More camping thoughts: Stoves, Water purification & Staying warm & dry

I've got some more hard earned camping (and staying dry on the bike) opinions to share. This page follows from the previous page, which was largely focused on tents.

A couple of recap points:

  • this is a great time to be into lightweight camping, as good gear is getting better, lighter and more durable all the time (though not always cheaper, alas)

  • I'm not from the minimalist school of camping, and am wrestling with some long time habits as I try to pack smaller to fit into the reduced capacity of the frame bags on my new Surly ECR 29" bikepacker 

On this page, we take a look at the following. If you want, you can use the links to jump down the page to a section that interests you:

 

MSR XGK camping stove discussion | cycle touring camping stoves

Camping off the Karakorum Highway on the way up to North Pakistan. You can't really see it clearly, but that's an MSR XGK expedition stove at the near end of the tent. Works at high altitude, in fierce cold and with dirty fuel ... perfect for this trip

 

Thoughts on camping stoves

A few thoughts here on camping stoves. Historically, I have mostly used white gas pump stoves that are designed for multi-fuel use, particularly when going into remote areas (e.g. Canadian far north), or international. A few reasons for this:​

  • When going further afield, propane cannisters are just not available. You can almost always find some sort of gas station anywhere there is a road

  • The better multi-fuel white gas stoves, such as MSR Whisperlite International (or my MSR XGK in above pic), can burn regular gas station gas or diesel if needed (and it is often necessary in the developing world). They will also perform in the thin, cold air of high elevation. 

  • White gas is generally cheaper than propane canisters

 

If I'm getting my water from uncertain sources, I treat it with a steripen before cooking (more below). This means one does not have to boil the water for 5+ minutes. Essentially, it's a fuel use economy system.

Refilling my fuel bottle at a roadside gas station in rural Tajikistan (near Khorog). The gas is in the metal cannister just below, and the fellow is scooping it into my bottle. Sometimes, there can be lots of dirty sediment in the gas, or water has been added to the gas to make it seem like more.  You need a stove that won't just clog up

Camp stove fuel in Tajikistan | MSR XGK stove discussion

The MSR XGK is my favourite white gas stove if I expect serious cold, high altitude or bad gas (or all 3). It is not a finesse stove to use for finely tuned simmering. It's more like a blow torch, and makes enough noise you might spook neighbours in the early morning. It's not the most fuel efficient of stoves. Stoves like the MSR Whisperlite Universal or Primus Omni-Fuel work with a range of liquid fuels as well as white gas and propane cannisters. I have used both and they are reliable. They also do better simmering.​

I have a Trangia alcohol stove - very lightweight. I've taken it out on a number of trips, and it does the trick well, though it's hard to adjust the heat. I found, however, that I used up my denatured alcohol fuel faster than expected, so I had to carrry more fuel. It's probably best for pure lightweight trips, where one isn't regularly boiling water for tea or hot chocolate, in addition to meals.

Cannister camping stove discussion | Maynard Lake near Port Alice | cycle touring camping stoves

See my primus cannister stove, lower right (here at Maynard Lake, east of Port Alice). You can see the wind block built right in to the bottom of the 0.8L pot, which snaps onto the stove. Fast & efficient. The stove fits inside the pot, and smaller size cannisters also fit inside.

I've always had cannister stoves for when I wanted to go light. But now that I have my new Surly ECR with the smaller gear carrying capacity, I have been using my JetBoil cannister stove almost all the time (I also have a Primus). The stove and a small cannister pack inside the 0.8L pot, and there's a wind protection ring that's built on to the bottom of the pot, which snaps onto the stove top. This reduces fuel use (and frustration). 

 

I also have an even smaller GSI canister ultra-light set-up. I've tried this a few times, and find the 0.5L pot size a bothersome constraint.

Newer cannister stoves now also have special valves to ensure they work well in cold temperatures, which used to be an issue. 

And what about cooking on campfires? To be honest, I rarely do this when I'mm on the move. If I get to a camping area early, and there's decent firewood about, I'll enjoy a fire, but do not usually like to rely upon this fire for cooking. I recently bought a Nano Firebox twig stove, and will trial it on some upcoming trips in the drier summer.

Nice campfire along the Upper Nitinat River. I'd been swimming in the river earlier - wonderful but real cold, so the fire was fabulous.

Camping stove discussion | cycle touring camping stoves | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Be aware there can be issues if you try to fly with your camping stove. Don't assume you can just pack it with your check-in luggage, as they may see it in the Xray and tell you to pull it out and leave it behind, which has happened to me:

  • obviously, you cannot fly with pressurized cannisters or any liquid fuel

  • some airlines will not allow camping stoves or fuel bottles in baggage (nothing that may have had flammable fuel inside allowed). This is mostly a serious issue if you are flying somewhere you will not be able to buy a good stove. For such airlines, I buy a new stove and have it in original packaging with receipt. Some airlines do have guidelines that include very special cleaning of a camping stove, and coating your fuel bottle with cooking oil. If you go this route, have the guidelines printed out and on hand when you check in.

