Cooking and Fire

Cooking and the smoke and mess associated with fire were the two aspects of my early exposure to camping, with the Boy Scouts, that I most despised. As an adult, I have never cooked or made a fire while camping and I don't ever plan to. But in order to convince myself that cooking and fire are unnecessary, I first did some research on the state of the art in lightweight cooking systems.

The lightest cookware is aluminum, but titanium is almost as light and far more durable, and thus a better choice. Titanium is currently more expensive than aluminum, though not outrageously so for someone who camps frequently. Some very lightweight and efficient cook systems require a specific sized pot. Otherwise, a wider pot is normally better than a narrow pot, so that all the heat of the fire underneath hits the bottom of the pot, rather than escaping around the sides. For one person, 1.3 liters is the minimum size pot for cooking pasta. For simply boiling water for use with dehydrated foods, a smaller pot might be okay. The Evernew 1.3 liter uncoated titanium pot, at 130 grams including lid, is a particularly good choice. I bought from BackpackingLight, but ClikStand also sells it (and so does CycloCamping.com as of 2014). REI also used to sell this pot, but then switched to selling only the coated version, which weighs about 30 grams more. I read reports that the non-stick coating is not particularly durable, even if used exclusively with a non-metal spoon. I recommend going with uncoated and then avoid cooking foods that might stick.

The lightest source of heat for cooking is an open wood fire, but this is illegal in many parts of the country and creates quite a mess. The lightest weight stoves run on either alcohol or butane gas cartridges. Butane gas cartridges for backpacking stoves are normally only available at specialized outdoor stores, whereas alcohol is normally more widely available. So where fuel availability is a concern, alcohol is normally a better choice.

Of the alcohols available for burning in stoves, ethyl alcohol aka ethanol has the highest energy content. In most countries, 90% or higher denatured ethyl is available in pharmacies, as a skin care product. "Denatured" means that the alcohol has been mixed with poisonous substances so that it cannot be drunk. Denatured ethyl alcohol is also widely available at hardware stores (in the cleaning supplies or solvents department) and also in larger supermarkets in Europe (in the cleaning supplies department, or perhaps the cookware department, for use in chafing dishes). Ethanol is also widely used in marine stoves, and so can usually be found in boating supply stores. Methyl alcohol aka methanol gas-line antifreeze (HEET in the yellow bottle) is widely available in the United States at gas stations and auto parts stores. Methanol is highly toxic, so avoid getting on the skin, and especially avoid swallowing or getting in the eyes. Methanol burns cleanly but produces only about 75% as much heat as ethanol, per unit of liquid fuel. Avoid isopropyl alcohol aka isopropanol (HEET in the red bottle, rubbing alcohol in the skin care department at pharmacies in the United States), which makes a sooty flame, especially if mixed with 30% water, as is common for isopropyl alcohol intended for skin care in the United States. Any plastic can be used for holding alcohol fuel, since alcohol, unlike white gas and other liquid fuels, is not particularly combustible and doesn't leave any nasty residue if spilled. (Though methanol, as noted, is highly toxic until it evaporates.)

A rule of thumb for remembering which alcohol works best in stoves is as follows. Traffic lights use red/yellow/green to signal no/maybe/yes for movement. Red HEET (isopropyl alcohol) = no. Yellow HEET (methyl alcohol) = maybe. Green would then signify ethyl alcohol (regardless of the color container it actually comes in).

There are many ultralight alcohol cooking systems, but most are of dubious reliability, especially in windy or other challenging conditions. A sturdy solution is as follows:

A typical gas stove weighs 100 grams. A 110 gram canister weighs about 80 grams empty or 190 grams full and boils perhaps 12 half-liters. A 220 gram canister weighs about 140 grams empty or 360 grams full and boils perhaps 24 half-liters. Together with the Light-my-Fire sparker and silnylon stuff sack, a 110 gram cartridge gas cooking system would thus weigh 225 grams empty and 335 grams full, and the 220 gram cartridge gas cooking system would weigh 285 grams empty and 505 grams full. The gas systems thus weigh less, for a given amount of boiling performance under still conditions. However, this is not the whole story:

For bike touring, alcohol has the advantage over gasoline and white gas in that it can be safely stored in ordinary plastic water bottles, since it is not highly combustible in case of leaks. Many bike tourists use one of their water bottle cages (especially the cage underneath the down tube, if present) for storing their fuel bottle. It would be adviseable to choose a different color bottle (such as red), if using the same type of bottle for both water and stove alcohol. The inefficiency of alcohol compared to gas is a minor concern for bike tourists compared to backpackers.

A final cooking (and also water purification) possibility, for traveling in developing countries and staying mostly in hotels, is an electric immersion heater.

alcohol for cleaning, mercadona store in spain
99% ethyl alcohol, 1% denaturing chemicals, 1 liter bottle, cleaning supplies department at the mercadona supermarket in spain, april 2014

alcohol for skin care, mercadona store in spain
99% ethyl alcohol (front label says 96% but rear label says 99%), 1% denaturing chemicals, 250ml bottle, health/beauty suppplies department at the mercadona supermarket in spain, april 2014

denatured ethyl alcohol, walmart
denatured ethyl alcohol, 32 oz, home depot hardware store, may 2014 (much more expensive per unit quantity than in spain, assuming 1.37 $/€ exchange rate, it is possible to buy ethanol in gallon containers at home depot at a price only slightly higher per unit quantity than in spain)

HEET gasline antifreeze, methanol and isopropanol versions, walmart
yellow bottle is methyl alcohol, red bottle is isopropyl alcohol, 12 oz bottles, automotive supplies department at walmart in reno, may 2014 (note that 32 oz of methanol would cost $4.72, or considerably cheaper than the 32 oz denatured ethanol at home depot, however methanol has only about 75% of the heat value as ethanol, so cost in terms of equivalent heating value would be $6.29/quart, which is still cheaper than the ethanol)

isopropyl alcohol for skin application, walmart
70% and 91% isopropyl alcohol, 32 oz bottles, health supplies department of walmart in reno, may 2014 (only use as a last resort if no ethanol or methanol available)


The Spark-lite Emergency Firestarter kit, from BackpackingLight, is a very lightweight and reliable system for starting an emergency fire. This kit is included in the aviation survival kit of the military. It includes flint and steel sparker plus 10 petrolatum soaked cotton tabs for use as tinder. I have some doubts as to the advisability of fire in emergencies, at least when most of the clothing and other equipment is made of highly flammable synthetics, which can be damaged by even a single spark. In olden days, clothing was usually wool or cotton, both of which are resistant to burning, and the equipment alone was typically insufficient to stay warm in sub-freezing temperatures, so that fire was both non-dangerous and essential. But things are different nowadays. Given a choice between fire and the equipment I normally carry, I would definitely prefer the equipment in an emergency. Thus it makes little sense to risk damaging that equipment by trying to start a fire under difficult conditions. So I don't carry a firestarter kit anymore. 20 grams.