It’s no debate, food is an essential item in the backcountry. The fact is, we need the calories and carbs to fuel our adventures. But how we prepare that food, can vary quite dramatically between hikers. In fact there are many choices to make when coming up with an ultralight cook kit. This post will help you wade through the many options and come up with a kit that suits your needs.

Step 1: To cook or not to cook (or how light do you want to go?)

If you truly want to go as light as possible, consider not cooking at all! While I am not a huge fan of the no-cook method, there is no doubt in my mind that it is the lightest way to consume food while backpacking. No-cook backpacking can take many forms, but normally consists of a lot of peanut butter or nuts, rehydrating meals as you hike (instead of heating water to rehydrate them), and meal bars. Though I’ll save deeper discussion on this topic for another post, consider whether eating room temperature mashed potatoes, room temperature refried beans, peanut butter on bagels, cold oatmeal, and large quantities of trail mix every day is a viable option for yourself. If you think you can tolerate this type of food then perhaps you’ll be able to save weight by going stoveless. One key aspect of going cookless or stoveless is rehydrating meals as you hike using some sort of water-tight container (Consider using a gatorade container like this one or a lightweight ziploc container like this).

For most people, including myself most times, having a nice hot cooked meal at the end of the day is essential and worth the small weight penalty that comes with kitchen gear. This means that we’ll need to develop a ultralight backpacking kitchen with which to cook our meals!

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Step 2: Finding a lightweight cook pot

Pretty simple stuff really, you’ll need a pot to cook your food (or really just boil your water) in. Lets keep it simple here too, you only need a pot. There is no need for an extra plate or a cup or any of the other accessories an outfitter may try to sell you. If you’re trying to save weight, just go with a nice compact pot. Though I think Jetboil makes a great cooking system, I’m not including it here as it is still just a little too heavy to be considered ultralight. That said, they do have amazing boil times and fuel efficiency.

There are so many backpacking pots available that finding one to suit your needs may seem impossible. Fortunately, I’ve got some criteria to help you narrow down your choices:

  • Titanium – Though titanium is heavier than aluminum, it is also stronger. This means that it can be made into a durable pot at a thinner thickness than aluminum can, thereby saving weight. Yes, it is a little more expensive up front, but it will last you forever.
  • Weight – Obviously you’ll want to choose a pot on the lighter side… Shoot for under 4 ounces.
  • Measurement Markings – This is something that I find essential on a pot. These markings on the inside of the pot let you know how much water you’ve got inside. When making meals or hot drinks, it’s nice to be able to know that you are using the correct amount of water. 100% necessary? Not always, but I like my pots to have them. It is surprising how few actually have measurements though.
  • Good Handles – Good handles are ones that remain cool as the pot is heated, allow you to easily grip/hold the pot, and ones that are durable. Titanium is amazingly good at transferring heat, so as long as the handles are relatively thin, they shouldn’t hold too much heat. I try to avoid the handles with plastic/silicon coatings, as these will melt off when fire cooking. If you never fire cook, don’t worry about this.
  • Lid – Don’t worry too much about the lid of the pot. I find that you can always save a little weight by chucking the lid and opting for a few folded layers of heavy aluminum foil.
  • Size – This is perhaps the biggest hang up people have when buying a pot. Stick with a small pot, perhaps 600 – 700 mL in size (obviously this changes if you are cooking for two people or more). This size of pot will give you all the capacity you need, enough to cook a full size box of mac and cheese or boil 2 cups of water for instant potatoes! When you are boiling water for most backpacking meals (~1.5-2 cups), this size of pot will also leave you enough room to heat a little extra water up for a hot beverage. If you are cooking for multiple people, estimate that you’ll need to boil about 2 cups of water per person and find a pot that just barely fits your needs.
  • Storage Ability – I like to store my fuel canister, stove, and lighter inside of my pot. This keeps space savings maximized and pack size down. Consider whether or not your kitchen can fit inside your pot.