 

Thoughts on water purification

I've had giardiasis, aka beaver fever. This was in Alaska, and I thought I was doing a good job boiling my water, but evidently not good enough. No fun at all if you're on the move cycle touring.

I carried pump filters for a time, a MEC, and then a Katadyn (the Katadyn much better). However, these are fairly heavy and bulky and will gum up in dirtier, silty water, and guess what? Sometimes that's when you might need safe water the most (which happened to me once in the far north). On Vancouver Island where streams generally run swift and clear, they can work very well. 

I have come to rely on a steripen (see pic below left). These involve a bit of a leap of faith, as one must trust that the UV light actually cleans things up. But I've used one long enough with good results, and know enough other cycle tourists and outdoors enthusiasts who use them and trust them, that I'm pretty at ease. Steripens rely on batteries. I've been using the model below which can recharge via USB.  

 

Because batteries can run out, on longer trips I also carry a reserve chemical treatment option such as Pristine drops (you mix from 2 small dispensers). I'll also use this if I am forced to use water that looks real murky and nasty. Sometimes, I'll rely on prolonged boiling, but that depends whether I need to maximize how long my fuel will last.

In recent years, a wide number of water bottle or bladder filtration systems have come on the market. These, like pump filters, filter out nasties. I have recently bought a smaller 1L Katydyn filter bladder, but I haven't yet used it enough to offer impressions. I have a little scepticism when they say they filter out 99.x% of beasties, as some of the nastiest beasties can be real tiny. That said, in BC and Vancouver Island I suspect these would serve just fine.

OCTOBER 2018 UPDATE: see the pic below (right) of my Katadyn Be Free 0.6 litre filter. I've come to rely on this (and love it) when on the move. It's tiny, light, gives a good stream of filtered water to drink, and - best of all - one can clean off any muck build up simply by giving it a shake in water.

I borrowed this pic off the Steripen website so people could get a clearer idea.This model is USB rechargeable. I've used steripens for years now, and developed trust

Steripen water purification discussion | cycle touring & water purification

Here's my new Katadyn Be Free, which has completely won me over, particularly for when I am on the move. When not filled with water, it scrunches up small for packing.

 
Staying dry & warm (on the bike & in the camp)

West coast BC is a temperate rain forest. Not only does it rain for good stretches (like this spring!), but it can also be pretty humid. It snows a few times most winters, but the snow doesn't usually stay around - although this past winter (early 2017) we had deep snow with us for a stretch of months.

In other words, for west coast gear, the key challenge is managing serious rain, although one also needs to be ready for cold and snow in winter.

Staying warm winter camping | cycle touring & staying warm | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Bundled up in my down jacket at the end (last light) of a very cold winter's day, NW of Campbell River. Layering is a key to staying warm. The down jacket does not do well if wet, so if it had been raining, I'd have had an outer waterproof layer on top. That's my Mountain Hardwear 4 season Spire 2.1 tent in behind.

First, a little on staying dry while riding - jacket, leggings and such.

I have good rainwear gear and have tried lots of gear that turned out not to be good. But basically nothing will keep you dry for a long wet day in the saddle. When riding a day through rain, I expect to get wet, from both the outside (rain) and the inside (sweat, as your exertion generates body heat). So, for my inner layer, I choose fabrics that can breathe and keep me warm even when wet. The key is to use several layers - an outer shell to keep the rain mostly on the outside, and an inner layer for warmth.

 

When I buy a waterproof layer for riding, it MUST have underarm or leg vents to minimize overheating. If you see any gear that calls itself 'water resistant' vs 'waterproof', just assume that it will be soaked right through in no time. I would never consider riding with a down jacket on, as I would overheat, and the down would get damp from sweat. 

The holy grail is to find a light weight jacket that keeps all wet out while also being 'breathable', that is, allowing your body heat and sweat to escape so you don't sweat like a sauna. Alas, even the best gore-tex jackets lose their 'edge' and start to become less waterproof / breathable after some months of use. You can buy treatments to enhance or extend the waterproofness, but you never get back to the initial quality as the 'durable water repellent' outer coating has been compromised. I'm currently trying out a Columbia rain jacket that touts a new technology called 'out-dry'. I'm usually sceptical of such new things, but initial impressions are positive.

 

For any longer trips, I am a little leery of some of the newer Ultralight waterproof shells, simply because I worry about durability, particularly when out in the backroads - you can sometimes snag a tree branch or whatever in the campground. For me, these ultralight shells are fine on longer trips, and in warmer summer weather. 

Does it rain on the west coast? Thousands of riders waiting in pouring rain a few years past, for the start of the Ride to Conquer Cancer, a 2 day fund raising ride from Vancouver to Seattle. This is in the middle of summer, believe it or not. These are riders of all capabilities and gear levels. For the most part, once the riding starts, people keep warm enough from their own exertion.

Cycle touring rain gear discussion | Rain gear & cycle touring

As this info is for cycle tourists, let me emphasize the obvious: brighter colours and reflective strips are always a good idea on cycling jackets.

