This is the fifth part of a series.
The fourth item on the “Big Four” is your cooking system. When it comes to cooking, the choices are nearly endless but break down into several categories. You can cook over a wood fire, have a canister stove, an alcohol stove, or not cook at all. We’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each method. I am not one of the people that can eat the same thing every day for multiple days in a row, so I generally use a couple of methods within an extended trip for variety. There are generally two categories of cookware: aluminum and titanium. Regardless of where you start, one common beginner mistake it to bring too much food! Food options and actually cooking will be addressed later in the food section.
Cooking over a fire when camping is cliché but common. When I first started, I often planned on cooking over the campfire for overnight trips and still do on occasion. For prolonged trips, however, it isn’t practical. If your food isn’t cooked or preserved, it can spoil quickly. Gathering firewood takes a lot of energy – especially at established campsites where firewood has been gathered and burned by previous visitors. Add in a couple of rainy days before (or during) your trip, and sometimes making a fire is difficult, if not impossible. In the warmer weather, do you really want a fire? All of these are things to consider. For the beginner overnight trip in the cool weather, I still cook over the fire.
The most common stove I see in the woods is a canister stove. These are the stoves that attach to a pressurized gas canister. They are very easy to turn on and off, and easy to light with some even have built in lighting mechanisms. I don’t know that I’ve ever had one NOT light so they can be very convenient. One of the major disadvantages is that it is difficult to determine how much fuel is left in the canister. This may cause either running out of fuel or replacing a canister before it is truly empty. Possessing several partially filled fuel canisters are a common issue with someone using this type of stove. Some types of canister stoves can seem quite loud when operating in the quiet early morning.
The last type of stove that is gaining in popularity is the alcohol stove. These can be made out a variety of materials including uses aluminum cans, containers, and there are some models precision machined out of solid aluminum. They can be handmade or purchased from a variety of vendors. The advantages of an alcohol stove is generally they are much lighter, extremely quiet, and easy to operate. Alcohol stoves use a variety of alcohol (denatured alcohol or methanol are the two most popular) and the flame is nearly invisible during the day. There is not an on or off switch and it can be difficult to put out the fire if the alcohol is spilled. You must “ration” fuel for extended trips so you can still cook on the last day (this takes practice). For these reasons, this type of stove is not recommended for younger backpackers and care must be used regardless of the age of the user. In some areas, they are illegal during burn bans because there isn’t an off switch.
The last option of preparing food is not technically cooking. There is a growing trend of going “stoveless” or NOT cooking. Some people don’t cook to save the weight of a stove and fuel while others want to be able to eat at a moment’s notice. The food variety is more limited in this type of food preparation, but there are still plenty of options. One could carry “open and eat” type of food that requires no preparation (think of Pop Tarts, jerky, chicken and tuna in a pouch). Another popular option is sandwiches/wraps which I often eat for lunch when I don’t want to break out the stove. During the warmer temps, I will often use a food preparation method called cold soaking. I will add water to the food and seal it in a container and let it soak and rehydrate while I hike or do other activities (like setting up camp). This method takes longer, but if you’re not in a hurry and don’t mind cold food, there are lots of options. Cold soaking can be used for oatmeal, pastas (longer soak time), grains, or really any food that just requires water.
Cookware breaks down into two materials – aluminum and titanium. Generally speaking, aluminum is slightly heavier, not as durable, but cheaper. Titanium is slightly lighter, more durable, and more expensive. I have used both in the past. One thing that I noticed is that aluminum has a better heat transfer than titanium. If you are wanting to simmer food over a stove, I would suggest aluminum cookware because I have experienced hot spots/scorching with titanium. If you are going to boil water and pour the hot water into something else, either material will work.