Pot suggestions:

My Favorite: Snow Peak Trek 700 Titanium Pot – This pot combines all of the features I look for into one durable, lightweight package. The handles stay cool due to their thin design, the measurement markings are easily visible, and the pot is the perfect size for any single person meal. Though I think Snow Peak’s 600 mL pot would be a little more ideal in size for me, it unfortunately lacks the ounce marks that this pot has. The lid for this pot leaves a lot to be desired, weighing in at over an ounce! Fortunately, it is easily replaced with foil, creating a pot/lid combo weighing in at ~3.3oz. For what it’s worth, this pot has survived two thru hikes with me and remains a constant in my gear choices.

Super-Light Option: Evenew 700ml Ultra-light Titanium Pasta Pot – Weighing in at 3.3 ounces with a really nice lid, this is another great choice for cooking. The built in strainer on the lid can be handy when cooking mac and cheese or other pastas. Plus, it has measurement markings!

Cheap Option: Toaks Titanium 750 mL Pot – I must admit, I have no experience with this pot, but at 3.9 ounces and with a price averaging around $35 this seems like a great choice for those on a budget. With the reduced cost comes a lack of measurement markings and an uncertain future as far as durability goes.

Step 3: Finding a lightweight stove

Much like the situation with cooking pots, there are many types of stoves to choose from. I’ll try to help you narrow down your choices to some of the better ones. Lets start by identifying some of the main types of stoves available:

  • Canister (Isobutane etc.) – The most common type of stove, running on pre-filled canisters of fuel that are available in a range of sizes at outfitters. By far the easiest to use, these stoves are lightweight, but dependent on canister fuel, which may not always be (but normally is) available. Turn the fuel on, light it, cook. Extremely cold temperatures can cause big drops in efficiency for these stoves.
  • Liquid – These stoves use refillable liquid fuel that must be pressurized and fed into the stove. Though these stoves are extremely versatile (both in temperature ranges and in their ability to use many types of fuel) and excel in most any condition, they are quite heavy, not to mention the added weight of the fuel canisters. Not really appropriate for a normal ultralight setup.
  • Alcohol – Alcohol stoves are very lightweight stoves that burn alcohol as a fuel source. Because of their minimal construction, these stoves can weigh almost nothing. Most are in the fraction of an ounce range. Though there is much debate, about whether alcohol stoves end up weighing less than canisters (on extended trips) there is no doubt that these stoves are one of the lightest ways to go. Alcohol stoves can be homemade (see here), purchased from cottage companies (like minibull designs here), or manufactured (these are typically much heavier). The advantage of these stoves is the ease of finding fuel. Lack of burn control means these stoves have two settings, on and off. In other words, you won’t be simmering on these stoves, you’ll be boiling.
  • Wood/Fire – Save weight by finding your fuel! Fire cooking offers perhaps the lightest way to cook a meal on trail. It is also something that may be heavily restricted or inappropriate for your current location (check the rules and fire regulations before you head out). To keep things a little more LNT I recommend using a lightweight wood stove (Like this one) instead of a fire ring (unless one is already available of course). Keep in mind your destinations topography too, it’s hard to find wood above treeline.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to keep things simple and focus on canister stoves. For most people and in most situations, canister stoves are the ideal option. Liquid stoves simply aren’t ultralight so they don’t belong here. Because alcohol stoves and wood stoves require a bit of research and learning, I’m going to save discussion on them for a later date. Also, there are some places that restrict alcohol and wood stove use (They were banned in CA on the PCT in 2014 for instance).

Now that we’ve narrowed the focus a bit, lets talk about what makes a good canister stove:

  • Fuel efficiency – Can vary from stove to stove, and the lightest ones tend to make a small sacrifice on efficiency to save weight. Do some research online and consider boil times when looking at stoves. More efficient fuel use means that you are saving weight on fuel. That said, most stoves these days are pretty close on boil times. The jetboil is very efficient on fuel, however it is pretty hefty too.
  • Weight – Should be light… duh. Shoot for the 2-3 ounce range.
  • Piezo Ignition – While it may seem like a convenient feature, I’ve found that piezo ignition is prone to failure over time and thus becomes dead weight more often than not. I prefer to have a stove without it and instead carry a reliable fire source.
  • Compactness – It’s nice to have a stove that can fold up really small for storage, preferably inside your pot.
  • Durability – Look for titanium or other light but durable metals in construction. You don’t want to have to deal with pot supports that bend under heat. Rust resistance is also important, I can remember cheaper stoves that I have had that began to rust within a month of use.

