The nitty-gritty of climbing cooking
04 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
People often ask me what I take on climbs, looking for some tips that may make their own climbs easier in the future. I usually respond with “as little as possible”, after all when you take the kitchen sink it’ll be you who gets washed up. The one piece of advice I always give is that if there is even the slimmest possibility of a bivy then you should always have a shelter and a flame, as these two things will always tip the scales on the side of success, and sometimes even survival. Shelter generally comes in the form of a bothy bag, and although I’ve been banging on about these for years I’ve met dozens of converts who have survived benightment, storm and general misadventure because of theirs. As for the flame, well having the ability to melt snow, rustle up a pan of soup or tea, or even just warm damp hands is incomparable in both comfort, moral and survivability.
Bivy cooking isn’t just the preserve of alpine hard men and women, as the bivy is also a central part of being a dirtbag climber, sleeping, caves, cars and bus shelters, were very often the most important thing in life is a ‘brew’. For this kind of use, you also need something light, simple and quick to use.
This article focuses on both the flame and just as importantly the other pieces of the cooking system, everything from your lighter to the spoon you eat your porridge with in the morning.
There are tons of lightweight stoves on the market to choose from, all claiming to be god’s gift to cooking. These range from the ultra-minimalist and pretty much useless folding hexamine stoves and tins of flammable jell, both loved by those who like a toxic flavour to their baked beans, to the more traditional folding gas burners. For this article, the main focus is on weight, size, ease of use and effectiveness, which means that 90% of the stoves on the market don’t make it. The ideal stove for climbers who want a safety net or the ability to bivy for a few nights, and don’t necessarily want to go out and out camping, is the micro gas burner. These stoves fit into the palm of one’s hand, are simple and light, yet provide a very effective flame. Liquid fuel stoves, typified by the MSR Wisperlight or XGK, are far more reliable, tough and more environmentally robust (altitude, temperature and fuel quality), but don’t make ideal stoves for emergencies or short term use, as they’re much heavier and bulky.
There are tons of really good value, small compact stoves on the market, all almost identical in performance, so I’ve chosen to focus jusy on the 5 stoves I feel stand out.
Output: 3515 watts (12,000 BTU/h)
Boiling Time (1L): 3 minutes
This has been one of my favourite climbing stoves and is often the burner of choice. I like it because it’s light and compact, yet unlike some small burners remains stable and very adjustable. The control works well, and the whole package is compact and tough.
Output: 2,200 W (7,500 BTU/h)
Weight: 96 g
Dimensions: 66x42x66 mm
Boiling time (1l): 4 min
Though tiny Micron has great adjustability and proves to be far more stable than other similar tall burners. The whole design feels very modern, and the only gripe I’d have is that the control knob isn’t perfect for cold weather use when wearing gloves. The auto-ignition works really well and is far more robust than those found on most other stoves. The burner heats a relatively small area, so small pans should be used.
Snow peak Gigapower
Output: 2800 W (10,000 BTU/H)
Weight: 88g g
Boil Time (1L): 3.5 min
You can tell the Giagapower is Japanese as soon as you see the box and reminds you of some model kit you had when you were a kid. Attention to detail means this is a truly great stove that’s both tough, stable and easy to control. There is also a Titanium version that’s £20 more which sheds a further 14 grams, plus both types also come in autoignition versions as well (around £10 and adds 13 grams).
MSR Pocket Rocket
Weight: 86 g (its case weighs 34 grams)
Dimensions: 100 x 100 x 50mm
Boil Time (1L): 3.5 min
The MSR pocket rocket has been around a few years now and has established itself as perhaps the most widely used specialist stove on the market, both it’s easily available, cheap and because it simply does the job. Flame control is good, but the pocket rocket is primarily a water boiler, with the flame being focused on the centre of the pan (for better cookability go for the much better, but heavier Superfly (£50/135g). The main drawback with the stove is its stability, and so it should only be used with small pans (1 litre) unless you can increase the stability of the stove. A good deal at the moment and a perfect bivy set up is MSR’s Pocket Rocket/ titanium kettle set (118g), which retails for £55
Output: 4500 BTU/hour
Weight: 425 g (this includes pan etc)
Dimensions: 104 mm x 180 mm
Boil Time (.5L): 2 min
A lot of things have been said about this groundbreaking stove, and I wonder if it can ever live up to expectations? First off I don’t think it’s the fastest stove on the market, nor the lightest, but it is one of the easiest to use and comes in a very climber friendly package (basically a giant mug with stove built-in). The biggest advantage of the design is how efficient it is, and swaps instant results for greater gas efficiency, important on longer climbs.
