Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lightweight Cooking Systems

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 ( and often sold by Titanium Goat ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( is only 9 grams and has a fork, spoon, and knife all built into one lightweight utensil.
· Firelite SUL Long Handled Titanium Spoon ( is 11 grams...but tough to buy as it seems to always be out of stock.
· Sea to Summit Long Handled Spoon ( is 17 grams.
· My current favorite is the GSI Rehydrate Long Handled Spoon ( 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 ( 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 ( or 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.


Jim Muller said...

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Robin said...

I'm considering purchasing the Caldera Ti-Tri. Nice to see you use it. On the Titanium Goat site is appears this can be used for alcohol or Wood (or esbit) but you don't include that titbit - I was wondering if you ever tried it with wood and how it works.


Jolly Green Giant said...

Hey Robin,

The Titanium Ti-Tri sold by Titanium Goat is the most efficient and most flexible stove I’ve ever used. It is also the only stove I know of which can handle 3 forms of fuel (Esbit, alcohol, and natural sources). The Ti-Tri is essentially the Caldera Cone by Trail Designs except it is made of titanium instead of aluminum. The aluminum cannot be used under an open flame, so essentially you need to decide if it is worth the money to go with the Ti-Tri to be able to use it with natural fuel sources as that is the primary difference (other than cost). To me, it was well worth the cost for the advantage to use it with three fuel sources. Besides, there will come a time when you may not bring enough fuel with you and it would be nice to have the option to pick up a few sticks and use it as a wood stove. I’ve done this a few times intentionally and it worked well. Often I bring a handful of Esbit tablets and use them only when other dry natural tinder isn’t readily available (or if I’m in more of a rush).

Regardless of which one you choose, the cone is built for the cup that comes with it so don’t plan on just purchasing the windscreen/pot stand. The cone hugs the cup as a pot stand and therefore it is very efficient against winds and adds quite a bit of stability since the cup slides down into the windscreen up to the top lip of the cup. The system comes with a Pepsi-can type alcohol stove. Although this isn’t the lightest alcohol stove, it is appropriate for the system because the diameter of the flame hole is directly centered under the pot which contributes to its efficiency. For example, I have a lighter cat food can alcohol stove, but the flame comes out less focused and therefore it creates less direct heat to the bottom of the pot. The result is a sloppier flame which takes longer to heat the water in the pot and thereby uses more fuel. With the Pepsi-can alcohol stove, the flame remains focused. It remains very light, but I’m just saying there are lighter options but not necessarily better options in this case.

The Esbit system works quite well and you won’t find a lighter Esbit stove. It is nothing more than three pieces of titanium which slip together to simply give the Esbit tablet something to sit on. Although using Esbit is likely the lightest option (other than natural sources which you can collect fuel on the way), it is much dirtier than alcohol which is otherwise very clean. Esbit leaves a black soot on the interior of the cone which will wipe off on your hands and such. Despite the soot, I find it very worthwhile and use them frequently. Despite what some people think, Esbit isn’t expensive, it isn’t toxic, 1 tablet can boil over 2 cups of water (usually around 2.5 when I use them), and they last for years as long as they are kept in their original packaging.

To answer the bulk of your question, yes, the natural sources aspect works fine. To make it work, the system comes with two titanium ultralight tent stakes which slip into holes at the top. The stakes act as a pot stand as otherwise your pot in the normal configuration would smother the flame not to mention you couldn’t add sticks and stuff to fuel the fire. With the pot sitting higher than the cone, you can add sticks as you go, but the overall stability is affected since the pot isn’t nestled in the stand and instead sits on top of it. Ultimately, it doesn’t make much difference though and I wouldn’t be concerned about the stability unless you are really in a high wind situation in which you probably wouldn’t be cooking anyway or you could use some rocks or fallen trees as a sizeable wind block. What you lose with using natural sources is efficiency as it will take longer to heat your food – but then again, you won’t have to carry fuel and it is always nice not to lug the extra weight. Taking longer to cook is common with natural fuel stoves. For example, I have the Bushbuddy Ultra system which works great as a wood burning stove. It took takes a little longer than say my Brasslite alcohol stove, but again, I don’t have to carry the fuel. The Ti-Tri is better than the Bushbuddy, however, because it is lighter, more convenient to pack since it can be packed flat, and it can also be used with two other fuel types. The Bushbuddy is attractive though in the sense of engineering and innovation.

I hope you decide to go with the Ti-Tri as it really is a nice piece of gear, you will just need to decide what size cup to go with it. I decided on the 900ml which is a little big for my tastes, but the wider pot bottom allows colder water to be cooked more quickly and the bigger pot allows me to make baked items if desired since it provides a bit of a Dutch oven-type environment for bread products. The cup also comes with a handy perforated lid and the only draw-back of the cup system, in my opinion, is the fact that it doesn’t come with some kind of wire handle to allow it to be hung from something like a three post tripod for use over an open fire (without the cone). It does come with a standard handle though. It will also come with a heavy duty plastic carrying tube which will hold everything. Although this container works fine, I found fashioning one out of heater insulation I picked up from my local hardware stove saved a bit of weight. With that same insulation, you can fashion yourself a cozy for freezer bags and your mug if you choose to do so. The insulation will keep your food very toasty and therefore it will cook your food more quickly and keep it warmer so you aren’t eating cold slop. When used to insulate your cup, you’d be surprised how long it too remains very warm. The highlight with the insulation, well, it is cheap, effective, and lightweight. You can also use it to store anything you don’t want damaged (i.e. cameras, fruit, electronics, etc.) because it is nothing more than bubble-wrap with a reflective coating on it. Get the corresponding reflective tape and you can put something together that will contribute to your pack nicely.

Thanks for stopping by and sorry for the long response (I like being thorough).

Robin said...

Thanks for the great advice! I'm going to go for the Ti Tri.


Chris Roane said...


I just found your site and came across this post. I'm very interested in getting the Ti-Tri Caldera. But I have a few questions:

1. I currently have a msr stove that connects to the cannisters. The stove weighs about 5 oz and the fuel for about 5 days weights at least 11 oz. Would going with this stove save on weight...even if I only use it as an alcohol stove?

2. I live and backpack in Montana. The highest spots that we camp would be 10,000 ft above sea level. Would this cause problems with this stove? I guess I could just use the tablets in this case, but I'm curious if it would work as an alcohol stove in this case.

Your help would be appreciated!