Running on Empty: Improvising when the Fuel Runs Out

July 10, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Running on Empty: Improvising when the Fuel Runs Out

This article was originally written for The Outbound Collective.

The dubious look on my hiking partner’s face as he shook the fuel canister was not an encouraging sign. Peter turned to me. “I think it’s empty. Weird, that’s never happened to me before.”

It was the first night of our trip.

My usual Whisperlite setup, along with the same 2L pot I carried into the Trinity Alps. The Whisperlite has never had trouble boiling large volumes of icy mountain water.

The Whisperlite die-hard in me should have seen this coming from the trailhead. For the first time in years, I agreed to leave my tried-and-true liquid fuel stove at home and carry the much lighter no-brand-name canister stove that Peter got off Amazon for $10. Of course, for two people attempting pseudo-gourmet meals in the backcountry, I still insisted on my 2L pot - which we proceeded to fill with water from the snow-fed lake next to our campsite.

After waiting at least a half an hour - the phrase “a watched pot never boils” takes on new meaning when cooking over tiny flames in the backcountry - the water still hadn’t boiled and the stove was making an ominous “putt-putt-putt” sound.  Sure enough, a minute later it gave up entirely and we found ourselves 9 miles into the Trinity Alps with less-than-boiled water and several nights’ worth of dehydrated food. (In retrospect, it seems obvious that a stove the size of my thumb was never going to produce enough of a flame to boil all that cold water.)

The Whisperlite showing off again, this time in winter conditions at Diamond View Lake. Running out of fuel in below-freezing conditions is much more likely to be a trip-killer than in the balmy 60 degrees of the Trinity Alps in July.

I immediately took off running down to the lake to retrieve my water filter, and with only a few minor burns to the hands we were able to salvage the hot water for the night’s dinner. The partially cooked beans in our tortilla soup added an unintended flair of texture to the meal, but otherwise our dinner was remarkable only for its salty goodness after hiking all day under the California sun. Disaster averted, at least for one night.

In the midst of discussing the merits of cold oatmeal for breakfast, Peter stopped short and gave me a wild look. “How are we going to make coffee?” Apparently, going without coffee for a few days was not an option for Peter. The solution: backcountry cold brew.  Before heading to bed, we combined grounds and filtered lake water in the pot and sealed it against curious critters by covering it in a rock cairn.  Coming back in the morning, we deemed the concoction a success. Our brew was at least as flavorful as any coffee shop’s, although I’ll be the first to say I still prefer curling up in my sleeping bag in the morning with a steaming mug.

Filtering water at the foot of Mount Jefferson earlier in the summer.

Finding ourselves in an area of California that somehow escaped fire restrictions, we were thankfully able to serve the remainder of our meals hot. Peter proved adept at building fires - which was especially helpful since we extinguished more than one while failing to balance a pot of water over the flames.

Find yourself without fuel? Try these ideas:

  • If you have partially heated water, either from the last of your fuel or from a fire that got unintentionally doused, filter it immediately and use it. (Sorry, aquamira users - that water is going to be pretty lukewarm by the time your 20 minute incubation is finished.) 
  • Most dehydrated foods work similarly to the cold brew coffee idea - rehydrating with cold water will take longer, but it will work.  If you’re base camping, set up your dinner before you go out exploring for the day (and cover it in rocks or hang it from a bear bag to protect it).  If you’re moving camp, rehydrate the food in a Ziploc bag or, if you don’t have anything else that will seal, a water bottle.
  • Talk to other backpackers on the trail or in the vicinity of your camp. If you can offer some food in return, many backpackers will be willing to help you cook it!
  • Know when running out of fuel is a trip-ender.  In cold conditions, when hot food provides warmth as well as calories, or when you are planning on melting snow as a water source, finding yourself without fuel can lead to a dangerous situation if conditions deterioriate.


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