Canister stoves have become very popular since I started canoe tripping twenty years ago. There was a time when few serious canoe trippers would give them a second look, but nowadays I’m sure there are many paddlers who have never had the pleasure of having to prime a white gas stove. The combined convenience of easy starting, not having to fill a fuel bottle, along with innovation such as heat exchangers featured in stoves like the JetBoil range, not to mention the low price of many of these stoves, has made these big sellers.
Canister stoves have certainly been part of my UK camping career, a tiny Snowpeak stove for European backpacking trips and an early MSR remote stove for paddle camping, but even though I appreciated the ease of use I couldn’t help but wonder about the impact of using these disposable little metal containers.
The first thing I found out was that each “empty” canister was in fact an item of hazardous waste. Sounds crazy but remember that the folk collecting garbage have no way of knowing how much fuel is left in each cylinder. Even for a canister that has been fully used there is always some gas left inside. Garbage trucks have a waste compactor easily capable of crushing a gas canister and releasing the potentially explosive gas.
The Crunch-It tool from Jetboil gets around any safety concerns and should in theory let you place your used cylinders in the recycling bin, but only if your local municipality is happy to take them. Tossing them in the blue bin at the park campground may not the best plan, and chances are for every 100 stoves sold they will be lucky to sell 1 Crunch-It.
But as long as I do the right thing maybe canisters aren’t so bad after all? If only it were that simple! I guess we have got used to most camping gear being made in Asia, but did you know that despite the boom in oil and gas production in North America your stove fuel is coming all that way too? Actually the gas in the canister comes even further but the canister is made and filled in South Korea, and all by the same company. This makes those warnings to use only brand X gas in your stove even funnier when you realise that the same production line is spitting out the same canisters and just painting them a different colour. If you take an interest in world affairs you may have already spotted another problem with this arrangement. South Korea has no oil or gas of its own. Most of what it uses comes from Saudi Arabia, not as perverse as shipping it from Canada although that could change once the Transmountain pipeline is built, so the fuel you are burning has already traveled far further that you are ever likely to manage in a lifetime of paddling.
So what other options are there? Using a liquid fuel stove either white gas or alcohol is not entirely guilt free, although compared to the impact of running a gasoline powered car has a minor carbon footprint and it likely comes from North American refineries. It does at least also give you the opportunity to buy fuel in bulk, one gallon of Coleman fuel will generally last me a year or more of trips. The fuel used in alchohol stoves mostly comes from the Canadian refineries on the east coast so is perhaps a good alternative. Paddlers in the USA have the option of buying pure grain alcohol from the liquor store, you could of course distill your own but that is probably illegal and also very dangerous!
Probably the greenest option is using a small twig stove, much smaller than the heavy steel boxes provided by Manitoba Parks. A small cook fire has a very localised impact and, if you are conservative with how much and from where you gather your fuel, may be the best of all options.
Open fires are unfortunately prohibited in Manitoba between April and October, though provided you are aware of the current fire hazard and are zealous about extinguishing your fire when you are done, they do seem to be tolerated as part of the backcountry experience. Packing a small wood stove along with an alcohol stove gives me a couple of options for different conditions and the satisfaction that I have made at least one small break with global consumerism.