I was organizing the gear locker and thought it would be good to show some of my favorite items for preparing food when backpacking or bikepacking. One of the benefits of ultralight hiking gear is that it transfers to bikepacking well and the principles are identical:
- Take only what you will use
- Seek out the lightest, highest performance items that you can afford
- Look for items that have multiple uses
Let’s start with knives and utensils. There are some ultralight hikers who head out with only a single edge razor blade for a tool. While I can grasp their desire to have the lightest possible kit, I do prefer to have a bit more “tool” on hand. My general preference is to carry a 3.5″ folding knife with a locking blade. My “everyday” pocket knife is a Benchmade Griptilian that weighs 3.8oz.
I have several other knives that are perfectly usable for backcountry food prep, basic cutting chores and small repairs. We could debate forever on knives for hiking and biking, but your choice should be light and simple and capable of the uses you have in mind for it. I want a knife that can open a package, slice cheese, sausage and fruit, trim line and help make a fire in an emergency. I don’t expect to “baton” a small knife (using it to split wood), but I do want to be able to make small tinder to start a fire. Any of the knives below will tackle those chores to one degree or another. I do think that large heavy knives are totally unnecessary, and in fact most are difficult to use for light chores.
From top down:
- Victorinox “Little Vicky”
- Victorinox Camper
- Victorinox One Hand Trekker
- Mora Bushcraft Stainless with custom left-hand sheath
One option for the biking side is to use a multi-tool that has a decent blade and can be gripped easily. The Leatherman Skeletool is in my cycling tool kit. I wanted a pliers-based tool and the knife blade and interchangeable driver bits round it out for cycling and backcountry use. At 5 ounces, it’s on the heavy side for backpacking and I’d rather have the tools included with most Swiss Army knives. I have a Gerber Dime model multi-tool on order that will give me a set of mini pliers that I am hoping will be enough for cable repairs. I have a Blackburn Heist 6 model cycling multi-tool that covers all the fastenings on my bike, so the Dime adds pliers, small blade and scissors.
My outdoor dining approach is elemental and monk-like: a spoon and a mug, maybe a bowl and the foods are usually quick and easy to prepare. It ALL tastes good when you are outdoors and hungry. A few spices and a little hot sauce can improve Spartan menus.
My utensils collection is mostly titanium “sporks” and spoons, with a set of chopsticks for noodles and stir-frying. The sporks are all second-hand finds; I did buy the folding spoon deliberately as I prefer a plain spoon bowl over a spork and I wanted a folding version for my mini-kitchen kit that fits everything in a 450ml titantium mug. Weights run 0.4-0.6oz each, so it’s really just a matter of personal preference.
Left to right:
- Snowpeak titanium spork
- REI titanium spork (polished bowl)
- Sea to Summit titanium spoon
- REI folding titanium spork
- Fire Maple folding titanium spoon (polished bowl)
- And the chopsticks!
The pots and pans in my gear locker are mostly titanium as well:
- MSR Titan Cup. This forms the core of my lightest cook kit. It holds 420ml brimming full and weighs 2oz/54g. More below.
- Snow Peak 450 double-wall titanium mug. A bit of a luxury item that I have wanted for a while, but didn’t want to part with the cash. I got a screaming deal on this used one a couple weeks ago. It will keep my coffee hot longer and won’t burn my lips, but I can’t cook with it, so it gets points off for single use. A little heavy at 5oz/140g.
- Stoic 600ml titanium mug. Backcountry.com had the Stoi product line and sold these pots at a good price. It is the workhorse for my backpacking kitchen, used with a propane canister stove. Most dehydrated meals require two cups of hot water, so this is a good size. For morning meals, it will make enough hot water in one batch for instant oatmeal and coffee. It weighs 4oz/114g with the lid that seemed to elude me in the photograph. It will hold my canister stove, a 110g gas cartridge, a folding spoon and mini-butane lighter.
- Evernew 17cm titanium fry pan. I don’t use this much, but it is cool. I paid $3 for it at a yard sale in a totally decrepit state and I spend an hour scrubbing and polishing to get it back to serviceable condition. It weighs just 3.8oz/108g. The caveat with thin titanium pans is that you must keep them moving over the heat. Set it on a blowtorch camp burner for more than a few seconds and you will carbonize your dinner.
