Monday, July 28, 2014

A Quick Guide to Cooksets and Stoves for Backpacking

stoves, pots, and kettles for backpacking and camping

The first thing to consider when shopping for some type of backpacking cookset and stove combination is whether you need one. You don’t necessarily have to cook or heat food while backpacking; you can simply bring along foods that require no cooking or heating such as nutrition bars, gels, fruits, nuts, trail mixes, etc. However, these foods are typically heavier and bulkier than many dehydrated foods that require boiling water. Of course, coffee, tea, and cocoa can also be nice in the backcountry if not near mandatory for caffeine addicts like myself. Those with a little more botanical knowledge enjoy cooking with fresh, foraged plants (I currently only forages through grocery stores, unfortunately.) Whether cooking gourmet backcountry cuisine or simply heating up oatmeal, most backpackers will want to have some type of cooking system. This guide offers a broad overview of the most frequently used and easily accessible options for cooksets, stoves, and other backcountry cooking accessories. This is by no means exhaustive but is more than enough to get you acquainted and ready to begin putting together your own cooking kit. Let’s start with cook sets before covering stoves.

A “cookset” may be nothing more than a single pot, kettle, or mug and a spork/utensil. Some prefer to have a separate cooking pot/kettle and a mug to eat and drink from. If your pot/mug/kettle doesn’t have a good handle (look for collapsible), you might also consider a pot lifter or a small silicone pot grabber (you can cut a regular silicone pot grabber down to size). Some might also use a “cozy” to insulate their pot, especially if hiking in colder temperatures. Keep your cookset as light and compact as possible. You don’t have to spend much to have a lightweight kit either (check out my $22 Ultralight Cookset post which provides for a pot, stove, spork, and lifter.) Here are some things to consider for your cookware:

Cooking Pots/Kettles
backpacking and camping kettles and pots
  •  Look for thin aluminum or titanium unless you’re a backcountry gourmet who plans to cook over open fires frequently. For those rare backpackers, stainless steel might be worth the extra weight. 
  • Consider a $6 Kmart Grease Pot if you don’t want to shell out much cash.
  • Determine whether you will be cooking for only yourself or others as well. 750ml is a popular size that is enough to cook for two but not overly bulky or heavy for one (I will probably spring for either this 3.9 oz titanium pot or this similar 3.7 oz. pot if my grease pot wears out or I feel the sad need for some consumer dopamine.) 
  • Look for collapsible or easily stored handles in a pot/kettle
  • Make sure the pot has a lid (this is one disadvantage for those who want to only use a single mug for cooking, eating, and drinking – cooking lids are hard to find for mugs. Aluminum foil can work, however.)
  • Look for a few small colander holes in the pots lid – this keeps the pot from over boiling and can be useful if draining for pastas and such.
Utensils (Sporks)
sporks for camping and backpacking

Unless you are an absolute dyed-in-the-ultralight-merino-wool gram weenie who likes to eat with sticks, twigs, or bare hands, grab yourself a spork. I currently just use a simple plastic REI spork because it was only a buck and I was able to cut the handle down to fit in my grease pot. I need to pick up a simple titanium spork, though, because I’d like to have something metal to poke around a fire when needed. Whether plastic or metal, you can use the classic KFC-inspired spork design (a spoon with prongs) or the clever Light My Fire design which offers a spoon on one end and a fork on the other (and even a serrated “cutting edge” on one of the outer fork prongs.)

Mug or No Mug
Decide if you want to mess with the extra weight and bulk of a mug or if you are happy to simply eat from your pot/kettle. I typically bring a titanium mug so that I can enjoy coffee separately from my food. As already mentioned, some might want to forego a pot/kettle and only use a mug for cooking, eating, and drinking. Be aware that few mug designs offer lids and aluminum foil or other improvisations might be necessary. For more on backpacking mugs, check out my Mug Shots post.

I suspect one could write a dissertation on backpacking stoves. Countless brilliant DIY designs exist as well as clever designs from many cottage manufacturers. I’m only going to discuss a few types and designs that are most common. Frankly, I am also writing from the perspective of one who backpacks primarily in the moderate climate of the southeast US and have no real experience with backpacking in extreme cold and deep snow. Those hiking in such conditions should seek advice specific to those climates, of course.

