Monday, June 20, 2016

Trip Report: Classic Backpacking 6/18/16–6/19/16

As you guys saw in my last post, I’ve been doing a bunch of fishing on my more recent trips. I have also been doing some Clasic Backpacing. I haven’t posted much about the trips because they are fairly standard. The challenging ones were during winter, but now that the weather is nice, they are pretty standard, evin with century old gear. In case anyone is followign though, here is one from last weekend.

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It was a very warm day. Temperture was supposed to be up around 85F (29C). I figured it would stay warm enough for me to bring Rhea along. It’s hard to bring her when it’s cold because I can’t keep her int he blanket with me, like I do when I’m carrying a sleeping bag.

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This particular route required a lot of climbing. It was a quick ascent to above the tree line, and a bit down in elevation to the area where I wanted to camp.

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For my summer Classic Backpacking trips, I’ve decided to wear cotton clothing. I had on a cotton shirt and corduroy pants. Reading through original sources, it appears that they wore wool year round, but it’s not practical for me. It is just too warm, and if you get some thinner wool clothing, it wears out way too quickly.

In the early afternoon, I reached my destination. I took my time setting up camp.

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The tarp was mostly there for the shade. I didn’t make any type of brush pile for under the blanket. I didn’t need the insulation, and it doesn’t bother me sleeping on a hard surface.

The big benefit of doing Classic Backpacking in warm weather is that you save huge amount sof time both building a sleeping surface, as well as gathering fire wood to keep you warm through the night.

The down side however is water. I’m trying to keep true to the primary sources, and while writers like Kephart mention the existance of rubber bladders for water storage, and several of them talk about canteen, many carried no water storage at all, or just a single canteen, as I am doing. I have to say, they must have been very limited with respect to the terrain were they could travel. In this type of weather, I wanted to be far away from water sources, as well as higher in elevation. It’s the only way to survive the mosquitoes and the humidity. That however, combined with my single water bottle, necessitated that I make two lengthy trips down the mountain to a water source. I then had to boil it, which wasn’t fun in the heat.

The water trips took up most of the day. I used the time to check out the blueberry bushes in the area. Another month and they should be ready.

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I was also lucky to spot a turkey. A month too late, and it appeared to be a hen, but still, it’s rare that I can get close enough to one to take a picture.

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I kept the fire small; just enought to boil the water.

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I fell asleep on top of the blanket. During the night however I got a bit chilled and had to toss it over me. I didn’t do the usual wrap, but just folded it over me. The night was short, and I got up bright and early.

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I packed up and headed back. I tried to make my way down the moutnain before the heat really kicked up.

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So, that’s that. A pretty uneventful trip. It’s how they have been lately. The weather has been very forgiving.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What Has Wood Trekker Been Up To?

Hey guys. I know I haven’t posted in a while. Nothing to worry about. I’ve just been very busy with work. I still go out on my usual trips, I just haven’t had time to write about them. It is a very time consuming process.

This past month I have mostly been focusing on trout fishing. I’ve been hitting the local spots with some friends.


Lower end of the Neversink River:






The Ramapo River:



West branch of the Croton River:







Even though water levels have been low, fishing has been half decent. I hope to get some more free time soon, so I can start writing posts again. Unfortunately, they are more time consuming than the trips themselves.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear: Stoves

The issue of stoves when it comes to Classic Backpacking can be a bit complex. The reason is that we have to look not only at the options available at the time, but also at how and if they were used.

In this post I want to discuss the use of small stoves which would be portable in a backpack by a single person. The sources are very limited with respect to such devices. While stoves are indeed discussed at length, the discussions are almost exclusively regarding large wood burning stoves designed to heat tents, and which would be transported by pack train. There are however some small segments, and some peripheral sources which can give us usable information.

It appears that in the early parts of the classic backpacking period, the preferred backpacking stove was an alcohol burner. In the source materials they are typically referred to as spirit burners or spirit lamps. The below advertisement for a Gogau alcohol stove was featured in the 1904 Hardware Dealers' Magazine, Volume 22. The J. Picard & Co Spirit Burner circa 1873 and the W.J.D. Mast Alcohol Lamp circa 1896 are also good examples of small, portable alcohol stoves. Officer mess kits containing a similar alcohol stove were popular during WWI.


