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Gear List || Premium & ultralight backpacking alcohol stove system

The Cadillac Stove System

The Cadillac Stove System


This is a multi-part series about my trail-tested backpacking stove systems. Start reading with the Introduction, or view all posts in the series.


Between 2006 and April 2015, I made over one-thousand meals and hot drinks with The Dirtbag. Clearly, that system works.

But it’s also imperfect. I was particularly tired of its poor performance in non-calm air; its unreliable stability was not a winning quality, either. So I upgraded to The Cadillac, and I don’t foresee going back.

The Cadillac is not cheap, especially for an alcohol stove system. What do you get for nearly $200?

1. Ultralight. The entire kit weighs about a half-pound. Drop a few more ounces by leaving behind the mug and measuring cup, and by using a Mini Bic lighter instead of the full-size version.

2. Durable. The pot, mug, and Caldera Cone are all made of titanium. At comparable weights, aluminum and stainless steel will bend and dent much more easily. For comparable durability, these components would have to be heavier.

3. Efficiency. I budget just 0.5 oz of fuel (15 ml) per meal and .3 oz (10 ml) per hot drink, and expect some leftover. Because of the Caldera Cone, fuel efficiency is relatively unaffected by wind. And I never waste fuel, because the Zelph stove absorbs up to 1 oz of unused fuel and will not leak between uses.

Gear List: Premium & ultralight alcohol stove

  • Critical = A must-have, no exceptions
  • Suggested = A valuable addition, few reasons not to bring
  • Optional = Not critical, but worth consideration
  • Depends = Contingent on trip objectives, conditions, and/or other selections
  • Unnecessary = Unlikely to need and/or can be improvised

More economical options

Not ready to spend almost $200, even if you find these items on sale? I hear you. To create a Cadillac-like system for less, you’ll need to give up most or all of the titanium. Aluminum and stainless steel are much more budget-friendly, though heavier or less durable. A few specific ideas:

The cumulative cost-savings of these three changes would drop the out-of-pocket cost to about $75. Versus The Cadillac, this system would be a few ounces heavier, less packable (it will not all fit inside the pot), and less durable. But if you’re on a budget and/or not an avid backpacker, these compromises may be acceptable.

For an even less expensive system, consider The Dirtbag, which costs less than $30 and weighs about the same.

The Sidewinder cone and Zelph stove are sufficiently compact to fit inside my 900 ml pot. The measuring cup nests inside the wrapped-up cone, as can the 4-oz fuel bottle that is bundled with the Sidewinder. The same cannot be said about the original Caldera Cone or the 12-10 stove.

The Sidewinder cone and Zelph stove are sufficiently compact to fit inside my 900 ml pot. The measuring cup nests inside the wrapped-up cone, as can the 4-oz fuel bottle that is bundled with the Sidewinder. The same cannot be said about the original Caldera Cone or the 12-10 stove.

A Cadillac for two+

In the configuration detailed above, The Cadillac is optimized for a soloist. But it can be modified into a worthy 2-person system. Buy a larger pot like the Evernew Ultralite 1.3L, or even the Ultralight 1.9L for two hungry hikers. When ordering the Sidewinder, select its size accordingly. Also, double-up on mugs, spoons, and fuel.

In-depth selection discussion

Stove

The Sidewinder Ti-Tri is bundled with Trail Designs’ 12-10 alcohol stove, but I recommend upgrading to the Zelph Modified StarLyte for an extra $12.

The 12-10 is less packable and will not fit inside most solo cookpots: it’s made of 12-oz soda cans, has a wide primer pan, and comes with an even larger protective case. The 12-10 also requires the pot to sit higher inside the Sidewinder, which is achieved by sliding two titanium skewer stakes horizontally through holes in the cone and then resting the pot atop the stakes. It’s not a terrible inconvenience, but I prefer to avoid such fuss when possible.

The Modified StarLyte is a fuel-miser, optimizing every potential BTU. However, it is slow. To avoid mealtime frustration, I typically start the stove before I am done with other camp chores (e.g. shelter set-up, bed-making, map study, end-of-day footcare), and return to the stove after about 5 minutes, checking more periodically thereafter.

