A simple backcountry kitchen includes a stove system (stove, pot stand, and windscreen), a cook pot, and piece of silverware. Some hikers also carry a cup.
Very generally speaking, there are two kinds of backcountry stoves: those that require fuel canisters (propane, white gase, etc.), and those that don’t (alcohol or Esbit burning stoves). Stoves that require fuel canisters are nearly always more powerful than those that don’t. They’ll usually boil water and cook your food much faster than stoves that don’t use canisters. But canister stove systems are much heavier than canisterless stoves. The fuel canister alone can weigh more than the rest of the kitchen combined.
Canisterless stoves are much lighter. Rarely do they weigh more than 3 ounces. Many weigh 1 ounce or less. That means that some canisterless stoves weigh less than the lighter used to light them. They are also incredibly inexpensive. You can make them yourself for pennies, or you can order them for a few dollars online. Stoves that use canisters make sense for camping, but for long-distance hiking, the canisterless stove is king. The vast majority of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers use some kind of canisterless stove. For this reason, canisterless stoves will be our focus.
Canisterless stoves typically burn either alchohol, Esbit fuel tablets, or wood.
Alcohol is the most common fuel burned by Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers. Alcohol burns cleanly, doesn’t give off much of an oder, is readily available, and inexpensive. Alcohol stoves consist of some kind of small aluminum container that holds the alcohol. The container has holes near the top to let the fumes escape. When lit, the stove burns like a normal gas-stove would at home if set on low. Alcohol can only be ground shipped.
Esbit is a kind of solid fuel that comes in tablets. Since Esbit is not a liquid the stove doesn’t have to be a shaped in a special way to ‘hold’ it. Esbit stoves consist of a thin peice of metal upon which to burn the tablet (so you don’t leave a mark on the ground), a pot stand and a wind screen. Cleverly designed Esbit stoves combine the potstand and windscreen into one, and use doubled-up aluminum foil as a platform on which to burn the Esbit. The costs of Esbit is about the same as alcohol, but it is not as readily available along the trail. Esbit tablets should be bought in bulk and sent in your resupply packages. When packaged, Esbit tablets are solid, stable, don’t give off fumes and aren’t combustable. For this reason they are less of a hassel than alcohol. Esbit, like alcohol, can only be ground shipped. Esbit is non-toxic, but it does give off an odor. It also leaves a residue on the bottom of your pot that must be scraped off on occasion. Try it out before you commit to it.
Wood burning stoves are appealing to some hikers because you don’t have to carry your fuel with you. They are designed to burn twigs that are 2 to 4 inches long. Finding dry enough fuel after a rain storm can be tricky, but once you get a little fire going you can pile some damp twigs on top. The fire will dry the damp twigs. Wood burning cookstoves are typically larger than Alcohol or Esbit burning stoves. They also require more work: finding fuel, getting some coals burning, feeding the fire, and extinguishing your coals SAFELY when you are finished.
The most popular cookpots are made of either titanium or aluminum. Some hikers frown upon eating off of aluminum and opt for the (much) more expensive titanium pots. Steal pots should be avoided as they are very heavy and take longer to heat up. Titanium is lighter than steal, but also more expensive. Titanium pots weigh just slightly less than aluminum pots.
The most popular cook pot sizes are the 500ml and the 1000ml (1 liter) sizes. 500ml is common among solo hikers, while the 1000ml is more typical of people hiking in pairs and sharing a pot. Whatever you choose remember that cooking with a lid on your pot is much more efficient and will save you time and fuel.
Not carrying a stove is the lightest option. The next lightest option is making a homemade alcohol or esbit burning stove. To learn how to make your own homemade camp stoves, check out ZenStoves.net.
A 500 ml Titanium cookpot is the lightest available option. Top it off with an 8 gram, plastic, Light My Fire Spork (seen here) and you have a backcountry kitchen under 8 oz.
See ‘The Lightest Options’ above, but go with an aluminum pot from Wal-Mart instead of a titanium pot.
Not cooking at all is the lightest and cheapest option, but it’s not for everyone. Having all your meals be no-cook meals can be seem down-right Spartan to some hikers. Yet others find the simplicity of it attractive and enjoyable.
Has the information above changed? Know something other hikers should know? Leave a comment below.