Uncommon Challenge: Cook With a Candle

Does 50-year-old gear advice hold up on a camping trip in 2019?

I was in downtown Palisade, Colorado, a tiny hamlet in the high desert outside Grand Junction, when I wandered into a rummage store. Filled with antiques, sports memorabilia and other nostalgic items like the sort of wooden snowshoes and cross-country skis someone might proudly display above the hearth in their vacation home, the small shop transported me back to another era. There were many books, and one tattered cover caught my eye: The Complete Book of Camping, a hardback published in 1961.

Camping opens and cleanses man’s senses, just as a warm bath opens and cleanses his pores, the opening line said. It was a proclamation, albeit perhaps a bit antiquated, worth the book’s $2 price tag, and I left with an almanac filled with camping basics, strategies and gear explanations. 

I’m an experienced backcountry guide, but even I am not above new (or old) advice. But clearly, a lot of things about camping and how we camp have changed since the ’60s. We certainly aren’t using gasoline lanterns or touting the benefits of cotton anymore, and I don’t know anyone who sleeps on a kapok mattress or who cooks with a reflector.

Though most of the advice in The Complete Book of Camping is outdated in this way, some of it made me wonder if there’s something to gain from these old methods. One section that caught my eye, in particular, was about candles. The authors claimed the underrated candle was one of the most useful tools you can carry in your pack. It’s lightweight, hardy and serves many purposes: You can use one to light wet tinder, illuminate your tent, patch rips or tears in materials or, in a pinch, boil water or create a heater. 

Given how much technology has evolved in the past half-century, I wasn’t sure if candles would be considered “lightweight” anymore. And, given the existence of much safer options like headlamps, having an open flame in your tent seemed like an unnecessary risk (although quite romantic indeed). But some of the recommended uses seemed like they could still hold up today. Votive candles are cheap, and using one as a fire starter seemed not only plausible but actually sort of genius. Why couldn’t you cook with one or two? I grabbed my pack and made the short drive up to the Grand Mesa to see what’s possible.

I brought regular, white wax candles that were 1.4 inches tall and 1.2 inches wide. I figured this size was appropriate—small enough to fit under a pot and big enough to produce heat.

At my campsite near Island Lake, I created a ring of small rocks around one candle and built it about 3 inches tall, so the flame from the candle would just lick the bottom of my pot. The rocks, though they were uneven enough to allow oxygen in, were a sort of windbreak, I reasoned, and I lit the candle and placed my 1-liter pot of water on top. The small dab of fire danced on the wick and flickered in the evening breeze.

I tended to some other camp duties and checked back on my water 10 minutes later (a watched pot never boils, candle or otherwise). The wind had blown out the candle. I reinforced my windbreak by adding more rocks and packing some sticks and dirt in the cracks, then set fire to the candle once more. 

Fifteen minutes later, the candle was still lit, but not much was happening. I tapped the edge of the pot to gauge its temperature and quickly realized the titanium was still cool to the touch. The water inside may have even grown colder since I poured it from the tank in my truck. The candle had shrunk, leaving the flame a half an inch below the bottom of my pot. I felt around and concluded that it was indeed creating heat—just not enough.

I added two more candles to create a trifecta more appropriate for a holiday hearth than a campsite and let it go. Another 10 minutes later, I checked back in and was pleased to discover some real heat. The water was definitely getting hotter, and the inside of the pot was now warm to the touch. But there was a problem: The candles were melting faster than they were heating the water. 

After another 15 minutes, the candles were all but gone, collapsing in on themselves, slowly but surely, like snowmen in the sunshine. As they melted, their flames grew farther and farther from the water, until the temperature beneath my pot was nearly as cool as the night air around me. 

Not to be deterred, I switched to tea lights, which sit in aluminum cups. The metal seemed to preserve the candles’ shape as the air beneath the pot warmed. I was able to get the pot of water to a soft boil after a painstaking 45 minutes. Though, admittedly, it wasn’t the best use of resources; I had half a dozen tea lights in the makeshift rock well under the pot. Given today’s array of fuel-efficient, easy-cleanup camping stoves and lightweight gas canisters, I accepted defeat quickly: There isn’t one reason why a camper should cook with candles. Even in an emergency, you are much better off with flint or a lighter than a pack of votive candles.

Perhaps the book’s infatuation with candles is best left in the 1960s, when burning wax was a reasonable alternative to lugging around big lanterns, at a time when Jetboil didn’t exist. Still, unwilling to give up on The Complete Book of Camping and the cleansing it promised, I sought to find at least one use for the mighty candle, beyond the obvious (ambiance). Here it is: A tea light is a very effective fire starter.

No matter how windy it was on the Western Slope, I could light my candle without issue on the first try. When it began raining, I dug a small hole in the ground, put a tea light in and then laid small sticks over the top of the hole. The incessant flame of the candle lit up the damp sticks in no time. Petroleum-soaked cotton balls, Fritos, dryer lint—I’ve seen and tried it all. But my emergency kit will invariably have the trusty tea light from here on out. 

Uncommon Challenge is a column where we challenge each other to make unusual gear additions, subtractions and swaps. All challenges (and subsequent bouts of suffering) are voluntary and not recommended unless explicitly stated. Have an idea for a new Uncommon Challenge? Leave us a note in the comments.