Camp Stove VS Camp Fire

Camp Stove versus Camp Fire
(“Primus” versus “Primal”)

Steven M. Watts

A Short Cynical History

Iprimusn the early days of the twentieth century, portable camp stoves–fueled by kerosene (liquid paraffin), gasoline or alcohol—began to appear in the inventories of campers, explorers and military campaigners. These ingenious devices were perfect for above-tree-line-mountaineering, long sea voyages and arctic expeditions. They provided a ready means for cooking in these places and conditions where the supply of firewood was scant to non-existent. Eventually camp stoves began to replace the traditional campfire, as recreational campers outfitted themselves with gear better suited to a full scale Himalayan summit assault than to a weekend of camp life in a national forest. Traditional campfire skills, and the old style cookcraft that accompanied them, began to fade. The one pot meal, boiled over the one burner stove, became the model for camping efficiency—as the multi-course meal—boiled, baked, fried and roasted on and by the campfire by an experienced woodsman—was reduced to a quaint, nostalgic novelty demonstration of frontier-style technology. If the fire was not totally absent from the camp, it might appear later as a kind of afterthought to the meal—a pre-bedtime venue for story telling, group singing and that sadistic, nocturnal rite of marshmallow skewering and incineration dear to the hearts of all young campers.

The Environmental Question

In retrospect, we can better examine the environmental impact that these new stove technologies have had. There is a disturbingly short-sighted idea floating around (fueled by the equipment manufacturers inspired “leave-no-trace” movement) which touts the use of stoves over fires as the more environmentally responsible practice. It must be said, that stove use has indeed prevented the scaring of sensitive environments by insensitive and unskilled campers. But, to assume that their use leaves no trace is to ignore the mining and refining of the metals used as the raw materials, the manufacturing plants and processes necessary for their production, and the international transportation systems needed to deliver them to your front door. The fuels necessary for the stoves’ function also require similar environmental costs. You may walk away from camp with no fire scar, but you’ve contributed to many other scars in many other places with your use of the camp stove. Ah, life is not so simple.

A Place Of Balance

So, does the above rant argue against the use of portable cooking stoves in the camps of traditional-style campers? Not at all…these devices were there, they are part of the historical record, and campers in the 1920’s appreciated new developments and conveniences as much as we do today. The difference between then and now has more to do with knowledge and skill than it has to do with technology. The experienced woodsman of old quickly mastered these new devices and added them to his gear list whenever needed or wanted. But, he still possessed the skills to build, maintain, and use his campfire for cooking, warmth, fellowship and sundry spiritual pursuits. He appreciated the ability to quickly boil up a billy of tea in less than ideal fire-making conditions, but he also possessed the skills necessary to build a fire (using several methods) in almost all conditions. He probably admired the ingenuity of design and fine workmanship that these devices represented, but above all he admired the woodcraft skills possessed by the masters of his sport.

For those venturing beyond the firewood boundary, these stoves opened up new avenues of experience, but the reality is that most camping was done in less demanding environments and in more sylvan settings. For the old-time outer–more interested in “living the open air life” than exploring beyond the known boundaries– the fire remained the center of camp life.

In Praise Of The Camp Stove

“The utility of the stove for Camping is a product of civilization, an article of utility and expedition used against the protest of sentiment, but never against ones’ sense of convenience. The delight of cooking a la gipsy is one thing, but the delight of having coffee, porridge, bacon and eggs, and all ready in twenty minutes, with clean pans, is another…Why I was so slow to take up the ‘Primus’ for Camping purposes, was because of hatred of paraffin. Experiments, begun fifteen years ago, both at home and Sunbury Camp, showed me what a powerful and efficient things it was.”

-T.H. Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908

In Praise Of The Campfire

“What is a camp without a campfire?—no camp at all, but a chilly place in the landscape, where some people happen to have some things. Only the ancient sacred fire of wood has power to touch and thrill the chords of primitive remembrance. When men sit together at the campfire they seem to shed all modern form and poise, and hark back to the primitive—to meet as man and man—to show the naked soul…The campfire, then is the focal center of all primitive brotherhood. We shall not fail to use its magic power.

-Ernest Thompson Seton, The Nine Leading Principles of Woodcraft, 1900


 

Steve Watts directs the Aboriginal Studies Program and the Traditional Outdoor Skills Program at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, North Carolina. Watts is the author of Practicing Primitive: A Handbook of Aboriginal Skills, Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2004.

, ,

9 Responses to Camp Stove VS Camp Fire

  1. douggetgood@yahoo.ca'
    Doug Getgood November 6, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

    I remember taking a Canoeing course in the 90s and I still recall how the instructors scoffed at my blackened pots. There seemed to be a sort of hierarchy that looked down on the lowly fire tenders!

