Hobo Stick Stove, Revisited

We’re settled in back home after the pandemonium and ecstasy of a 6 day vacation with little kids. We covered all possible bases– train travel, model train museum; mountain hike, mountain farm museum; camping, deluxe B&B. The mountains of North Carolina were very satisfying. I was worried I would be disappointed, I was not. We enjoyed spanning views of hazy ‘blue mountains’ and deliciously chilly breezes. It was wonderful.

As I mentioned before, in the process of packing the camping stuff last week, I had a dilemma about our stove. Since we’re traveling by train as far as Atlanta, we would need to pack as light as possible. We have a tiny backpackers stove back in Alaska of course, but here in New Orleans with the two itty-bitties in tow, we only ever go car camping, so we just have the family style 2-burner propane monster. I just didn’t want to bring that behemoth for a mere two nights of camping. We’d cook sausages over the fire for dinner, but what about breakfast and most essentially, what about coffee?!!?

DIY camp stove-- first model

I have been wanting to make a new improved hobo stick stove since I made this first one two years ago, and necessity was the mother of my ass-whupping once again. I had a rectangular olive oil can saved for just that purpose, so I broke it out the morning before our trip, with a tuna can and some tin snips, and put together a real beauty. Oh I do love design. I think maybe I was meant to be an engineer. Of small, practical, recycled home stuff. This kind of project makes me positively giddy.

There are lots of ways to approach the stick stove, depending on what materials you’ve got around. My first one was a large size tomato can and although it worked, it was not quite big enough. I had this olive oil can saved, but when I took it out and played around with orientation I realized that it was too big. Then I got the idea to cut it in half. Perfect! Oh joy!

The other main problem with the first model was lack of air flow. As you can kind of see in the photo, I had set sticks across the open top of the can to lift the pot up and create the ‘chimney,’ right under the pot itself. In case anyone is embarking on this project without knowing much about fire-making in general, here’s an important fact. Fire needs a lot of oxygen. To get oxygen to flow through your fire, there has to be what’s called “draw” which means hot air going out (at top) pulls air in (at bottom hopefully). The size of the exit hole is what determines how much air your fire gets. A huge entrance hole makes no difference if the exit hole is too small or otherwise constricted.

My exit hole on the first stove was inadequate. A fire without enough oxygen will never get very hot, and that’s a lot of why it took so long to boil water. This time, I had an idea to use a smaller can to create a grate on top, like on a regular stove. Something to hold the pot well up off of the stovetop, and let the hot air and smoke flow out relatively unimpeded between the tines.

I also added a grate underneath the firebox (where the sticks go) so that air can get in easier too. I was so excited when I finished I almost peed my pants.

Sadly, we seem to have lost the camera cord on our trip, so I can’t add in photos of this fucking adorable stove in use. But at least I can give the full report.

It worked great. Certainly better than the first model, though I feel there’s still lots of room for improvement. Even with the ‘burner’ at top and ‘ash grate’ at bottom, it still had air flow problems. I think that just as important as the design of the stove itself is the knowing how to use it, and just like every other of these homemaking/homesteading pursuits, and maybe life as a whole, practice is the definitive factor.

Here’s a few tips for use I discovered in my relatively brief stint:

  • Use only crackly dry sticks, this stove doesn’t have room for lesser fuel.
  • Size matters. It seemed like a mix of pencil to fat finger sized sticks worked best.
  • Have everything ready and at hand. This stove needs more or less constant feeding.
  • The time to add more sticks is just when the fire is flaring it’s highest and looks like it doesn’t need any. If you wait till it dies down and looks ready, the new sticks will cool it down too much and you will just straggle along never getting hot enough to boil water.
  • Keep the firebox mostly full of wood for the fastest cooking, but don’t pack it in there too tightly or you lose your air flow again.
  • Because of the already difficult air flow, orientation is everything. You have to be catching the breeze, not blocking it. Since morning and evening breezes are often in flux, I had to rotate my stove a lot. Any elevation off the ground will help, but bear in mind this sucker gets hot, so no setting it on wooden picnic tables like I did in that photo up top. Char mark. Bad girl.

Enjoy the primal experience of cooking on a tin can with a bundle of sticks! It’s great fun.

Family Style

Our vacation plans got changed up a bit, for the better. My Man decided not to go to Alaska after all, instead he’s coming with us to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yea for family vacations!

We leave tomorrow morning, on the train. It’s a 12 hour trip to Atlanta, but we got a room (they’re cheap during the day) so I think the train trip with kids will be a blast. We spend the night in Atlanta, then rent a car and drive north to the Foxfire Museum and then on to Bryson City, North Carolina, at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We spend one night in town at a cute looking historic bed and breakfast (full breakfast and dinner included!!! Now that’s what I call a vacation!), visit a model train museum, then head up into the park for two nights of campground camping. We did briefly entertain the thought that maybe we could just hike in a little ways for some real camping, but fortunately thought better of it. A few more years. Just a few more years….

