Though hardly a kid any more, I still like to play with fire. I have cooked on wood, white gas, kerosene, butane, alcohol and Esbit tablets. I have owned a lot of stoves, used and built a bunch more. Making fire to heat and/or cook food is so central to backpacking that a large acreage of blogosphere is devoted to it. So here are my current and recent solutions, appropriately in a very long post.
I really like Caldera cones, made by Trail Designs. I like them so much that I build custom cone shaped windscreens to fit my favorite stove and pot combinations. The cone windscreen design protects the stove from wind, vastly improves heat transfer to the pot and provides a temperature protected environment for combustion. Cold weather performance loss is much less. And the cone shaped windscreen/pot support is stable – no more noodles spilled on the ground.
My kitchen goal is the ability to cook, including simmering and dry baking with a stove/windscreen setup that will stow inside the pot.
I cooked with alcohol for a season. I paired a Trail Designs titanium cone and 12-10 alcohol stove with a Snow Peak multi-compact pot set. To simmer, I used the simmer ring from a Trangia alcohol stove, which fits just perfectly over the Trail designs stove. (Currently Trail Designs offers a simmer attachment for their alcohol stove which is much lighter and should work better.) To bake, I added a flame diffusing plate below the pot and a spacer inside between the pot bottom and my aluminum foil baking tray. I get Bisquick biscuits in about 10 minutes on 1 oz. of alcohol. 2 cups of water come to a boil with about ¾ oz. of alcohol.
The pot supports hold the small pot or the flame diffuser. The snuffer is cut from the bottom of a 24 oz. beer can. The fuel bottle spout sucks up any unburned alcohol left in the stove. The flame diffuser plate is cut from a piece of stainless steel sheet. It keeps the flame off the empty pot bottom when dry baking. Still when baking, titanium pots get quite hot and develop very thin blue or brown colored oxide layers. The colored layers don’t hurt the pot and can be polished away if desired.
Trail Designs supplies a plastic cone carrying caddy to protect the lightweight cone from crushing. It holds the cone and all the other small parts and could be used as a drinking or eating container. The flame diffuser packs with the pots.
It proved a pretty good setup to cook for two people. It is a little overkill for one person. At 22 oz., I felt I could do better.
The next season, I moved to Esbit solid fuel tablets and carried only one pot – the smaller pot from my Snow Peak Multi-compact set. I fabricated a split cone from aluminum sheet that fastens with snaps (a la Jon Fong’s Flat Cat, It’s-A-Snap windscreen). The split cone fits inside the pot. The cone is sized so that the pot bottom is at the recommended 1.8’ to 2” above the stove base for burning Esbit tabs. The alcohol bottle, stove, snuffer, simmer ring, measuring cup and one large pot stay home. To get a simmer with Esbit tabs, I use one of Jon Fong’s Titanium Epicurean stoves. This is a ring which controls the amount of air reaching the tablet and thus the burn rate. A double layer folded shield of heavy duty aluminum foil goes under the windscreen and stove to prevent ground scorching.
I get an “apples to apples” savings over alcohol of over 15 oz. and a big reduction in packed volume. Boiling two cups of water takes 70% of a ½ oz. Esbit tablet, so I save about 50% in fuel weight. With single, wrapped tablets, I don’t worry about my alcohol bottle leaking or spilling. On the minus side, I do get some unburned deposit on the pot bottom, but it washes off easily with a little water. With only one pot, I have to do meal preparation a little more carefully.
The photos show some extra parts that I pack when I am going to do dry baking. Look at my Dry Baking post to see how they work. These extra parts will add 4.2 oz. This gives me a total weight for a comfort light, deluxe, baking Esbit kitchen of 11.4 oz. or a cooking only set up (including simmering) for only 7.2 oz.!
I used canister fuel before switching to cones. To get effective wind screening, I used a remote canister stove and a simple windscreen made of light weight aluminum sheet. Canisters don’t like to be inside a windscreen with the burner. (They will overheat, rupture and explode.) My Brunton burner head and accessory base/remote hose were bought on sale for about half the price of the much nicer MSR Wind Pro II and a bit less than the newer Kovea Spider. For prolonged simmering, I used the flame diffuser between the burner and the pot.
Fuel use is really good with canister stoves and simmering is very effective. However fuel only comes in full canisters, so you end up with a lot of partly full canisters.
I used this setup on my Iceland trip, with locally, easily available Primus canisters.
While this set up spots the competing alcohol assembly about 8 oz., the difference narrows by looking at fuel weight. 3.9 oz. (110 g.) of fuel in a full small canister probably compares to carrying 18 oz. of alcohol. At 12 oz. of alcohol, the trip weight is even up. By going to a lighter, newer 6 oz. stove, the weight without fuel is only a few oz. more. This might not be a bad option if you don’t want to mess with alcohol or mind dealing with empty and partially full canisters. Still, on cold mornings, you will need to add warmth to the canister
I have cooked a lot of meals on pumped white gas stoves and a few on classic Optimus pumped kerosene stoves. They work, but their weight penalty puts them out of the range of comfort light backpacking.
I have played with wood stoves, including the Trail Designs, Tri-Ti wood burning setup. In the final analysis, I decided that:
- In the Pacific Northwest, dry wood is sometimes a little hard to come by.
- In alpine zones, where fires are not allowed, even a wood burning stove is pushing it a little and uses up what little dry wood is around.
- It still smokes and smells and it is hard not to come back from the trip smelling like wood smoke.
- Pots and the stove get sooty and you need to isolate them from the rest of your gear.
- With Esbit tablets, my fuel weight for moderate length trips is so low that fuel saving using wood is a minor advantage.
So wood stoves stay home.