The Unlikely ASMR Hero of… Camp Stoves?

“Are you watching porn?”

It’s the middle of the night. My wife lifts the edge of her sleep mask and looks at me, my face lit by a glowing iPhone. Caught in the act.

Luckily, she’s open-minded about this sort of thing. “So what are you into?” she asks, leaning over to take a look.

I show her. There’s a bearded man in a plaid shirt pan-frying trout fillets over a small wood-burning camp stove. Behind him, a serene mountain lake reflects the surrounding peaks.

He is not alone. There is a dog.

She seems disappointed but unsurprised. She already knows the guy on the screen, because lately he’s been an obsession of mine.

To be honest, most outdoor videos don’t do it for me. Too many hairy bushcrafters, grim-visaged survivalists, perky trail hikers, or slick gearheads—all overenthusiastically documenting their recent trips and latest purchases. But these are different.

Steve Despain is proprietor of Firebox Outdoors, a small Utah company that sells patented wood-burning stoves of his own design, plus assorted other premium-quality camping products, most of which you can see him using in hundreds of videos. His YouTube channel has more than 160,000 subscribers, and he racks up views in the tens of millions. He’s all over Facebook and Instagram, too.

Very little happens in his videos, but that’s probably why they cast such a spell. Steve drives or hikes to a dramatic destination—sometimes the desert, sometimes the mountains—either by himself or with his family. He makes camp and maybe fishes a little. Then the real action starts. Steve sets up his small stove, lights a fire, and cooks. 

Over the years, he’s roasted whole chickens, grilled steaks, made pots of chili, and baked cakes—but the classic meals, the two he falls back on over and over, are either freshly caught trout with garlic and lemon, or eggs and bacon on a bed of hash browns. 

It always looks delicious, and he always sighs over every bite, usually with a comment like “So good.” 

Steve is a laconic presence on-screen. He doesn’t go in for the nonstop narration typical of these kinds of videos. Instead, he invites you to simply watch what he’s doing. He adds occasional explanations or bits of advice as the need arises. He speaks in a near whisper. The effect is calming, intimate. 

Each video is different but always the same, a variation on a theme, like a Bach cantata. For example, he punctuates most outings with a sequence at dawn where he quietly boils water and makes coffee. He grinds the beans on the spot with a portable grinder he sells on his website.

I cannot overstate how weirdly restorative I find Steve’s videos, especially after a stressful day. Apparently, I’m not alone. There are tens of thousands of comments on his YouTube channel, many like this:

I very rarely comment on videos but I just had to. I’m a 21 year old college student who is a typical millennial. Heavy use of social media, consumer of material goods … and never have I watched and felt more happiness and peace than when I watched this video.

As sales tools, his videos run the risk of doing more soothing than selling. Commenters began comparing them to the purportedly therapeutic ASMR videos that have been trending on YouTube lately. ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) is the scalp-tingling reaction that people claim to have to close-ups of somebody brushing their hair or crinkling paper or whispering softly. Steve’s reassuring demeanor reminds some of his followers of the late Bob Ross, the PBS painting instructor and an ironic cult hero of the ASMR crowd. 

At first, Steve wasn’t sure if this was a compliment or not—Ross is a mildly ridiculous figure, the king of kitsch—but he’s decided to embrace the association. He now attaches the #ASMR hashtag to some of his new posts.

ASMR doesn’t work on me, but Steve’s videos are definitely my personal lava lamp. They’re mesmerizing, transporting—they instantly take me out of the city, where people work late and eat takeout over their kitchen sinks, and deliver me to the mountains, where a pan of fish is popping and sizzling over red coals.

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