Traveler's Gear Box: How Do You Cook Your Food in a National Park's Backcountry?
When it comes to cooking a meal in the backcountry of your favorite national park, there are more than a few options. Of course, those options quickly narrow when you're hauling food, shelter, and clothing in your backpack. So what are your options when it comes to cookstoves?
But I've also resorted to a two-burner propane fire stove when canoeing into Yellowstone National Park's backcountry when weight and portability weren't dire concerns, while one old friend still fires up his decades old Optimus 8R and another uses the more recent Snowpeak Giga Stove. And, truth, be told, I've resorted to cooking over an open fire at times, once baked a bread of sorts by building a small convection "oven" out of rocks, and roasted potatoes on a trough of sticks another time.
Cookstoves come with a variety of issues you need to sort through before buying one. Are you looking for portability, or performance? Do you prefer white gas, or butane/propane? Some say white gas burns hotter than butane or propane, which also can be slowed in temps below freezing. Are you cooking a feast, or simply boiling water to pour into your freeze-dried delight? Feasts tend to require more than one pot.
As noted above, I long went the white gas route. These days I prefer butane or propane, mainly because of its ease of portability. No sloshing around or possible leaking to concern yourself with, no storage issues after you return from your trip with a half-full fuel bottle, no noticeable gumming up that affects the stove's performance.
Today's stoves are really pushing the performance envelope when it comes to going from thinking about a meal to actually eating it. One of the top models in this arena comes from JetBoil. The company's latest creation, the Flash (MSRP $99.95), is fired by butane, purportedly gets 2 cups of water boiling hot in two minutes, and, at just a smidgen over 7 inches tall and not quite 4.5 inches wide (when you include the lid) it nests relatively neatly in your pack. It's certainly not as small as a PocketRocket (MSRP $39.95) or Giga Stove (MSRP $64.95), but the footprint of those grow as you add a cook kit so you actually have something to heat water in let alone eat out of.
The beauty of Flash is its all-in-one nature. Within the one-liter cup you'll find the stove burner, a collapsible plastic tripod that you mount the propane canister onto for stability, room for a 100-gram canister that will kick out 4,500 BTUs for 60 minutes if you kept it on, and room for an optional "pot support" that you can use if you want to resort to a larger pot to cook meals in. You also can find fuel in 230-gram canisters, but they won't fit into the cup.
Flash, which weighs in at 14 ounces, also comes with a neoprene "cozy" (in your choice of "carbon," "gold," "violet," or "sapphire") that wraps the spun aluminum liter vessel to both insulate the contents and prevent you from burning your hand. This cozy comes with a color-changing swoosh that lets you know when your water is hot.
Key to this stove generating so much heat so quickly is the patented "FluxRing" integrated along with a windscreen into the bottom of the 1-liter cup. The ring, with dozens of ribs like a car's radiator, is said to "yield fuel efficiencies of over 80%, compared with the 30-40% typical of standard stoves and cookware."
Now, I haven't gone out into the field with my PocketRocket and Flash side-by-side, along with a calculator to verify that claim, but I did take the two out back at 6,500 feet on a gray, slightly windy afternoon with the temperature at 45 degrees and falling with a storm rolling in. When it came to heating two cups of cold water, Flash's temperature indicator began to change color at 2:15, and the water was boiling by 2:40, while the PocketRocket didn't produce a boil until nearly 3:30 had elapsed.
Along with heating water a tad quicker, Flash has a built-in push-button igniter, while the PocketRocket requires a match, which can be problematic on a windy day.
While you certainly can cook meals in the one-liter vessel, Flash seems best-suited to serve as a hot-water grunt. Heat up the water you need for your meal, pour it into the meal pouch, and heat up some more water to enjoy a cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate while waiting for your main course to reconstitute. It's also handy for day hikes, snowshoe jaunts, or cross-country skis when you'd like to have a hot drink in the field.
Flash also has some optional accessories. Like a fresh cup of espresso? There's a coffee press (MSRP $19.95) that works with it. Find yourself overnighting on a Portaledge anchored to El Cap? There's a hanging kit (MSRP $29.95). And if you find the 1-liter vessel too small for your group, you can purchase a 1.5-liter cookpot (MSRP $54.95) as well as an 8-inch fry pan (MSRP $49.95).
Another stove to consider is MSR's Reactor Stove (Available online from $128). This unit, which debuted in 2007, utilizes a radiant heating system wrapped by a heat exchanger that reportedly boils a liter of water in 3 minutes. Though slightly heavier than the Flash, by roughly 4 ounces, this unit also nests for portability. We haven't tested the Reactor, so please share your thoughts if you have.