The Free Range DIY ‘Feral’ Stick-Fire Grate in use;
click here for the associated video
Written for The Free Range Activism Network.
The are some innocuous uses of fossil fuels which go largely unnoticed. One such example is camping outdoors. Camping shops sell a variety of stoves fuelled by gas, liquid petrol or methanol, or chemical-based solid fuel compounds. Thing is, if you're outdoors, is the use of fossil fuels necessary?
A few years ago I was walking along a canal and stopped for lunch. I took my storm kettle from the outside pocket of my pack, gathered some stick thatch from the bottom of the nearby hedgerow, and lit a fire inside to boil some water.
"You can't light a fire here", said a passing dog-walker.
"Why", I said.
"It's against the Country Code", I was assuredly informed.
The Countryside Code does not ban lighting fires outdoors.
What it actually states is that we should "be careful with naked flames" – which I have absolutely no disagreement with. I actually go further, and believe that after lighting a fire there should be no readily visible trace left when you leave.
English land law is highly restrictive. In Scotland the Outdoor Access Code goes way beyond the English Code. Pre-Norman land rights still exist there allowing the public to freely camp and light fires on open land.
The reason that the dog-walker was so convinced that you "cannot" do things in the countryside is the result of the perception – or more rightly, deception – that anything outdoors is "private property"; your presence is allowed on sufferance and thus you have no specific 'rights'.
The idea that "you can't" in the countryside comes from the historic domination of large landowners in British society. They have used their influence over government – not least through the unelected House of Lords – to maintain their 'property rights', excluding the public as far as possible.
Though today we have greater access to the land than in the past, the domination of the 'landowning aristocracy' persists in many parts of Britain to this day. And as British property prices have surged, their influence been added to by a growing number of UK-based and off-shore companies trying to intensify their land-holdings to turn a fast buck.
That in-turn creates a well financed land and farming lobby in Britain, who try to restrict the public's rights of land access, while simultaneously attempting to enlarge their rights to exploit the countryside for financial gain.
As a niche activity, there's actually little research in the impacts of camping outdoors. When it comes to fires, there's far more research on the health impacts of cooking on open fires indoors.
The pervasive fossil fuel in camping is compressed gas – usually a butane and propane mix, commonly marketed as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for road vehicles and domestic use.
While it is often argued that LPG is better for the environment than burning oil, what that equation does not take into account is the impact of first compressing the gas and then 'canning' it in small-volume steel containers for outdoor use.
In fact, when many amateur campers try to extend their outdoor skills under more harsh conditions, they are often undone by their reliance on those little blue Campingaz canisters. When the air temperature is below 10 Celsius it gets progressively harder for the gas to evaporate, meaning that the stove doesn't work efficiently, if at all.
Consequently many experienced campers and backpackers use Primus-style stoves which burn paraffin, petrol or methanol. These work well in all weathers and temperatures, though have the disadvantage that you have to carry a quantity of smelly and volatile liquid fuel around with you.
As a result of the limits of gas and the user 'unfriendliness' of liquid fuels, solid fuel stoves have grown in popularity recently. Each small block provides a certain amount of heat to cook on – provided you keep feeding the grate the rather expensive blocks of chemical fuel.
While home solid fire-lighters use a rather noxious and smokey mixture of paraffin and a foam-like urea-formaldehyde resin to solidify the fuel, solid-fuel camping stoves use cubes of methenamine, hexamine or trioxane solidified in paraffin wax. The difficulty is that manufacturing these solid compounds uses far more energy – and thus incurs a far higher environmental burden – than using everyday LPG or petrol.
More convenient perhaps, but ecologically solid fuel camping stoves are a nightmare.
The reason why taking the fossil fuels out of camp cooking is difficult is bound-up within the misunderstanding of the dog-walker highlighted earlier – and the mind-set that underpins it.
Arguably – as I replied at the time – my fire wasn't "in the countryside", it was within the metal body of my Kelly Kettle. Though even if I were tending an open fire, provided I have lawful access to the land and don't cause damage that's not, in terms of the criminal law, an offence either (except, as outlined below, on 'access land', and even then it is still only a civil ‘tort’ of trespass).
Making camp cooking "carbon free" is where the issue of land rights and fossil fuels meet, head on!
That's because by lighting a fire with small sticks to cook or boil water I'm 'offending' not against nature, but against the perceptions of the landowner being wholly in control of their land.
In Scotland that's not an issue because of their historic rights of land access – rooted in the 'Allemansrätten' tradition of other Scandinavian nations (though the recent Loch Lomond camping ban, enforced through national park by-laws, has exercised many people around this issue of late).
The true struggle is in England and Wales.