Canister Stoves

Fuel canister stoves are probably the most popular stove type because they are just so damn convenient. They are easy to use, offer better temperature regulation that most other stove designs, and frequently boil water faster. The only real disadvantage to canister stoves is, well, the canister. Fuel canisters are somewhat bulky and heavy compared to other fuels, and, while they can be recycled, are a bit less earth friendly than other methods. A classic and popular canister stove is MSR’s Pocket Rocket which can be had for $40 or less. Lighter and smaller designs of a similar ilk exist, but the Pocket Rocket is a great baseline to begin your search.

Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol Stoves are likely the second most popular stove type among backpackers, and they might be the most popular type for long distance and thru-hikers. I am slightly embarrassed to admit I’ve never used an alcohol stove because I’ve been happy enough with my Esbit stove, and I’m not crazy about the idea of keeping up with flammable liquid. (That is one of the down sides to alcohol stoves.) However, I think I’m going to give in very soon and grab a White Box stove, one of the most popular cottage builder designs. The advantages to alcohol stoves and why they are so popular with very serious hikers is that they can be VERY light in weight, countless DIY versions are easily made, and their fuel (denatured alcohol or HEET) are very easily accessible. Once I get my White Box Stove, I’ll revise this post and offer my thoughts.

Solid Fuel/Esbit Stoves

This is the type of stove I use most often when backpacking. I use the most basic $10 Esbit pocket stove (again, see my $22 Ultralight Cookset post.) “Esbit” is the most popular name brand, but other solid fuels exist. The advantage of solid fuel stoves is that they can be very light and small, you don’t have to keep up with liquid fuels, the tablets make excellent fire starters, and many of the stove designs can also be supplemented (or used solely) with twigs and wood. The downside is that these stoves aren’t terribly fast at boiling water, the fuel has a slight odor when burning (I rarely notice provided I'm cooking in a ventilated area), and the fuel leaves a slight greasy residue on your cookware (though it easily washes off in my experience.)

Wood Burning Stoves

I find a compelling rustic romance in the idea of wood burning stoves, but I haven’t had the opportunity to use one. The simplicity of most designs combined with their reliance on found natural elements (sticks, twigs, bark, etc.) is very attractive. I’ll admit, though, that same reliance on found natural elements becomes a little less sexy when considering wet weather and unexpected downpours. At best, such conditions might complicate and slow down your ability to cook. At worst, I worry I might end up with an empty stomach and pile of damp, barely-scorched twigs. I assume those that use these account for this potential and either store dry tinder or find other methods to make due. Some models, such as the Sierra Stove, incorporate a battery-operated fan to keep plenty of oxygen flowing to the flames. I must admit, this kills some of the rustic romance of a wood burning stove, but the reality of better performance might be worth sacrificing a little bit of design poetry.

Other Cooking Accessories
  • Windscreen: While not wholly necessary, a windscreen can make life a lot easier in heavy winds or even persistent breezes. Rocks, trees, bark, and other found objects can serve as makeshift wind blockers, but such things are not always reliable. I use a caveman-simple piece of folded aluminum foil most of the time. Some stoves incorporate a windscreen into their design and others are designed to use a separate windscreen as the primary support for your cookware underneath a stove. 
  • Insulating Cozy: In cold temperatures, a cozy for your cookware can ensure your freshly cooked meal remains warm and toasty for more than two minutes. Given that most backpacking cookware is designed with very thin walls to save weight and provide faster boiling times, the tradeoff is poor insulation. Some pots offer manufactured cozies, usually made from neoprene, and countless DIY designs are out there which can be adapted to suit any individual pot or kettle. 
So, there you have an introduction to cooksets and stoves for backpacking. Consider your budget, the climate and range of weather conditions you expect to be backpacking in, and the types of food you expect to eat. Because stoves are so diverse and many are very affordable, you’ll probably end up with a few different types as you get out for more and more backcountry adventures. Some stoves and cookware might lend themselves to certain trips over others. If, however, you’re just looking for something affordable and reliable to get started, I’ll once more link to my $22 Ultralight Cookset post for you to consider. With that closing remark, I guess it’s ciao time… (Sorry, but who can resist multilingual puns?)


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