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Sap residue on pot from twig fire
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Andrew Axley

Locale: Bay Area
Sap residue on pot from twig fire on 08/20/2013 09:32:18 MDT Print View

I'm curious about using twig fires and/or a small wood burning stove. However, the one time I tried it, I got this sticky burnt sap residue on the bottom of my pot. It was extremely difficult to clean of, and would easily transfer the residue to anything it touched (namely my shorts which now have a semi-premanent black sap mark).

I don't mind being dirty when I hike, but having a pot stick to everything is not ideal! Does anyone have experience with this and how to prevent it?


Justin Baker
(justin_baker) - F

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: Sap residue on pot from twig fire on 08/20/2013 09:48:16 MDT Print View

Yeah, that happens with all wood, some worse than others.
If you cook over hot coals it won't happen as much. It's mostly from the initial burning of fresh wood. Try using wood that's not a conifer species if possible. (oak, aspen, cottonwood, willow)

If you wash it off a bit after each use, you can stop it from transferring so much soot.
Your pot will become permanently black and you will never be able to clean it.
It's just part of cooking with wood.

I wrap my pot up in a bandanna. Some make small stuff sacks for their pots.

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
From my days in the stove shop. on 08/20/2013 09:53:05 MDT Print View

When you burn wood, you are boiling lots of different compounds out of the wood. Lots of water, plus various organic molecules - turpentine being one dominant range of compounds in conifers, but there are many, including some of higher molecular weight (think road tar). Although we think of wood as a solid fuel, really, the flames are a gas-phase reaction. The light alcohols, ketones, etc, come of first, and then heavier compounds boil off as the wood heats up. The working face of the wood can't, for instance, get hotter than 100C/212F until all the water is boiled off. From good home wood-stove practice, here are ways to prevent/reduce the build of "creosote" compounds in your home chimney or your BP pot. Not all of them are easy in a BPing setting, I realize:

Use dry wood. It will get to a higher temperature sooner and the water liquid and water vapor won't suck up as much heat.

Use well-seasoned wood - wood that has sat for a year loses more of its intercellular water. That process just takes months and months.

Use hardwoods if available. This helps a lot. Oak, ash, hickory, elm, maple are all great. Popular, birch, aspen, alder are okay. Confers are the worst.

Longer residence-times of the hot gases in your stove will cause the burning reaction to go more to completion. This means a longer, taller stove and, yeah, that weighs a little more. But you will get a cleaner burn. Stove height relates to chimney length in a home setting and it is a truism of home wood stoves and fireplaces that, "A chimney can be too short, too narrow or too wide, but it can't be too tall." Short chimney don't develop enough draft. Narrow chimneys constrict air flow. Really wide chimneys that don't get hot enough don't develop enough draft.

I get cleaner burning fires with smaller diameter twigs. And drier twigs. Alas, this means you are feeding the fire more often, but getting less smoke and soot in the air and less creosote on the pot.

To clean your pot back home, let it soak in turpentine or paint thinner for days and then use a nylon scrubbie (Scotch Bright) or wire brush - brass if you want a slightly softer brush.

Jason McSpadden

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Re: Sap residue from fire on 08/20/2013 09:53:19 MDT Print View

I have the same issue. They say if you coat the pot with soap before hand it is easier to clean up. I keep forgetting to try that! I have found that spray oven cleaner does a pretty good job getting it all off or mostly off once at home. While backpacking I just keep the pot in a plastic grocery bag.

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: Re: Sap residue from fire on 08/20/2013 09:58:00 MDT Print View

+1 on Jason's soap thought. I forgot about that from my Boy Scout days but it really, really works. The thinnest film of soapy water, allowed to dry, will let the soot and creosote be wiped off. Soot will stick anywhere the soap film was rubbed off such where the pot supports touch the pot, so avoid scrapping the pot across the top of the stove - pick it up and lay it down vertically, instead.

You can do it every meal or you can wait till you get home to clean it. Every meal can be tedious. But every meal will result in a few more scraps and more streaks of attached creosote.

