What are the backpacking stove systems that I use in 3-season and winter conditions when solo, as a couple, or in a group? In this multi-post series I will detail them, with complete gear lists and in-depth explanations of my selections.
This is not meant to be a definitive list of viable stove systems. There are literally hundreds of worthy stoves, pots, utensils, and other kitchen components that can be mixed-and-matched. But I hope that the gear lists can be a useful template for your own, and that the discussions can help you navigate the options with more insight and perspective. In that sense, this series is a bit of a buyers guide.
Depending on your exact selections, weights and prices of these systems will change. But I took measures to accurately represent the relative differences between the systems, i.e. so long as your selections are about the same, The Dirtbag will weigh and cost less than the canister stoves.
More specifically, the systems are shown in one-person configurations, since the group systems would appear heavier and more expensive even though the underlying components are similar or even the same; and I included an 8-oz canister (empty), even though for some systems I would normally use a 3.9-oz or 16-oz canister.
This was my go-to setup for 3-season trips between 2007 and 2015, and I have cooked hundreds of meals with it. It’s very inexpensive and lightweight, and its major flaws — notably, pot instability, susceptibility to wind, and sub-par fuel efficiency — can be worked around or overlooked. For this system to really go the distance, I recommend upgrading the pot, which would add $15-20 at least.
If an alcohol stove can be made in 10 minutes for just a few bucks, you may ask, “Is it worth buying one?” That’s a personal decision, but I can confirm that The Cadillac is a much more user-friendly system than The Dirtbag: it’s more fuel efficient, especially in windy conditions; it’s very stable, with almost no tipping hazard; and it’s much more durable, though probably still not more economical in the long run. I swapped to this system earlier this year and don’t see myself going back.
For an extra 5-ish ounces more than an alcohol stove system, an upright canister stove is more convenient, more fuel efficient, and more powerful. Canister stoves are noisy and the fuel canisters are an annoyance (expensive, limited availability, and should not be refilled by the user), but they are very fast and convenient. I reserve Fast & Light for late-season trips when I will be using my stove extensively for hot meals and drinks. For others, especially couples, this is their standard go-to.
For casual group trips — like when Amanda and I hiked the Aspen Four Pass Loop during our anniversary weekend — gram-counting is generally trumped by convenience and comfort. With this system’s powerful stove and big pot, I can quickly and simultaneously prepare meals and hot drinks for a group of two to four. It beats waiting on an alcohol stove, which produces much less heat, or having a group eat and drink at different times, as would be the case if using a small-volume pot paired with an upright canister stove.
When daytime and nighttime temperatures are consistently below freezing, natural water sources are non-existent or extremely difficult to access (e.g. covered by a foot of lake ice). In this situation, my stove must be capable of melting snow. Liquid fuel stoves like the classic Whisperlite are well suited for this purpose, but so long as I have reliable access to replacement fuel canisters I prefer to run a liquid feed on a remote canister stove .
The core components of my stove systems — namely, the stove and pot — change, and I discuss the selection rationale in each dedicated post. Several smaller items are shared across the three systems, however, and I’ll explain the rationale once here, to avoid redundancy.
When solo, I eat out of my pot. When I’m with my wife, I eat out of the pot and she eats from a separate eating container. And when I’m cooking for a group, we all have personal vessel.
An eating container can be a simple plastic bowl or Tupperware container. But I prefer that everyone have a metal pot so that their meal can be simmered or warmed up. I specifically recommend the 1-liter Stanco Non-Stick Grease Pot for $10.
I don’t care for pot handles: they interfere with windscreens, and the rubber/silicone coatings can catch fire. Instead, I prefer handle-less pots and a standalone pot lifter.
With some extra care and skill, some of systems can be operated successfully without a pot lifter. I recommend one for those new to The Dirtbag, since the Super Cat stove is generally unstable and has a hot, non-adjustable flame. I also pack one with Hot & Heavy and with Winter Camping, so that I can more easily manage heavy pots of boiling water.
The photographed pot lifter is from Open Country; it cost $3.75 and was 1.2 oz. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available. Instead, try the Optimus Terra Pot Lifter or similar, although I cannot attest first-hand to the quality or performance of these alternatives. It’s not a sophisticated item.
My favorite backpacking breakfast and dinner recipes are most efficiently consumed with a spoon. I never bring a fork or knife, and I don’t try to be cute with a spork.
My favorite utensil is the GSI Outdoors Pouch Spoon, formerly the REI Campware Soup Spoon. It’s cheap, ultralight, and durable. Its handle can be easily shortened so that it fits inside my pot. And unlike metal utensils, it does not get cold to the touch.
On group trips, I pack a back-up spoon as part of my Field Repair Kit in the event that someone loses theirs. It’s a difficult item to improvise in the field.
A book of matches weighs less, but it’s much less reliable than a lighter: limited strikes, and poor performance in wind and/or when damp or wet. Furthermore, a lighter is far superior when starting a campfire. For this application, I have always been satisfied with the standard Bic Lighter or Mini Bic Lighter. Consider packing a second one as back-up, but do not store it with your primary lighter.
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