Metal containers for boiling water are ‘ancient’; but what do you think ancient Greek (their word, ‘kotyle’) or Roman people used to heat their pans? Electricity? Kerosine? Compressed petroleum gas? Heating water is foundational to human society – a technology that defines us. How do we maintain that skill in an increasingly uncertain world?
In the late 1980s I went camping for a couple of days. In unexpectedly frosty weather, my ‘Campingaz’2 stove refused to work. Unfazed, I made a stick-fire, and heated my saucepan over the fire propped on some rocks. That got me thinking: “This is really easy, so why don’t I do this more often?” That thought, over thirty years ago, inexorably leads here.
The practise of camping today – even the allegedly frugal ‘wild camping’3 – has become suffused with the rationality of consumerism, and the need to reduce any obstacle to an invocation to ‘buy stuff’.
That inevitably means the use of fossil fuels as the heat source for heating water. And before you say, “but I use bioethanol”, that’s an industrial product too4, made from intensively-produced crop feedstock, which supplies (including the energy to make the container and transport it) much less energy than it takes to manufacture. That excess of energy used in production and supply is primarily sourced from fossil fuels.
1. Squeezing traditional skills out of the modern lifestyle
The alternative, using a traditional stick-fire5, that for millennia humans have used to heat cauldrons and kettles, is becoming difficult to use: It takes some technical skill to use a camp-fire in all weathers; more importantly, the English government is trying to make the use of fires a ‘forbidden’ activity.
“Do not light fires and only have BBQs where signs say you can. Be careful with naked flames and cigarettes. Only use BBQs where signs state they are allowed. Always put your BBQ out, make sure the ashes are cold and dispose of them responsibly.”
So: Open fires – bad!; a fire made of manufactured industrial charcoal in a single-use non-biodegradable foil container that inevitably litters many beauty spots – good!
Like the Whitehall government generally, the absurdity of the English ‘Countryside Code’ is a logical embarrassment; certainly compared to that of ‘Scottish Outdoors Access Code’7:
“Wherever possible, use a stove rather than light an open fire. If you do wish to light an open fire, keep it small, under control and supervised.”
How do we heat water outdoors – without using fossil fuels directly in the form of butane or petrol or manufactured fuels, or indirectly with biofuels – and get around these absurd government restrictions?
The restrictions on using camp-fires outdoors in England and Wales require a fire to be lit ‘in something’. There are many types of folding ‘firebox stove’8; but they tend to spit fire everywhere, meaning their efficiency is rather low, and so they use a lot of fuel. What is required is an enclosed fire-proof container.
Following my early use of stick-fires I made various improvised ‘Hobo stoves’9 to cook on. Then in the mid-2000s, I happened across a ‘Kelly Kettle’10. I borrowed one for a weekend, and literally the next week I bought my own. Then a year or so later, when I saw they made a smaller more compact model, I bought one of those too. Well-over 14 years later and they’re still in use.
A Kelly Kettle is a purpose-made water boiler in two halves: The base is a thick metal fire-pit with one or two air holes in one side; the top half is a metal water jacket where the heat and smoke rise-up a cone-shaped chimney, which draws air through the fire and provides a large surface area to heat the water quickly.
The kettle doesn’t use ‘wood’. Wood takes too long to burn properly. The kettle uses dry stems and sticks – the most plentiful source of fuel you can pick-up outdoors. Certainly, there’s no need to attack a tree with a saw, or spend time splitting the wood to make thick branches burn more easily.
Using the kettle is very simple:
Before stopping, spend a minute collecting a handful of sticks. Boiling the kettle takes a handful; cooking for longer requires a handful of long sticks. Sticks from the surface of the path (not stuck into the soil), or from the base of a hedge, are usually dry enough to use.
Find a clear spot on the ground, preferably on bare soil or rock. The kettle will produce a scorch-mark if used on grass. Likewise, the standard rules for all outdoor fires apply: The fire may spit-out the odd hot coal so don’t use on leafy woodland floors, dry grass, or peat, as you may set fire to the ground.
Break-up the sticks into short sections, four or five centimetres/two inches long. Collecting enough ready-to-use fuel first saves panicking to feed short sticks into the fire later.
Put tinder or paper in the base to start the fire. In Winter I carry a small bag of dry tinder in my pack for this. Put dry grass or very thin dry sticks on top of the tinder. Then lay smaller sticks on top until the base is full.
Fill the kettle with water. Seriously, it’s easy to forget before you light the fire, and the fire burns so quickly you can lose a lot of it while messing around to find your water bottle and fill the kettle.
Light the fire in the base and put the kettle on top, or light the tinder through the hole in the base with the top on – use whatever approach you find easier.
