Before the roarin’ Nineties of backpacking gear, the choices in backpacking stoves were few. I now carry an MSR Firefly backpacking stove (bought around 1987), but I’ve kept my old Svea stove. It’s stowed away in a hallway closet, along with that broken hiking staff. Sentimentality reigns! But, also, practicality. I know that old warhorse would fire up on days when the more complex Firefly may not. As I consider the inner workings of the Firefly, compared to the Svea, I think I could rely on it much more should I need a backup camping stove or one to use during a prolonged power outage.
I’m reminded of a young man who hiked the Appalachian Trail who was a chef by profession. He was the only long distance backpacker I ever met who disdained a cooking stove. Instead, come dinnertime, come gale, wind, or high water, he would manage to gather enough wood to kindle a fire and used that to cook. I still marvel today at his resourcefulness and how he could take food contributions from a gang of hikers and prepare a four-star feast! Learning from him, I later spent occasions building and using cooking fires, and while I still carried my stove for backup, I came to enjoy the ritual and results of open fire cooking along the trail. I recall a particular trip along the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts one early spring when I would tarry at camp long enough to cook up some Indian fry-bread and drizzle the golden brown delight with sourwood honey. Now that’s eatin’!
Speaking of food and not just stoves, I found my trail diet developing as I hiked. Though freeze-dried and prepackaged foods have their place in saving weight and providing good shelf-life, nothing will ever beat fresh produce. If I’m out for a week, I will carry fresh garlic and onion, brussels sprouts, broccoli, red potatoes, carrots, green beans, and other trail worthy veggies to cook. I eat these the first days out and save the dried goods for the last few days. Nothing has lifted my spirits so much as fresh food for those first dinners on a trek. The greatest validation I received doing this was when another hiker stumbled into camp on the Long Trail in Vermont. I had just fired up the stove and was stir-frying onions and garlic in olive oil. The fragrance wafted over to him. Then I heard a low, curious voice saying, “Hey, man…whatcha’ cookin’ there?” I went into defense mode even as I casually answered him. “Oh, just some veggies I brought along…” I though I was about to be mugged! Fortunately for me that did not happen. But it sealed the deal. Other hikers, too, dreamt and drooled of fresh “real” food, and taking it with you is both practical and a tasty supplement to processed and packaged choices. Bon appetit!