And don't forget the top and bottom! Keeping your head and feet warm and relatively dry is key. When it's cold, including cold and rainy, I wear a head/ear warmer under my helmet. If it's really cold, I have a balaclava. I have gore-tex booties and use them over my riding shoes or boots. This is essential for cold weather camping at the end of the day. Don't believe it when running shoes or boots are advertised as waterproof: this just means they have a waterproof lining. Water still comes in from the top, or seeps into the fabric and slowly makes its way inside to soak everything. Or - you sweat inside the unbreathable shoe. And - once they are wet, these waterproof linings prevent them from drying quickly, so you can get stuck with cold, wet feet on longer trips. A challenge may be finding boot covers that accommodate your cleat if you ride with clip-in pedals.

As I put on more years, I've found that the part of my body that is most cold sensitive to cold is my hands. I have yet to find gloves or mitts that truly keep hands dry. Fully waterproof options like rubber or neoprene don't breathe and this causes your hands to sweat and soak any inside liners you have to keep warm. So, I use outer shells with liners that stay pretty warm, even when damp or wet (which always happens in persistent rains). I bring an extra set of liners and keep one dry set of mitts entirely for camp. And, as most know, mitts work better than gloves for warmth, as your fingers warm each other, and the surrounding air insulates.

Cold camping along Pamir Highway | cycle touring & staying warm | cycle touring Tajikistan

Early morning - breaking camp in the high Pamir Plateau, east Tajikistan. This was a memorable night. See all the big stones around my site. The winds got so wild in the middle of the night, I had to get up and gather the stones to guy everything down more securely. I couldn't use pegs as the ground was frozen hard

Unless I'm touring in a tropical place (like Indonesia or Madagascar), I generally use a down sleeping bag. They pack more compact and have a great warmth to weight ratio (though they are expensive). The peril, though, is that down bags lose warmth if they get wet - much more so than bulkier, heavier (cheaper) synthetic bags. One more thought on down bags - always have some layer, be it a thin pyjama, or liner - between your body and the inside of your sleeping bag. This keeps body oils and such from getting into the bag's lining, which can impede warmth and breathability.

On Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, it's not uncommon to to ride in persistent, cold rains. Your tent gets packed wet and you set it up wet. The bottom of your sleeping pad gets damp from condensation caused by your body heat interacting with the cold ground below, and when you roll it to pack, the top of the pad gets wet as well. You clamber in and out of your tent in the rain, always bringing a little more wet in with you. This means you need to be real mindful about keeping your bag as dry as possible. Top quality waterproof stuff sacks, or compression sacks, are worth the investment.

 

For longer bad weather trips, I bring a groundsheet, but once things get wet, I put it inside the tent, on top of the pad if it has gotten damp through. As the groundsheet will get damp when packed, you need to be able to wipe the top surface dry before putting your sleeping bag down. I bring a small towel or extra roll of toilet paper for this.

A break in the rain, here camping east of Port Alberni. On longer trips I always carry a line to hang things out. This is partly to dry things, if necessary, but also to get things out of bags for some fresh air so they don't get 'fusty'. If you use a compression sack for your down bag, it's good to let it expand as soon as you set up tent. See my thermarest sleeping pad on the left side.

Camping & drying gear | cycle touring & staying dry | cycle touring Vancouver Island

I have a few sleeping bags for different weather ranges. As I've gotten older I find I need more warmth (and appreciate more comfort). Newer sleeping bag technology has some nice advantages, although prices are daunting. Outer shells on better bags are made with fabrics like Pertex, which are more water repellent, and the down itself is treated to be both much more repellant and quicker drying. These are real big plusses. Work is also going on to make synthetic bags lighter & warmer, which I suspect will be the longer term answer, but this still has a ways to go.

 

Don't just trust the temperature ranges you'll see for sleeping bags being sold. Standardization across companies is not yet in place. And sleepers vary in how warm they sleep. Women generally sleep colder. Until you learn otherwise through experience, assume you need a bag for at least the middle temperature range (bags include a low, middle and upper temperature range), and be prepared to add layers of clothing inside your bag if you find yourself cold. 

 

I haven't yet tried a new quilt sleeping bag, though if I were starting afresh to buy, I would look into it seriously. It's a little lighter and smaller packing, and can give greater flexibility in terms of temperature range.

If you're camping in cold weather, you want a sleeping pad with a high R Value. This is important as your body can lose so much heat into the cold ground. The good news is that the pads have not only been getting lighter and more durable in recent years, but also a whole lot more comfortable. I have been using several Thermarest Neo Air pads for 7 or 8 years now (one for winter), and have been very pleased. Some folks have had durability challenges - these thicker pads can be punctured. This is yet one more reason I like my tents with tough floors, so sharp things don't poke through.

Camping and staying warm | cycle camping in Ladakh, Himalays

Camping off the road high in the north Indian Himalayas, on the ride into remote Zanskar Valley

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