Ultralight Makeover: Redux Pt. 5 - Start Cooking Light

PLEASE NOTE: Revised and regularly updated versions of these posts are accessible from the top menu bar under "Ultralight Makeover". What follows is the original post - to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the Ultralight Backpacking world, check out the updated articles.


Part 5 of a 12-part series in which Backpacking North analyzes 


 magazine's recommendations to reduce your pack weight, and offers a more comprehensive selection of tips and gear recommendations from hiking blogs and experienced ultralight bloggers.

<< Part 4: Change your bedding

5. Start cooking light.


has some interesting advice for newbie ultralighters, informing us that we can "reduce fuel consumption by [...] painting the bottom of all silver pots with flat black Rust-Oleum stove paint, which boosts efficiency by 30-40%". However, they also note that you can "skip the paint job with an integrated stove/pot like the

JetBoil Flash Cooking System

($100, 14oz)."

As for what you put in your pots,


 recommends that you "choose quick cook foods (couscous or pasta) and plan some no cook meals (granola instead of oatmeal). Stick to one pot meals and limit hot drinks."

Backpacking North says...

I had to read the line about painting the bottom of your pots black a couple of times to let the astounding nature of this tip sink in.  In all the years I've been backpacking, both heavy and light, I have never once seen or heard of anyone doing this. Could it be that in the entire gamut of experience amassed in the ultralight kingdom, backpackers have missed out on a fundamental ultralight concept that could significantly affect fuel consumption?

Something about it sounded fishy. For one thing, pots are heated by conduction – the direct contact of a heat source (the stove) to another object (the pot). As far as I'm aware, the colour of an object makes no difference to conductive heat transfer, and adding a layer of paint between the metallic surface of the pot and the flame would theoretically increase resistance and reduce efficiency.

Of course, heat transfer through radiation is another matter – we all know that black objects get hotter in the sun than white ones (although anyone who has sat at the tables outside Kiasma in Helsinki in mid summer knows that silver also gets unfathomably hot). Had


 got their elementary physics confused?

Naturally curious, I turned to twitter and the internet in search of answers, and discovered I was not alone in my skepticism. I found several rebuttals to


's claims on YouTube, and a couple of tests by

Hiram Cook

to prove them wrong. Here is his second test, which, while not 100% scientific, clearly proves


's claims to be wildly inaccurate and misleading.

Frankly, it astounds me that a magazine, in an era in which their publication model is under threat, would print such inaccurate advice. While Hiram's tests do show a slight improvement in boil times, this could equally be due to inconsistent testing conditions. I can only hope that hoards of budding ultralight backpackers didn't run out the the hardware store and coat their pots.

But enough about Rust-Oleum. I'm also surprised at the brevity of their culinary advice, being limited to "couscous or pasta" (thanks for that) and granola over oatmeal (isn't granola heavier?). They didn't touch preparing food at home, dehydrating food yourself, or freezer-bag cooking. They also don't mention any of these options in the next item in their guide, "Pay attention to the menu". As that would seem a more relevant place to talk about cuisine, I'll leave a more detailed discussion of food matters until Part 6, and talk instead about something which every ultralighter loves to talk about: stoves and other heating methods.


's recommended ultralight cooking system – the

JetBoil Flash

– has always been a favourite, but less so among the ultralight community. 14oz is a fair old weight compared to some of the canister-mounted stoves currently available (e.g. the

Monatauk Gnat

at 1.6oz), although it's efficiency can't be argued with. It's likely that


 wasn't aware of JetBoil's recently released titanium version of their system, the


, which as we'll see has been garnering rave reviews, and weighs a mere 8.5oz (240g) – pot included – so it would be unfair to criticize them too harshly for recommending the wrong JetBoil product.

But we backpackers love our stoves, and there are many varieties for different occasions: wood burning stoves, wood/alcohol combinations, esbit tabs, homemade cat cans, canister mounted, chimney/kettle designs... the list goes on. So where do we begin when we want to narrow down the choices?

Fuel availability and weight considerations

On important factor in deciding which stove to use is the availability of the necessary fuel in the area that you'll be using it. This goes beyond the simple matter of "Can I get Primus gas cans in Guatemala?" – although that is of course an important consideration if you plan on going to Guatemala.

Take wood burning stoves, for example. I love them, but I mainly hike in areas where there is ample wood or other combustible material available. There is also the issue of whether or not you are permitted to use them  because of fire or ecosystem restrictions. But if you


 hiking in forested regions, not having to carry fuel with you is great way to save weight. Foraging for suitable twigs and sticks is also a nice way to wind down. Here's a tip: I like to carry a ziploc bag with me on the trail and collect as I go toward the end of the day. That way I'm ready for a nice cuppa when I make camp. With a wood burner you can ignore


's advice and make as many hot drinks as you want, providing you don't mind collecting more wood.

