In my last post I went over food and hydration in the mountains. Now I’ll go into the gear end of things: stoves, water purification, and water carrying methods.
Stoves are a big subject, but I’ll try to keep this fairly short. Canister stoves are pretty much always the way to go in the backcountry. The exceptions are when you’re going to be in a base camp for a long period of time, if you’re travelling to a far corner of the world where fuel canisters are unavailable, or if you’ll be in sub-zero temperatures for extended periods of time.
Photo: Jens Holsten hanging out in our cook tent in the Ruth Glacier in 2011. There are three stoves in front of him: A MSR Dragonfly for serious snow melting, a WhisperLite for more precise simmering, and a Jetboil for quick hot drinks.
On expeditions (by that I mean trips longer than about two weeks) you’ll want a liquid fuel stove for your base camp so that you don’t have to burn through tons of nonrefillable canisters. They can require a lot of maintenance, especially if you find yourself burning kerosene, diesel, or poor quality white gas in the developing world, but they last forever. I still have an MSR WhisperLite that my dad bought 25 years ago. Some guide companies on Denali mount three WhisperLites to a board and set a giant pot of snow on them to get a lot of water quickly. I wouldn’t bother doing that for two or three person expeditions, but would recommend bringing two liquid fuel stoves so that you can melt snow and cook at the same time. Remember to bring some kind of solid, non-flammable surface to set your stove on if you’re going on an expedition.
As for canister stoves, the all-in-one style like the MSR Reactor, MSR WindBurner, or Jetboil is what you want if you’re going to be melting snow. They are far more fuel efficient than basic canister stoves, and melt snow way, way faster. The Jetboil and WindBurner are a good size for one or maybe two people, but the extra weight of the Reactor is worth it for the extra water capacity if you’re often going out with two or more people. Some Jetboil models are lighter than the MSR stoves, but they don’t work as well in the wind. These things are so fast that they allow you to carry less water in the winter and spring since stopping to melt more isn't a big deal.
Photo: Aaron Scott stopping to brew up some water on Mt. Dan Beard.
Canister stoves don’t require much (or any) cleaning or maintenance, but they do have a few quirks. First: In cold temperatures you need to keep the canister as warm as possible. I keep the fuel in my sleeping bag at night so that it’s warm in the morning, and use a piece of closed cell foam to keep the canister off the snow while it’s in use. There are a couple of other tricks that people use to keep the fuel warm (like adding a sketchy device called a heat exchanger, or setting the can in a bit of warm water as you cook), but I’m lazy and that’s all I do. If possible, I melt my water before the sun goes down while the temperature is warmer. Second: Be careful to avoid misthreading the canister as you screw it onto the stove. This happened to my Jetboil on Denali in 2012, and it was a bummer to say the least. Third: The canister valves or stove jets can ice up. When Jens Holsten and I found ourselves unable to find the way down from the summit of Alaska’s Peak 11,300 in in the dark, we dug a small cave and fired up the Jetboil. We didn’t have sleeping bags. After a couple of pots of hot tea the stove suddenly just stopped. “Huh,” I said, “I thought I’d brought a full canister.” It was a daunting moment, suddenly realizing that we would have to sit through the 0ish degree night without sleeping bags, warm food, or drinks, and descend then next day without water. At some point the next day I tried the stove again, and it worked fine. I figure the jet or canister valve must have iced up, something that we could have easily fixed in our snow cave if we weren’t too tired to think clearly.
Photo: Sometimes it's nice to cook and melt water in your tent, and combined pot/stove systems like the Reactor and Jetboil make it a lot easier to do so. Just be sure to open the door a little to clear out carbon monoxide and condensation. I've heard a convincing argument about how even small amounts of carbon monoxide can damage the brain and hinder the acclimatization process.
It’s all a lot more simple in the summer. I usually use a MSR Pocket Rocket and a light pot. It’s light, simple, and has never let me down. I don’t worry too much about what kind of pot I use, as long as it’s pretty light. Sometimes I’ll bring a little foil in case I want to cook fish or vegetables over a fire. Easy livin’!
I rarely purify water high in the Cascades, and neither do many of my friends. I’ve drank out of dozens, maybe hundreds, of streams, creeks, and rivers in the Washington Cascades, and have never gotten sick from them. I have had Giardia, but I think it was from water in a roadside campground in British Columbia. I do purify most lake water, and water from streams where I know a lot of people camp upstream, unless I’m really thirsty. I get a little more picky in the late summer and early fall when there is less water flowing.
I know that we’re very lucky around here with our pristine glaciers and all, and usually do something to clean my water when I travel. I’ve used several different kinds of filters, but most have either broken or gotten so clogged that they don’t work fast enough for me. At this point my go to methods are UV light from a Steripen, or iodine. A lot of people I know are skeptical about the durability of Steripens, but mine is five years old and going strong. It’s an old model that takes obscure CR123 batteries, but two batteries will usually clean about 40 or 50 liters. When it really matters I’ll have spare batteries on hand and maybe some iodine as a backup. When I’m working for the Forest Service I’ll usually be with a group of two or three thirsty people, and we’ll bring a MSR Gravity Filter. It’s a 4 liter bag with a hose and filter sticking out of it that you fill with water and hang from a tree. Getting clean water from it is easy: place your bottle under the hose, open a little hose clamp to start the flow, and walk away for a few minutes as your bottle fills.
As far as carrying your water goes, don't overthink it. Usually I just reuse plastic bottles from store bought drinks. Anything with a fairly wide mouth for easy filling works fine. Replace them every once in a while before the plastic breaks down. They are as lightweight as it gets, and I don't have to worry about cleaning drink mix residue from the inside because I can just replace it. Sometimes I'll also carry a MSR Dromedary for extra capacity. In cold conditions a Nalgene or something similar is nice to have since you don't have to worry about putting hot water in them, but you can also put hot water in a Dromedary. I rarely use water bladders with a drinking tube on them because I like to be able to keep track of how much I drink, and I've had several start leaking over the years.
That’s all for now! The next part of this series will be about insulation and outerwear. Expect a bit of a wait though, because apparently we’re about to get some snow, and I’m ready to ski!
Photo: Even though we had to walk 20 miles to get there, a fishing pole and reel were worth the weight when a few of us went to climb Cathedral Peak in the North Cascades. I have a telescoping pole that I bring along if I know that we'll have some downtime at a lake. Fishing is a fun way to pass the time, and at many lakes high in the Cascades, a reliable source of extra protein.