Traveler's Gear Box: How Do You Cook Your Food in a National Park's Backcountry?

Flash is the latest entry into the quick-heating, easy packing cook-stove market. Photo courtesy of JetBoil.

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?

Over the years I've carried a variety of stoves, from the now-antiquish Svea 123 to MSR's Whisperlite and on up to today's MSR PocketRocket.

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.

Comments

Heater Meals. In 14 minutes you have a piping hot entree. Exothermic reaction to water while in a self contained pouch/box. With utensils and napkin! Very filling and nutricious. No flame. No stove. Lighter than pots/pans, etc. Cheaper than Big Mac Dinner!

Rick

I use a little alcohol burning stove that weighs only 3 ounces. It uses about 1/3 cup of denatured alcohol to boil 2 cups of water.

Does anybody know the Iso-butane / Propane percentages in Jetboils Jetpower canisters?
I use a first generation MSR Whisperlite International where ever I go.

"...adventure without regard to prudence, profit, self-improvement,
learning or any other serious thing" -Aldo Leopold-

You can always go the way of an AT hiker and use a soda can, alcohol, and tent stakes to cook.

Ranger Holly

Exothermic reaction to water while in a self contained pouch/box.

Are they full of calcium chloride pellets?

Hmmm. Just looked it up. Magnesium, Sodium, and Iron. Sounds like the same general composition of the self-heating hand-warmers.

Random Walker:

Does anybody know the Iso-butane / Propane percentages in Jetboils Jetpower canisters?
I use a first generation MSR Whisperlite International where ever I go.

Not sure. They don't list or publish it. All it says is that it's an isobutane/propane mix. If I were to guess, probably somewhere around 80/20%. Anything with more propane would require a higher can thickness for safety reasons. If it's warm enough straight butane might even work although isobutane has better cold temp performance than butane.

It's a standard Lindal valve. Pretty much any of them should work. Jetboil has theirs made in South Korea. There's probably nothing special about theirs other than the tiny size - which fits in the cup. About the only other canister I know that's as tiny (110g) is from Snow Peak. I would think that their canister base is designed to work with theirs and the larger 220+ gram canisters. Any Lindal valve canister from Snow Peak, MSR, Primus, Coleman, or Brunton should work. I've used Snow Peak and Brunton canisters interchangeably with my Snow Peak GigaPower and MSR Pocket Rocket stoves.

Funny that they do not and advertise that theirs is best for cold weather.
Which would mean it has a higher percentage of propane than the others?

MSR Iso Pro 80/20 isobutane/propane
Brunton Brutane 80/20 isobutane/propane
Snow Peak Gigapower 65/35 isobutane/propane
Primus Powergas 25/25/50 propane/isobutane/butane
Coleman 70/30 butane/propane
JetBoil Jetpower ??/?? propane/isobutane

Of course at temps above 40~45F this would not matter much though during high altitude and/or winter things change.
Butane will vaporise, lose pressure at 30F, isobutane at about 10F, and propane at -40F or so...

I advise my customers to purchase Snow Peaks Gigapower canisters for their winter adventures.

Just sayin.. :-)

I'm curious where the proportions are listed. I've got a couple of Brunton canisters and and some of the older (red/white) Snow Peak canisters. None are listed and I couldn't find anything in their manufacturers specs.

I understand that the blends tend to vaporize with a performance somewhere in between that of single fuels. Something like an 80/20 butane/propane mixture will still work at 25 deg F and vaporizes almost proportional to the mixture. The propane is supposed to help the other fuel to vaporize I thought when it gets colder is when the propane would vaporize preferentially. I've heard of cases where people have found that they had poor pressure after the propane likely vaporized considerably faster than the butane (or isobutane if it's really cold).

Isn't higher altitude supposed to help with canister fuel pressure?

Some years ago I used Google and POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) in gathering the data I posted above (saved on my HD)
Backpackinglight.com has a FAQ on Canister Stoves and Fuels which is a good read.
At the WhiteBlaze.net forums, their Canister stove/fuel FAQ say's the Jetboil JetPower fuel is 20-30% propane with the remainder iso-butane.

Jetboil's Jetpower "four-season mix" fuel is about 70% Iso-butane, 25% propane, 5% butane.