Loki Cuthbert

Locale: Portland, OR
cooking over wood fire on 08/20/2013 09:59:21 MDT Print View

you can clean it of in a creek by scrubbing it with sand or a flat rock. I don't bother as I just slip it into the pot cozy and it's all good from there. When you get home it's easy to clean with a stainless pot scrubber. It's clean and good to go in the gear box in 15 seconds.

I use a caldera cone. I cook all of my breakfast with alcohol for a quick start and cook all of my dinners over fire because I have a little more time to get things started while I'm setting up camp.


Edited by lokbot on 08/20/2013 10:02:41 MDT.

Chris C
(cvcass) - MLife

Locale: State of Jefferson
alcohol works on 08/20/2013 12:45:10 MDT Print View

I have very good results cleaning pots with denatured alcohol, just spray on and let it sit and the soot scrubs away.

Andrew Axley

Locale: Bay Area
thanks for the tips everyone on 08/20/2013 23:18:01 MDT Print View

So many good tips here- thank you all! I'm really excited to learn more from the BPL community- this was my first post

Sounds like this shouldn't be too much of a problem if I can be smart about wood selection (last time I admit I naively used wood from a conifer), pot placement (I just propped my pot up on a couple rocks a few inches from the flame, and clean up. The soap trick sounds especially cool.

I was thinking of getting a caldera cone and now I have another reason to try it out!

Loki - I see that you find wood burning only makes sense for dinner. Just curious- does everyone here find the time and energy to boil water with a fire is worthwhile? Or do you tend to just end up using alcohol?

Despite the lower time efficiency of wood burning vs alcohol, I do like the idea of not having to rely on carrying the right amount of fuel not to mention the coziness/fun of having a fire.

ps. Thank you David for your detailed response. Its great to not only get good advice, but also to understand the underlying reasons why that advice is sound!

Derek M.
(dmusashe) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
It's gonna be black and sooty, but that's ok! on 08/21/2013 01:05:29 MDT Print View

I've been cooking almost exclusively on wood fires in the backcountry for over 15 years. It's how I started out and it's just a natural part of the backpacking experience for me (I really only use alcohol stoves in areas where wood fires are prohibited).

So on to your question...

You can try the soap thing, and you can try being super selective with your wood, but I'll be honest with you: I find that it's just more trouble than it's worth. The solution is pretty simple. Don't even bother trying to keep the outside of your pot clean. Just designate an old stuff sack to be the sacrificial lamb and defend your pack and all the rest of your gear from the pot's soot.

It's really that easy. You've got soap and water with you anyway when you are backpacking (at least I would hope so), so a little bit of soot on the hands is no big deal to clean off once you're done cooking.

With all that said, if you are getting really sticky stuff on your pot, then you are most likely burning problematic wood. In the paragraph above I was maybe a little too cavalier about wood selection. David was pretty spot on with his advice in his post about wood types. I will just add that I don't really fuss too much with wood selection. I find that if you simply choose wood that is very dry and cracks very easily (i.e. the most easily combustible wood anyway!), then this will eliminate most of the sap/turpentine residue issues. I don't even think about it anymore since I've been doing it for so long, but proper wood selection can go a long way (but, again, you don't have to be too scientific about it, it's all pretty straightforward).

Still, your pot is going to get sooty, no two ways about it.

This is what my pot currently looks like and what it will continue to look like for years to come:
Stove in Emberlit Mini from the side

Usually when I come home from a trip I will give it a rinse with soap and water. I will not, however, scour the black creosote layer on the outside of the pot. This is a waste of time and counterproductive in my opinion. Once the pot is washed, all the "loose" soot is gone and only a very durable creosote "skin" is left (you can wipe your hand across it and it'll come away clean). This black coating will actually make your pot more efficient (because it absorbs more heat from the fire just like a black shirt is hotter than a white one on a sunny day).

In the end, if you really want to commit to the wood fire route, I think you will find that it's just much easier to give in and not worry about the soot. Nothing in my pack has ever gotten sooty because the pot's stuff sack does a really great job of keeping the soot isolated. It's really that simple.

If you like to eat right out of the pot, then, as another poster suggested, maybe you could consider making a pot cozy to sit the pot in while you eat so that you can set the food on your lap without having to worry about soot getting on your clothes. This is a fine solution as well, and will also keep your food warm while you eat.