If you are willing to sacrifice some fuel-efficiency for improved cook times, purchase the original non-modified StarLyte directly from Zelph. I would highly recommend this option when regularly cooking with very cold water (e.g. fresh snowmelt, near or sub-freezing daytime temperatures), which seems to make the Modified StarLyte intolerably slow.

Pot

Unlike the Supercat stove, which is part of The Dirtbag system, a short-and-wide pot is less imperative when using the Sidewinder or Caldera Cone. However, it will still be more fuel efficient than a deep pot.

The Evernew Ultralite 900 has been my go-to pot since 2004. I’ve replaced it just once. And I’ve done little experimentation with other pots, because I’ve never been compelled to. Do you need more of an endorsement?

For those with a smaller appetite, the Ultralite 600 may be sufficient, though you’ll be giving up the option to simultaneously heat up water for both a meal and a hot drink. The Evernew Ultralite 1.3L is suitable for 2-person cook groups, or for solo hikers with really big appetites and/or who want a 2-person option.

Sidewinder Cone

The original Caldera Cone is made of aluminum and costs $35. I think it’s worth an extra $45 for the Sidewinder: its titanium is more durable, and it is sufficiently compact to be stored inside my 900 ml pot. Plus, because of extensive use I can generally justify more expensive backpacking equipment.

The Sidewinder comes with a solid fuel stove, and with some additional accessories — the Inferno and titanium floor — can be used as a wood-burning stove. I have not used either, as I have a strong preference for alcohol fuel. Read why.

Mug

To consume a meal and a hot drink simultaneously, you’ll need a mug. Obviously, it can be left at home or not included in your kit, but I think this component is a must-have for most backpackers.

Mugs are not complicated and there are many that will do the job satisfactorily. Personally, I prefer a single-wall mug so that I can warm my hands. Handles are unnecessary, but are an appreciated warm-weather feature. I don’t need a cover or cozy — I prefer to finish my coffee quickly and get moving, versus milking it for an hour in camp.

Other components

In the Introduction for this multi-part series, I discuss the components that are universally shared among my trail-tested 3-season backpacking stove systems: pot lifter, utensil, and ignition.

What comments or questions do you have about The Cadillac? If you use a different Cadillac-worthy system, please share the details.


Disclosure. This website is supported mostly through affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

I have no financial interest in Trail Designs, which provided me with a Sidewinder and Zelph stove for personal use.

46 Responses to Gear List || Premium & ultralight backpacking alcohol stove system

  1. Beck D December 18, 2015 at 9:45 am #

    Is a stove really necessary?
    I’m a beginning backpacker and i see a lot of stove talk but never any reasons other than heating food and sterilizing water, carrying a filter and aqua mira as well as dry foods wouldn’t carrying a stove be redundant? Or is there an angle i’m not quite seeing?

    • Andrew Skurka December 18, 2015 at 9:53 am #

      No, a stove is not always necessary. However, in cooler and/or wetter conditions it can be a lifeline. And year-round I find that a stove provides more satisfying meals than cold varieties; also, the food is more compact, shelf-stable, and calorically dense per weight (no water weight).

      I would not advocate using a stove to purify water, unless it’s a byproduct of heating water for a meal or hot drink. Relative to other purification techniques (e.g. chemicals, filters, UV pens), it takes much more time and also requires the carrying of significant fuel.

  2. Alex December 18, 2015 at 10:42 am #

    I also have this system and love it. To me the ability to leave leftover fuel in the stove has been a big convenience. You really don’t have to worry about measuring out the right amount- just fill it up and use it, then pop the cap back on when you’re done and save what’s left for next time. It also won’t spill if you knock it over, which is nice.

    One minor point for those considering buying it from Trail Designs: it’s very easy to remove the little ring in the top of the stove if you want faster cook times (leaving you with the original, non-modified starlyte). I ended up doing this and have been very satisfied with the cooking speed and the fuel efficiency.

  3. Beck D December 18, 2015 at 10:54 am #

    Why would it be a lifeline in cooler temps? does it help retain body temperature?

    Do you use stoves for breakfast or only for dinner? and my last question is how do you know when to blow out the flame, just when you feel its hot enough?

    • Andrew Skurka December 18, 2015 at 11:58 am #

      With a stove you can make hot drinks and hot meals, both of which will help to warm up your body — and lift your morale.

