This is the next chapter to my forthcoming ebook, and just like in other chapters, this theme is about moving light and fast. I know there are an infinite amount of other options and expert opinions out there for backcountry kitchen strategy, but this is the one that works for me, and has been tested for over a decade. As such, this list is intended for use far along the trail- whether on a long hike, a multi-day fastpacking trip, or an extensive foot expedition. Also, I almost always travel alone or in a pair, as this list suggests. But even for people travelling in larger groups, this post offers practical advice if one simply multiplies the methods accordingly. For example: this list is direct toward two backpackers- but can be multiplied by 4, for a group of 8 backpackers. I have never, in my years, found a reason to pack a single cook system that can serve more than 2 people at a time by itself.
For most of my trips, I need some sort of method for boiling water and/or cooking my meals. Depending on the needs, I will use either a Jetboil backpacking stove, a conventional backpacking stove (like the Ultralight Backpacking Stove), or a kettle/pot cooked over an open fire. I will list the practical uses for each of these options.
For long (a week or more), or in places where I expect lots of wind and inclinate weather, I will probably use my Jetboil Zip ( 12ounces + 7ounces for fuel + 1ounce for titanium spork) stove to boil water for coffee, and to heat dehydrated food. This cooking system has- as far as I know- the most efficient stats for fuel use. Unlike in conventional stove set-ups, the Jetboil is designed with a cooking pot that is directly connected to the stove, and has a burner that is fully encased to allow almost no heat dissipation. The surface of the burner touches the entire circumference of the attached cooking pot as well, making the heating process that much more efficient.
For this reason, I like my Jetboil Zip for longer expeditions. This set-up is not as light as my conventional stove set-up, but the fuel will last at least twice as long under normal conditions, thanks to the design. If I think my conventional set-up will burn through two cans of fuel on a given trip, for example, it would make more since to carry the Jetboil, with one can of fuel instead. For areas- like the Alaskan tundra, or high elevation routes- this is doubly true, as my conventional stove will fight the wind with its open flame, and might actually end up needing three or four times the amount of fuel.
With a neoprene casing wrapped around the cooking pot to insulates it, a person also has the option of holding the system while it burns. This is practical for use in tight, or precarious spots (Climbers especially love the Jetboil system, since it can be used while hanging off the side of a mountain).
Paired with a titanium spork- and an extra titanium mug if you are sharing the cook system with a partner- this system is all one would need.
The Jetboil Zip system weighs 12 ounces- which is really light- but is still not as light as my conventional stove set-up, which I will mention below. For weekend trips where weight is a huge concern, but fuel use isn’t super high, I will probably not bring the Jetboil along.
Conventional Ultralight Stove:
Like most gear I list, there are a ton of specific brand options out there. I use the Lixada Ultralight Stove, but there are other popular ones like Snow Peak LiteMax , MSR Pocket Rocket 2 , and GSI Pinnacle that work the same. Mine, as I’ve mentioned before, is ultralight ( 1ounces + 7 ounces for the fuel + 1 ounce for titanium spork + 3 ounces for titanium mug), and costs only $20! Mine has been used heavily for over two years- and still going strong. Compared to the Jetboil, my stove is not as fuel efficient, especially in windy or wet conditions. But, it still works well and can heat a 12 ounce cup to boil in roughly 2 minutes under practical conditions. Even paired with a 3+1ounce Snow Peak titanium mug and Snow Peak spork, this set-up is still lighter than the Jetboil.
For a three day fastpacking trip (Like my trip across the Beartooth Range), where weight is a huge concern, this is my go-to set-up. A small can of fuel is more than enough to heat the three-days worth of meals and coffee I will need (Assuming I will have to bring the 16 ounce cup to a boil three times a day, for 1-coffee, 2-breakfast like oatmeal, and 3-dinner meal.
As mentioned above, what I gain in weight saving perks of this set-up, I lose in fuel consumption. For a trip lasting more than a weekend, in which I will probably need multiple cans of fuel, it doesn’t make sense to use this over the Jetboil set-up.