While open burner designs like the ones we see most often today, as well as pressurized versions like the one seen above were available in one form or another, the preferred configuration appears to have been ones using a wick. I’ve reached this conclusion based on the limited descriptions provided by Edward Whymper, Fridrjof Nansen, and Warren Miller. It is possible that other models were in wide spread use, but I have not been able to find any references.

The spirit-lamp was lighted, and the remaining spirits of wine, the brandy and some snow were heated by it. It made a strong liquor, but we only wished for more of it. When that was over, Macdonald endeavored to dry his socks by the lamp, and then the three lay down under my plaid to pretend to sleep.” Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps, 1872 p.26

For fuel there is, no doubt, nothing at all comparable with alcohol, which should be as pure as possible. In addition to other advantages, such as its cleanliness, it has the great merit of yielding more heat than anything else in comparison to its weight… At the bottom is the heating-chamber, containing a spirit-lamp with several wicks. The air enters by a number of holes at the bottom in sufficient quantity to insure complete combustion, and, as it must itself pass through or near the flames, it is either consumed or heated to such an extent that no cold air can enter the apparatus. Should it be necessary, owing to the overheating of the lamp, to let some cold air in, this can be done by holes in the sides of the hot chamber… Experiments made after our return home showed me that our cooker made use of only 52 per cent, of the alcohol consumed. This is, of course, a somewhat extravagant use of fuel, though previous expeditions do not seem to have been much more successful. Yet there is no doubt that further improvements in this direction will lead to a considerable reduction in the consumption of spirit.” Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland, 1890 p.36-38

The above quotes indicate that up to the 1890s, alcohol stoves, and in particular stoves which used a wick to burn the alcohol, were used by climbers as well as polar explorers. The preference for wick based stoves over other burners which rely on vaporizing the fuel, is hinted at by Kephart on a later date: “In this instance it is an alcohol burner of common pad form, which is less likely to get out of order than an alcohol vapor stove.” Horace Kephart, Featherweight Camping in England, 1914

In 1892 however, a new stove design entered wide scale use, the Primus Kerosene Stove No.1. While it was not the first kerosene stove, the Primus stoves quickly gained popularity, and quickly started to replace alcohol stoves. The change is exemplified by the writings of Fridtjof Nansen, who in the span of only few years went from using an alcohol stove for his cold weather expeditions, to using a Primus stove. The below advertisement from 1897 references as this being the stove used by “Nansen the Explorer”.


For the heating was used a Swedish gas-petroleum lamp, known as 'the Primus,' in which the heat turns the petroleum into gas before it is consumed. By this means it renders the combustion unusually complete. Numerous experiments made by Professor Torup at his laboratory proved that the cooker in ordinary circumstances yielded 90 to 93 per cent. of the heat which the petroleum consumed should, by combustion, theoretically evolve. A more satisfactory result, I think, it would be difficult to obtain… Together with two tin mugs, two tin spoons, and a tin ladle, it weighed exactly 8lbs. 3ozs., while the lamp, the "Primus," weighed 1lb 12oz.

As fuel, my choice this time fell on petroleum ("snow-flake".) Alcohol, which has generally been used before on Arctic expeditions, has several advantages, and, in particular, is easy to burn. One decided drawback to it, however, is the fact that it does not by any means generate as much heat in comparison with its weight as petroleum when the latter is entirely consumed, as was the case with the lamp used by us. As I was afraid that petroleum might freeze, I had a notion of employing gas-oil, but gave up the idea, as it escapes so easily that it is difficult to preserve, and is, moreover, very explosive. We had no difficulties with our "snowflake" petroleum on account of the cold. Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North Volume II, 1897 p.113

This early use of the Primus stove however was not exactly the backpacking application I am interested in here. The Primus No.1 stove is relatively heavy, and is better suited to group use, in particular when carried by sled as it was by Nansen, Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen. Below you see such a stove used circa 1911 together with a “Nansen Cooker”, a pot system designed to maximize the use of the produced heat. 


Portable models started to emerge in the early 1900s. From what I understand, T.H. Holding used a specially modified Primus No.230, which could be carried on a bicycle. He called it the Baby Primus. 


