When P first started backpacking, back in the 1960’s, his kitchen consisted of a fire pit and a large aluminum pot. These days you aren’t allowed to build fires in many areas, and so we’ve had to adapt our kitchen to meet the new regulations. It’s not a bad thing. Now we work with a tiny gas stove, a single cookpot, a couple of bowls, a couple of plastic mugs, three spoons, and a water filter. And let’s not forget a bear-proof food storage container.
Instead of cooking over a fire, we now cook on a little gas stove that is the size of a cell-phone and puts out an amazing number of BTUs. These stoves, and there are a number of different models, use propane/butane gas cylinders, and we get about a week’s worth of cooking out of one eight-ounce gas tank. The stove weighs very little, the gas weighs…well, eight ounces…and the whole thing fits inside our one cookpot. Our MSR Pocket Rocket Stove and gas together cost us well under $50.
We’ve seen other people use alcohol stoves, which can be even lighter, although the fuel seems to be less efficient and, at times, a pain in the neck. In our mind, they are more like a can of sterno than a real stove---there is no real way to adjust the heat, and that bothers M, who is, after all, a chef. At the same time, since most of our cooking on the trail consists of boiling water, who cares? These are very light and there are even plans on the internet on how to make one of these stoves from a couple of aluminum cans and a penny!
P recently built a few of these out of empty Bud Light aluminum bottles, and they work as advertised. They take fifteen to thirty seconds to warm up, then put out amazing amounts of heat in a wide pattern burner. The only real problems are that the burner pattern is larger than many pots--which makes the whole thing less efficient that you would like--and there is still no way to control the heat---it's either on or off. But man! Pretty fun little stoves!
You can try cooking over a campfire—it is still possible in some areas—but you’ll need to plan your trips accordingly. If we were to take a truly ultralight backpacking trip, we might just decide that the stove and gas could be left behind…and then plan a trip to an area that allows cooking over a campfire.
And at right is a nice pot cozy that P made out of an old foam sleeping pad. It's just the thing to keep your freeze-dried dinner warm while it re-hydrates for 15 minutes or more!
The pot and lid we have are at least thirty years old and are pure, lightweight aluminum. I think they cost a dollar at a thrift store, and we can’t seem to find anything that does the job better. High tech stores will sell you a titanium pot for $75-90 that looks really nice, but we don’t think you need it. And one pot is all you need. We generally heat the water for oatmeal and hot chocolate all at once in the morning…and make sure we have a little extra to do the dishes. Our lunches don’t require cooking. And dinner is much like breakfast: we boil the water for soup and a freeze-dried entrée, and a little extra for dishes. The soup gets mixed up in our cups or bowls, and we eat that while we wait for the entrée to re-hydrate. No need for a second pot. A towel or a bandana doubles as a hot pad for serving the food. Do we need the lid? Absolutely. It makes heating the pot much more efficient by trapping all the heat inside.
For cups and bowls we use plastic. Our cups have a loop handle, so that we can hang them on the carbiners on the outside of our pack. We never use them on the trail, because we always pump water into our bottles, but it looks good anyway. We used a pair of old red plastic ones for years, then recently upgraded to some nice new green ones that we bought at the Tuolumne Meadows store in Yosemite. Very nice. Except that on the trail, those reds ones looked so...sporty. If you come on a trip with us, we can loan you some nice new green drinking cups. The sporty red ones will be on our packs.
And bowls at left are a couple of orange plastic bowls from a picnic basket set. They are very light, and the inside is very slick and easy to clean. They are also almost exactly the same shape as our cooking pot, so we stack them inside to save space in the pack.
Are there other options? Some ultralight backpackers use disposable plastic bowls—they are very lightweight, and we’ve considered them ourselves. You can buy them at any super market for a few dollars for a stack of them. But we worry that if they broke, we wouldn’t have such formal dinner parties on the trail. We would have to eat out of the pot. And if we carried a couple of extras, just in case, then our weight wouldn’t be much less than it is now. Still, it’s a really viable option.
What is not an option are those idiotic Sierra Club cups that some people still carry around on the outside of their packs. Not only can they be noisy, they burn your lips terribly if you drink hot cocoa or tea out of them. They may be classic, but they are really a bad idea for hot drinks!
The “classic” camping dishes made out of enamel won't do, either. They may look cute, but they weigh a ton. Save them for car camping with the in-laws.