What’s a stove without a pan? Well unless you’re using the Jet Biol system you need to mate your tiny burner with an equally tiny but effective pan. What you want is something between 700 ml and 1-litre incapacity, that features a good lid, and is neither too wide (most burners work best with a small surface area pan) or too tall (increases instability). Luckily the market seems to be awash with really great bivy pans at the moment. Here’s a rundown of my top five pans.
Alpkit Titanium Mytimug (£15/106g/ 750ml)
Terra Nova Titanium Mug Pot (£25/140g/750ml)
Snow Peak Trek 700 (£25/135g/ 750ml)
MSR - Titan Kettle (£40/118g/850 ml)
Snow Peak Titanium Mini Solo (£40/155g/ 250 ml and 800ml)
Having a pan that doubles as a mug are great, and on lightweight climbs, you can eat and cook with just one pan and one spoon. If using your pan as a mug put some gaffer tape on the rim so you don’t burn your lips! One last thing; having a stove that doesn’t need a pot lifter saves weight, but if you do then MSR’s Litelifter (£10/28g) is probably the smallest and sexiest… if you’re into pan lifters that is.
There is nothing worse than a full tank of gas, a bag full of dehydrated food, but no way to light the stove! Most ways of lighting your stove are open to failure, from auto igniters that become broken, lighters that crack and lose their fuel, to matches that get damp. So going with a single lighting source isn’t a good idea, and I’d advise taking all three! On most climbs, I’ll use a stove with an auto igniter, as although it adds a little more stove, it allows you to get the stove relit instantly when your tea boils over. To this, I’d add a new lighter for each person on the team, which ideally should be kept close to the skin or in a zip log bag (make sure your hands are dry when using it as a wet thumb may dampen the flint). To this, I’d add a set of lifeboat matches, that are waterproof and able to work in any conditions (even underwater).
I don’t know about you, but this is what I always forget, and so end up using half a film canister, angle peg or just my fingers. There should really be no excuse for not having a ‘climbing spoon’ as the market seems to be awash with plastic and titanium eating utensils. So just to show that I take this seriously here’s my top five in food shovels.
5. MSR Titanium Spoon (£10/22g)
4. Terra Nove Titanium Spork (£7.50/10 g)
3. GSI Lexan TEKK Cutlery set (£3/19g for knife, fork and spoon)
2. Light My Fire Spork (£2/9 g)
1. Alpkit Tiffoon (£5/15 g)
Of course, you can just nick a teaspoon from Tescos or a café, but if you’re reading this then you’re probably the type of person who likes such things!
Unless your stove features a built-in windshield it’s vital that you have one, otherwise you may find that all your precious tea warming heat just disappears into the night. The best windshield for all these stoves is MSR’s foil windshield which is available as a spare part (£7), which is tough, light and stiff enough to stay in position (it may need to be cut down to fit your bivy pan). MSR also sell a set that includes a bottom reflector (they sell as a set at £13), but I think you’re better off using a stove base.
A stove base is a commonly overlooked piece of kit, as it values is often only understood once it’s too late! Basically, this is a small square of wood onto which the stove sits, and is of most value on snow, as it keeps the canister off the ground, but can also aid stability on rocky ground as well. This is homemade, and it’s worth covering it in tin foil to help increase heat reflection. One big problem with a lot of the tiny stoves is their lack of stability, with pans full of boiling water dropping in your sleeping bag always just a clumsy elbow away. One way to reduce this risk is to use folding stove support that fits onto the canister and so reduces the chances of the whole lots toppling. At the moment the best model seems to be Primus’s Footrest which at only £4 and weighing in at 22g seems a lot better than a pot full of soggy noodles. Of course, both these pieces of gear will be left behind once you start stripping the gear down, but are both very valuable for more sedate cooking.