Now We're Cooking!
Breaking Good — A Windscreen Primer
By Tamia Nelson
April 22, 2014
The wind is always with us. Or so it seems. There are calm interludes, of course. Summer sailors dread them. But paddlers welcome any such respite. Why? Because whenever the wind blows over the water, it always seems to be in our face — an implacable presence that forces us to work twice as hard to go half as far. Which makes our evenings in camp doubly attractive, though here, too, the wind finds ways to bedevil us. It blows hot cinders from the fire onto the kitchen tarp, wafts woodsmoke into our eyes, and makes the walls of our tents flap and snap throughout the night, denying us the sleep we crave.
Yet the wind isn't always an enemy. A brisk breeze helps to dispel the fug on sultry days, and it keeps the blackflies and bulldogs at bay while we eat our lunch. (OK. Nothing short of a full gale keeps the bulldogs at bay. But at least a stiff breeze makes them work for their meal.) As soon as it comes time to fire up the stove for a quick cup of soup or tea, however, the wind reverts to type, stealing heat from the billy and occasionally snuffing out the sputtering flame altogether.
Is there a solution to this all‑too‑common problem? There is. And it's as simple as …
Breaking the Wind
It should be easy. Just place the stove in the lee of some suitable object — a boulder, say, or a large piece of driftwood — and fire up. But the wind isn't so readily defeated. It flows around obstacles, and the resulting turbulence can be more troublesome than the unobstructed blast. The obvious solution is to surround the stove with a windproof barrier or windscreen. That sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Sure it does.
But it's not. If the windscreen does too good a job, it will starve the burner of the air it needs to function efficiently. A smoky, smoldering flame will be the result. Moreover, if the windscreen is too close to the burner, or too restrictive, it can even serve as a heat trap. In gasoline stoves with integral fuel tanks — the venerable Svea 123 is one example — this occasionally increases pressure to dangerous levels, and the lunchtime soup is then consumed in a fireball.
Of course, most stoves come with some sort of windscreen right out of the box, and if this is used as intended, the likelihood of a runaway conflagration is minuscule. Still, the factory windscreen may not be enough by itself. (Once again, the Svea 123 comes to mind.) That has led manufacturers to devise a number of auxiliary windscreens, many of them doubling as pot supports. Anyone who can remember the Sigg Tourist cooker will know what I'm talking about. It substituted a beautifully polished aluminum windscreen cum pot support for the integral brass Svea windscreen, with striking gains in both efficiency and elegance.
Sadly, though, the Sigg Tourist is no more. But the Trangia alcohol cookers are nearly as elegant, and even more efficient, at least in "civilized" temperatures. There's one in the photo panel below (Photo B), right next to a very similar Optimus cooker (Photo A).
Both these cookers incorporate integrated windscreens and pot supports. Each is intended to be used with its companion pots, and both systems work well. (A good thing, too, because the comparatively low heat output of alcohol burners means that every calorie counts.) Photo C showcases a very different beast, however. A portable samovar — this one is a Kelly Kettle — it combines windscreen, firepan, and water boiler–cooker. Fueled with twigs, wood chips, or cones, it's primarily a device for heating water, though it can also be pressed into service to prepare simple one‑pot meals. Make no mistake: This little samovar is efficient. In fact, so effective is the firepan–windscreen that the fire often burns hotter when the vent holes are turned toward the prevailing wind.
And what about Photo D? It's the ringer in the bunch, and we'll get to it in a moment. First, though, there's another way to shelter your stove from the wind, and that's to …
Use Your Boat as a Windbreak
It's an old idea, as this classic painting by the 19th‑century English artist Frances Anne Hopkins illustrates:
A tarp draped over the hull of a North Canoe offered a welcome refuge from wind‑driven rain and swirling mist. But not for the cook. Not in the mid‑19th century. The voyageurs didn't have portable stoves, and birchbark canoes with pitch‑daubed seams weren't exactly fireproof. So the evening's pemmican hoosh was prepared in the open, well away from the canoe. Modern‑day paddlers have it easier, however. While our boats don't offer the four‑foot headroom of a North Canoe, it's still possible to rig a serviceable canoe shelter. And once rigged, that shelter can be used as a cook shack, with due regard for the fact that neither tarps nor plastic boats are impervious to flame. Caution is always advisable. For example, the flames of alcohol burners are nearly invisible in daylight, and every make and type of stove has a few potentially dangerous idiosyncrasies. Wise paddlers will therefore take the time to get acquainted with their stoves before heading off into the backcountry, though whether your stove is an old friend or a new acquaintance, it's always a good idea to light it in a place where a momentary flare‑up won't cause a fire or melt a hole in a tarp or tent.