      On solo trips I only make hot dinners. On group trips I often do a hot breakfast, too. Here are my best recipes.

      When I extinguish the flame depends on the meal. Some ingredients only need hot water, like instant mashed potatoes. Others I need a little bit of cook time, like polenta and instant rice. Some backpackers will carry a pot cozy to achieve this extra cook time, but I prefer to just burn up a little bit more fuel.

  4. Jon L December 18, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

    Glad to see I use the same setup as Andrew Skurka. I did see you removed the pot handles. How’re you picking up your pot after cooking? Bandana or glove?

    • Andrew Skurka December 18, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

      The Zelph is so weak and the Sidewinder so efficient that very little heat seems to escape, leaving the rim of the pot only warm. I can grab it with my bare fingers, though it usually goes straight to the ground after I remove it.

  5. Chad December 19, 2015 at 7:43 am #

    I, unfortunately unknowingly ordered the aluminum cone not realizing it wasn’t titanium. Oh well, once it gets here I’ll be pairing it with a home made super cat with fiberglass wick and an evernew .9 and will try it out on some shorter trips and then see how it holds up on the superior hiking trail this summer. I imagine I will probably upgrade after. Thanks for another great read.

  6. Adam December 20, 2015 at 10:07 am #

    I’ve been using the sidewinder system for solo use and when backpacking with my wife, and I love it. I do have a few modifications. First, I use the 12-10 stove and don’t use the stakes to hold up the pot. I’ve found that you don’t really need them. The stove does fit inside a 0.9 L Evernew pot at an angle. Second, I purchased the special cap from Packafeather which allows you to siphon off any unused alcohol once you’ve quenched the stove by suffocating it with the pot. That allows me to not use any measuring cup and just add more alcohol than I know I’ll need and then recover it later. The main issue with this system is that it’s increasingly not permitted in many places due to fire danger.

    • Andrew Skurka December 20, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

      Where have you found alcohol stoves to be banned? In 2013 alcohol stoves were banned in the High Sierra, but they reversed that policy.

      • Adam December 28, 2015 at 10:22 am #

        Unless I’m mistaken, alcohol stove are banned in many, many places. The PCTA has a list from 2014 which as far as I know has not changed. Alcohol stoves are banned for much of the PCT. Many specifically specify only liquid pressurized fuel or with a shut off valve which excludes alcohol stoves. Additionally, places like Rocky Mountain National Park, Glacier National Park, and a whole host of other places.

        • Andrew Skurka December 28, 2015 at 10:30 am #

          The PCT page says at the very top, “Note: this page is out of date. Check with the local land agencies for current regulations.”

          I have guided trips in RMNP since 2012. There is no alcohol stove ban in their Backcountry Wilderness Camping Guide, and I have never been asked about our stove systems by rangers when they issue my permits.

          The Glacier National Park link is from August 11, 2015, and is in response to extreme fire danger. No ban on alcohol stoves is included with their normal backcountry regulations.

          • Adam December 29, 2015 at 10:43 am #

            Unfortunately, the regulations are often really hard to find, conflicting, and what rangers tell you varies greatly between rangers. There is an interesting discussion at WhiteBlaze about RMNP banning alcohol stoves. The actual ban does not seem to be written down anywhere. I’ve heard of similar confusing communications between backpackers and other jurisdictions.

  7. Goat December 22, 2015 at 3:37 pm #

    Have you found any reason to not use a Platy softbottle for fuel?

    • Andrew Skurka December 22, 2015 at 5:00 pm #

      Yes, two:

      1. A pour out of a Platy can be erratic, like if fuel is caught in a fold and then all pours out when it’s tipped just enough or if the bottle changes shape mid-pour.

      2. Because of the inconsistent bottle shape, it’s not easy to determine the quantity of remaining fuel. And in order to expand the bottle into its fullest shape, you must blow into it, which is almost as gross as sucking on a hose in order to siphon gas.

      • Goat December 22, 2015 at 8:55 pm #

        Thanks for the reply and helpful info!

  8. Dan December 28, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

    So to clarify, if you are using the Zelph stove, you are resting your pot directly on it and not using the included skewers as a pot stand?

