Cooking in the Backcountry, Or, The Dangers of Alcohol

There are many different options for the modern day traveller to cook meals on any journey, and all have their vocal advocates, for each of us has different priorities to balance on any given excursion. One thing I have noticed, however, is that advocates of ultralight backpacking tend to gravitate to alcohol stoves. I have always wanted to use an alcohol stove, because of their simplicity, and the idea that alcohol can be, even if it mostly isn’t in practice, a sustainable, carbon-neutral fuel. However, after building my own homemade alcohol stove out of a dollar store water bottle and performing some tests, I have come to the conclusion that the tradeoffs are not a positive value proposition for a foot traveller, except under limited conditions.

What works best for me, and this may surprise you, is a liquified petroleum gas cartridge stove. I have been using an MSR Pocket Rocket stove for many years, ever since it was released, in fact, mainly because of the convenience factor, since my excursions have mainly been limited to short trips where running out of fuel was not a danger. The drawbacks, as any critic will tell you are that canisters are heavy and must be packed out, that they may not be available in remote areas, that butane fuel is not carbon-neutral, and that they cannot be transported by post or plane. However, a closer examination shows that alcohol has it’s own problems.

Alcohol stoves generally have burners which cannot be easily or precisely regulated, with the possible exception of the very heavy and long-discontinued Optimus Hiker 111T, which included an alcohol jet. But the biggest disadvantage of alcohol is the fuel itself. Alcohol contains very little specific energy, so you must burn a lot of fuel to heat a meal, and carry more and more of it on a long trip. The stove I built recently compares very well with most of the other designs I’ve seen built on the Internet. Using 2 fl. oz. of denatured alcohol, my stove will boil 500 ml cold water, outdoors, in a stainless pot, with calm air, in about 8-10 minutes, and burn for about 12-14 minutes total burn time. This is enough to cook one simple meal for one person, essentially. If I carried 1 litre of denatured alcohol, it would weigh about 800 g—785 g for 1000 cc of pure ethyl alcohol (We’ll just pretend denatured alcohol is 100% ethanol for the purposes of this comparison. In reality, denatured alcohol contains a significant percentage of methyl alcohol, which has even less heat, and also contains a small percentage of water.), and with a very lightweight PET bottle (or two), we’ll figure 800 grams. For this weight, I will be able to cook approximately 16 very simple meals. Including my homemade stove and priming pan, together weighing 62.5 g, my total stove and fuel weight would be 862.5 g.

Coleman’s butane canisters are available in a 250 g (contents) size, and they weigh about 13.4 oz. each, or 380 g. The MSR Pocket Rocket stove weighs 85 g. So, carrying a Pocket Rocket and two canisters of fuel gives me a base stove weight of 845 g. According to MSR, the Pocket Rocket will burn for 60 minutes on one 8 fl. oz. (227 g by weight contents) MSR IsoPro fuel canister. Obviously, the Coleman canister holds about 10% more fuel, but we’ll keep the time the same to be generous. Now, the butane/propane fuel and Pocket Rocket combo will boil water *much* faster than the alcohol stove. According to tests by Curt Peterson at Thru Hiker, a single IsoPro cart will boil 2 cups of water nearly 14 times. So, extrapolating from these figures, for essentially the same weight as the alcohol stove and fuel, I get not only about double the number of meals cooked, but I have precision control over my cooking. This may not be important to some people, but I consider myself something of a backcountry gourmand, and rehydrating freeze-dried processed packaged food substitutes is not what I want out of my life.

The biggest downside to this is that I need to pack out about a half pound in (recyclable) waste metal, and I add a tiny bit to the global greenhouse gas burden, directly. Of course, methyl alcohol is mostly produced from coal these days, and the added fossil fuel energy that goes into ethyl alcohol production is a serious concern, so even the supposed environmental benefits of alcohol are dubious, at best. In fact, butane/propane fuels might actually be more green, when all is said and done! But for me, fine control over my cooking is even more important, which settles the issue, in my mind. In fact, I like to carry two stoves, because I like to keep one for boiling water and high heat cooking, reserving the second for simmering. This means that my total stove weight consists of two MSR Pocket Rocket stoves, and four 250 g Coleman cartridges, providing me with the ability to cook at least 56 meals, or well over two weeks’ worth, if all that is involved is boiling water. While purchasing two MSR stoves is obviously more expensive than building two dollar store water bottle stoves, there is the time factor to consider, and my time isn’t cheap!