I hope you stick with wood fires. I find that making a fire after a long day of hiking is a very rewarding experience, and, at the risk of sounding a bit hokey, helps to remind you that you are linked with your surroundings in a very fundamental way while in the backcountry.

Edited by dmusashe on 08/21/2013 03:02:21 MDT.

Derek M.
(dmusashe) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: thanks for the tips everyone on 08/21/2013 01:57:11 MDT Print View

"Just curious- does everyone here find the time and energy to boil water with a fire is worthwhile? Or do you tend to just end up using alcohol?"

Sorry for the double post, but I didn't see this part of your question so I'll go ahead and give you my humble opinion on this.

The short answer is that yes, I find the extra time and effort involved in boiling water (or just cooking in general) with fire is definitely worthwhile. While, in a relative sense, boiling water with an alcohol stove is much faster that using a wood fire to do the same job-- in an absolute sense it's not that great of a difference in my opinion.

For instance, if you have one hypothetical stove that boils water in 1 minute and another that boils water in 2 minutes, then it's true that the first stove is twice as fast as the second one, but in an absolute sense in the real world, all it gains you is 1 minute.

I think this same thing holds true for cooking with fire. It does take longer, but probably only about 15 minutes longer if you are honestly counting everything involved. I find that this 15 minutes is not only worth the trouble, but rewarding in it's own right. To me, it's just a really enjoyable experience to make fire.

To make a small cooking fire, you really don't need that much wood. In dry weather with any sort of forest cover, making a fire is really quite simple once you've had a little practice. I can usually collect wood, have the fire lit, and be cooking in 15 minutes, and that's not even rushing. All you really need is small stuff to cook with (no bigger than your thumb, preferably smaller).

The key is to collect dry tinder and kindling during the day when you're hiking (I keep a big ziploc bag on hand for the collection). This does two things: 1) It allows you to still make a fire later on even if it happens to rain, and 2) It dramatically speeds up the fire making process at night (acquiring high quality, dry tinder and kindling is nearly always the bottleneck to fire building; once you have that part done, it's a breeze).

As far as practical considerations go, I have found that it is much easier (and less hassle) to make a fire at night than in the morning. This is for a couple of reasons:
1. You can continue to enjoy a fire at night once you're done cooking.
2. You can monitor the fire at night while it dies out and ceases to become a forest fire risk without this task eating into your hiking time (actually, there are few things more enjoyable to me than gazing into the dying embers of a fire on a starry night, but I digress...)

With that said, you can certainly cook with a wood fire in the morning (I have done it for years) but you need a way to put the fire out quickly (i.e. a nearby water source) so that you can get on with your day and not leave a forest fire risk of smoldering embers. If you are cooking with a small twig stove, then this isn't as much of an issue because you will not be generating that many coals to begin with, but it is still a consideration to take into account.

Personally, I will generally cook a big dinner at night, keep any leftovers in a tightly sealed container in the hanging bear bag, then eat said leftovers in the morning along with a light breakfast of something like reconstituted whole milk and granola (just something fast and easy that doesn't require cooking). This let's me get out quickly but also fills me up.

You can also use a hybrid system of cooking with wood fires at night and with alcohol in the morning. Lots of options to choose from and it'll be up to you to find out which one works best for you personally.

Lastly, if you like to cook anything that requires significantly more heat control than simply boiling water, then a fire is far and away the best backcountry cooking method I have found. It is a complete breeze to simmer something for 30 minutes on the coals of a fire, but it is a total bear to do that on most alcohol stoves. In short, cooking with fire opens up a lot of culinary opportunities that are simply impractical to try on alcohol stoves. The sky is the limit.

Oh, and as an added benefit, bugs will come nowhere near you when you're cooking (due to the smoke of course). This can oftentimes save your sanity on very "buggy" trips. And yes, you and and all your worn clothes will smell like a campfire for the entire the trip, but there is nothing wrong with that. I think of it like I'm being slowly seasoned, but in a good way.

Can you tell I love cooking with wood fires? ;)

Edited by dmusashe on 08/21/2013 02:21:29 MDT.

