Playing with Fire & Primitive Skills

My first DIY backpacking stove, built around 2001 or 2002

As much as I dearly love camping in the Casita, at times I truly miss backpacking and primitive camping.

The Pocket Rocket. (image from Amazon)

I’ve enjoyed making a lot of stoves over the years, from hobo stoves to tuna can stoves to various alcohol stoves.

I fell out of love with alcohol stoves while hiking back in 2003 when I was caught in a surprise snowstorm.  The wind was whipping, I was freezing, and was trying to get water to boil for hot chocolate.  Normally 3/4 ounce of alcohol would bring my little .7 liter titanium pot full of water to a rolling boil in 5 or 6 minutes.  But since I didn’t have a decent windscreen for my stove, I used up 4 ounces of my precious alcohol fuel and the water was nowhere near boiling.

A couple of days later I stopped into an outfitter’s and bought a Pocket Rocket stove… and it’s jet-like blast of high pressure isobutane fuel assured me of boiling water on demand.

But I hated having to worry about where I’d be able to find my next (expensive) canister of fuel.

Solo Stove — wood burning gasifier hiking stove (image from Amazon)

I was lurking at a hiking forum the other day, vicariously reliving the good old days, when I saw a new-to-me hiking stove mentioned.  It’s heavy for a backpacking stove — 9 ounces.  BUT you need NO FUEL since it burns sticks and twigs.  And in the East, that means a limitless amount of fuel is always available — free!  (Add an Esbit tablet, piece of wax, or Wet Tinder to get wet wood going.)  It has a fire grate up above a solid stainless steel bottom so you don’t leave any trace of your fire on the ground.  And it burns so completely that all that is left is white ash.

So I’ve got the Solo Stove in my Amazon cart…. until I can talk some sense into myself and delete it as the unnecessary item it is.  But man!  What a COOL TOY!!!!

And remembering the stoves and how much fun I had with them reminded me of all the fun

Primitive bread (like chapitas) with no yeast and no oven.

I had learning to do primitive cooking over coals.

Cooking directly over a fire gives you very little control over the heat — and it coats your pots and pans with a nasty layer of soot.  But I learned that if I built a small fire and let it burn until I got a good bed of coals, then moved the fire over with a couple of sticks exposing the coals, that I had a perfect outdoor “stove.”  A pan placed in the center of the coal bed would get very hot and quickly bring water to a furious boil.  Move the pot out from the center and I’d have medium heat.  And if I wanted a simmer, I just moved my pot to the edge of the coals.  And when you cook on coals instead of over fire, you get NO SOOT on your pan!

The first oyster mushrooms I found on our property

Thinking about all the fun Ron and I had building campfires and cooking over them naturally led to reminiscing about our adventures with wild edibles.  I got interested in studying wild foods in the late 1990’s.  It took a few years to become proficient at being able to make decent meals from foraged ingredients.

Then I started getting bored with roots and veggies, nuts and berries, so decided that wild mushrooms would add a nice touch to my wild meals.  So I plunged into intensive mushroom study.  I was very fortunate in that David Fischer, author of Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America, was extremely approachable by email and cheerfully helped me positively identify photos of my earlier finds before I dared to eat them.

Chanterelles found in the Talladega National Forest

I used to like to hike out into a national forest with no food except salt, sugar, coffee, tea and a small bottle of olive oil, and eat only what I could forage.  The first day was always a little scary, but after that I would just keep finding good things to eat so the problem would be to not gather so much that it would be wasted. (Except in winter, of course.  I would starve to death then!)

There were also experiments with all kinds of primitive shelter building.  My most elaborate was a wickiup, pictured here partially built.  Since I didn’t have good thatching material on our property, I cheated and bought hay.  😀

Wickiup building in progress

I think that what has made all of those experiences resurge in my memory is the knowledge that, due to health problems, I won’t ever be able to backpack again.  I guess that’s something everyone has to come to grips with as they age.  Some of the good times are forever gone.

But it has reminded me that even if I can’t climb mountains or backpack anymore, I can still get out, build a campfire, and relish the satisfaction of being self-sufficient enough to cook without all the modern trappings of society.

And, in doing so, to capture a little of what our ancestors must have felt as they went about their daily affairs.

(NOTE:  Since this subject is so special to me, I am re-posting this as a permanent page so that it won’t disappear into my blog’s archives.)