    • Andrew Skurka December 28, 2015 at 4:28 pm #

      No. The pot sits on the rim of the Sidewinder and is elevated a few inches above the Zelph. If the skewer stakes are added, the pot would sit too high, but it would be perfect for the 12-10.

  9. minusfive December 31, 2015 at 5:13 am #

    You can easily “un-modify” the StarLyte as shown on this video (I’ve done it successfully): https://youtu.be/cSvIj0S3934

  10. Dan Durston January 4, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

    Great stuff. A 900mL Evernew, Ti Sidewinder Cone and non-restricted Starlyte is the ultimate setup. A few comments:

    REGULAR VS. RESTRICTED STARLYTE
    The restricted Starlyte is needed inside a low volume cone (e.g. with a tall/narrow pot) because the regular stove gets really hot and burns erratically. In a larger volume cone (wide pot) either will burn nice (and yes the wide 900mL Evernew is the best).

    The modified stove does use less fuel, but you can replicate this with the regular stove by altering the gap between the stove and pot. See graphs here:
    http://backpackinglight.com/forums/topic/57721/page/2/#comments

    In short, having the stove closer to the pot lengthens boil times and increases efficiency. So you could use the regular stove normally and then in a fuel crisis put a 1/2″ spacer under the stove to move it closer to the pot and increase efficiency at the expense of boil times.

    I personally always use the regular Starlyte because the restricted stove only saves ~1g of fuel for minute it adds to the boil time.

    TITANIUM CONES
    I think titanium is the only way to go for a cone. Aluminum and steel bend when you roll up the cone and after a few uses they look pretty haggard. Ti springs back into shape and looks good after hundreds of uses. It’s money well spent.

    If you’ve purchased from TD in the past, they may sell you a single cone without the full kit for quite a bit less. If you haven’t, you can buy some titanium foil elsewhere (e.g. TiGoat.com) and construct one yourself that won’t be quite as nice but will work nicely.

    OTHER ADVANTAGES
    Another advantage of this setup that is under appreciated is it’s winter performance. The Starlyte will light quite easily at 20F and isn’t that hard to light at even 10F and 0F, especially if you’re using methanol with it’s lower flashpoint. Compared to other stoves it’s great in the winter.

    • Andrew Skurka January 4, 2016 at 2:08 pm #

      Thanks for chiming in, good info.

      Can you qualify your comments about it being a “winter stove”? Are you suggesting that it can be used in cold temperatures, or that it can be used as a full-on winter stove, i.e. to melt snow. Making some dinner in 20-deg temps with this stove using water from a nearby creek that is still running, I can see that, but in true winter conditions this would not be a good system.

      • Dan Durston January 5, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

        I meant the stove is useable in the winter (e.g. possible to light) unlike many alcohol stoves. I didn’t mean it’s ideally suited to the task. It works pretty well boiling cold water, but isn’t much of a snow melter. It’s only “great” compared to other alcohol stoves.

        Where it fits into my winter kit is when I don’t really need a stove. I do a lot of hut based ski touring where I can cook on the wood stove or via cabin propane but I often bring this along as a backup/safety. Last weekend we got held up on a new traverse route between two huts and spent the night outdoors. It worked well enough to melt a couple liters (Evernew 1.3L + Sidewinder + Starlyte).

    • Gordon February 7, 2016 at 8:37 am #

      I bought a system from Trail Designs just a little while before Andrew made these new posts about stoves. I had a little trouble wading through all the different bundles on the TD site, and all I really wanted was a pot and a cone to fit it. Somehow I ended up with the old cone, not realizing that there was one that would fit in the pot. I contacted TD after seeing Andrew’s post, and they did indeed allow me to purchase just a new Ti screen for my setup. Takes up *much* less room in my pack

      Thanks TD and thanks Andrew!

  11. Rand January 4, 2016 at 5:52 pm #

    Couple of notes…..Chad….don’t use a home-made stove in the aluminum cone. Excellent chance it will overheat, volatilize the alcohol quickly, and blow flames out the top vents. We often see this melt cones. The heat we trap inside the cone is way hotter than most stoves are used to dealing with. The cone is not simply just a different shaped windscreen.