There are some areas where canister stoves are essential and convenient. They are perfect for anywhere that prohibits open fires, and great when you want a fast, efficient boil. In winter they are often a godsend – a no fuss way of getting warm – and while their efficiency rapidly falls in cold weather, there are ways around this (keeping your canister warm, placing it in a shallow bowl of water, using a remote canister style stove with a pre-heating tube and inverting the gas can). The downside is that the gas canisters are heavy and bulky, and that's one reason why the SolTi is exciting: small canisters, excellent fuel efficiency, light weight.

Another popular fuel source is alcohol. A simple alcohol stove can be made from an (empty!)

can of beer/water

can or

cat food tin

, and the small amount of fuel needed make it an ideal choice for longer trips – providing you can deal with poor efficiency, so make sure you carry a decent wind break.

Esbit tabs

are also popular for their lightweight, compact simplicity. I've never used them myself, but many swear by them.

But how about the ultimate in ultralight: carry nothing. If you're hiking somewhere familiar that allows firemaking – either in designated places or in safely constructed, leave-no-trace compliant fireplaces – perhaps you can get away with using the natural or provided resources. Finnish laavu's, for example. often provide a supply of chopped wood. Some even have iron kettles over the fire pits. If you plan your route carefully, it's possible you could travel from camp to camp and never have to carry a pot, stove, or fuel.

Finland. Ultralight backpacker's paradise, or evil socialist dystopia? You decide.

However, having experienced a morning surrounded by nothing but damp twigs which refused to burn in my wood stove, I'm increasingly of the opinion that it's always good to have a plan B - and that's where multi fuel systems like the

Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri 

shine. Through a clever combination of parts which all fit inside your pot, you can burn wood, alcohol, or Esbit tabs. It's an ideal solution and one I'm planning on trying.

What does Backpacking North use?

For many years I got by just fine with a Primus Micron canister-mounted stove. My original version weighs a not unreasonable 98g, but the titanium version Primus released about three weeks after I bought mine (damn them!) weighed 70g. It was one of the first lightweight stoves, and has lasted well. Now it appears to have been rebranded as an

Express Ti

 at 75g / 2.5oz.

The Primus Micron (original, less cool version) on holiday in Lofoten at a time

when it was still considered essential to carry yellow plastic bowls everywhere.

While in Finland last year, I needed to pick up a cheap alternative stove as my Micron was in the Minneapolis. I found an

Edelrid Kiro ST

(84g) which performs just as well as the Micron. To be honest, while there are differences between canister-mounted stoves, they all boil water reasonably quickly, and for short trips any one of them will suffice. If I had to buy a new one today, I'd be looking at the

Monatauk Gnat

– currently the lightest available at 1.6oz (45g), and apparently also sold as the

GoSystem Fly

– or the

Soto OD-1R Micro Regulator

 (2.6oz / 73g), which claims to have some clever technology that regulates the flow of gas when the canister is getting empty. Its effectiveness has been questioned and largely proven to be a false claim by

Backpacking Light,

in its 

merely average review



Backpacking Light

 has an

exhaustive analysis of gas canisters

 (membership required), and the effect that the proportions of the blend of gases contained in various brands has on boil times in different temperatures. This is most relevant for use at altitude or in winter, at which point it makes more sense to use a remote stove (one that is connected to the gas canister via a tube) so that the canister can be used inverted. I use a

Primus Express Spider

in winter for exactly that reason. As we're dealing with three-season trips in these articles, I'll leave it to


to provide more info on why inversion is useful. Recently, I picked up a

JetBoil SolTi

for a trip above treeline in Lapland where I expected wood to be sparsely available. While it's still a touch on the heavy side, it compares well as a completed system for trips of up to 10 days, and really does boil water extremely quickly (2 to 3 minutes).

Carrying gas canisters is a bit of a drag though. I always end up playing safe and carrying too much, and then accumulating a small collection of canisters in various states of emptiness. All that changed when I ordered a

BushBuddy Ultra

 – a handmade, lightweight (139g), highly efficient wood burning stove made by

Fritz Handel

 in Canada (and licensed to


in the EU– but let's be honest, it's not as cool as the original).

My first impressions were noted here

, and I still maintain that its sculpted flames are a joyful sight to behold.

BushBuddy in action. Note that the pot is black from soot, not Rust-Oleum.

Once everything settles down after I get back to Finland in a few weeks, I'm thinking about getting a Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri, mainly because of the built in windscreen and multi-fuel flexibility.

What do others use?

Maybe it's just the idea of playing with fire, but stoves seem to be one object that we love to purchase over and over again, in various forms, just for the sheer hedonistic fun involved in boiling a pot of water.

Stove trends make their way around the blogosphere like memes. The current hot item (ho ho ho) is the...

JetBoil Sol Ti

The ultralight version of the JetBoil Flash, the Sol Ti's  weighs a skimpy 240g (338g with all the trinkets), and boils fast (around 2 minutes in good conditions). The only downside is it's $149.99 price.

Backpacking Light

gave it a Highly Recommended

rating. Ryan Jordan is a "

huge fan

". Hendrik likes it (at least I think he does –

the review is alive!

), but has some environmental reservations. I'm almost certain

Phil liked it

, and 

Roger sounds like he's switched

to using one. There have been a few reports of


around where the heat exchanger connects to the rest of the unit. It remains to be seen whether this will be a long-term problem, but at present it doesn't appear to affect the unit's functionality.

Before the Sol Ti hit the shelves, everyone was all ablaze (ho ho ho again) over the...

Courtesy & © Boilerwerks

Boilerwerks Backcountry Boiler

As an example of community-funded product development, the Backcountry Boiler is, perhaps, the

piece de resistance

of the stove world. Hiking in Finland has a

great guest article by Boilerwerks founder Devin Montgomery

on the development of the stove. Weighing 9.7oz (227g), the boiler is constructed of a container vessel built around a central chimney, which is placed on a stove bottom. Wood can be dropped into the chimney, and the excellent wind protection ensures a fiery burn and a rapid boil. Devin he recently released a FireFelt alcohol wick which fits inside the burner section, extending the usefulness of the stove.


has a review, as does

Trail Savvy

, and the aptly-named

Burning Little Sticks

has a nice write-up. The Kickstarter-funded project has now closed (

with massive success

), but you'll soon be able to order one online from Boilerwerks.

There is also a spurious knock-off version of the Backcountry Boiler sold, I'm ashamed to say, in the UK, but it's name will not be mentioned in these pages, as such tomfoolery should be frowned upon.

BushBuddy Ultra

If there's one stove that's achieved a cult status among ultralight backpackers, it's the BushBuddy. The list of its advocates is as long as my arm (and my arms are pretty long). Nearly all of the

Nordic Lightpackers

have one, and if Hendrik's



don't convince you, check out the thoughts of

Jason Klass


Hiking Light


Paddling Light.

 or the

multiple 5/5 reviews on BPL


While it's not expressly designed for multi-fuel use, Zelph makes a nice little

Companion alcohol burner

that works with the BushBuddy. It works very well, although it is a little thirsty on fuel to get to a rolling boil. You also need a solid windscreen to make it truly effective.

The Bearable Lightness has a post about

other multi-fuel possibilities

, and another on

using the BushBuddy above treeline


For the ultimate in ultralight multi-fuel stovery, we need to turn to...

Trail Designs Ti-Tri Caldera Cones



The original

Trail Designs Ti-Tri stove

 was a bit hit when it appeared a few years ago, but many complained that while the stove was great, the packing system – a plastic tube – was less efficient. Trail Designs listened to their customers and released the


, which could be custom ordered to fit your pot (hence the lack of weights here – but you can get the specs from their site; all you need to know is "it's light"). For reviews, check out

Hiking in Finland


Andy Howell


Their latest refinement of the design is the

Sidewinder Ti-Tri

, which offers a full-sized caldera cone fitted to your pot. It has proven most popular, as the following blog posts illustrate:

Jolly Green Giant


Journeyman Traveller,

Nielsen Brown Outdoors


Self Powered

, and

Pig Monkey


The secret to Trail Designs success is the flexibility of the system. The caldera stoves come ready to burn wood (and the "Inferno" optional extra, transforms the stoves into a stick-eating furnaces comparable to the BushBuddy –

as Roger illustrates

), alcohol (via a small burner) and esbit tabs (via the included miniscule

Gram Cracker stovelet


Which brings us neatly to...

Esbit Tabs

I've already admitted to never having used an Esbit tab, and my feelings about them are pretty much summed up by Brian Green and the subsequent comments on his post "

I really want to like Esbit tabs

." I feel I should like them more, but they seem a bit messy. However, I expect to be damned by the Esbit loving hoards, and therefore I encourage you to

make your own esbit stove

, read about cooking with this "

lightest, most efficient fuel

", and make sure you buy

square tabs and not round ones

. The rest is up to you.

Last but not least, we must briefly cover...

Alcohol Stoves

It's almost a rite of passage in ultralightdom to

make your own alcohol stove

. They are

easy to make


come in multiple forms

, and, in the right hands, make an excellent choice for long distance travel. The excellent hands I have in mind which prove this point would be those belonging to Andrew Skurka, who provides

instructions for making a stove out of a cat food can

. He used it for seven months on his

Great Western Loop

hike and

other adventures

, which, I think, is enough proof that a little goes a long way, and brings us to the end of this post.

Further Reading

More information than you can throw a cat can stove at about integrated stoves

(BPL membership required)

Links to Manufacturers



Edelrid US



 - mit Flash, das is nicht gut)





Trail Designs


Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:

Part 1: Admit you have a problem

Part 2: Downsize your pack

Part 3: Ditch your dome

Part 4: Change your bedding

Part 5: Start cooking light

Part 6: Pay attention to the menu

Part 7: Carry less water

Part 8: Dress down

Part 9: Stay fresh with less

Part 10: Pack knowledge

Part 11: Go smart-tech

Part 12: Give your feet a break