Over the last few years, since the Conservative Party entered Government, there has been some subtle reining-in of the public's countryside access rights – under amendments to the law on common land in the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, and more recently new restrictions on footpath law in the Infrastructure Act 2015.
Before that, the creation of the much lauded 'right to roam' by the Labour Government in fact contained some highly restrictive caveats, brought in to satisfy the well-funded objections of the land lobby. Notable amongst those restrictions, apart from banning you 'wild swimming' in lakes and rivers or camping in general, was a prohibition on "lighting or tending a fire".
This is why taking fossil fuels out of camp cooking is so 'radical'.
It redefines not only people's connection to how they cook outdoors, and thus how they relate to the countryside. It also challenges the long-held perceptions of the landowning classes 'feudal' right to control the land, nature, and all activities therein.
Given the traditionally negative view of landowners of England to both land access, and people seeking recreation on open land (without paying, that is), promoting lighting fires outdoors is bound to ruffle feathers!
Cooking over a stick fire teaches not only cooking under difficult conditions, it requires an involvement in the mechanics of 'the countryside' that you just can't get when using fossil fuels.
For example, not all woods burn well, or cleanly, so having an understanding of the trees and shrubs in our countryside has to be developed – which of course enhances people's connection to nature generally. Often that exploration is tied to foraging, and the informal understanding of soils, botany and hydrology that entails.
Cooking outdoors does not use 'wood', as in large lumps of tree – it doesn't require that much energy!
It's far easier, and more controllable, to cook using small sticks – nothing thicker than a centimetre of so.
Sticks burn quickly, and thus you can 'control' the amount of heat delivered to your cooking by manipulating the qualities of the fire you're using. It's almost like turning the knob on a home cooker, albeit it requires a little more attention to detail.
Cooking on sticks, which are easily gathered outdoors without having to damage trees or hedgerows, has a much lower impact on the environment than using fossil fuels. Where you light fires, and how you deal with the scorch mark afterwards, are an implicit part of minimising that ecological footprint further.
Of course the question is how do you do cook over a stick fire?
You need equipment.
For that reason the Free Range Network has developed what they call the Free Range DIY 'Feral' Stick Fire Grate. It's a small folding trestle which holds two small saucepans above a stick fire.
Two saucepans is another great benefit, since most 'off-the-peg' designs, including the eponymous Kelly Kettle, can only take one.
The emphasis behind the project is that the low cost design – roughly £10 if you buy the materials from a superstore – can be easily built by those with some experience of using hand tools. It's also scalable – using the basic design you are free to vary the dimensions to fit the size of pan you have available.
The issue is not only to allow people to remove fossil fuels from camp cooking. The idea is that cooking on a small stick fire requires a far closer relationship to the land – and thus can be transformational for people's lifestyle generally.
Their emphasis on the self-build/DIY element of the stick-fire grate is part of that greater aim, allowing people to "gain the confidence to 'make' rather than 'buy' the things you need".
More importantly, it's good for any kind of outdoor camping. You could use it in your back garden, at a local park, and its compact folding design means it can easily fit in the outer pocket of a rucksack for use on longer treks.
In fact, one of the highlighted features of the design is that, at 275 grams, while it is heavier than the 'regulator' half of the Campingaz stove (200 grams), it is lighter than the Campingaz regulator plus an empty cylinder combined (300 grams), and is around half the weight of the regulator and full cylinder (550 grams).
Enabling people to light small stick fires outdoors, combined with learning all the skills and knowledge required to do that, is arguably a better route to learn how to live sustainably.
What objections there are to such activities come predominantly from the landowning lobby – as encouraging 'residing' on the land is an affront to their ancient property rights.
However, that 'Anglo-Saxon' idea of property rights is based on the dis-appropriation of the land from the people following the Norman Conquest – something those same people, after perfecting the principle on the English, then enacted across the world during British Colonialism.
That is the substantive reason why taking the fossil fuels out of camp cooking is a radical act. It challenges the status quo of English land rights – which of course under-pins the greater notion of capital, and processes of growth economics which has been responsible for the rapacious plundering of the planet's resources for the last five centuries.
More importantly, 'a land without people' implies 'a people without a land'. If we are to secure sustainable lifestyles in the future, that begins by re-establishing people's connection to the land; and from there, realizing the principle that for true sustainability the people and land must exist symbiotically.
A first small step in that process is sustainably 'residing' in the land; taking the fossil fuels out of camp cooking is the most direct means to achieve that. Admittedly, such a small tokenistic step isn't going, in the popular parlance, to "save the planet". That's not the point. The issue is one of enhancing people's connection to the land, and through that experience, changing the orientation of their lifestyle.