06 July 2009

Cooking with gas, lightweight style

"...now we are cooking with gas!"
I heard that years ago for the first time but did not make much sense to me then.
What do you mean "cooking with gas"? what's the big deal?
After more than 22 years of trying to make it easy when preparing a meal in the outdoors I can really say that too: now we are cooking with gas!

Years ago the authority of cooking in the outdoors was relegated to the liquid fuel stove.

While extremely efficient and fast they required some finesse to operate. Some campers never learned to deal with them: just too klutzy.
Admittedly some of the liquid fuel stoves were temperamental, required regular maintenance and some designs were plain dangerous.
For real expedition use the liquid fuel stove still rules where sources of fuel are dodgy or limited in choice.
But for common mortal "expeditions" (read: overnighter to a couple of weeks in civilized countries) there are easier options.
After years of using a liquid fuel stove I finally got convinced to try the butane/propane option.
I purchased a MSR Pocket Rocket.
I loved the size and the weight (or lack of it). Turn the knob, flick the switch of a lighter and I was cooking.
What’s there not to like?
Well, a couple of things…

I found the Pocket Rocket very unstable.

It was too narrow. My pots would skid off the tiny burner prongs. I had to be too careful when cooking.
The stove’s small burner was also concentrating the heat to a very small area. It was not suitable for my lightweight pots; the intense concentrated heat actually warped them.
Pocket Rockets also easily burn your meal.
Manufacturers eventually realized that the burner of a gas stove should be a bit wider and distribute the heat better.
Eventually I came across something that was compact (very), light (very) and had decent heat distribution with amazing power.
After 7 years still my favorite ultralight backpacking stove: Optimus Crux.
It folds down so small that it fits in the cavity under the standard gas canister taking almost no space when packed up.

Optimus Crux folded and nested under the gas canister
I combine that stove with very light and compact pots.
I have found that for two people it’s sufficient to have two small pots: one for hot brews and one for heating up a meal.

Optimus Crux with compact titanium pots

Here shown all packed up with fuel inside pots (additional canister used for size comparison)
When carrying the weight on my shoulders is not the case (like kayaking) I prefer a slightly more sturdy stove.
Primus one with a small heat reflecting shield.

I still manage to pack the stove, fuel and pots in one compact unit but these pots are a bit larger allowing for easier cooking.

Primus stove, heat shield, fuel and folding bowl
I find that for longer trips, where wind could be encountered at camp, the Primus stove can be a bit high off the ground.
The base of the canister, if not positioned on sturdy level ground (not always possible), can create a rickety set up.
Brunton makes a simple stand that brings the stove away from the canister and lowers it to the ground.

Primus stove (sans heat shield) on Brunton stand
The stove is now very stable, easier to operate and a light aluminum windshield can be erected around the stove to enhance the heating of the pot.
The whole unit is still very compact and, in my opinion, offers true versatility without the bulk and weight of other systems.

Brunton stand packed up
I can use any pot on my stoves (not just dedicated overly expensive pots), I can simmer and control the heat with the turn of the knob and I can travel lighter than with any other system that I am aware of.
The Primus stove has been copied many times and some real inexpensive versions are available.
The Titanium pots can be substituted with aluminum one (much more economical however more prone to damage).
The gas stoves are also very efficient. They use much less fuel than some systems (alcohol) and certainly burn much hotter allowing you to have your meal way faster.

And for the liquid fuel stove? Well, it’s sitting at home ready for that elusive exotic trip to Timbuktu or Kamchatka that might never happen…


  1. I had some enquiries re brand of the cooking pots.
    My pots are lightweight titanium ones from REI.com
    Snow Peak also makes similar pots that nest but I am unsure if a standard gas canister fits inside the small tall ones.
    I source my gear on line from rei.com or backcountry.com
    Both are trusted retailers and offer a no hassle return policy in case something is not right or fails.

  2. Have you ever used a evernew alcohol stove? I was looking at getting one for general hiking, but I'm just wondering if there is a better alternative than an alcohol stove, without having to sacrafice the weight?

  3. I am not a fan of alcohol stoves.
    My experience is that they cook slow and use a fair amount of fuel.
    Often I would have finished my meal when my buddies, using an alcohol stove, will be still coooking theirs.
    If you are not in a hurry and you like the low volatility of alcohol (less flare ups) than maybe it's OK.


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