Friday, January 11, 2013

My Cooking Systems: A Complete Breakdown

This is a subject that gets a lot of attention and debate among devoted backpackers and campers alike, and people that are new to or that don't know much about outdoor activities often ask me about how I prepare food or what my portable kitchen is like.  When friends and family, outdoorsy or not, enter my office in my home--which also serves as my gear storage room--the gear that they usually like to play around with are my cooking kits, which are always neatly arranged on a shelf surrounded by lots of little accessories.

So I figured I would do a complete breakdown of the three systems that I have for cooking to finally quell all the questions and requests for recommendations as far as this important and fun kit is concerned.  Before I get into all the little details and get very Gram Geeky, first I should explain why I have the three systems that I have, when do I take each one (if at all), and my preferences in general regarding a good backpacking/camping kitchen.

I have three different sets of gear for cooking out in nature, and this is to have flexibility given the conditions and variables of a particular trip.  I regularly (about once or twice a month) go on overnight trips, and several times a year go on more extended trips, from 3-5 days--and in the future I plan on going on longer trips once I am not so busy anymore with grad school and toddlers.  I will explain in more detail what each kit's specific function is when I get to them, but for now let's give my options names for reference:

(0. No stove - 37g or 0g)
1. Campfire kit - 131g
2. DIY kit - 230g*
3. Deluxe kit - 309g

*See update at the end of this post, this kit has since been modified ;)

Two of these kits have stoves, the DIY and the Deluxe ones.  My fuel of choice for these stove kits is denatured alcohol (sprit/rödsprit in Swedish), and this is because: it is relatively cheap, very easy to find (virtually all gas stations and campgrounds in Sweden/Norway sell it), easy to use, easy to store (in various kinds of recycled plastic bottles), and when it burns it is quiet, nearly odor free, and only leaves small amounts of soot (if any).  In the backpacking/camping community there is much discussion on what is the best fuel, but rather than get into all that, I will just say that they all have their pros and cons, and anyone is free to pick what they feel is the best solution for their stove puzzle.

The first choice is of course to not take any kit, in which case I may or may not take my titanium mug (which is the 37g) depending on the factors of the trip and my mood.  Aside from using the mug to drink from, it can be a handy tool to have; to name just a few common examples, it makes filling a water bladder (like for a filter) much easier and is also nice to have as a container for wild edibles like berries and mushrooms.  A last-minute overnight adventure during a hot summer is a good time to leave the cook kits at home and just eat no-cook foods like fruit, sandwiches, granola bars, etc.  Water purification can be handled by chemicals, filters, etc., or not at all if you know what you are doing (or are crazy).

Now on to the actual kits themselves.  Included in the weight of all three kits is 28g which represents (which I will refer to as the "extras"): plastic bag which acts as stuff sack, plastic clip for the bag, a small rag for cleaning/pot holding, and a full box of matches.  For the record, I also have a mini-Bic lighter as a back up fire starter in my FAK. 

First the Campfire kit:

Here you can see the bag and clip (rag and matches not pictured) that keep all my cook kits together and prevent them from getting my pack and its contents dirty/wet, should the pots be dirty/wet for whatever reason.  This is especially useful for the above Campfire kit, which of course can leave the pot covered in soot/dirt/ash.  As the name suggests, I use this kit when I am cooking directly on wood fires, and thus this cooking set up has obvious limitations.  I primarily take the Campfire kit when I go on overnight trips with little/no chance of rain/snow.  Where I live in south-west Sweden, we get the least amount of precipitation in the spring and early summer, so I take this set up out quite a lot then.  

Aside from the extras, this kit includes:

Snowpeak 700 titanium pot - 95g
DIY aluminum foil lid - 3g (made from thicker, more durable foil of a disposable pie pan)
Plastic spoon - 5g (recycled from Max burger)

And that's it.

The tall shape of this pot makes it ideal to simply place the pot right next to the fire (on a flat rock is nice) rather than above it or on top of it.  Sometimes I will put a few logs or thick branches on the fire and then balance the pot on top of them--either way, so long as the fire is going well and there is solid bed of embers, it does not take much time to get a pot of water boiling.