Now let's return to the ringer in the earlier photo panel. Photo D illustrates …
A Typical Campfire Setup
And though the photo bears the hallmarks of the Age of Film — print processing was always a bit of a gamble back then — it shows how local materials can be used to protect a cooking fire from errant breezes. In this case, a driftwood log serves as both kitchen table and (partial) windbreak, while lakeshore cobbles do double duty as auxiliary windbreaks and pot supports. Of course, such al fresco engineering feats are frowned on today, and quite properly so, but there remain places and times where a fireplace can be improvised from found materials without ethical qualms, even if such places (and times) grow fewer with every passing year. Perhaps I should have prefaced the image with a "Historical Photo" tag.
Then again, not all "local materials" involve rearranging the landscape. Backcountry cooks have another windbreak available to them:
I hasten to add that this is an entirely innocuous practice. The human body can easily be employed as a rough‑and‑ready windbreak. In fact, it's almost automatic, since the cook instinctively moves around the fire so that the wind is at his back, if only to keep the smoke out of his eyes. This effort is usually futile, though, since (1) wind is often fitful, backing and veering though eight points of the compass in as many minutes, and (2) the human form is not ideally shaped to act as a windbreak. The phenomenon of turbulent flow that I mentioned at the start of this column frequently wafts smoke back to blind the hapless cook. (If you've ever wondered why smoke often seems to follow the cook around as he tends the fire, even when the wind blows steadily from one quarter, you now know the reason.) Still, if needs must, and if the cook can draft several companions in to help him, human shields are better than nothing. I can remember employing them to good effect high in the Cascades, when my climbing party gathered around two roaring Optimus 111B gas stoves in order to protect the struggling flames from a freshening mountain gale. So the technique works with stoves as well as wood fires.
That said, not everyone has a climbing party to draw on for support when it comes time to make dinner, and the cook must also keep a close eye on his assistants, bearing in mind that long hair and loose clothing can easily catch fire — and that insect repellents often have a flammable alcohol base. No meal is improved by the need to extinguish the diners, after all. It's perhaps fortunate, then, that there are other options than the human shield when a stove's integral windscreen isn't equal to the job. These include …
The Sleeping Pad Windbreak
This has the advantage of economy, and since many paddlers use closed‑cell foam pads under their bags, it doesn't add so much as an extra ounce to their packs. The setup is easy, too, though it relies on your finding suitable sticks to act as supports (and suitable soil to allow you to anchor those stick–supports firmly). Here's how it looks:
Done right, it works well, shielding the stove from wind through fully 16 points of the compass. The convex surface also minimizes turbulence. But despite these advantages, I don't warm to the sleeping pad windbreak. For one thing, I now use an air mattress, and I don't want to risk burning a hole in the nylon cover. I've also found that foam‑pad windbreaks sometimes prove flighty in strong gusts, and once your windbreak takes wing, it can easily knock over your stove or cooker. Or blow away, never to be seen again. In short, I find the idea attractive in theory, but far less so in practice.
What, then, do I prefer? Well, there's always …
The Cooking Tarp
I'm seldom afield or afloat without either a poncho or a tarp, and I've learned to erect either one in a matter of minutes. So as long as the landscape cooperates — trees are always welcome company — I'm all set. I just pitch my tarp low to the ground to windward of my stove and get cooking.
But is this necessarily the best solution? I don't think so. It does the job, but there are many times when I don't want to go to the trouble of setting up a tarp just to boil the kettle. And there's a much simpler alternative: a carry‑along windscreen that you can make at home in minutes. Best of all, it adds only an ounce or two to your load, while lightening your wallet by no more than the cost of a burger.
That's a topic for another day, however.
Wind is the sailor's best friend, but it's the camp cook's worst enemy. Wind leaches heat from your pots and reduces your stove's steady flame to a pale and fluttering imitation of itself. And what's your best defense? A windscreen, of course. This time around, I've summarized some of the more common expedients, and in a future column, I'll describe the DIY portable windscreen I've come to rely on. But in the meantime, if you have a favorite solution that I've overlooked or shortchanged, just drop me a line.
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