  2. ktoddbrown@gmail.com'
    Kathe TB November 6, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    As someone who walks both modern and traditional camping styles I have to defend the camp stove a little here. Most people when the go out in the woods go to the same place that other people go to. Maybe it’s close to a city but with just enough wild flavor to satisfy the urge or maybe it’s exceptionally beautiful, who knows. Point is that most places that most people go are high use. There simply isn’t the fuel to get a traditional roaring camp fire going, or even a cheery little flame sometimes in these locations. Stoves, and the regulations that insist on their use in certain area’s, allow the masses to get just that much closer to the wild. And that can’t be a bad thing.

    By all means, for those of us who wonder a bit further off the beaten path a traditional fire with fir bough beds are a priceless luxury. And I would agree that any woodswoman worth her salt knows how to lay a fire under any condition and could bake/boil/fry her way though any meal you care to throw at her. But, again, not being a woodswoman doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your ass out on the trail once and a while. Stoves and modern gear allows folks to not only do that but enjoy it with a much easier learning curve.

  3. douggetgood@yahoo.ca'
    Doug Getgood November 6, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

    My go-to these days is a firebox. Whether it is one I have made or a purchased model, they help to conserve wood as well as focus most of the heat towards the heated pot. The small ones are not that good for regulating heat, but the are phenomenal for bringing about a quick boil.

  4. rockymountainbushcraft@hotmail.com'
    Rocky Mountain Bushcraft November 7, 2014 at 11:38 am #

    Great article Steve, thank you. Another unintended consequence of the “Leave No Trace” camp stove philosophy is that, coupled with the over-management of the Western forests by the Park Service/USFS, the forests have accumulated a staggering amount of dead wood that’s been helping to fuel “super fires” that have ravaged the landscape here. Rocky Mountain National Park is so restrictive on campfires, that even in the dead of winter with 8 feet of snow covering everything, it is illegal to harvest dead wood and build a campfire. They also heavily restrict the harvesting of dead wood for firewood by local residents, only granting 10 permits per year at a maximum 5 cords a piece. There is just way too much fuel laying on the ground, and it will eventually get sparked by one of the thousands of lightning strikes in the area each year and cause another massive wildfire, one that might sadly burn through most of the park because of these short-sighted policies.

    • faultroy@grm.net'
      faultroy November 24, 2014 at 12:10 am #

      Very well said, and thanks for saying it.

  5. scottiec96@yahoo.com'
    ghostdog November 7, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    “to assume that their use leaves no trace is to ignore the mining and refining of the metals used as the raw materials, the manufacturing plants and processes necessary for their production, and the international transportation systems needed to deliver them to your front door. The fuels necessary for the stoves’ function also require similar environmental costs. ”

    that is not a new thought but for sure they are going to be doing all that anyway and stoves and fuel will not impact it one way of the other for the most part. There are some alcohol stoves now that do a fine job, renewable fuel and the gallon containers are recyclable. I feel a bit guilty about empty propane canisters though.

    One survey suggests that folks new to the outdoors make the most campfires on their trips and those who have been doing it for more than 20 years make the fewest. I seem to fit that mould, cooked over a hundred fires the summer when I was 16 but might have one or two a year now and make them small. It is hard to ignore the clean and stealthy liquid or gas stoves, fresher air and don’t blot out the sights of the landscape or night sky…

    But I did grill a bird over the campfire coals on my last trip on the next to last night and it was so good. Building a skillful and efficient fire ring is a thing of beauty too…

  6. info@prickeared.com'
    Dave February 22, 2015 at 10:55 pm #

    ” But, to assume that their use leaves no trace is to ignore the mining and refining of the metals used as the raw materials, the manufacturing plants and processes necessary for their production, and the international transportation systems needed to deliver them to your front door. The fuels necessary for the stoves’ function also require similar environmental costs. You may walk away from camp with no fire scar, but you’ve contributed to many other scars in many other places with your use of the camp stove. Ah, life is not so simple.”

    In other words, “not in my backyard” mentality.

    A documentary “A Fierce Green Fire” covered that topic. When the environmentalist movement began, all the processing and dumping were relocated from white neighbourhoods to black neighbourhoods. Since the white neighbourhoods were pristine and clean, no one really cared about African Americans until the people started speaking up for themselves and accused environmentalists of racism. Nowadays that doesn’t happen as frequently.

    Of course, now the biggest clash is developed nations versus developing nations. Developing nations are telling westerners they want the same living standards, but they are being told that it is too late and Europeans, Americans, Australians and Canadians are unwilling to compromise.

    • Christian Noble February 23, 2015 at 10:05 am #

      Nice post Dave. Funny how in our first-world countries we call it development, but in the third-world it is deforestation.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Two kinds of fires... - - November 9, 2014

    […] consider this my humble attempt at a supplement to Steve Watts’ excellent article on the Camp Stove vs. Camp Fire.  In that article, Steve quotes Ernest Thompson Seton in favor of the campfire. Here is a great […]

Leave a Reply