Although backpacking ultralight is easy to accomplish today, I remember back to 1999 when my wife Janet and I first adopted ultralight gear and techniques. Although both of us have backpacked for many years, our retirement opened the floodgate and we were finally free to hike and backpack as much as we wanted.
Thanks to Ray Jardene’s book and the ingenuity of thru-hikers making their own gear to lighten their packs, ultralight backpacking became “popular” in the late 90s and the movement was on. Truly lightweight gear was scarce then, and hikers had to be resourceful to find existing lightweight items that would fill a need (remember the “grease pot”?), make their own gear, and share information on the internet.
One of those first items was the “Photon alcohol stove”, invented by Don “Photon” Johnston, who posted construction details on the internet. At the time Janet and I used a Snow Peak GigaPower canister stove (we called it the “GigglePower”), but we had issues with its weight, reliability (we had one quit on us), and warnings about using a windscreen with a canister stove. But we also had some trepidations about relying on an alcohol stove to cook our meals. At the time, no one seemed to know for sure if an alcohol stove would work at high altitude, which is where we hike.
So I made one and it turned out pretty nice. After testing it at home (it worked beautifully), we took it on our next backpack, a three-day trip where we camped above 12,000 feet. On our first blustery evening in camp I fired it up under a pot stand and cook pot, then wrapped a windscreen around it to shield it from the wind. Well, it didn’t work quite as well as it did at home. The stove heated very slowly and it emitted a strong alcohol smell. We ended up eating undercooked lukewarm food on that trip and Janet was not real pleased with me and my funky alcohol stove.
Back home, some research and consulting disclosed the probable cause: the stove was starved for air because the windscreen was wrapped too tightly. At higher altitude, where the air contains less oxygen, I needed to raise the windscreen a bit at the bottom and allow more space between the windscreen and cook pot.
With this remedy, all went well on the next trip and we were quite happy with our ultralight Photon alcohol stove. A few years later, in 2004, I joined the Backpacking Light Magazine staff and became the Cooking Systems editor. That position gave me the opportunity to test and review lots of stoves and learn a lot about them, but the alcohol stove has always been my favorite – it’s lightweight, clean burning, versatile, and elegant.
Another spectacular goof I made was on a backpacking trip in Arches National Park for three days where on the first night I discovered that our cooking system was missing the alcohol burner (I had taken it out to use with another setup). We had everything except the burner. As Janet was getting concerned about another cold dinner, I had a light bulb moment. I had noticed a beer can a short distance down the trail, so I went back and got it. With a single-edged razor blade from my pack I converted the lower part of the can into a “Cat Stove” which is simply a cup with holes just below the rim. The stove worked perfectly and the crisis was over. This time I was praised for my brilliance, which was a big improvement over my ignorance on our first alcohol stove experience.
With the introduction of the Trail Designs Caldera Cone cooking system a few years ago, the alcohol stove has been transformed into a very efficient, lightweight, reliable, and inexpensive cooking system. I love my Trail Designs Caldera H, which is a system based on a 24 ounce Heineken beer. The whole system – cone, burner, cook pot, cup, fuel bottle, and cozy — weighs just 6.2 ounces. But I still find that I need to elevate the cone a bit at high altitude to make sure the stove gets enough air.
About Will Ritveld
Will (aka Willi Wabbit) and and his wife Janet (aka BOS, which means Buns Of Steel) have been life-long backpacking enthusiasts. When they retired and moved to southwestern Colorado in 1997, they were released into a vast area of backpacking opportunities – at about the same time ultralight backpacking became popular. They quickly got involved in the movement, making a lot of their own gear at first, and helping to spread the ultralight philosophy. Will got involved in gear testing originally with the BackPackGearTest Group, then joined Backpacking Light Magazine, where he published hundreds of articles on lightweight gear and technique over 8 years. Janet played a supporting role as co-tester on numerous projects and as Will’s photographer and photo editor. Will served as Senior Editor for Gear and Apparel at BPL until his recent “second retirement”.
Will’s blog is Southwest Ultralight Backpacking Ultralight Updates.