Tarps & Alcohol Stoves

I aim to bikepack light. The pursuit of it can, of course, become an obsession and a laughable absurdity, but, then again, such things are also the makings of a largely harmless hobby and an aesthetic. In an admiring nod to the Crane cousins, I went for one month in Ecuador and Peru where every day I got rid of at least one thing to drop my travel weight. “Things” could include tags on the inside of a jacket or lengths of overlong compression straps. It was an amusement and an inquiry, of sorts. Best not to take it seriously.

The promise is faster movement, longer distances, fresher legs to do and see and be more. Lifting the bike up, cracking down a techy descent, no Earthly pitch too steep. No doubt for some it’s an experiment in getting rid of possessions; it can also make some Europeans inexplicably righteous and angry. But light gear is often expensive, it can incur discomforts small and large, it can let you down if it’s fragile, or it can make it so that you’re less social, like when cooking only for yourself with your tiny mug or when you regretfully decline a ticket to the opera because your only trousers are ghastly stinking 3/4 cycling shorts.

And sometimes light stuff just irritates. Obviously, this is an expression of my own limitations. A few months ago I borrowed an alcohol stove from Nancy. The innocuous seeming bottle of harmless-ish fuel, the quiet operation, the existential relief of the parsimony of the design (it is, um, a cat food tin with holes in it): all of that was compelling. Night after night, though, I just scowled at the thing and its kind of warming my food performance. Inevitably it would run out of alcohol just short of an important milestone, like cooking. My companions were polite in not speaking aloud their moral judgment at my colossal lack of virtue.

On the other hand, I recently had only a tarp for conditions which, if you’d told me about them in advance, I would have certainly brought my tent for. Yes, I got a little wet from windblown rain, I had to mind the edges of the quilt a bit more to keep in heat, I woke in the middle of the night having to deal with pooling water near my head. But the rectangle of nylon was brilliant and I couldn’t have been happier.

Evidently, to me finicky cooking is a pain in the ass but finicky sleep is just flat out great. Lightweight gear seems more like empirical introspection about the bizarre idiosyncratic things you don’t care about than it is about rational equipment choice. I’m okay with that.


15 thoughts on “Tarps & Alcohol Stoves

  1. A friend of mine says “The only things in your pack should be what YOU can’t live without”. If you think about that, it’s perfect.

  2. “The pursuit of it can, of course, become an obsession and a laughable absurdity, but, then again, such things are also the makings of a largely harmless hobby and an aesthetic.”

    Well said, Joe.

  3. I have cooked thousands of meals on that “cat food can with holes in it” and I do not relate to your experience with it. It is a lovely piece of equipment and i would encourage you to give it another try. Email me if y uu noeed emsoe operation tips.

  4. Judicious windscreen use with Skurka’s “fancy feast” alky stove yields good results in my experience. Switching to a wide/squatty solo pot also seemed to help. Being spoiled here in NM has relegated my alcohol stove use for the rare occasion these days- I boil water by the way of hobo fires or keep it really simple with an esbit tab for my 475ml pot, good enough for most single “boil in bag” meals.

    Finicky sleep is a deal breaker for me nowadays, no longer does a torso length Ridgerest pad cut it. I need my insulated air pad to catch a few hours to be good to go the following day. I do wish less would suffice.

  5. I have had similar issues with the Triad Ti alcohol/meths stove….great in the summer if you are not in a rush but hopeless in cold conditions to the point where I carried a tea light candle to heat the stove and fuel prior to lighting! My friends were not shy in pointing out the abserdity of this and still do four years later :)
    Knowing what works and what you can do without is part of the evolution of lightweight kit…would it be as fun if you could just walk into REI and buy a complete sub10kg bikepacking kit?

  6. I can pair my gear down to pretty light, but I never make it to ultralight because I end up with some sort of hassle either in preparation phase for the trip or on the trip that keeps me from going further to the extreme. I’ve got a 2lb tent and like the bug free sleep and excellent rain protection. I carry a full length sleeping mat and even an inflatable pillow because I like a good night’s sleep. I always have one or two items of clothing beyond what was absolutely essential and I definitely pack too much food.

    I do have a Trangia alcohol stove – which does not qualify as an ultralight stove when compared to a cat food tin, but it is pretty light and it does work pretty well. But, alcohol as fuel has less heat to offer than naptha/gasoline so if you have to carry a lot with you you lose the advantage. Not to mention gasoline is ubiquitous any where you resupply.

    I guess my progress towards being more-ultra-lighter would continue if I ever had a trip that was a failure due to overpacking. Looking back over the years my trips were more negatively impacted by what I didn’t bring than what I did. Not to suggest overpacking is a virtue.

    The most useful tool I have to keep my gear in check is a small-ish set of bike bags. Once they are full any extra gear has to go onto my back so it’s good motivation to reorganize and reconsider what I am carrying.

    As long as you have fun and get where you wanted to go in the time available there is no wrong answer. Part of the fun of bike tours is making choices at home and seeing how they play out in the field.

    safe riding,


  7. Great post. I will agree, UL can become somewhat of an obsession, although each and every time I travel in ‘non-UL’ mode, like my current AK trip, I am always unhappy with the weight. I never feel that way with UL. As for alcohol, I too would suggest another try. I travel with a Trangia and the Trangia Triangle and have no problem cooking on it. With a little universal reference sheet I carry, finding compatible fuels has never been a problem.

    Love the posts, keep me coming and don’t stop exploring.



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