Loki Cuthbert

Locale: Portland, OR
alcohol stove in the morning on 08/21/2013 14:58:36 MDT Print View

My morning breakfast is usually a pack of oatmeal, coffee, a slice of bacon that I cooked at home before I hit the trail, and a cliff bar.

The reason I use my alcohol stove in the morning is because I can set up my stove and pot with alcohol in less than a minute. get straight into packing up my gear and come back to hot water 6-7 minutes later. enjoy my oatmeal and coffee then finish up my packing. I can wake up at 6 am and have eaten breakfast, packed up, and dropped a deuce by 7.

I like getting on the trail sooner than later and rarely spend any additional time in camp in the morning. If I have a particularly long day ahead of me I start this routine at 5am.

the wood fires cut down on fuel weight and you can feel comfortable that if you shorted yourself on the alcohol you know that you're still going to have that hot meal you're looking forward to.


Dan Yeruski
(zelph) - MLife

Chafing Fuel as cleaner on 08/21/2013 20:39:09 MDT Print View

I use chafing fuel to clean my pot once it weighs twice as much as when I bought it :-)))

Read this thread on how I clean it:

Wood Burning Pots made clean

Andrew Axley

Locale: Bay Area
looks like its time for me to get out and try again! on 08/21/2013 23:46:24 MDT Print View

A few more good things to keep in mind. I'll certainly be trying some of these my next time out. I'm glad I posted here, because I was a bit hesitant to try again-I was pretty happy with my alcohol stove to start out with. It will definitely be good to gain some skill with wood fire cooking even if I do end up using my alcohol stove just in case I run out of fuel. I saw Yvon Chouinard's quote recently- "The more you know the less you need" - this seems to be a good example of that!

I'll be sure to post back here after my next trip and let you all know how it went!


Locale: Western Michigan
Sap residue on pot from twig fire on 08/22/2013 05:03:05 MDT Print View

Try some Isopropyl Alcohol or olive oil.

Joe S
Emberlit on 08/22/2013 07:20:22 MDT Print View

Nice to see the photo of a well used Emberlit stove. It's a great piece of kit.

Mark Ries
(mtmnmark) - M

Locale: IOWAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!
Re: Sap residue on pot from twig fire on 08/23/2013 08:01:47 MDT Print View

I keep my pot clean by not cooking over the fire/flame. If I am in a hurry which is rare or a fire is not a good idea I always have esbit or in case of a fire ban a canister stove. I would rather enjoy a small fire and use it to cook. Start with a flat rock big enough to set your pot on not much bigger try to get this rock from an area higher and away from water source as rocks with water in them can explode although I've never had it happen. Start a fire beside the rock and as it gets going build it around the rock and on top of the rock to get rock hot then as coals are forming on and around rock leave coals here but begin building fire away from rock a few inches 4-6 use a stick to brush off top of rock and drag coals.Put pot on rock and away from flame its the new wood and big flame that will create the tar resin or creosote sticky build up. The pot will still blacken, not a thick sticky dirty build up but a thin baked on clean coating that does not rub off easily and looks really good. Remember use the coals and stay away from the flames and wood that's not burnt down to coals.I stick the pot in a grocery store plastic bag to make sure nothing rubs off in the pack

Robert Kelly
(QiWiz) - MLife

Locale: UL gear @
how to deal with a sticky sooty pot from a wood fire on 08/27/2013 15:37:48 MDT Print View

My solution is to devote a designated pot to wood burning and to store it in a reflectix cozy when eating out of it in camp and when it goes into my pack. For the most part I don't bother to clean it. The outside of the pot gets sooty and the inside of the cozy gets sooty, and no worries.

Since I use a titanium pot for this purpose, I do have the option of heating it over a fire with nothing inside of it, which will burn all of the sticky soot off and just leave a little black dusty soot. I will do this once in awhile if there is some build-up or I have burned wood that generates more sticky soot than others (like pine). You can also usually do this with empty steel pots, but be careful with empty aluminum pots as they can melt if they get too hot.

If you burn dry hardwood twigs and wait till the fire has settled before putting your pot over it, you will get less soot, but you will always get some.