Why I was so slow to take up the "Primus" for Camping purposes, was because of my hatred of paraffin. Experiments, begun fifteen years ago, both at home and Sunbury Camp, showed what a powerful and efficient thing it was, but too big to carry on a cycle. It took me three years to get a smaller size — 5-ins. across — made, and then it had projecting legs. So I devised a second model and had the feet set right underneath, the projecting pump shortened, and changed the valve from the side to the top, christening it the " Baby Primus," which is the best of all the "Primus" models. Still pursuing my Spartan notions re compactness, space and solid packing, I designed the "So-Soon" pans for taking the "Primus" stove inside. This, of course, for cycling… I unhesitatingly say that the "Primus" in its revised form, with these beautiful light pans, is the most efficient and suitable stove in the world for the average camper.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.310-311

However, in my opinion, a truly portable, commercially available, kerosene stove did not come about until circa 1908, with the Primus No.96. It had a half pint capacity, and weighed 1lb 1.2oz (on my scale, without additional items). 

Even so, the use of backpacking stoves remained extremely limited, especially in the US. References in the texts of the time are rare, and the average woodsman had no reason to use a stove rather than a fire. This attitude about backpacking stoves is exemplified by Horace Kephart when writing about the gear of T.H. Holding. “Since the English camper can seldom use wood for fuel, he is obliged to carry a miniature stove and some alcohol or kerosene.” Horace Kephart, Featherweight Camping in England, 1914

Until the mid 1950s, with the introduction of the Svea 123 and similar models like the Primus No.71, the use of backpacking stoves was largely reserved for people who traveled to areas where it was impossible to make a fire. In the US that was restricted to climbing above the tree line and arctic exploration, while in Europe stoves appear to have been more widely used, especially when camping in more populated areas. 

So, where does that leave us when it comes to the use of backpacking stoves when trying to do Classic Backpacking? To me, it appears that the use of backpacking stoves was reserved for times when it was not possible to make a fire. It seems the woodsmen of the time would rather use a fire whenever possible, and I imagine the average woodsman of the Classic Backpacking period might have never seen a portable stove of the type discussed here. However, backpacking stoves were available, and they were used when needed. In the US, where fire wood was abundant, the use was reserved for climbing and arctic exploration, while in Europe, where I imagine the use of fire was more restricted in some areas, the stoves had greater popularity. 

As such, I would say that when doing Classic Backpacking, a portable stove does have it’s place. To be period correct, one would want to primarily rely on a fire, but when that is not possible due to restrictions or unavailability of wood, it would be proper to pull out the stove. 

With respect to the actual stove designs, the choices would be either an alcohol stove, with a preference for a wick based design, or a kerosene stove. Warren Miller gives a good summary and description of the options: 

For work above timber-line, the camp-fire takes the form of a spirit or kerosene lamp. Denatured alcohol, or just plain kerosene, costing a tenth as much; both have one-hole and two-hole blue-flame burners available in light, folding explorer's stoves. The kerosene-burners work on the principle of the familiar gasolene plumber's torch, a little raw kerosene first being ignited to heat the burner, after which the affair is self-vaporizing, and the height of the flame is then controllable with a needle-valve. With these burners is supplied a sheet-iron radiating drum for tent-warming, after the cooking is done, and this drum serves as a packing-case for the lamp and its special kerosene-can when on the trail. With denatured alcohol the process is even simpler, the burner simply being lighted, when the hot blue flame of alcohol vapor is at once available, and, of course, it gives many more heat-units per pound of fuel than kerosene.

A rig similar to these which a friend of mine uses on his one-man hikes is nothing in the world but a short, extra-fat candle with a big wick, the only other apparatus besides the candle being a sheet-iron collar or spider, on which the bowl or frying-pan rests, held by it a short distance above the flame. A similar apparatus using solidified alcohol is on the market and gives much more heat for the weight carried.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915 p.93-94


Above you see a picture of what I consider two good examples of backpacking stoves from the Classic Backpacking period. One is a kerosene burning Primus No.96 (left), and the other is a wick based alcohol stove (right).

It may be tempting to just pull out a Trangia Stove, especially since the Trangia Company was established in 1925, within the Classic Backpacking period, but unfortunately, Trangia did not start making alcohol stoves until the 1950s. More accurate designs, either just open burners, or wick based burners can be found on eBay, or made at home.

