Skip to content

Gear Review: Ultralight Backpacking Kitchen


Here are our thoughts (and a demo video!) about the cooking gear we used while thru hiking the 2,660-mile Pacific Crest Trail.

Aluminum can stove

Stove and windscreen/pot stand = Trail Designs Classic Caldera Ti-Tri cooking system 2.5 oz. This incredibly light stove is made from an aluminum can. It burns denatured alcohol, available at any hardware store, or HEET, a gas-line antifreeze commonly found at gas stations. We found these fuels at almost every town we visited on the PCT.

The thin titanium windscreen is custom-sized to hold our Evernew pot, forming a wide stable base. The windscreen also optimizes airflow, increasing the the stove’s fuel efficiency.

While hiking, we packed the stove in the pot for protection. We stored the windscreen wrapped around the fuel bottle, secured with a rubber band. The stove got slightly crunched one day from packing too much food around it in the pot, but it still worked fine. Overall the Caldera system preformed flawlessly during the entire trip.

Pot = Evernew Titanium Non Stick Pot 1.9L 8.6 oz. We needed a pot that was large enough to match our huge thru hiking appetites, and this was perfect. Two boxes of mac and cheese fit with room to stir. Pots made from titanium are the lightest available, but they heat unevenly. This wasn’t a problem for us, because we chose nutritious meals that only required boiling water and a bit of stirring. The built-in insulated handles were a plus — no pot holder required. The pot is still in great shape after our thru hike, which speaks to its durability.

Fuel bottle = Grocery store water bottle with squeeze top 1.0 oz.  Before the hike, we searched through our fridge and were thrilled to find a Whole Foods Sriracha squeeze top which mated with a small water bottle. This combination was inexpensive, light, and worked well. The squeeze top allowed for precise control over the amount of fuel poured into the stove. Plus, the top’s red color served as a reminder that the clear liquid in the bottle was not potable.

A meal for two required slightly less than 50 mL of fuel. Prior to our PCT thru hike, we marked the side of the fuel bottle with a permanent marker every 50 mL. The markings simplified refilling in town. We never ran out of fuel on the trail, nor did we carry much more than needed.

Lighter = Mini Bic Lighter 0.4 oz. The Mini Bic was straightforward and dependable. We used 2 mini lighters in 5.5 months. We were also carrying a few REI stormproof matches as a backup for the lighter (0.3 oz.), but plan to remove this redundancy on our AT and Te Araroa hikes.


Eating Utensil = MSR Collapsible Spoon 0.5 oz. This spoon has everything we desire in a utensil: extra length for stirring a pot or meal pouch, collapsibility for easy storage in a pot, and nonstick-friendly plastic construction. A spoon works for any backpacking meal, whether solid or soupy. This one is light, durable, and just plain awesome.

Pocket Knife = Gerber Paraframe Mini Folding Serrated Knife 1.3 oz. A small knife is handy at meal time to cut cheese and open packages. Occasionally it is helpful for cutting bandages or repairing gear. This knife served us well, but we didn’t use it often. We will opt for a smaller, lighter knife on the Appalachian Trail.

Pot Scraper = GSI Outdoors Compact Pot Scraper 0.5 oz. This small spatula without a handle allowed Shutterbug to eat every last bit of food in the pot, more than making up for the scraper’s tiny weight. Plus, when he was done, the pot was practically clean.

Food storage = Bearikade Weekender Bear Can 30.6 oz.  After a surprise bear problem in the desert of Southern California, we opted to carry a bear can for the remainder of California, Oregon, and Washington. We feel strongly about keeping bears from becoming accustomed to human food, but didn’t want the time and hassle of finding a suitable branch to hang our food every night. The Bearikade was an easy solution. Made of carbon fiber with an aluminum top, it is the lightest bear can approved for use in the Sierras. The only minor problem we experienced was that one of the o-rings on the lid lock was getting stiff and needed to be re-greased by the time we reached Canada.

North Star removes food from a bear can. Note windscreen wrapped around fuel bottle.

We were so happy with all these lightweight, durable kitchen items that we will be using almost the same setup on the Appalachian Trail. Bon appetit!

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for this, I’m debating on a cook system and this is a great option.

    November 25, 2012
    • Glad to help. It can be overwhelming with so many backpacking stove options out there. We were quite happy with the lightness and ease of use of the Caldera system.

      November 27, 2012
  2. Jen #

    Hi Anna and Chris! I want to thank you for keeping up with your blog during your trip. I’ve been following your progress all summer as my husband and I prep for our own hike next year and I’ve really enjoyed the pace and style (not to mention the pictures) of your journal.

    I’m especially glad for this post because I’ve been wanting to switch to an alcohol stove but haven’t been able to find much favorable info on cooking for two with this type of system. It seems like the standalone cat/can stoves have trouble getting a double portion of water to a true boil. We currently use a canister stove and like it a lot for its reliability and fast boil times. However, on the trail I’m sure that we’d end up carrying two canisters to make sure we don’t run out before the next resupply point (hoping to avoid the red tape associated with mailing them).

    Would you mind giving me a ballpark estimate on how long it takes to boil water for two people for a meal? Did you boil and then add your food, or mix food and water and then boil? We do the latter and steep in a cozy but I’m sure trying to heat food+water increases the boil time.