I am not an advocate of ultralight backpacking. I am an advocate of enjoying myself, rather than obsessing about how many miles I’ve covered in a day, or how light I can make my toothbrush. This is not to say the weight isn’t a concern for me; I have a few tricks yet. Anyway, two Pocket Rockets and four canisters add up to 160 g + 760 g, or 920 g, and take up about the same weight and volume as two alcohol stoves and two litres of alcohol. In order to have a really good simmer from an alcohol stove, I’d have to build the stove for the purpose, and then my stoves aren’t interchangable, as the two Pocket Rockets would be. I’d *also* really need to carry windscreens, as the slightest brezze will dramaticaly increase fuel usage and boil times with alcohol, so now my alcohol setup gets even heavier.

Speaking of windscreens, when I bought my first MSR Pocket Rocket, I noticed that MSR advertised it as including a windscreen. When I unpacked it, I thought I’d been shorted a windscreen. As it turns out, what MSR means is the little tiny three-sided metal clip that sits atop the burner, which is not really a windscreen as you might conceive, but does help to prevent breezes from blowing the stove out. In any case, I’ve never bothered with a windscreen for my Pocket Rocket, although after seeing Denis Hazlewood’s Snow Peak Trek Titanium Bowl turned into a windscreen for his Snow Peak GigaPower stove, I’m strongly considering doing the same for my Pocket Rocket.

About that titanium bowl and weight saving tricks…it seems to me that even most ultralight backpackers are strong believers in purpose-built pots for their cooking. I have found that the best option for cooking is to simply use a bowl as a pot, with a separate pot lifter, like my MSR Panhandler, which weighs 56 g, and a plate as a frypan/lid. I *could* use a Snow Peak Ti Trek Combo, with its 900 ml and 1400 ml pots with matching frypan/lids, weighing in at 13 oz. (369 g), and priced at 99.95 USD, *or*, I could pack 2 Snow Peak Trek Titanium Bowls and two Snow Peak Trek Titanium plates, weighing in at 286 g, and priced at 73.75 USD. That is a huge difference when you think about it, and the plates are fan bigger, though shallower, than the Trek Combo pan/lids, although the bowls make smaller pots, holding only 20 oz. each. This is, however, still plenty large enough to cook a good meal. What that enables me to do without feeling guilty is to carry a little gadget that no backcountry chef should be without, a heat diffusion plate. The MSR Pocket Rocket is a marvel of engineering, but it has a tiny burner with practically no flame spread. Forget trying to simmer rice without burning it; it just doesn’t work. I found on eBay a 1/8″ thick round piece of aluminium plate that weighs 172 g, and does a perfect job of distributing heat evenly to the bottom of a whole pot or pan.

I should mention that I like to eat like a civilised person, and rather than eat straight from the pot, I like to pack separate bowls and plates, and I always carry two, so that I can share with a trailmate, if I want. Using the bowls and plates as pots, pans, and lids means they all stack together. Four of each pack easily, and weigh 572 g altogether. Even if I added two more bowls to be used as windscreens for the two stoves, my weight only increases to 687 g, and everything still stacks together! You might be thinking that aluminium pots and pans would save even more fuel weight, and you would be right, but aluminium is a highly reactive metal, and I don’t like to use it for cooking or eating, if I can help it. I accept the inferior thermal conductivity of titanium, and *much* greater expense, in order to gain its resistance to corrosion while retaining a relatively light weight. I may write more about this in the future.

I also carry four Rubbermaid Take Alongs screw top round food containers, which I use as prepware, mixing bowls, and the like. I carry two 1 qt. containers, and two 1 pt. containers. The weights are 57 g for the quart size, and 36 g for the pint size, a total of 186 g. I need to find two small, thin wooden cutting boards and a small silicone spatula to complete my kitchen. I’ll probably end up making cutting board out of hobby store basswood. They will be durable enough for the trail, easy enough to replace, and very light. Since I always have extra utensils, I have plenty with which to prepare and cook food, as well as eat it.

But, for the time being, this is the bulk of my cooking and dining setup for two people. For 1 week, I’d carry only two fuel canisters, for 2 weeks, I’d carry four:

2 ea. Snow Peak Trek Titanium Bowls (cookpots) 105 g
2 ea. Snow Peak Trek Titanium Bowls (tableware) 105 g
2 ea. Snow Peak Trek Titanium Plates (frypan/lids) 125 g
2 ea. Snow Peak Trek Titanium Plates (tableware) 125 g
2 ea. Snow Peak Titanium Single Cup IIs MG-002 72 g
2 ea. Snow Peak Titanium Flatware Sets (knife, fork, spoon) SCT-001 104 g
2 ea. Snow Peak Titanium Sporks SCT-004 32 g
2 pr. Youngpoong (Korea) hollow stainless chopstick sets 40 g
2 ea. MSR Pocket Rocket stoves 170 g
2 ea. Coleman 250 g fuel canisters 760 g
2 ea. Snow Peak Trek Titanium Bowls (windscreens) 105 g
2 ea. Light My Fire Grandpa’s Fire Forks 36 g
1 ea. MSR Panhandler pot lifter 56 g
1 ea. aluminium plate heat diffuser 172 g
2 ea. Rubbermaid 1 qt. Take Alongs 114 g
2 ea. Rubbermaid 1 pt. Take Alongs 72 g

Total weight: 2195 g with two fuel canisters, 2955 g with four fuel canisters

So far, I am at a total one week carry of 2195 g, so I feel confident I can stay under 2500 g, adding the cutting boards and spatula, for my very well-appointed kitchen that will allow me to produce gourmet quality meals in the backcountry. I know that this will sound like a lot of weight, particularly to the ultralight crowd, but I make up the weight in other areas. For instance, I no longer carry a tent, opting instead for a simpler, lighter weight, hammock, foam sleeping pad, and tarp setup. That cuts several pounds out right there, compared to a tent setup. Depending on the trip, if I knew I’d need to go absolutely as light as possible due to a long period between possible resupply points, I could easily cut out some of the extra gear to compensate. Remember, I’m trying to enjoy myself thoroughly, as Nessmuk would say, “smooth it”, not “rough it”, and cooking and eating are very important parts of my enjoyment of the wilderness. 

I’m shooting for a new base weight, not including food, of 10 kg, plus 4 kg of water (4 litres), or 30.86 lbs. While it would be nice to cut out half of that water, saving 2 whole kilograms, the fact is that sometimes, you don’t know where your next safe water is going to appear, so carrying 4 litres per person is prudent. If I allocate 2.5 kg to my kitchen, that leaves me 7.5 kg for my pack, extra clothing, shelter and sleeping equipment, and survival gear. That should be pretty easy to do, considering that my current homemade hammock weighs about 1.5 kg, and it’s a bit of a porker that could stand to be made out of far lighter material. Figure 1.5 kg for my pack, 3 kg total for my shelter and sleeping gear (tarp, hammock, suspension, blanket, sheet, and pillow), 1 kg for extra clothes, and I’ve still got 2 kg left over for survival stuff and odds and ends. These other items will be the subjects of future articles. Adding 1 kg/dy of food, that brings me up to a total starting carried weight of 21 kg, or 46.3 lbs. I’d like to get down to a total starting weight for one week of 20 kg, so I will be doing some slight cutting here and there. 

1 kg/dy of food is eating really well; we can do with somewhat less. Cutting back to 850 g/dy brings us back under 20 kg total, and we’re not starving. Knowing me, I’d suffer through the extra kilo just to eat it. Mike Clelland, author and advocate of ultralight backpacking, carries 635 g/dy of food, and claims to be well-fed. This actually wouldn’t surprise me, because on a Zone-type diet (which I do not necessarily advocate) of 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat, which is also pretty well compatible with a Paleo-type diet (disclaimer as above), one kilo of food would provide 2750 calories a day, assuming 50% of that weight was in water. Of course, while backpacking, we will be carrying dried foods, so our actual caloric content should be much higher. Like I said, 1 kg/dy is good eating! The mistake many people make with backpacking is thinking that freeze-dried foods are the way to go, but these highly processed foods are devoid of much nutrition, and have virtually no fat, so their actual caloric content is relatively low. Fats are extremely important, and should not be shunned, especially when weight is an issue, whether on your back, or on your thighs!

To be perfectly honest, in the past, I used to do this with MSR stainless steel pots, pans, and dishes, so switching to titanium means a much lighter load than that to which I am accustomed. The switch from an MSR Alpine 2 stainless steel cookset (733 g v. 230 g) and MSR Alpine Bowl and Alpine Plate stainless steel dishes (456 g v. 230 g, not including the cups, because I don’t have a weight handy for my trusty old Evernew stainless Sierra cups) saves 729 g alone! I’m getting older, so I have to stop carrying that much weight.

I hope I’ve given you some things to think about and some ideas that you might find useful. Every traveller has to find their own path, but part of the fun of travel is sharing your experiences with people you meet on the way!