But get this– Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak on the Appalachian trail (6,000 and some feet) has a road going almost all the way up it, with just a half mile trail taking you all the way to the top! I’ve never been grateful for a road up a mountain before, but this means we can “hike” a part of the Appalachian trail, and get a view! Awesome. Hooray for progress.

The 4yo is looking forward to some fishing. She asked for a “princess fishing pole” for her birthday, and although she plays with it lots at home and has figured out how to cast pretty darn good, we’ve only been out real fishing once. The campground has a stream right there, and I suspect there will be other good spots to toss in a line. I’ve never been much for pole fishing myself, back home we use nets, but I can see the appeal for a little kid.

After our little national park adventure, we head back to Atlanta, then back home on the train.

6 days of action-packed family vacation. We’re really excited, we haven’t had a fun trip like this in I don’t even know how long. It’s going to be exhausting, but I think I’m ready for it. Sometimes you want a relaxing vacation, sometimes you want adventure. I’m ready for some (kid-friendly) adventure.

I’m dying to tell you about my new and improved hobo stick stove, but I feel it should be a seperate post. I’m going to hold off a few days, just to titillate you. Otherwise, I’ll catch up with y’all next week!

Camping with Kids: Whatever it Takes

On Tuesday, the 3YO spied the tent under the bed and got that Gleam in her eye.

“Let’s go camping!” she cried with joy and excitement.

“Oh, yeah, okay. Good idea.” I thought quickly, “We can set the tent up in the backyard!”

“No.” She says indignantly. Grown-ups really need you to spell everything out for them. “I want to go real camping.”

Uh-oh. I can see she means business.

With feigned mama enthusiasm, I grasp for a creative redirect.”Oh, I know! We can go set up the tent at the park, and have a picnic!” (Oh boy!)

“NONONO! I want to go real camping!” The tears are already forming.

Time to beg reason.

“Well, sweetie, it’s really cold. I think we would be too cold.”

The tears turn to a triumphant smile of problem solving, “Don’t worry mama! We can wear all our clothes at once!”

“Oh… my love…” I can’t really keep the pride out of my voice, or the hesitation. She knows I’m a sucker for her love of camping. We go back and forth with reasons and 3YO solutions, and more reasons. I offer camping tomorrow, but even still she cries real tears of devastation, because she wants to go camping “this day” and “I yuv camping, mama.”

I spent the evening packing and we left in the morning, me solo with two bitties. To go camping at the beach, despite a forecast of 34 degrees with north winds 5-10 mph.

Crazy? I know. Camping with little kids is always crazy. But it’s wonderful too. It’s a microcosm of mothering intensities. Going as the lone adult, with two separate directions for disaster, takes everything I’ve got. And I couldn’t do it for more than one night I don’t think. But for one night, if I give it my all and everything, it can be great.

This was our second trip with myself as the only adult present. There was a couple of other trips where My Man couldn’t come, but I did have other adult backup. Add in a couple of trips with My Man, and I can happily say, I’m starting to get good at packing for camping with kids.

I hate to say it, but it really is all about the gear. We started out with all our pre-kid backpacking gear, of course. Mummy bags, whisperlite stove, tiny tent. Before our trip to Alaska this last summer, I splurged on a whole new set-up, for the only kind of camping we’re likely to do for awhile. Car camping.

Our first kid-camping trip was with just the one, when she was about a year and a half. We went to the desert in Northern Arizona. It was winter. Cold. The coldest night was 20 degrees. The days were warm, and fine. But the nights were something like hell. This was pre-kid-camping-gear-splurge. I had sewed her a tiny little sleeping bag, cute– but totally inadequate. Plus, she ooched out of it constantly. In addition to the night nursing, which was at a fever pitch right about then, I kept waking up afraid she was freezing to death. We tried all the sleeping bag arrangements, and none really worked.

I have since bought two of those old school big rectangular bags that zip together into one giant family bag. Well, we haven’t used it yet with My Man, don’t know how that will work. But I fit in there with one kiddo on each side brilliantly. The key here is that they can’t fall out the sides, and if they ooch up and out into the cold night I can easily pull them back down into the warmth. The sleeping bag situation isn’t so critical of course if the weather is warm. Like it is when normal people go camping. But if you’re going to camp in anything colder than say, 50 at night, you’ll want to have a good set-up. Sleeping when you’re camping is hard enough without worrying about your kids all night.

I shouldn’t say it’s all about the gear. There’s a least one other crucial ingredient.

You must lay to rest all your early 20’s hard-core camping standards and expectations.