- REI/Evernew titanium Sierra Cup. The Sierra Cup is a hiking classic and has many uses. It holds 10oz brimming full and weighs 1.8oz/50g. It vies with the MSR Titan Cup for monkish elemental cooking gear. I use a stainless one for my dog’s food and water bowl. He seems to think it is “special” (he hauls it in his own backpack too).
- Snow Peak titanium bowl. If you want one item to cook and eat from, it is hard to beat this simple light bowl. It holds about 600ml and weighs `1.8oz/52g. Use a little foil from a turkey roaster pan for a lid and you can drill a couple holes and add a bail to move it around. That piece of metal next to it in the photo is the pot gripper from a Trangia 28T cook kit and it fits the lip of the bowl perfectly and adds just a half ounce. You can find the handle on Amazon, Trangia part number 600282
I rarely cook over an open fire, although any of the single-wall pots shown above would work. I have three light stoves in the gear locker:
From the upper left:
- Soto Micro Regulator stove with piezo igniter, optional windscreen, and 110g fuel canister and MSR stabilizer base. This is my cooking workhorse, normally used with the Stoic 600ml mug above. Note that I kept the plastic cap for the fuel canister. If you get dirt in the nozzle, you can end up with a wonky stove far from home, so keep the cap and use it! There are lots of good canister stoves out there that weigh a few ounces and pour out the heat. The market changes often, so read the reviews to get one with best cold weather and wind performance, fuel consumption, heat output, etc. Stoves put out varying amounts of carbon monoxide that can kill you when cooking in a tent– if it doesn’t burn the tent down first. Be careful! I cook outside.
- The silver can is an aluminum screw top cylinder that I use for hauling the white Esbit fuel tablets sitting next to it. Esbit fuel is stinky. A doubled zip sandwich bag will work too. Just below the white fuel tablets is a titanium Esbit “wing stove” that will hold a small pot like the MSR Titan Cup. The fuel is held in the center tray. I use with with an aluminum flashing windscreen like the one next to the fuel can. There are a number of super light Esbit stove kits made for use with recycled beer cans as a pot. I think Esbit is best for heating a little hot water for soup or a hot drink, although there are many ultralighters who do all their cooking with it. it is simple and you can’t spill it. It does need the wind screen, it’s stinky and it will leave soot on your pot. The thing that looks like a silver bar is a Gram Cracker stove that is a simple fuel tablet holder and about as simple and light as you can get.
- There are lots of alcohol stoves out there. Many are made from soda cans. The silver disk with the wires sticking up is a Starlyte stove made by Zelf’s Stoveworks. It works great and weighs just 16.4 grams, including the built-in pot support. This is another good one solo overnight trips where you want a little soup or hot coffee to go with your sandwich and some instant oatmeal in the morning. There are backpackers who use this as their main stove for long trips too. As with the Esbit, a windscreen is needed and the white plastic bottle is the fuel container. I use “green” denatured alcohol with a higher percentage of ethanol and less poison.
- The little purple thing is a Scripto mini butane lighter. There are mini Bic lighters in my kit too. The orange rod below that is an Exotac polySTRIKER firesteel. Some of this cooking stuff crosses over into my survival “10 essentials” gear and the fire-starting items are big on that list. If the lighter and the matches fail, the firesteel is always there. The red cylinder next to the orange firesteel is a Bison Designs “spy capsule” and I have it stuffed full of AMK Tinder Quick tabs to give me a dry tinder source without searching or preparing it. Finally, the silver cylinder with the orange matches spilling out is a K&M long match safe loaded with UCO Stormproof matches and strikers. It has a high quality button compass in the cap as well.
The photo above shows the MSR Titan Cup with the Esbit wing stove, mini lighter, folding titanium spoon, windscreen and fuel can. I made a lid from a tin can and added a bit of silicone tubing for a knob. The whole kit is 3-3/8″x3-3/8″ and weighs 5 ounces without the fuel. It’s all I need for a solo outing.
I’m just scratching the surface for ultralight cooking systems and this is just what I have at hand. Check the forums at Backpackinglight.com for much more information on this and other ultralight backpacking techniques.