Next is the DIY kit:

This set up is a conglomeration of several pieces of DIY (homemade) gear combined with some specialty ultralight goodies.  I have already written about how to make an incredibly cheap stove and windscreen before, the only difference here is that this windscreen is made from thicker foil (pie pan again).  I can usually (under "normal" circumstances in the woods) boil 500ml of cold water in about 6-7 minutes using around 25-30ml of fuel.  Not only is this system ideal for rainy weather, but it also is faster and generally easier than having to gather kindling/firewood, get a fire going, and then cooking.  So if the weather looks like rain, or if I am feeling lazy and/or want to save time, then this is my go-to kit.

Here are all the components:

Pot cozy - 13g
MSR titanium 800ml pot - 90g
Wind screen - 7g
Cat can stove - 6g
Aluminum ground cover/heat reflector - 15g 
Custom aluminum lid - 21g
Snowpeak titanium mug - 37g
Anodized aluminum spoon - 12g

A very solid system that covers a large range of my needs for a backpacking trip.  My only issue with it is that some of the parts are not as durable as I would like them for certain situations, like going on an extended trip in a remote area of wilderness.  I know that part of this problem is just paranoia on my part, as I have never had any of this kit fail me or get damaged yet, and I have taken it on a good number of trips to give it a real trial by fire.

Here is what it looks like all set up:
Be that as it may, when I want a cooking kit that is almost indestructible--plus is slightly easier to use and slightly better boil times and fuel efficiancy--then I pick the Deluxe kit:

The all titanium Clikstand stove, which I reported on already in another post.  An amazing stove, though there is a weight penalty when I choose this system.  To some people that have made the full switch to ultralight and/or SUL, a cook kit over 280g/10oz is considered "too heavy."  Keep in mind that there are cook kits that some people use that are around 57g/2oz, to put things into perspective, which would make the above system roughly 5 times the weight--though these super-light kits have their own drawbacks and limitations as a result of being so light weight.

Here is a rough breakdown of this kit, as I didn't feel like weighing each of the pieces of the stove/stand/burner etc.:

Titanium spoon - 20g
Evernew 900ml titanium pot - 83g
Pot lid - 30g
All the rest of the components - 112g

Not pictured above is the titanium mug from before, though it is included in the total weight of the kit (I usually take the mug with me, I love that thing).  Here is what it is like all set up:

This is the stove I pick when I go on extended trips in more remote areas, or when I go camping with my family.  Having a one year old and a three year old, it's good to have more durable gear around for obvious reasons.

For the past three years or so, I have gone through a lot of different cook kit systems, the grand majority of them DIY projects.  But for the past year or so, these three kits (with some minor modifications of each system here and there) along with the occasional no-cook trip make up my complete cooking systems.  I feel like I don't need any new cooking gear, and of course I love gear, if that tells you anything about how happy and satisfied I am with my options.  Yet when it comes to technology, the saying "never say never" really does (no pun intended) carry weight, so who knows what kind of cook kits I will be using in the future.  Or maybe a robot can carry a full propane BBQ grill for me, and a chainsaw to ward off the zombies.

For now, however, I am good to go.


*Update 19/01/13 - After tinkering around with a few parts of my DIY kit, I made some improvements and got the weight down to 217g total.  The whole thing looks and functions pretty much the same, so I didn't feel like taking a picture.

I replaced my ground cover/heat reflector/priming pan with a disk of aluminum from a pie pan (much like the lid for my Campfire kit) that only weighs 2g rather than 15g.  I then added a bit of weight by fixing up my windscreen some, making it bigger to allow for more air to get in, have an easier time putting my pot on the stove, and adding stability with a few paper clips.  Finally I switched out the plastic bag and clip for a Ziplock bag, which is both easier to use and lighter.

Special thanks to Stick for the inspiration to mod my DIY kit.  I re-watched one of his videos on one of his cook kits, and took note of a few good tips such as using paper clips and Ziplock bags.  

His kit and my kit have quite a lot in common, and I think it is interesting how two different UL backpackers living pretty far away from each other put together such a similar system around the same time.  Perhaps this says something about the utility and/or general awesomeness of these kinds of systems (i.e. titanium pot/mug alcohol stove kits).