  1. Cam

     /  August 21, 2012

    Google rocket stove and then be prepared to spend some time… There are bunches of them – even many home made.


    • The rocket stoves fascinate me, too, Cam. They are a bit heavy and bulky for backpacking, but they look like they would roar like a furnace! I love the fact that they also burn cleanly with little smoke.


  2. A very touching and fascinating reflection on the sacrifices to be made as we age. Aren’t you grateful you did what you did when you did it? I hope your Casita brings you many more years of outdoor/wilderness experiences!


    • Oh yes, I am so grateful I did everything I did! I just wish I hadn’t let fear of the unknown keep me from doing a lot of other things I would love to have done!

      We anticipate many more trips in the little Casita. It keeps the doors to outdoor exploration and adventure open to us!


  3. Bill

     /  August 21, 2012

    Thanks for the memories! and the encouragement to try more primitive experiences. In the recesses of my mind, I have been considering some winter camping…


    • Bill, winter camping is so much fun, especially if you have a good friend or two to enjoy it with. It’s also immensely satisfying on one’s own. And doing things the way people did them centuries ago not only connects you to the distant past on many levels, it also seems to satisfy some deep need inside ourselves to do away with the distractions and stresses of modern life and connect with the things that are truly essential.


  4. I used to backpack as well and was always intrigued by the ingenuity of the backpacking stoves. Interesting info!


  5. What an interesting post and informative, also! My husband is the experienced outdoor cook and neither of us knew that the black would not be left on the pans if they were placed in the coals.
    Thanks for sharing some of your past. You have many memories to fall back on and such unique experiences. I have always considered myself an outdoor person but not to the extremes that you have accomplished!
    The wonderful thing about RVing is we can do it until….the end. My husband and I have met individuals whose spouse was dying and they were still camping. What a blessing to have a little camper that can easily put us out in nature.


    • Lynne, you are so right about our little trailers making it possible for us to do the outdoor things we love way past the time we could enjoy them without the little campers. It has opened up a new dimension to living.


  6. I haven’t been backpacking yet, but I want to learn. I really enjoy just getting out there, though. It’s good for the soul! I always enjoy reading your posts, thank you for sharing! I think it’s great that you live life outdoors! I look forward to doing that someday and having a home I can take with me anywhere!


  7. Oh the memories you stir in my mind. I used to do so much hiking and mostly by myself. I would climb all over the Tucson Mountains. I had hoped with the new knees I could go again. But like you said age has not allowed it. But at least we have our memories. 🙂


    • I am surprised to learn how many of we older women are former hikers! Glad to hear you enjoyed tromping over mountains, too! 🙂


  8. Elizabeth in NC

     /  August 22, 2012

    Very interesting…thanks for sharing. I am told that one of my grandmothers was so good at foraging in the fields, etc. that during the depression that is part of what helped them survive. A good skill to have no doubt..


    • Good to hear from you, Elizabeth. Apparently a lot of people, especially in the South, foraged during the depression.

      The upper half of the country is blessed with starchy wild vegetables that provide enough calories to keep you going in a hard time, like Jerusalem artichoke and burdock roots. We, unfortunately, don’t have them down here. At least, not in abundance.


      • Elizabeth in NC

         /  August 23, 2012

        I have had Jerusalem Artichoke…my dad got ahold of some and grew a little in S.Idaho when I was at home still. Maybe he knew of that from living in Kansas/Missouri during the depression?…he was also big on making up sassafrass tea every winter and making us drink it (thought it made us less likely to get sick…cannot say I saw any results for myself however)…also made us eat a half grapefruit every morning (in those days no red ones…ICK…I poured so much sugar on mine it probably negated any good effects!!)


        • We used to make huge pots of sassafras tea during fall campouts with friends. Good memories! We also have sassafras growing on our property here.

          Oh yes! I remember the grapefruit. Turns my mouth inside out to think about it! Dad and Mom sprinkled theirs with salt as it took the sharp bite out of it. I remember being so surprised when I tasted my first sweet red grapefruit–long after I was grown!


  9. Gail

     /  August 23, 2012

    Way cool and priceless memories!


    • I dreamed about hiking the Appalachian Trail again last night. Fun to get out there, if only in my dreams! 🙂


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