Friday, January 15, 2010

Cooking On A Green Sapling Tripod

The Green Sapling Tripod:  An easy way to boil water without a stove:

Most backpackers and other wilderness travelers think they have to have a camp stove for cooking meals in the wilds. Such stoves are offered in a dazzling array of styles, sizes and prices. New stoves are always on the market, promising better performance and advanced technology. Stoves do have their place in the wild for recreational camping and can contribute to your enjoyment of the trip, but they are certainly not necessary in most environments, where you can easily build a fire to do your cooking. Most cooking done on camping trips with fancy, high-tech stoves involves nothing more complex than boiling water to add to freeze dried foods. Some campers, however, like to cook rice, pasta or other foods that require keeping the water boiling for a period of time. This can be done with a fire just as well as you can do it with a stove, provided you know a simple technique for setting up a pot over the flames.

Forget about the Western movies you’ve seen with complex, counter-weighted branches leaning out over a big roaring fire, supporting a kettle suspended from its bail over the flames. It’s a romantic picture, but not practical or easy to set up. All you need is a small metal cooking pot of stainless steel, and it does not even have to have a bail or even a handle. One point I make in my book in the chapter on gear selection is that if I had to chose between a metal pot and a metal knife to take into the wilderness, I'd take the pot.  The reason is simple.  You can not easily make a pot capable of holding boiling water from materials found in nature, but you can make cutting blades from simple shards of flint, bone or even found glass.  A cooking pot that you can boil water in will allow you to utilize all sorts of edible plant parts that can be prepared in no other way but by boiling.  And of course, it can be used to purify questionable water. 

The key to successfully using open flames to boil water is to set up the pot so it is secure and will remain so throughout the cooking. The method I prefer is the one I learned from some jungle natives in the mountains of the Dominican Republic, and it works great:

Use a machete or hatchet to cut a small green branch or sapling about one to two inches in diameter and about three feet long. Cut this length of green wood into three equal lengths, and sharpen one end of each to make stakes. The other end that is not sharpened should be cut straight across, so that there is a flat surface on it. What you will do is drive these three stakes into the ground to form a tripod, upon which your pot will rest. The stakes must be driven at an angle, so that the bases will be farther out than the tops, just like a camera tripod. Do this by driving one stake first and checking the height by holding the pot on it. You want to have several inches of open space under the pot for fuel wood. Use the pot as a gauge to determine where to set the other two stakes and then drive them down to the same height as the first. If you don’t have a hammer or the back of an axe or hatchet to drive stakes, use a rock or lump of solid wood.

The stakes should be solidly set in the ground and spaced just so they support the edge of your cooking pot. If they are evenly spaced, this set-up should be rock-steady and it will be difficult to turn the pot over. Even heavy pots full of water and food can be securely supported this way.

Now it’s time to build the fire and get on with the cooking. The key here is not to think in terms of a big, roaring campfire. If you want that, you can have that later in a separate place after dinner. What you need to cook with this green wood tripod is just a supply of pencil-sized, dry twigs. Build these up under the pot and ignite them using some leaves or other flammable material. These small twigs will burn hotter and faster than larger pieces of wood. They will also burn up quickly, so if you are cooking something like rice you will need an adequate supply of these twigs to keep feeding into the little fire under the tripod. A fire set up like this can have your water boiling as fast or faster than most backpackers can unpack and set up a modern stove. You don’t have to worry about the tripod catching on fire. That’s why you used green wood to make it. The green wood will usually last more than an hour, depending on the thickness and species of the branch or sapling, before it starts to dry out and ignite. Usually, one such set up built when you make camp will last for cooking dinner, making evening hot chocolate, morning coffee and cooking breakfast before the tripod starts to burn up. This set up will work for skillets as well as for pots, so you can make morning pancakes or fry bread if you prefer.

In a real bug-out situation, there is no place in your pack for a camp stove, much less the fuel to run it.  For any sort of wilderness living experience lasting more than a few days, cooking with fire is the only practical alternative.

The author boiling water for coffee. 


  1. Thank you for posting this one - very relevant, especially if you don't have your grilling equipment with you at all. I had never thought of the choice between metal pot vs. knife, but your logic sounds right!

    Another alternative to cooking wood tripod above. Building supply stores sell what I call big a$$ nails (lumber spikes) that are 8 - 12" long. These can be used the same way as the saplings - cost about .80 to a $1 each though. Very handy items to add to your bag. These spikes are multi-use items. Can be used as hand pulls for climbing a dirt bank or ice shelf, for instance. An anchor for canoe / kayak on the bank / shoreline. Can be flattened with heavy object and made into a knife even. A dozen or so of these in a Pringles chip type of container would not take much space at all.

    One caution about cooking with them - scrape off the galvanized spikes as when heated, the fumes of the chemicals can get you sick or contaminate your food.

    I just found this blog - its very interesting.

  2. Thanks. Yes, I'm familiar with those big spikes, and you're right, they could be good multi-use items. They would be heavy if you were bugging out on foot, but with any other method of carrying your stuff that would not be a problem.

    I've found the green sapling method works everywhere except in really rocky terrain such as what you find in mountainous regions. But in those places rocks are available, and I've used a variation on the tripod by selecting rocks that can be arrange to form a three-point support for the pot while still leaving enough room in the middle for the fire.

  3. A thought occurred to me, maybe false but I thought worth mentioning. Instead of a flat bottomed pot, would a mixing bowl instead work better? The bottom is rounded, so more uniform heating would occur, and the lighter weight of it would save weight.

    Does that reasoning sound faulty? I brought this up with my wife, who said she didn't think a mixing bowl was durable enough.

  4. I haven't tried it, but I don't know if the more uniform heating a round-bottomed pot would offer is significant enough to make a difference. Like your wife says, the mixing bowls I've seen are probably not durable enough, but you might be able to find one in thicker stainless. The flat-bottomed pot would be easier to set up on rocks though. In mountainous terrain where the ground is too hard to drive in the green stakes, I arrange rocks to support the pot and build the fire between them.

  5. A very good idea, thank you for this post. How do you feel about coffee can twig stoves (hobo stoves)? I just recently made one that is pegged for testing on my next camping trip. The only drawbacks I can see are the fact that they are a little bulky (but not bad if you pack things in them) and the fact that almost NO coffee comes in tin cans anymore! But the sapling idea is great for if you don't have or break/lose a hobo


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