    Thanks for any info you can provide! I look forward to reading about your next adventures!

    November 27, 2012
    • Good questions, Jen. Most of our double portion meals needed a little less than 1 L to cook. (Like you, we start with less water and never need to drain extra water off pasta.) We learned that some meals like instant potatoes, oatmeal, or couscous work best by boiling first, then adding the ingredients. Other meals like pasta or instant rice work best by adding the ingredients to the water initially, then boiling.

      Roughly, I’d say the Caldera system can boil 1 L of water in 10 minutes. If adding 2 boxes of macaroni initially, it will take about 15 minutes total to cook. If the stove burns out and the pasta isn’t done yet, letting the pasta steep for a few minutes with the lid on will cook it the rest of the way through. We almost always cooked at lunch time because we wanted to take a longer sitting break anyway. Hope that helps, and good luck on your 2013 hike!

      November 28, 2012
  3. kegritt@telus.net #

    Thanks for carrying on your blog and for these gear reviews. They will certainly help we who follow in your footsteps. Will you be doing a tent review…I am looking at picking up the BA Fly Creek UL2 for 2013 PCT….
    Thanks and best wishes as you plan your next adventure…will it be N.Z.?

    Kelly
    Armstrong BC

    November 27, 2012
    • Yes, we will do a full review of the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 tent in an upcoming post. Very briefly, we were happy with it, minus the busted zipper mid-trip. The Appalachian Trail will be our next long hike, then we’ll start New Zealand’s Te Araroa in the fall of 2013. On those hikes, we plan to switch to a tarp shelter because they are even lighter.

      November 28, 2012
  4. You guys ever think about Freezer Bag Cooking? You replace the boiling and simmering of things like pasta by putting near boiling water in with the pasta in a ziplock freezer bag, then put that in a pouch cozy. This method uses less water than cooking in a pot for the same amount of food, no water for clean up, and overall less fuel. I think it’s a better Leave No Trace approach to cooking as well. No dirty kitchen water to leave behind (either dispersed 200 feet from camp and water sources or poured in a sumphole same distance away). The challenge, for me, has been converting typical freezer bag cooking meals into meals with the calories needed by thru hikers. But getting enough calories is always the challenge in our meals, eh?

    November 28, 2012
    • Thanks for chiming in Backtrack. I’ve read about freezer bag cooking, but I think our current method is preferable because 1) we are able to pack our food in smaller bags, reducing plastic waste, 2) we can often reuse bags since they aren’t soiled by liquids, and 3) there is no chance of leaching chemicals (though I know some claim freezer bag cooking is safe). Our cooking style doesn’t require draining any water so the Leave No Trace result is the same. Also, we use the pot scraper described above to clean our pot, so there is no dirty kitchen water to dispose of. We only wash our pot with soap in town. I’m happy freezer bag cooking is working well for you, but for me the pros don’t outweigh the cons. As for calories, adding olive oil always gives a meal a good calorie boost!

      November 28, 2012
  5. peabody3000 #

    i think its extremely telling that these hardcore ultralighters, who even forego matches as a firemaking redundancy, prefer to also forego hanging food with nearly weightless equipment vs carrying 4 lbs (2 x 2 lb bearcans) of bear protection. on my trips this year i have intended to tree my food but never gotten around to it, talking myself out of the chore because the altitude or regions are supposedly not bear central. however in my more lucid moments im starting to think that the only realistic way to be truly prepared for bears is to bearcan… hmmmmmm

    December 2, 2012
    • Bear cans are the best way to protect yourself as well as the bears. Sleeping with your food is unsafe in bear country, and an effective bear hang isn’t always possible. Once a bear becomes accustomed to human food, it becomes dangerous and must be relocated or killed. We were happy with our choice to carry bear cans on the PCT.

      December 3, 2012
      • peabody3000 #

        yes it sounds like treeing food is quickly becoming a thing of the past, for good reason

        December 4, 2012
  6. Scott Bailey #

    How long did it take the stove to bring a full pot of water to complete boil – with alcohol and with the ESBIT tablets? In windy conditions ? I have a folding ESBIT V stove w single wall steel cup but have not yet had to use it. O’night bivy use if needed. Thanks for the stove and other reviews.

    ALternate bear hang food by using climbing cams from the top of a rock outcrop or boulder crack, an arms lenght down from the top using a locking caribiner with food in OP plastic bag inside an URSACK. I repalced the original URSACK drawstring (too short for tieing in overhand knot and for looping small tree trunks) with a longer one using kevlar cord from West Marine. Lighter than my small size bearicade, but may have to carry both in the future.

    AK Mike

    December 9, 2012
    • The time needed to reach a boil varies greatly with the amount of water. To cook for two people, we used 1 liter, which boiled in about 10 minutes. Windy weather did not change the boil time much because the caldera wind screen is very protective. We have not experimented with esbit tablets because they are rarely available in the small towns in which we resupply.

      As far as bear proofing, your method is clever, but suffers from the same problem as hanging food from a tree — sometimes the only flat place to camp has no suitable rock or tree limb nearby. We like bear cans because they work everywhere. Plus, they are the only National Park Service approved method in the Sierras.

      December 9, 2012
  7. I didn’t know they were the only approved method for the Sierras! good to know since I have a trip planned out there in a month. Love your blog :)

    August 22, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,539 other followers

%d bloggers like this: