Sunday, 16 February 2014


What are you supposed to do with spent gas canisters? Throw them in the bin probably, but that doesn't seem right. As I assumed that canister gas would be my fuel of choice for the Tay catchment walk I did a few internet searches on how to recycle them, and ended up more confused than before.

The bottom line, if there is one, seems to be that putting empty canisters in with other metal for recycling, isn't advised. The canisters are highly pressurised and need to be safely punctured in some way and any remaining fuel removed before they can be recycled. I even read on a US forum someone advocating puncturing the canister with a knife, then smashing it flat with a rock. I won't be getting up to any of that malarkey this summer.

My gas stove is a Primus Eta Paclite. It's fast, fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly as gas stoves go, and essential for cold winter conditions. For the Tay catchment walk, though, I decided it was time to branch out and try something different: more versatile, lightweight, environmentally friendly and fun. Gas is just a bit too easy! No click'n'go with using other fuels. A bit of skill and preparation is required. Burning wood in particular is an art, a deeply satisfying one. It's primal, caveman stuff, even if you use a fancy stove to do it.

So - recently I bought a three-fuel ultralight stove I've been reading lots of positive things about: the Trail Designs Sidewinder ti-tri system. Ultralight Outdoor Gear were offering a package including the basic meths stove and solid fuel burner kit plus inferno insert and titanium floor for wood-burning. The inferno insert is an inverted cone that sits inside the main cone and is meant to increase the efficiency and heat of the wood burn. I also got a 900ml Evernew titanium pot.

I expect there to be a few opportunities for wood-burning on the Tay catchment walk so for this first test I was especially keen to try out the wood-fuel set-up. After endless days of wet and windy weather, today was sunny and calm - perfect for a first fair-weather test out in the back yard.

Lit with a firesteel, using twigs gathered from the street and homemade firelighters of cotton wool smeared in Vaseline... I hunched over my handiwork feeling very pleased with myself. When the fire gets going, it burns fast, hot and fierce. I boiled a pan of water in around 5 or 6 minutes.

There are plenty of these sort of pictures already on better blogs than this, but here are a couple more:



The hype about the efficiency of the inferno set-up is well-founded. When I let the fire burn out, it quickly reduced to no more than a small pile of white ash. And it does burn out fast. You need to keep a constant eye on it and have a good supply of twigs on hand to feed in regularly.

Overall I was delighted with this test. I think the Sidewinder ti-tri and I are going to be good friends - this summer and many summers to come. I'm liberated from the easy tyranny of the gas canister.

Little to pick real fault with, but a few reflections:
  • Wood burning produces a lot of soot, even just one brief burn as I did today. Cleaning the pot base regularly will be necessary to prevent an efficiency-lowering build-up.
  • There are a lot of little bits and pieces with this system for adapting it to three different types of fuel. In a wild camping scenario especially you need to keep this stuff organised to avoid losing bits of it.
  •  Again, it's good to be organised with tinder and lighting if you want to use the wood-burning mode regularly. I've turned a small watertight tupperware-type container into a tinderbox containing my firesteel, back-up matches, solid fuel cubes, some purchased dry tinder dust (again as a back-up if no dry tinder is available), and a ziploc bag with homemade firelighters: cotton wool and Vaseline.
  • The full kit doesn't quite fit into the pot as suggested. Well it does, but you can't quite get the lid closed - in my book that means 'it doesn't fit'. A caddy of some sort is a necessity for this reason, and also if you want to keep most of the bits that will smell of meths and smoke away from the inside of the pot, which I plan to eat out of as well. I've made a temporary caddy from a plastic bottle. The only smoky bit that really has to go in the pot is the fire grate, a circular piece of mesh that can't be rolled or folded. This does have a tough Tyvek paper sleeve for storage though.
  • The meths stove, made from an old soft drink can, feels delicate and could be easily dented or crushed. Keeping it in the plastic ziploc tub provided is probably advisable on a backpacking trip, and means it can go in the pot without making it smell of meths.
  • The wood fire seems very safe and well-enclosed. However - and this is maybe ultra-cautious me - I reckon I would still take good stock of where and when I use the stove as a wood burner. Obviously a tinder-dry forest or heather moor in a heat wave might not be best. Clearing the ground around the stove of flammable stuff like dry leaves is probably a good idea. The wood-burning floor will prevent scorch-marks on the ground, good from a Leave No Trace perspective, but I would go belt and braces and also put the stove on a flat rock or slate if possible. Like I say, maybe me being cautious. During my test I didn't see any sparks escaping the stove.
These are mostly observations rather than criticisms.This is a great set-up and packs down small and incredibly light. I'm learning fast that these products of the ultralight backpacking cottage industries are labours of love, true innovations. This is not off-the-shelf Go Outdoors stuff. These unique creations only work out if the user meets them half-way with gumption and common sense. They assume more, demand more, and provide more rewards for the worthy. The antithesis of mass-produced throwaway consumer 'leisure' tat. That's all good with me.