With respect to kerosene stoves, the choices are tougher. The best approach would be to find an old kerosene stove like a Primus and restore it, like I did with mine. I will do a separate post on doing a basic restoration. The Primus No.96 was produced all the way through the 1960s. While there are small variations between different years, the design was functionally the same. Unfortunately, that is not a project everyone wants to undertake. A decent alternative would be to purchase a new Svea 123 stove. They have some significant differences from the early kerosene stoves, but are the closest I have found on the market today.

I'm certainly not a "stove guy", so this has been just a very brief overview of stoves for Classic Backpacking. I'm sure there are many other options available and approaches you can take.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Trip Report: Classic Backpacking 2/13/16 - 2/14/16

"Happiness is the struggle towards a summit and, when it is attained, it is happiness to glimpse new summits on the other side." Fridtjof Nansen

Last weeks outing was uneventful, so I decided to skip the trip report, but this past weekend we lucked out with some actual winter weather, so I figured the trip would be worth shearing. I also wanted to test the limits of my current Classic Backpacking sleep system, and I figured this would do it.

I started out early in the morning. The temperature when I left the house was –7F (-22C).


It always sneaks up on you how quickly you can overheat in temperatures this low. Your instinct tends to be to wear as much clothing as possible, but once you start moving, you heat up very quickly. I was wearing my base layer, my wool “vest”, and my crew neck sweater with the anorak on top. It was very windy, so I needed the shell, but had to be move slowly so I wouldn’t overheat. One problem with this clothing system is that it’s annoying to layer up and down.

The temperature gradually went up during the day, reaching –3F (-19C) in the early afternoon. My bushwhacking took me near a small lake. I’ve done some some trapping there in previous years, and sign was all over the place.


Unfortunately I haven’t had much time to do it this year because I’ve been messing around with this Classic Backpacking thing.

I moved away from the lake, and up a small mountain, but not before punching through some thin ice near the edge of the lake. My left leg briefly submerged up to about six inches above my ankle. I quickly blotted it with snow, but my pant leg froze solid, and stayed that way until I got the fire going later in the day.

A I have been doing recently, I stopped early to make camp. With sunset at 5:30pm, I was setting up camp by 3:30. I picked the most sheltered spot I could find, right in the middle of a thicket of pine.

Camp was going to be simple. It’s something I have been trying to work out for the past few week. My goal was to use the blanket as ground insulation, and the comforter as a top quilt. I got the idea from an article I found by Horace Kephart titled Featherweight Camping in England. In the article Kephart describes the sleep system of T.H. Holding. While Kephart dismisses the sleep system as not suited for American campers, the description is worth noting:

The ground-sheet is of light mackintosh. Over it goes a little "groundblanket" of thin cashmere, with eyelets at the corners, so that it can be pegged down. This is not only for the sake of warmth, but also to save wear on the mackintosh, which has to be very thin.

Mr. Holding's eiderdown quilt is only to cover with, not to roll up in. The Wigwam size is 5 feet 10 inches by 4 feet, to which is added a foot of cloth valance all around, which is pegged or weighted down so that the sleeper will not kick off his covering. These quilts are thinner than the domestic ones of down, and roll up into remarkably small compass.” Horace Kephart, Featherweight Camping in England, 1914

It is also the earliest depiction I have been able to find of a down sleeping bag in use when camping. 


Anyway, my plan was to duplicate this sleep system, except kick it up a few notches to make it appropriate for the temperature. I haven’t seen any references of T.H. Holding doing much winter backpacking.

I put my oil-cloth tarp on the ground. I left half of it folded up behind my back. My plan was to pull it over me if the wind got bad because the comforter I have is not good at stopping wind. On top I put my blanket, folded over in four It made for a sleeping platform bout a foot wide. On top I put the quilt, folded over in half. I pinned it to the blanket using eight blanket pins. The arrangement was too tight around he shoulders, so I had to stagger the comforter there a bit, leaving a small section on the side that had only one layer of comforter. 


The set up was quick, and the folded over comforter lofted up nicely. I gathered some firewood, and got to the numerous tasks I had to finish before nightfall: make water, fill up my canteen with hot water so I can use it under my comforter, cook food, dry out my pants and gloves, etc. I put on my second sweater, which was warm enough when I was near the fire. 