    As to winter use. Trauma and Pepper used the Sidewinder on their winter traverse of the PCT last year. One of the pieces of gear that they didn’t replace along the way. Don’t want to characterize their usage…..maybe they’ll wade in! 🙂

    Thanks too for the nice writeup Andrew.

    Rand 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka January 4, 2016 at 6:04 pm #

      Thanks for stopping by, Rand.

      My understanding is that Trauma and Pepper had regular access to running water. That puts their use in a different category than what I typically associated with a “winter stove”: melting snow for water. Given how fuel-intensive this operation is, and how few BTU’s per weight alcohol holds relative to gas or liquid fuel, I really struggle to think that it is a viable stove for regular “winter” use. Using it in cold temperatures to boil some liquid water, that’s a more proven and acceptable use.

      • Rand January 4, 2016 at 6:20 pm #

        Again, don’t want to characterize their usage too much….but I did debrief Shawn on how they used it, and there was a fair amount of snow melting. I believe the process was to melt enough for a ~liter of carried water the next day, as well as dinner. They did drink found water along the way in addition to eating snow. He also mentioned that they probably don’t consume as much water as those of us who aren’t quite the world class athletes as you three! 🙂 Again, would love to hear from them directly. Side note, there’s a cool picture of Shawn using our stove to melt himself out of his bindings:

        https://www.traildesigns.com/sites/default/files/trauma_pepper_2.jpg

      • Dan Durston January 5, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

        I haven’t done the math for white gas, but it’s a common misconception that alcohol lags canisters in energy density (see my article at the link below). Bottom line is that canisters and alcohol have nearly identical BTU per weight when the container weight is included, and white gas is likely similar too.
        http://intocascadia.com/2015/01/28/why-canister-stoves-are-more-fuel-efficient-than-alcohol/

        The main difference is one of transfer efficiency rather than energy density. For winter use though the main issue facing alcohol stoves is power (BTUs/time) rather than energy density/efficiency. If an alcohol stove could deliver 2-5x the BTU’s per minute it would be an okay winter option.

  12. Slingshot January 27, 2016 at 9:01 pm #

    Alcohol over Esbit?

  13. Dawn March 8, 2016 at 3:33 am #

    Thanks for all the information on these. The series on cook setups and meal planning has been a huge help in preparing for my AT thru. I guess I am going with the Jazzed-up Jalopy setup: Starlyte (free with Amazon credits) – foil windscreen – EpiGas titanium 850mL pot bought for about $15 in Japan, chucking the pan lid and using a foil one – 8oz water bottle for fuel, .4oz (can load Starlyte with fuel as well) – mini bic – $ store bamboo spoon – and maybe a Campbell’s soup cup for drink (1 oz). Not sure if I will FBC (would require cozy, but then I can use pot for drink), gotta decide in next days so I can start putting into ziplocks! Total cost = <$20 out of pocket.

    The 5 recipes thing saved me a lot of time (I was going to go with more like 10), now I will do 6 dinners instead, though I'm doing a kinda gourmet health nerd thing. I looked at your snacks and have deduced that basically there are 5 categories of snacks, the hiker food groups if you will: bars, jerky, salty, GORP (incl separate fruit/nuts) and chocolate. Most servings being around 3 oz, with an eye to that magic 100 cal/oz number. Anyway thanks so much for all the useful articles!!

    • Andrew Skurka March 8, 2016 at 6:05 am #

      The Starlyte is optimized for a low-air environment. It may be very slow if used without a Caldera. You should test it, and perhaps compare it to the performance of a Super Cat.

  14. Pete M June 18, 2016 at 9:45 am #

    Andrew, have you tried using the 900ml pot as a mug? I’m considering this setup and wondering if, when I want to go a bit minimal, I could use the pot as my drinking mug too. Is it too big for that?

    • Andrew Skurka June 18, 2016 at 10:16 am #

      I have used it often as a mug. It is perfectly functional, but it feels like you are drinking out of a pot (you are), you cannot eat and drink simultaneously, and you need to fire up your stove twice. Personally, I take a mug on casual trips when I value convenience and comfort, and leave it behind when weight is a paramount concern.

  15. Pete M June 18, 2016 at 5:36 pm #

    Thanks Andrew, I guess thus is the plus side of the mug-shaped pots. But this seems like a superb all-round system and the Evernew pots are so light I could bring an UL cup and still have a very light setup. Great, thanks for the article and advice!

