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Alternatives to Pressurized Fuel

Recently I attended a Boy Scout Leader Roundtable meeting where they held a Pressurized Fuel Training session. The focus of this training was to teach leaders what they should be teaching boy scouts about safety rules for using primarily cooking stoves, but also lanterns and heaters that use propane or liquid fuels under pressure. The point was not at all to teach how to use these devices, but was purely about safety.

The point of this article is not to discuss the specifics of the safety rules. I'm sure you can find them elsewhere on-line, and frankly a lot of it was common sense (like reading the manual that came with the device you are using and following their instructions). The point of this article is to offer answers to the following questions that came up in my mind during this training: 1) If there are so many safety issues with pressurized fuel, why use it? and 2) What are the alternatives?

The answer to the first question has to do with the BSA and other organizations adopting the Leave No Trace philosophy. I won't go into all the details on this either, but suffice to say that Leave No Trace is an environmentalist movement which among other things discourages the use (or over-use) of wood found in the wild for campfires or for building camp furniture, etc.

This is somewhat at odds with the old tradition of scouting which is closely linked with the woodcraft movement of the early 20th century. This oft misunderstood social movement heartily encouraged people to get out of the over-crowded cities and re-discover the joys of primitive outdoor living. The term "woodcraft" not only referred to the fact that camping, hunting, and fishing activities were often conducted in the woods, but it also referred to the skills required for survival in the woods with a bare minimum of modern equipment. Such survival skills included the ability to start a fire without matches and the ability to build shelters in the wild. Naturally, it wasn't enough to just know about these skills; they required some practice, and some people over time came to feel that the practice of these skills was unnecessarily destructive.

Leave No Trace presents us with new problems. First, unlike wood found in the wild, pressurized fuel and the devices that use it are not free. Many people are reluctant to buy something like this that they would only use once or twice a year. Then there is the safety issue. Even when handled properly, these devices sometimes malfunction. And last but not least, people simply enjoy gathering around a campfire to tell stories, roast marshmallows, etc.

So, what about the alternatives? For lanterns, there are very good battery-powered models. There are even models with remote controls and night lights. These are plenty bright enough (remember that even a dim light seems bright when you are in the woods at night), don't make any noise, and are perfectly safe to leave unattended or to give to a child.

For cooking, match-light charcoal works quite well. This does not require any special skills. You can bring along a small portable grill or use whatever fire pit or grill is provided by the park. Charcoal is probably better than wood for dutch oven cooking, and definitely better than pressurized fuel, because some dutch oven recipes require coals to be placed on top.

For campfires and cooking over wood, first and foremost you need to know and obey the rules of the park you are staying in. If you decide to use wood, you can use less wood by simply building smaller fires. The old-time woodcrafters were fond of pointing out the wisdom of the Indians who would build a small fire and gather in closer to it while white men would waste materials by building a big fire that was so hot they'd have to back away from it.

For staying warm at night, throw on an extra blanket or buy a sleeping bag that is rated for lower temperatures. I recently read about a family that had some kind of heater in their tent and were found dead the next morning due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Is getting a better night's sleep worth that kind of risk?

I'm not saying I won't use pressurized fuel, but I don't think people should feel obligated to use it due to environmental concerns if they are uncomfortable with the safety issues or just like cooking on an old-fashioned campfire while observing park rules.

The author, Greg Bonney, is the owner of Bonney Information and E-Commerce and founder of Scoutcamping.com (http://www.scoutcamping.com).

Copyright © 2005 Bonney Information and E-Commerce.

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