The chimney’s shape means that once lit the fire draws quickly. Once the fire is going well, flames will emerge from the top of the kettle.
Small sticks burn quickly so the fire will need to be fed. As the flames from the chimney start to die down, just drop some of the remaining sticks prepared earlier down the top of the chimney.
Before the kettle boils steam will drift from the spout. When it is boiling steam will jet from the spout, and if the kettle is very full boiling water will spit out too – so be careful not to get scalded.
Pour the boiling water directly into a cup or bowl. If you want to carry on and cook on the base then you do the following:
Take the boiling kettle off the base using the handle and stand on the ground. Put the metal grille over the base. If there is not a lot of fuel left, add thin sticks before putting the grille on top.
Pour the boiling water into a pan (if required) and stand it on the grille. This will make it hard to put more sticks on the fire from the top, so smaller sticks need to be fed into the fire through the air holes in the base.
When finished leave the fire to burn itself out – which will usually take an hour.
Otherwise pour water into the base to extinguish the fire and cool the base; or pick-up the base with tongs and tip out onto bare earth then pour water over the coals. The latter tends to be easier as the ash doesn’t cake onto the inside of the base, later falling off and filling your bag.
Thin sticks burn to ash. Larger sticks burn to charcoal. You can collect the charcoal to start other fires. If not, bury or scatter the cold/wet charcoal to avoid visible litter.
I usually dig a shallow hole and bury it to hide the charcoal safely from view.
Theoretically, as activated carbon, you could also use the charcoal from the kettle, crushed, for filtering water13 – which will also help to remove some of the nitrates and other agricultural chemicals found in lowland springs and streams.
The top-part of the kettle cools quickly. If you make sure it is completely empty when still hot, any moisture will evaporate and leave it completely dry, ready to pack away without fitting the cork (which makes the inside smell musty if left for a while).
The base, unless cooled with water, might take fifteen minutes or more to cool once the coals are tipped out of it. The base gets very hot when in use so don’t touch it; use tongs from a camping saucepan to tip it up.
Once cool the kettle can be packed away in your bag. Most ‘kettle kits’ come with a carry bag, which is very good, but will still shed ash and soot from inside. For that reason I always wrap mine in a plastic bag.
Finally, putting the kettle back in your pack makes everything inside take on the lovely odour of wood smoke. That’s why I strap my kettle to the outside of my pack.
I disagree with some people on this point: Larger kettles come with a metal insert that fits into the chimney to allow a saucepan to stand on top. I think it’s practically useless!
Firstly, standing a weighty saucepan on top of the tall kettle makes it top-heavy, and likely to fall over – losing the contents of the saucepan. Secondly, using the kettle like this inevitably means running it ‘dry’.
I’ve never boiled my kettles dry – and they’re still working fine after well-over a decade of regular use. Other people I’ve talked to, who have used their kettle ‘dry’, have found that after a while the seams of the water jacket start to leak.
When there is water inside, the top of kettle doesn’t heat to much over 100°C. Running dry will probably take it over 200°C. With the aluminium version especially, that will cause stress or warping that I think damages the seams of the jacket, shortening the life of the kettle.
If you need to cook over a fire the grille over the base is the best option. It’s more stable than the ‘on top’ option, and it doesn’t require running the kettle dry.
4. There is more than one supplier of Kelly Kettle-like stoves in Britain:
The Kelly Kettle Company14 sell various sizes15, in either steel or aluminium. They also sell ‘kettle kits’16 that contain a saucepan, the metal grille to fit the base, and a well-fitting carry-bag. Kits cost £70 to £120. The kettle alone costs £50 (0.6 litre) to £60 (1.6 litre).
Other suppliers, such as The Eydon Kettle Company17, supply a slightly different style of kettle but the prices are comparable.
Of course the great saving – both in cost and ecological impact – is the need not to buy fuel. For a few years now I haven’t carried a gas or petrol based stove when backpacking. The 0.6 litre aluminium ‘Trekker’ model weighs half a kilo – not dissimilar to to a gas/Primus stove and a bottle of fuel.
As a durable item, using ‘carbon neutral’ fuel (carbon negative if charcoal is buried), a Kelly Kettle represents the future of camping outdoors. In comparison, fuels like bioethanol are a ‘greenwashed’ distraction18.
We have to ‘normalise’ people using camp-fires. If people act stupidly with fires it’s because the government, in trying to eradicate the use of camp-fires, are killing-off the skills to use camp-fires sensibly.
We have to build a critical mass of people using stick-fires when camping. Not just for the usual tired reasons about the climate, but also to encourage greater resilience and self-sufficiency. That not means people will learn to look after the countryside; more importantly, they may see practical ways to move beyond the failing economic project of ‘consumerism’ in other aspects of their lifestyle too.