I miss home cooking if I am away for too long; even the occasional cafe and restaurant meal will not compensate for the pleasures of spending an afternoon cooking a roast dinner. Not only does the quality of diet decrease, but also the quantity, at a time when the increased physical activity demands a doubling of calories when walking 20-mile days. This explains the loss of weight after a couple of weeks on the trail. No wonder food tastes so good in the outdoors; my body is craving for a decent cooked meal.
I decided during the lockdown, to review my cooking gear for cycling and walking trips. This activity involved a few hours in the loft, throwing my collection of stoves, pots, pans, mugs, fuel bottles and spoons into a cardboard box and laying them out on the living room floor, while my wife was out for the day. I counted seven stoves: a mixture of Trangia units; and old Whisperlight petrol stove; a Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri system and my current gas canister burners.
My Alpkit Koro gas stove has been in my backpack or cycle panniers for at least five years. It replaced the Trangia unit, which is just too heavy. It is matched to a range of cookware, primarily the Alpkit HAAP pot, pan and a kettle or a lightweight titanium mug, depending on my cooking ambitions. Buying gas canisters is usually not a problem, but they are expensive if you do a lot of cooking and need to be disposed of carefully when empty. So I decided to renew my interest in the MSR Whisperlight stove a friend gave me in the late 1980s. I donated the Trangia units to the local scout group, except the Trangia Mini, which I used for many years.
I spent a happy few hours servicing the Whisperlight, replacing seals, o-rings and cleaning jets to get it working again, but I was concerned that the fuel line rubber hose had perished and would not provide a tight seal. I had experienced a fireball when using an antique Primus brass stove in the 1970s, so I ordered a new MSR Whisperlight Universal, which works with gas canisters, kerosene, petrol and white gas. It has benefited from 30-years development: a shaker needle to clean the jets and a revised pump and fuel line design. The MSR Whisperlight is a mighty stove, ideal for long term adventures, but must not be used in a tent vestibule, as the priming process can set light to your tent, unless you use it with gas canisters, like the Koro unit. So if it is raining hard, the controllability and safety of a gas canister stove mean you can still cook under the flysheet, but not inside the tent, due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. So the plan now is to use the MSR Whisperlight Universal for extended cycling trips, where I plan to cook on most days and keep the Koro unit for lightweight backpacking or shorter trips.
Perhaps the most popular stove units I see on the trail are the JetBoil design cooking systems. I had always discounted these as merely gas kettles until I read more about the MSR Windburner. As the name implies, they are very efficient at boiling water in windy conditions, commonly experienced when camping in the wilds. This efficiency means using less fuel, therefore less weight, and I am usually boiling water for tea/coffee and to add to freeze-dried meals anyway. So I impulsively ordered one, not wishing to be a laggard in the technology stakes. It is a marvel of design and packs neatly together, and the initial test shows impressive boil times without a care for the wind conditions. Very encouraging.
Re-arranging my collection now gives me an extensive range of options for lightweight backpacking, bikepacking and extended trips by bike or foot, depending on the type of cooking I want to do in the environment I am exploring.
(1) Silly light configuration: using the Alpkit Kraku stove I bought out of curiosity and a titanium mug, not ideal in windy conditions and perhaps for emergency use only. I need to find a tall windshield.
Alpkit Kraku stove – 45g
Titanium mug – 128g
A total of 173g!
(2) Lightweight backpacking / bikepacking: a choice between the Alpkit Koro with a single pot/windshield or the MSR WindBurner system. Maybe the Trail Designs Ti-Tri system for superlight tours, used as a windshield with a Trangia burner or Koro stove and as a wood-burning stove if I run out of fuel. These options are suitable for making porridge, boiling water, noodles, couscous and rice basic pot meals. Weights, as measured, excluding fuel are:
Alpkit Koro stove – 124g
Alpkit windshield – 107g
MSR Titanium Kettle/pot – 117g
Plastic mug – 61g
A total of 409gm or,
MSR Windburner – 473g (includes mug and pot)
Add about 100g for a small gas canister (empty) or 150g for a medium size (empty). Fuel weight, add a further 110g and 230g, respectively (full). I have excluded the Trail Design Ti-Tri as it weighs less than the Alpkit windshield.
(3) Medium weight cycle touring: either the MSR Whisperlight or Alkpit Koro, plus windshield, HAAP pot, kettle and pan: a flexible system that can be used for everything mentioned above, plus frying and for two-pan meals. I carry oil and spices in small bottles and a plastic chopping sheet.
MSR Whisperlight – 290g
MSR 1-litre fuel bottle (empty) and pump – 245g
Alpkit HAAP kit (kettle, pot, pan) – 414g
Plastic mug – 61g
A total of 1,010g (maybe I shouldn’t have given the Trangia away), again add the weight of gas canisters if used, or indeed subtract the weight of the liquid fuel bottle.
The main configurations are complete with a lighter, fire steel, pot grip, wooden spatula, long spoon or metal spork and a microfibre towel and a scouring pad. A 110g (fuel weight) gas canister will last 3-4 days, a 230g canister for a week or so, depending on the volume of cooking. I carry a 700ml Thermos flask, which stores hot water and is filled each day with Rooibos tea, which does not stew over time, unlike regular teabags. I will carry MSR fuel bottles according to the trip length. As a luxury, I use an Aeropress coffee press (193g), which slots inside the plastic mug.
Breakfast is mostly porridge or granola, with coffee, enriched with dried fruit and nuts using fresh milk if I can get it, or just water. I boil the water first to make coffee and fill the flask for the day. Lunchtime depends on food availability at any shops I might pass, otherwise Ryvita crispbread and energy bars, or anything else that needs eating at the bottom of my food bags.
In the evening, I use Freeze-dried meals, which have improved in quality over the years. These are expensive and used when I cannot cook a meal using a pasta, lentil, rice or couscous base. I soak rice and lentils during the day if possible in a wide-necked platypus bottle – reducing cooking time, therefore saving fuel. Into those carbohydrates, I add vegetables and dried meat or tined fish. Occasionally I cheat and buy a tin of Irish Stew or a heavy soup. I seek out what is available and try to vary my diet as much as possible, eating fruit and bread where I can find it.
Good food tastes so much better in the outdoors. Suppose you can combine this regime with the occasional visit to a good pub, cafe, or restaurant to experience the local cuisine. In that case, you can maintain your health and energy levels to enjoy walking and cycling continuously. Yet, when I return, and we cook a big meal, it reminds me of how much I love good food and company and the warmth of a family home and how homesick I can become.