Stove Suggestions:

My Favorite (Also the super-light option): Snow Peak Litemax Stove – This titanium stove has survived two thru hikes with me and is still going strong. It’s efficient enough that I can cook two to three weeks worth of dinners (including frequent hot drinks) on the smallest fuel canisters available. Despite that efficiency, it weighs in at 1.9 ounces and folds up into a tiny package! This stove comes highly recommended.

Super-efficient: Soto Micro Regulator Windmaster Stove – This stove is amazingly efficient on fuel and sports some astounding boil times. It’s wind resistant design allows it to maintain efficiency where other stoves would falter. Weighing just 2.3 ounces with the lightweight pot support (a heavier weight option is available for large pots) this stove is a good choice for efficient-minded people. Some downsides include a somewhat bulky design that may not fit inside of your pot and the ever-vulnerable piezo ignition.

Cheap Option: MSR Pocket Rocket Stove – This classic stove has been around for ages now. It’s a proven design and will likely last you a lifetime. It may be a little bulkier and heavier than the options listed above, but it won’t break the bank either. These stoves can often be found on sale and if not are generally under $40 anyways. Downsides include a bulky compact mode that likely won’t fit in your pot and a 3.0 ounce weight (But that’s not really that bad is it?). If you’d like to save a little weight and space at the cost of added price, consider this stoves older brother: MSR Micro Rocket Stove. This stove is much more compact (enough so to fit into your pot) and weighs just 2.6 ounces, yet it is still cheaper than most other choices.

Step 4: Finding a lightweight utensil

I’ve written an article on this very topic before, so I’m just going to refer you to it for this section. You can find the utensil article here: http://backcountrybanter.com/2014/11/17/choosing-your-backcountry-eating-utensil/

My Favorite: Optimus Titanium Long Handled Spoon – I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again, this spoon is my favorite piece of gear. Yes it is not quite as light at some other options, but it is just so handy for reaching the bottom of bags/pots and it’s so shiny and smooth. Just get it, it’s only 0.7 ounces.

Super-light AND Super-Cheap Option: Lexan Spoon – There are many choices for Lexan spoons and most are both light and cheap. If you ever order anything from Yogi’s Books, you can pick up a 0.2 ounce lexan spoon there. This is perhaps the lightest one I’ve seen, though it isn’t long-handled.

Alternative Long Handled Option: Sea to Summit Alpha Light Long Handle Spoon – It’s got the nice long handle but lacks the smooth finish of my favorite spoon. It’s also only 0.4 ounces! Made of aluminum instead of titanium, this lighter spoon is also a little more delicate. I’ve definitely seen some of these bend in hard ice cream…

Well, there you have it. A lightweight yet fully functional kitchen that will serve you well in most all circumstances. If you were to combine my favorite choices, you’d get a full kitchen for just 5.9 ounces. This could be reduced even further with lighter choices too.

Random Bonus Tips: Pick up a small fuel canister (Like this 100 gram one) to nest inside of your pot. These small fuel canisters are ideal for weekend trips (It always pains me to see people lugging around giant canisters) and I prefer them for thru-hiking too, getting an average of 3 weeks worth of dinner out of them. Also, pick up a Mini Bic Lighter. These tiny lighters are great for lighting your stove daily and weigh just 0.3-0.4 ounces. I had one last the entirety of both the AT and PCT with near daily use! I like to protect my stove from debris (and store the lighter with it) using a home made super light tyvek baggie. I may do a post on how to make one in the near future.

I’d love to hear any feedback or comments you may have on this article. Leave some comments below!

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