When I first started backpacking years ago, I quickly realized that I needed to make some serious choices in the cooking department if I wanted to maintain my over voluptuous girlish figure. As a result, I purchased a sizeable canister stove, several fuel canisters, and a nice set of hard-anodized aluminum pans which came in every shape and size (but all fit together in one another for “packability”). Thinking smartly, I then went to the lantern isle and grabbed the lantern which cast the most light and consequently worked with the fuel canisters from the stove. I officially succeeded in having the ability to cook for at least a dozen heavy campers and I could turn night into day with my lantern. This all seamed great…in the store….and I happily purchased the items and headed for home. Because I had a nearly 6,000 cu/in expedition pack by Gregory, everything I purchased fit nicely in my pack. I’m pretty sure I could have also fit a refrigerator, but I decided against it because I was “roughing it”.
As you can imagine, the load broke my back and made my backpacking experience totally miserable. I didn’t need a ton of pans or several of them and I needed a smaller and lighter stove. The lantern was also overkill.
Fortunately, I evolved and learned educated backpackers don’t need to suffer with the burden of a heavy cooking system and by default my backpacking experience became more pleasurable. When considering a cooking system, it is important to consider all six components (1) the stove, (2) the pot stand, (3) the cooking pot, (4) the fuel (and fuel container), (5) eating utensil, and (6) the windscreen.
Lightweight stove options:
· White Gas Stoves – Great for winter camping because of their high output and reliability, but usually pretty heavy and I don’t know of anyone who enjoys carrying the fuel or container.
· Compressed Gas Stoves – Great overall, but the containers are cumbersome, environmentally unfriendly, and they must be carried after emptying. Jetboil, Primus, and MSR seem to hold a pretty tight grip on the market although there are plenty of options.
· Alcohol Stoves – Denatured alcohol is a great fuel source and these kinds of stoves are usually very light, inexpensive, reliable, free of moving parts, do well in most environments, and are fairly efficient. There are several options available with leading choices including Trangia, Vargo, and Brasslite. Each of these are great options as they provide a stove and pot stand together. Personally, however, my lightweight alcohol stove of choice is the Caldera Ti-Tri by Trail Designs (http://www.traildesigns.com/products02.html#titri) and often sold by Titanium Goat (http://www.titaniumgoat.com/TiTri.html). I have also been known to enjoy a homemade stove and pot stand which I made from a small cat food can. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a lighter option and it is the perfect size. I should mention that this idea came from Andrew Skurka and you can find directions on how to make one yourself on his website at (http://www.andrewskurka.com/advice/technique/fancyfeaststove.php). You can also make similar stoves out of empty soda or sauce cans.
· Esbit Stoves – Esbit stoves are essentially those which burn a solid fuel tablet and are likely the most lightweight option for backpacking. When I was younger, I often placed these tablets on a rock and used other rocks to surround it which created a pot stand. Although this worked, it hampered the efficiency and it also scarred the rocks and thereby was irresponsible on my part. At 11 grams and with a pot stand, the Firelight Titanium Esbit Stove (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/titanium-esbit-wing-stove.html) is the lightest Ebsit stove option I’ve found.
· Natural Stoves – A natural stove, one that is fueled from things in the environment, could be as lightweight as three sticks forming a tripod with a pot tied to it over a fire. Unfortunately, fires are illegal in many hiking locations. With that said, the lightest stove I’ve found which uses natural sources for fuel is the Bushbuddy Ultra Stove (http://bushbuddy.ca/) at 5.1 ounces. Considering fuel is often the heaviest part of most stoves, and the fact that the use of natural resources means that fuel is infinite (never needing resupply), this may be the best choice for any long-term trek. Course, it depends on the environment for fuel and in very wet regions this may be difficult.
Lightweight pot options:
There are several different options for lightweight crockery; the key is to determine your true needs. In many cases, a simple lightweight cup would likely be enough to meet the needs of most hikers as it boils water for drinking and to put in cooking bags. Essentially, often a single cup is enough for your entire backwoods kitchen. Since many people eat directly out of bags, additional plates and pots aren’t necessary. Lids also make water boiling more efficient and can be used in a pinch as a griddle for making pancakes and such. Evernew, Snow Peak, MSR, Titanium Goat, and others make great lightweight titanium gear and a simple Sierra Cup may be plenty. Coated aluminum, such as the hard-anodizing process, is also very practical and lightweight, although not as durable as titanium. Keep in mind, aluminum is lighter than titanium, so the question is whether you need something more durable (titanium) or if you'll take care of your gear and something lighter (aluminum) would be more responsible. Orikaso and Coleman both offer heavy plastic sheets which can be folded into items such as cups, plates and pots, and although they can serve double-duty as a cutting board and even something to sit on, they can’t be put on a stove and they don't offer any appreciable insulative qualities. Sea-to-Summit manufacturers rubbery collapsible dish wear too. It is worth noting that pots with a curved bottom are easier to clean and those with handles will prevent the need for a glove or other implement to handle it when hot. Pots with wider volume (as opposed to taller) also spread the heat more evenly and tend to cook more quickly, a very important point when attempting to melt snow which takes awhile.
Lightweight utensil options:
Unless you want to use sticks and twigs, you’ll likely need a spoon, fork, or a combination of the two known cleverly as a ‘spork’. When deciding which utensil is best for you, it might be worth noting if you’ll be eating out of a plastic bag or a metal container/pot as a fork/spork or similar pointed object may puncture a lightweight bag. Also, it is often nice to have a long handled utensil as it will prevent your hands from coming in contact with the walls of your container. Aside from the fact that this is annoying, generally speaking the hands of backpackers likely aren’t terribly clean. Below are a couple lightweight options I enjoy:
· Light My Fire (http://www.light-my-fire.com/230-147-spork.htm) is only 9 grams and has a fork, spoon, and knife all built into one lightweight utensil.
· Firelite SUL Long Handled Titanium Spoon (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/bpl_long_handled_titanium_spoon_sul.html) is 11 grams...but tough to buy as it seems to always be out of stock.
· Sea to Summit Long Handled Spoon (http://www.ems.com/1/1/4967-sea-summit-titanium-long-spoon.html) is 17 grams.
· My current favorite is the GSI Rehydrate Long Handled Spoon (http://www.ems.com/1/1/4967-sea-summit-titanium-long-spoon.html) which is a scant 11 grams and made of the durable material Lexan.
Lightweight windscreen options:
To get peak performance out of a stove, and in many cases maintain the flame and to prevent the pot from falling over, a decent windscreen is a solid choice. A Caldera Cone by Trail Designs (http://traildesigns.com/products01.html) is a great option because it also serves as a pot stand and thereby a lighter no-frills stove can be carried. Other lighter options include a Titanium Windscreen (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/titanium-foil-windscreen.html or http://www.titaniumgoat.com/windscreens.html) or a simple piece of heavy duty tin foil.
When selecting your cooking system, weigh each piece of gear and bring only that which you need. If you think you may need more because of a survival instinct, remember that you can usually light a fire to cook from if you are genuinely in an emergency situation. With that said, ensuring you have some dry matches and good fire-starting kindling should ensure you only bring what you really need.