I have learned to let it all hang out when we go camping, especially when I’m the solo parent. Bring anything you think might help, anything! Fill your car. (Just leave plenty of room for lots and lots of super special snacks. All the fancy packaging stuff you don’t normally get.)

Most people don’t even go camping with little kids. I could just give up and stay home, no one could blame me. But, I love watching their little brains and bodies suck up all that primitive woodsy goodness. They adore playing in the woods, they adore setting up the tent, they adore the campfire. I figure, whatever it takes to get us out there.

Here’s my list. My hard-core, pre-kid self considers this excessive, even luxurious. But some people will consider it spare. Obviously, every family will have vastly different needs. Anyway, it’s a starting point.

Camping with Kids

Sleeping

  • tent, big enough for all the sleeping bodies plus lots of gear
  • sleeping bags, don’t skimp, plan to be warm!
  • sleeping pads, we have thermarests
  • extra blankets, one for the bed, a couple small ones for kids to snuggle in around the fire
  • pillows, it took me years to come around to this one. Don’t wait!
  • their warmest footie pajamas
  • favorite bedtime books
  • toothbrushes, toothpaste

General

  • chairs, if you have room in your car, this is a great luxury. You might get ten minutes to sit down!
  • ground pad for sitting on, we use yoga mats
  • lighter, plus fire starting material and firewood
  • trash bags
  • flashlights or headlamps, one for every kid plus a grown-up one
  • camera, extra batteries
  • TP, don’t forget
  • diapers
  • wipes

Playing

  • buckets
  • shovels, scoops, even just plastic spoons for digging
  • string
  • balls
  • obnoxious but effective toys, for when you really need to distract them so you can make breakfast

Cooking

  • stove
  • fuel
  • pots/pans
  • bowls, silverware
  • grown-up cups, sippy cups
  • knife
  • water bottles

Food

  • coffee– it may not be food, but it tops my list of absolute essentials
  • half and half, without which coffee is useless for me
  • sausages– why cook dinner when everyone loves to put food on a stick and hold it over a fire?
  • buns, mustard *optional
  • marshmallows, or you’ll catch hell
  • milk, if your kids are milk drinkers
  • oatmeal makes a great rib-sticking camp breakfast, I pre-measure mine out into a baggie along with the salt, mornings can be rough…
  • butter
  • brown sugar
  • hot cocoa

Snacks– like I said, whatever is a treat for your family

  • cheese sticks– despite all my attempts, the 3YO is just not interested in cheese as a snack unless it comes wrapped in plastic, which I almost never buy her
  • crackers
  • “bunny rabbit cereal” (at home we eat homemade granola, so storebought cereal is a treat)
  • individual yogurts or kefir drinks

After you’ve crammed all that stuff into your car, carefully unpack all expectations and take them back into the house. After all your work, the kids might prefer to spend an hour playing in the car when you get there. Take a deep breath. Small souls confronted with overwhelming newness turn toward the familiar. At least, that’s what I told myself. Consider it a chance to get the gear unpacked and set up. Or, take yer chair out, find a good spot, and admire a tree your own damn self.

An All-American Weekend at the Beach

We took an impromptu road trip last weekend. Instead of having a quiet Thanksgiving at home, we took those four days and drove to the beach! It was fun, and a real eye opener into America.

I grew up in Alaska, with hippie parents, in an always-under-construction quanset hut. So, my view of America is skewed. Even this move has been to a bubble. A bubble of green-ness, where everyone shops at whole foods, and sets their recycling out once every other week. A quaint part of town with old quirky houses, little shops, a neighborhood feel.

It’s good, I guess, to have a wake up call.

Most of America is one big parking lot with box stores on all sides. Jesus. We drove for two days (300 miles, we have kids remember?) all through box store suburbia, lined beach side with a forced, tourist-cute clamor of hotels, condos, and “residences.” We didn’t mean to drive so far, but we were looking for a campground. Where people use, like, tents.

There was supposed to be one at the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and the area was certainly cool enough to want to camp in. The high rise vacation-land had abruptly ended and it was just one long stretch of sandy beach and windblown dunes, with postcard quality, glinting blue water. But the gate was closed. The big National Park sign board next to it offered no indication of why they might be closed. We played in the sand for awhile, then drove on.

The next State Park campground informed us smugly that they were completely booked, often up to 11 months in advance. “We’re a very popular park.”

We had one more possibility before giving up and booking a room at one of the theme park hotels. We’d been driving for much too long already.

About 10 minutes before we got to Grayton Beach, the ambience abruptly changed. The buildings got smaller, with muted, stylishly earthy paint jobs. There were big SUVs with bicycles and kayaks everywhere. Trees lined the road. Suddenly the complete dearth of drinkable coffee ended with a chic little Starbucks (I’m ashamed to say I was ecsatic.)