Cooking with an open fire:
You probably won’t find this option listed by any famous outdoor personality, especially with the record dry-years and wild-fire seasons characterizing the Mountain West the last decade. Indeed, I hesitate to share this option- and do so with the utmost warning for those wishing to try it, to exercise extreme caution.
For river trips- in deep, dry canyons, or in the middle of river beds- where it is nearly impossible to start a wild fire due to the simple fact that the means to form one are far away (forests, dry grass, etc.), or desert regions of Utah, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and more (especially in winter, or colder months)- this is a useful option. If dry wood can be attained easily and burned safely, one can avoid bringing the clutter of a cooking stove and fuel, and instead, carry just one cooking pot or kettle for all the cooking needs.
My favorite pot for this method is the GSI Halulite Kettle. (5 ounces! – I have used this everywhere from the deserts of South-West USA to the rainforests of the Central African Republic. It might just be one of my most favorite pieces of gear).
I have also used the REI TiWare titanium pot, and the Snow Peak Cook-n-Save Pot- (The plastic lid can me used as a lightweight cutting board as well.) Both of the lids on these cooksets can be used as skillets and/or dinner plates as well.
Obviously, besides the safety risk of an open fire, this method requires a lot more effort for each meal: making a fire is not as easy as firing up a stove. Also, even in conditions that are safe from wild fire risk, one must consider the weather; if it rains all day every day, making a fire for every meal ends up being a momentous undertaking.
There are two types of food I bring with me in the backcountry: foods that require cooking, and foods that do not.
Recently, I have seen a trend in backpackers to create their own lightweight meals with dehydrated goods that they have to pack and separate themselves. If I had the time and energy, this would be an ok option, but I find it simply crazy not to utilize the vast variety of dehydrated meals out there. Nowadays, people can find almost any option they want in dehydrated meals- even gluten free options. These pre-made packets are sealed in waterproof pouches that need only heated water to cook. One often doesn’t need an extra bowl or cup to eat such meals, since the pouches act as make-shift bowls.
For the budget savvy person, or in areas where dehydrated food packets are not available- there are other options to be had at the grocery stores. Some that come to mind are: instant rice, instant potatoes, instant noodles, instant mac-n-cheese, instant oatmeal, etc…, and any other product that can be cooked with only heated water. On my recent fastpacking expedition in the Beartooth Range in Montana, I bought my food at the last minute, at a small grocery store in Wyoming, which included instant rice, oatmeal, and instant pasta.
Once, on a very long (12 day) expedition in Alaska, I did not carry a stove at all, and instead, used only dry goods- particularly: granola, dehydrated milk, protein powder, powdered peanut butter, summer sausage, powdered soup, flax seed powder, chia seed powder, chocolate powder, chocolate bars, and crushed potato chips. Using inspiration from Gabriel Gerschon his 2012 Brooks Range expedition, I reasoned that it would be lighter on my load to carry this kit instead of hauling around multiple cans of fuel. The food was awful- especially the soup powder- but I wasn’t there to eat.
There are so many options for dry food lists, as mentioned above. Some more, might include: Potato chips, crackers, peanut butter, Nutella, trail mix, tuna pouches, sardines, beef sticks, summer sausage, and the likes…
For short trips, it might be easier to carry dry foods, especially on a two day trip, when the weight of the dry groceries might weigh less or the same than if one would throw a stove in the mix.
On all of my expeditions, I will carry at least some dry foods in my grocery list. When on the hike, it makes sense to have a granola bar, potato chips, or beef jerky close at hand. Also, I usually like to supplement my groceries by having my lunch meal be in dry goods, and use my stove to cook meals and coffee at breakfast and dinner.
I separate my water purifying methods into three options, depending on the situation. They are: iodine tablets, water filter pump, and gravity/squeeze filter.