At this temperature everything takes much longer. Every object that gets even a little warm acquires a coating of ice that you then have to chip off. The pot is impossible to was. The moment you put any water in it, you get a coating of ice that you then can’t remove without heating up the pot. When you then put it down, half the forest floor freezes onto it. You can’t touch your canteen with uncovered hands because it will freeze to them. That’s why I usually don’t like metal canteens, but I don’t have a choice here.


When everything was done, I crawled into my sleep system, and prepared for a miserable night. I had gathered a small amount of wood and was planning on keeping a very small fire going all night long just in case. I had plenty of fire wood within reach.

The sleep system was an unbelievable success. Well, a success in the sense that it kept me alive during the night when the temperature fell to about –20F (-29C). I was supposed to be even colder, but I was in a sheltered spot, which kept the area warm, and more importantly, blocked the wind for most of the night. 

Before I go on, I don’t want to oversell any of this, in case someone else is thinking of doing it. Over the years I’ve gotten fairly comfortable with the difference for my own body between being extremely cold, and being close to death from the cold. When here I say that something worked, I mean that I wasn’t close to death. You shouldn’t interpret that to mean that I had a cozy night. 

On numerous occasions I got very cold and was shivering uncontrollably. It is in part due to the cold, and in part that my body tends to freak out at certain points when it gets cold, and it takes several minutes for it to stabilize. 

Even though I planned to keep the fire going, the sleep system was so “comfortable”, that I fell asleep for too long, and the fire went out. I decided not to restart it because getting out from under the comforter would be counterproductive. 

The main problem was that during the night I would tend to pull up my knees and curl up, which would push the comforter aside and open up gaps near my knees and my butt. Both would immediately get very cold, and I would wake up, straighten out, and then shiver until I warmed up again. The doubled up comforter, provided nearly five inches of loft, which made this surprisingly doable. 

I had some other minor problems. The comforter near my mouth froze due to my breath, even though I was trying not to breath on it. My pant leg apparently wasn’t completely dry, so it felt chill, although the comforter by my feet kept giving excellent insulation despite the moisture build up. In the morning when I opened up the comforter, I had steam coming out from my pant leg. 

Overall though, it was a very successful nigh, and I was very surprised by the effectiveness of the sleep system. The blanket folded over in four provided sufficient insulation from the ground, and the quilt provided excellent insulation on top.

There was only one point during the night where I was worried about making it. I don’t know what time it was, but the wind started coming through, and really cutting through the insulation. As I had planned, I tried to pull the second half of my tarp over me, but the oil-cloth was frozen almost stiff. It was like working with a hard piece of plastic. I’ve noticed it gets stiff in cold weather, but this was nearly unworkable. It was like putting a rectangular piece of plastic over me. Even when I managed to do it, the wind would just push it over. Luckily, the wind died down quickly. I lost a lot of heat because of the wind and because I was trying to mess with the tarp. The fingers on my right hand were completely numb, and it took me what seemed like a very long time to get my body warm enough so that I would not be worried about making it. I contemplated getting up to restart the fire, but I was shaking so much, that I wasn’t sure I would be able to. 

Anyway, I made it through to the morning. 


I gathered some small pieces of fire wood, and using what was left over from the night before, got a small fire going again to warm up.


My feet were in very bad shape. They were fine under the comforter, but after I shoved them into my frozen boots, I lost all feeling in them. I suspect it was a combination of the frozen boots and the socks getting damp from the moisture coming off from my not-so-dry pant leg.

When my hands were warm, I packed up and headed out. I was sure that my tarp was going to snap while I was folding it because it was so stiff, but it worked out fine. 


After about an hour of walking I warmed up and was able to feel my feet again. I had some home made venison jerky on the go.


By the earl afternoon I was out of the forest. I was very happy with the trip. The sleep system performed way better than I expected. If I decided, or had the money to make a winter specific sleep system, i.e. a folded up blanket for ground cover with a properly sized folded over quilt on top sewn to the blanket, I think one could have an excellent winter sleep system. Again, this is relative to 19th and early 20th century sleep system. If I had my regular sleeping bag and pad, this trip wouldn’t even be worth reporting. Considering I’m using 100 year old technology though, I’m happy with the results.