Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Create an Ultralight Backpacking Cookset for $22

Kmart Grease Pot ultralight camping cookset

Quality backpacking gear that is lightweight but reasonably rugged can get very expensive. If you’re new to the endeavor and building your kit to get out for your first overnighter, the numbers can add up very quickly. In fact, prices can be so overwhelming that newbies on a budget might feel they have to wait months to slowly acquire the necessary gear (this was my experience.) Thankfully, however, there are some tried and true genuine bargains in the world of backpacking. On some occasions even, the simplest and cheapest option happens to be one of the best. I would submit that a couple of the items I list here fit that category – dirt cheap but perfect for the job. Below I’ve listed how to build a complete ultralight (apprx. 8 oz.) backpacking cookset – including pot, lid, handle, stove, windscreen, and spork, for only $22. Furthermore, this is a kit I suspect would even work on a thru hike of a major long distance trail like the AT or PCT. So here is the kit list. I’ll discuss each item separately with links, too.

The Complete 8 oz Ultralight Backpacking Cookset for $22

· "Kmart" Grease Pot & Lid: $6.00, 3.2 oz.
· Esbit Pocket Stove: $10.00, 3 oz.
· Open Country Pot Lifter: $4.00, 1.2 oz.
· REI Spork (w/cut handle): $2.00, 0.4 oz.
· DIY Aluminum Foil Windscreen: $.25(?), 0.2 oz.

(Please note: I currently have ZERO affiliation with any vendors linked on this site and make NO MONEY from any links, etc. I am simply discussing gear I actually use and providing links for reader convenience.)

"Kmart" Grease Pot:  $6.00, 3.2 oz.

ultralight backpacking grease pot Kmart
"Kmart" grease pot
I wish I could remember where I first read about the legendary Kmart grease pot so I could credit the forum or blogger.  It is certainly no secret in the backpacking community, however.  The pot holds roughly a quart of water and is made of a thin, lightweight aluminum that is pretty sturdy due to a rolled lid. It is not bulletproof so don't treat it like stainless steel, but it is not overly delicate either. I've been using mine for about 2 years, and it's still holding up fine. The pot comes with a strainer for bacon or sausage grease, which I ditched, of course. I also replaced the plastic handle on the lid with a loop of silicone rubber cut from a kitchen potholder and put some silver jewelry wire on each side to hold it in place. I foolishly drilled a couple of holes in the lid thinking I could pour water from them (dumb idea - it spills where the lid meets the pot.) However, I also drilled a hole in the side of the pot near the very top edge, and this allows me to pour a small stream from the pot when needed. This was a useful idea unlike the lid holes. 

Pros: Light, cheap, can also be used over campfire as well as stove
Cons: Not infinitely durable and lid can be hard to pull from heated pot because it hugs rim of pot rather than resting atop as a "proper" backpacking pot would do. 

Where to buy: I actually bought mine at a Kmart store for about $6, but you can also find them online - here's a link to the grease pot at Amazon.

Esbit Pocket Stove: $10.00, 3 oz. 

ultralight backpacking stove
Esbit Pocket Stove w fuel tablets
It seems the Esbit pocket stove is as polarizing as avant-garde jazz or bluegrass music - you either love it or hate it. Put me squarely in the "love it" category (though I also love free jazz and bluegrass, so consider the source here.) At only $10 (including 6 fuel tablets) and weighing only 3 oz., I think this little guy is deserves a place in the hall of fame. The stove folds down into a box and can hold four packaged tablets. The legs can spread to either a forty-five or ninety degree angle to accommodate the size of your cookware. The tablets are made of a fuel called hexamine and are easy to light. They weight about 0.5 oz each. I have found that it takes between 1 and 1.5 tablets to boil a full grease pot of water, depending on the outside temperature (the tablets are scored and can be broken into 4 pieces.) Boiling times probably vary between six and ten minutes for a full pot, so it is definitely not your fastest option.  Some people object to the smell of the tablets. I find the odor pretty faint, but I would recommend only using in an open or very well ventilated area. I have cooked with them under a tent vestibule without issue. The tablets also leave a greasy film on your pot which some find objectionable. I've found that this easily rinses off and has never been an issue. This stove is probably only best used for boiling water as controlling simmering temperatures would be very difficult.

Pros: Light, cheap, durable. Tablets can double as fire starters. Stove can also use twigs and kindling to supplement or even replace fuel.
Cons: Faint odor to fuel, leaves greasy film on cookware (though easily rinsed, IMO), slower boiling times, best used for boiling only rather than "cooking" or simmering.

Where to buy: I bought mine at my local outfitter in Nashville, but you can find them on Amazon for $10, REI for $12, or most any camping goods store for under $15.

Open Country Pot Lifter: $4.00, 1.2 oz.

pot lifter for camping pot
Look, a pot lifter! 
This is a simple aluminum pot lifter.  It does its job well. You could probably save a tiny bit of weight and space using a small silicone rubber pot holder, but I like using a pot lifter. It provides a detachable handle that can be used to eat directly from your pot even when hot, and you don't have to worry about burning rubber-coated folding arms found on many pots.

Pros: Simple, light, durable.
Cons: None

Where to buy: I bought mine at REI for $4, but you can probably find them at any camping goods store or from many online retailers.

REI Plastic Spork: $2.00, 0.4 oz.

Not much to say here. It works for what I eat, it's light, and it's durable. I cut the handle down on mine and sanded the end not to save weight, but so it could fit inside my grease pot. In fact, this is the only reason I haven't bothered to buy a nice titanium spork  - because it seems most models are too long to fit inside the grease pot. I should eventually get a titanium utensil, however, because it would be nice to have something fire-proof when cooking, just to be able to slide the pot around when cooking over a a campfire.

Pros: Cheap, durable
Cons: Can melt in fire, prongs not especially "sharp"(steer clear of wooly mammoth or buffalo hide with this one)

Where to buy: At REI for $2

DIY Aluminum Foil Windscreen: $0.25 (at most), 0.2 oz.

DIY windscreen for backpacking stove
DIY aluminum foil windscreen.
I've heard some complain that the Esbit stove can be difficult to use in windy conditions. In extremely high winds, I'm sure this is true. For most situations, though, a caveman-simple aluminum foil windscreen will do fine. Just use 2-3 layers of foil folded over itself and make sure it's tall enough to cover your stove and a few inches of your pot. I made mine 4.75" tall by 14.5" long with two sheets of foil and little lip at top for structure. You can use rocks, twigs, or tent stakes to help hold it in place when using.

Pros: Cheap to free, easily accessible, very light, folds up tiny
Cons: Not durable, but who cares?

Where to buy: Your pantry or junk drawer


lightweight cookset for backpacking
Only 8.6 ounces and $22
So, there you have it. A complete ultralight cookset for just over $20 weighing in at only 8.6 ounces. Sure, you can spend two or three hundred dollars on titanium cookware with the lightest canister stove,  and you might even save a few grams. If you have the money, go for it! I always suggest buying the best gear you can afford provided it will last (and titanium is definitely more durable than aluminum.) If, however, you're on a budget and want really solid gear, this is a perfectly respectable and worthwhile set. I typically also pack a bandana (for cleaning/drying or straining water) in my pot and I also choose to use a mug for coffee and to have a separate container for food, though I usually eat directly from my pot. (I'll discuss mugs in a future post.) I also store my cookset in an ultralight DIY stuff sack that I made so that any soot or food particles won't get on my other gear  (click here for my DIY ultralight stuff sack tutorial).

Ultralight ackpacking cookset in silnylon stuff sack
My cook set (and titanium mug) packed in a DIY silnylon stuff sack

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