Testing out the Sidewinder's wood-burning capacity was huge fun as well. I haven't messed about with fires since I was a teenager (all legal of course!). If London succumbs to Biblical weather chaos, at least we'll still be able to make a cuppa.

Nighty night!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The learning zone

Planning a first long-distance walk could be described as a huge learning curve. But a curve suggests a smooth and straightforward progression. Really it's more haphazard than that. There is much to learn in many different fields. (Mountain) hares are set running in all directions in pursuit of expertise: gear, navigation, weather, fitness, nutrition, logistics, route planning... Everything needed to be safe and successful, serious rather than half-arsed. Things that reams are written about and careers built upon.

Perhaps 'growing a tree of knowledge' is a better way of putting it (pretentious though!). Something complex but coherent. Making the decision to do this has revitalised many semi-dormant passions and interests. I'm amazed at how I'm suddenly able to find the time for these things, although on paper having less time than ever before, between a full-time job and children.

If you want something enough...!

It may not be as core as safety and survival, but making a good record of the trip, and how to do that, has been on my mind recently. Photographs will be fundamental, that's for sure. So, time to take control, switch all settings to manual, and try to stop being a point'n'clicking random chancer.

I was up and out before sunrise this morning for a first stab at putting recent book-learning into practice, down at my local bit of, ahem, wild land. Well, you can't tame a river. Not even this one.

Minutes before sunrise (bits of dust on the lens - tut tut, amateur!)
This is what starting at the bottom is like, and age doesn't make learning easier. No flow, no intuition, no muscle memory, no neural pathways. Cranking out the calculations, labouring the judgements. Fumbling around with a set of neutral density filters I got last week, trying not to drop everything on the ground or into the river. Only when I get home and download the pictures do I realise I missed step two (step one is taking off the lens cap!): give the lens a brush! D'oh!

A wonderful morning though. The sun grew, strong and swift, launching itself across the river. It was cold.

Messing about with the settings, not quite getting what I predicted, perhaps not knowing what I wanted:

Shooting with the sun behind is relatively simple but not as exciting:

The neutral density filters are possibly essential for landscape and nature photography, where getting the balance right between sky and whatever's underneath is difficult. All too familiar in my hillwalking pictures: nicely exposed foreground and washed-out sky; or too-dark foreground and beautiful sky.

For the two pictures below, I set the exposure for the river - exactly the same settings for both. The first picture was taken without any filter; the second is with a graduated neutral density filter reducing the intensity of the light entering the top half of the frame (the sky).

Without ND grad filter

With hard grad 2(?) stop filter
It sounds counter-intuitive, but control and predictability in using the tools can fire spontaneity and creativity. The more ingrained the mechanics, the more free of them you are: flow is the goal. I hope to be some way there with the camera by the time I start the walk.