For very short trips, like long day hikes, long trail runs, or weekend fastpacking trips, in areas where clear streams are available, I might just bring iodine tablets like the Potable Aqua Iodine Tablets. Just fill up a bottle at a stream, plop a tablet or two in, and wait 30 minutes: pretty simple. It only weighs a couple ounces, making it the lightest water treatment option I know of. The downside to this method is that the tablets taste funny, and they are not intended for long term use- like a week or more. Also, if the only water you find available is a stagnant, cattle pond, your tablets alone might not kill all the nasty stuff that could wreak havoc on your digestive system. If the water is muddy, the tablets only kill the bad stuff, but the dirt will remain. Keep this in mind when considering to use iodine tablets. Always, follow the instructions given on the product (Caution: Iodine is a strong chemical- always fallow manufacturer’s instructions before use!!!)
Water filter pumps, like the Katadyn Hiker Pro are the conventional method for water treatment. At 11 ounces, its not the lightest option- but still pretty dang light. They are very fast, easily pumping out 32 ounces in about 1 minute (with a new filter cartridge), and can be used on the muddiest, nastiest water sources available. I have personally used this across central Africa, in the nastiest water I could find. The only downside, is that the set-up is heavier than other options out there.
Gravity or Squeeze filters like the Sawyer Squeeze Filter are pretty light (I think my whole kit was about 5 ounces?) , and can clean up fairly muddy water. If the filter gets clogged, a syringe included in the kit helps clean out the system easily. For personal use, this system is hard to beat. When I go on a long trail run in an area that I know water is close by, I will usually leave the deflated pouch and filter in my running kit, and only stop to fill and drink it when I’m thirsty. The downside is that they do not filter the large quantity and speed in which a pump filter can.
OTHER GEAR FOR YOUR BACKCOUNTRY KITCHEN :
If you are eating or cooking food in a metal dish like a pot or mug, for the love of all— bring a small piece of steel wool to clean it! It is a huge pain in the ass to clean up the food residue that is often stuck- or burnt- deep on the bottom of cooking pots. After years of doing this, I finally learned my lesson: trust me on this.
(And if you forget, and find yourself with messy cooking utensils deep in the backcountry, find a handful of gravel and swish it around in the pot to clean the food gunk off, and then rinse it in a creek or pond.)
I, like many outdoor people in the US, absolutely love coffee. I have tried many systems, and although no instant coffee will EVER taste as good as a pour-over, French-press, or conventionally brewed coffee, it is hard to beat the Starbucks Via instant coffee. It is simply the lightest, fasted, least waste-producing method out there. And the coffee isn’t terrible compared to some other instant coffee options out there.
Another exciting new option would be the new Kuju Coffee pour-over pouches, which I have yet to try- but am looking forward to.
For general use/ kitchen/ and Self-Defense, I really like the Cold Steel Pendelton Lite Knife. It is super light ( 5 ounces! ), but very sturdy, and can hold a sharp edge after many uses. Mine has been going on 6 years now…
WATER PROOF SACK
To carry my kitchen kit, I always bring a heavy duty PVC fabric roll-up duffel. Mine is from Bass Pro shops, but Sealine also makes some great products. The thicker material might not be the lightest fabric out there, but I find it to be thick enough to ward of invasions by small rodents in a night- and with the roll up design with buckle connections, it can easily be hung in a tree, away from bears. I also have a suspicion that the thicker fabric makes it more difficult for scent to escape the bag and attract hungry critters.
As this list might suggest, I’m pretty basic when it comes to my backcountry kitchen. When walking into an REI or other outdoor gear stores, it might be tempting to buy a whole cart full of all the fancy new camp-kitchen items available. But the reality is, if you are trying to travel light and fast in the backcountry, you wont need much more than a knife, spork, stove, water-purifying system, and cup (or other kind of pot for heating water). After all, the goal is to carry as little as possible; Your backcountry kitchen should be no different. ( *This list might also change over time, when I can actually afford to try new gear options out that might be lighter or otherwise more efficient).