The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild - Dave Canterbury (2016)

Part IV. Emergency Cooking

Chapter 21. Unconventional Fuels and Fuel Tabs

“No one is born a great cook. One learns by doing.”

—Julia Child

We are used to using a few common cooking fuels when camping. Wood and campfires are the simplest and most romantic. Propane and multi-fuel camp stoves like those made by Coleman are also common. In these days of ultra-light backpacking and hiking, alcohol-type stoves have also become quite popular, as well as smaller single-burner multi-fuel canister stoves.

When we look at unconventional fuels we are looking to what we can use if we are without all these items and cannot for some reason burn wood logs. Obviously anything flammable from gasoline to rubber will burn, but from a health and safety standpoint these are dangerous fuels for cooking. However, all common cooking oils will also burn and can be contained and used with a wick or multiple wicks to create a makeshift cooking surface.

Bushcraft Tip

Candles will heat food well enough in an emergency. The more candles you use, the more candle power you have. Four of the 12-hour beeswax candles work pretty well.

Wood Chip Bricks

Another easy thing you can do in camp is to mix wood shavings and beeswax for emergency cook fuels. To do this, pack any wood shaving (such as from a chainsaw or wood shop) into a small tin like a cat food can. Pour melted beeswax over the top and let dry. You now have a block of fuel that, if left in the can, will burn for a few hours if needed and get food plenty hot as well.

Animal Fat

Animal fats will burn similarly to lard (which is actually a domestic animal fat rendered for cooking). To render tallow or deer fat, place the scraped fat from the animal in a pan on low heat until liquid forms. Use this as a fuel immediately or after cooling (when it has hardened and is set). It can also be used to replace cooking oil to grease a pan.

Pine Sap

Pine sap is a natural fuel that appears on pines anywhere they are injured. This sap can be collected and will burn very hot for a good long time depending on the amount you have collected. You can burn it in a metal container to contain the fuel source or place it directly on the ground and light it. This resin will leave a sticky residue on any container placed above it for cooking, and you should never cook food without a container over this fuel as it will impart a bad taste on the food.

Fuel Tabs and Solid Fuels

Solid fuels can be easier to transport than liquid fuels. Fuel tabs are solid fuels sold in tab form. They have several advantages over liquid fuels; they burn smokelessly, they don’t leave ashes behind, and they can burn hotter. There are many sources for solid fuel tabs. Nowadays we can (and should) avoid the older-style surplus tabs, many of which were toxic in some form or another. Now we can get tabs that are much safer and do a pretty good job of cooking food in an emergency.

There are many brands available, and most use the same technology, but you can also save a bit of money and use the Weber charcoal grill starter blocks found in most lumberyards and home-and-garden stores during the grilling season.

The main thing to remember with artificial heat sources and solid fuels is food containment is important to taste as well as, sometimes, your health. Therefore, always cook in a pot (or with the food wrapped in foil) over these fuel sources instead of placing the food directly on the flames.

Foods that can cook at lower temperatures for shorter times are good choices for these types of alternative fuels. For example, just-add-hot-water meals will work better than stews, which require hours of cooking. Warming precooked meals will be easier and faster than cooking from raw.

Tips and Tricks

·        The Esbit tabs are about my favorite of the solid fuel tabs. They come individually packaged, are waterproof, and will boil 8 ounces of water in about 4 minutes.

·        Tightly rolled newsprint saturated with melted wax is also an excellent fuel source that can be used for cooking when needed if made ahead of time.

·        Do not cook open foods like meat on any artificial logs such as Duraflames, as these will taint the food. It is okay, however, to cook in pots, using the logs as a heat source.

·        One good use of unconventional fuels is to use them to start a conventional fire. If you don’t have any char to start a fire but you do have a fuel tab, you’ll be eating dinner in no time.

·        You can forego the need for an outside fuel source entirely and just pack in self-heating food! Each meal contains its own heating unit and is ready to eat in about 20 minutes.