged with the inverter and still start fires for the sake of fire -- because God knows you don't need a bonfire to cook when you have a nice propane stove hooked up to a 20-pound gas-grill propane tank! Sights like this one (from Memorial Day Weekend) aren't uncommon:

More recently, though, I've tried to get myself back into a more stripped-down backpacking mode. It's no secret that I like riding my bicycle for basic transportation. It also happens that there are decent campgrounds close enough to home for me to ride my bicycle to. For an adventure like this, the goal is to pack light (kind of like backpacking) -- In fact, the weekend after the above photo was taken, I snapped this -- which should give you some idea of how much crap I had to haul for a one-night "backpacking" adventure on my bicycle:

This is a 17-ounce (or so) propane tank and my small propane burner which I brought along on my last trip. It's definitely better than the 30-pound rig we were using a week prior. The bonus is that it still boils water in well under 5 minutes and makes fried eggs for breakfast like an ace.

I have a similar trip coming up in about 3 weeks, and over the past few days, I've been contemplating various ways to minimize the bulk. The wretched camp stove above is pretty much the only thing I can downsize cheaply. Sure, I could ditch some of my older, heavier gear and buy a $60 camp pad and a $250 tent -- No thanks. I'm on a budget, and that kind of money would be better spent on say... plane tickets to DefCon?

I decided to try going the sterno route. We have a can of it laying around, so what could it hurt? The main problems with sterno are that it doesn't get as hot as propane, and that the can itself won't support your cookware. I had some old bicycle spokes laying around and made this little contraption. It's two spokes (of different lengths) bent up and strapped together with tape on one edge. It folds nicely, but not totally flat. If I had spokes of the same length (or if I just cut the longer one, or wasn't afraid of bending the longer one so it is directly in the flame's path) it would fold flat.

I bent this so that it would hold the cookware about 1" above the fuel canister. It's so simple that I really don't think you need a full set of instructions to replicate what I did here. You can cut and re-bend a wire hanger, get some thick solid-core copper wire, or improvise whatever you want. Three level points are all you need to support a kettle over the heat source

With the sterno can in place -- and set up on a piece of my mess kit so I don't melt the counter and incite the wrath of my l33t wife -- it looks like this:

Now for the sucky part: In order to boil two cups of water (for example, to make French Pressed Coffee or re-constitute a freeze-dried backpacking meal), it takes between 10-15 minutes depending on conditions, and yes I had the lid on whilst attempting to bring this water to a boil.

One cool thing, though, is that this stove stand will work nice with many other kinds of improvised heat sources. I may just end up replacing the sterno can with a beer-can alcohol stove. That's another project for another evening, though.

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