We had just entered a different theme park. Yuppie Family Vacation at the Beach Park. Sorrowfully, we felt much more at home.

Well, it’s not my fault that yuppies co-opt everything groovy and good.

The town near our campground was called Seaside, but we called it Pleasantville. Everything had an eerily perfect, carefree yet endlessly chic, Real Simple* weekend at the beach feel. A pack of Airstreams parked around the very self conscious town square sold every kind of boutique food you might want. Including cupcakes. A whole Airstream selling just cupcakes.

The campground (and we should just be thankful we found one!) was in a small pocket of State Park. Quite gorgeous actually. A forest of tall pine trees skirted with some kind of tiny palm, and loads of prickery bushes. A lagoon with towering grasses. Sculpted scrub dunes. And of course, a long stretch of that white “sugar” sand beach washed by sparkling turquoise waves. A true paradise.

For $34 per night.

Yes, we payed almost $70 for two nights of camping.

Rather hard to swallow for Alaska folks, used to driving just half an hour from our home to an endless wilderness of free camping. But we payed, we stayed, and we enjoyed it even. The place really was beautiful, even with the high rises in the distance and the sound of the highway nearby.

And, as anticipated, the Toddler adored the beach. She played in the waves and the sand just as euphorically as we could have hoped for. It was quite satisfying. And Papa even got her a kite, which we flew with glee. How Hallmark. How America. How Family Vacation.

But, my favorite part of the weekend was (not coincidentally) the one thing that wouldn’t fit onto an American Greetings card.

My new tin can campstove!

*A word of apology to readers of this mag in our midst. I can’t stand the thing. No other magazine outrages me on such a profound level. But yes, part of why it outrages me is because I secretly love that very complexly achieved “simple” look.

15 Minute DIY Camp Stove

Okay. Let’s get this straight. First off, I sure didn’t invent the idea. I saw a more refined version of this stove when Erin and Hig of Ground Truth Trekking passed through Cordova en route from Puget Sound to the Bering Sea by foot (and pack raft). Though I found it hard to believe, they claimed to have used this stove the whole way, burning only twigs to boil water in just 10 or 15 minutes. Often with wet wood!

Secondly, although I have been intending to make a tin can version of their stove ever since I saw it, I had just never gotten around to it. What really motivated me to finally kick my own butt into gear was my addiction to good coffee, and a purely selfish desire to stay out of Walmart.

We were going to be heading out of the good-coffee-island of New Orleans, into the surrounding good-coffee-less sea of The South for four whole days. How would we survive? We hadn’t known if we would do any camping at all down here, so we had only brought minimal gear. Our tent, sleeping pads and one sleeping bag (blankets would make up the extra). No Whisperlite. No blackened from the campfire cooking pots. I had sort of thought that if we did end up camping much, it would be car camping, and it would be worth it to just buy one of those folding two burner propane dealies. But the only place I’d seen here that would sell that sort of thing was a Walmart. And what with our last minute road trip idea, I’d have to make the journey to the dreaded Walmart on Thanksgiving morning. No way in Hell I could want to do that.

But I did have a large size tin can in the recycling bag.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Or, as in this case, the mother of ass kicking.

No tin snips, not even a crappy knife to punch holes with. Didn’t have the right size piece of wood to wedge into the can to make hammering a nail through possible. Hubby and Toddler asleep, Babe fussing, I didn’t have much time. I used a screw and my drill to make a ring of holes, and then punched through the holes with a butter knife to cut out the door. A few other details and 15 minutes later I had an adorably ghetto camp stove!

Of course, I had no idea if it would work. Kind of didn’t believe it would. But ground a bunch of coffee and packed the french press just in case.

I am proud to announce it did work! Beautifully well for a first attempt, 15 minute hack job. The first morning using it was gleeful. I didn’t mind the need for constant feeding and occasional blowing, who doesn’t love playing with fire? To think I made it out of an old tin can! To think I almost went out and bought a camp stove!

Of course, it’s pretty much just for boiling stuff. Not a very adjustable heat source, it’s high or nothin’ baby. But, the simplicity of it is fantastic.

After a little research online I found a good list of homemade stove links. The tin can stick stove appears to be called a Hobo Stove. Who can’t love a name like that? There seems to be lots of variation in the richly creative world of DIY. I intend to trial a few a these, and I promise to keep you updated on the results.

BTW: It took about 14 minutes to boil a quart of water. I’m sure this would be extremely variable based on the quality of your wood, breeze, feeding frequency, etc.

Note: Those holes you see in the back were my idea of exit ventilation, but were inadequate. I had to set two sticks on top of the can, and set the kettle atop those. Which worked fine, really.