    • Andrew Skurka June 18, 2016 at 11:25 pm #

      One of the perks with the Zelph + Sidewinder is that the pot shape has much less of an impact on fuel efficiency. With the Super Cat, it’s a squatty pot or bust. With this setup, squatty pots will still be more efficient, but tall pots are still very workable.

  16. minusfive July 19, 2016 at 7:46 pm #

    Hey Andrew,

    Thought I’d point out [IMO] better options for the “cheap” version of this setup:

    – Caldera Sidewinder Solo kit which uses the 1.1L grease pot (3-cup Open Country seems to have been discontinued). I’d still upgrade to the Starlyte, though I’d ask Rand about stove-pot distance and efficiency https://www.traildesigns.com/stoves/caldera-sidewinder-solo

    – GSI Infinity Stacking Cup (1.8oz vs 4oz of the Enamel, and $2 cheaper, plus measuring gradations) https://www.rei.com/product/895460/gsi-outdoors-infinity-stacking-cup

    This would be $58 vs. $77, lighter and more compact.

    As an aside, I use the same setup as you BTW, but with the 1.3L pot as a solo + duo setup and love it.

  17. Chris November 6, 2016 at 3:23 pm #

    I’m curious as to the benefits of wide pots vs. tall pots? I have liked the idea of duel purposing a tall pot as a mug but it seems everyone is recommending the wide pots.
    Are wide pots that much more fuel efficient? Are they more or less packable?

    • Andrew Skurka November 10, 2016 at 7:53 am #

      Wide pots are definitely more fuel efficient. But *how much more* depends on your stove system; and whether it’s meaningful depends on your trip length.

      In the case of the Dirtbag system with the Super Cat, the wide pot makes a huge difference. A tall pot probably takes 50% more time to get a boil. With the Cadillac, it’s less of a difference, because the cone traps most of that heat. With a canister stove like the Windpro (Hot & Heavy), the burner is wider than the base of some narrow pots; whereas with the Kovea Supalite (Fast & Light) the flame shoots straight up.

      On a short trip, the difference in fuel efficiency does not add up to much weight. On a longer trip, it does.

  18. Steve December 27, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

    How do you use the caldera cone in your cooking style versus using a cozy to finish the cooking? Could you clarify that a bit.

    • Andrew Skurka December 27, 2016 at 9:49 pm #

      Some of my base ingredients (e.g. polenta, instant rice) benefit from 30-60 seconds of simmer before removing from the heat. Others do not even need a full boil, like instant noodles and potatoes.

      Unless temps are quite a bit below freezing, the meal retains enough heat to continue cooking for 5-10 minutes after it’s been pulled off the heat. No cozy needed. This is especially the case if you add extra water, as I do. The meal will have more net thermal energy than a smaller meal, and therefore will cool down less quickly.

  19. Brett Wallihan January 6, 2017 at 1:23 pm #

    A question about efficiency. You mention that you budget .5 oz of fuel per meal, how much water does that bring to a boil?

    • Andrew Skurka January 6, 2017 at 4:11 pm #

      About 16 oz (475 ml), probably a bit more. My cooking water is normally cool, coming close to the source high in the Rockies.

  20. Johan Solberg May 7, 2017 at 1:06 am #

    Andrew, thank you for all the fantastic information you have made available. I have one suggestion for your Cadillac system, and that is to replace the TI mug with a Swedish “FOLDACUP” cup. This cup holds only 240 ml, but enough for a cup of coffee in the morning. It only weighs 24 g and it will fit into the 0.9l Evernew pot with the rest of the system. A link to this cup: http://www.wildo.se/products/the-orignal-fold-a-cup/

    J

    • Brett Wallihan May 7, 2017 at 10:11 am #

      I use the Sea to Summit X Mug. It sits in the bottom of the pot and the rest sits on top. It works perfectly. Moving to the Cadillac system from the MSR Pocket Rocket has saved weight, eliminated the hassle of canisters, and significantly reduced the volume of my kitchen.

  21. Johan Solberg May 7, 2017 at 10:47 am #

    Yea, the X-mug is great and is pretty much built on the principle of the “FOLDACUP” cup.

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