It’s all very well to be MasterChef-picky about your culinary predilections while sitting cosy in your lounge, four-burner stainless steel stove simmering away in the kitchen. But going bush will always require sacrifices of the stomach: a lamb roast with mint sauce sided by a steaming chocolate souffle? You'll just have to go without.
Yet food on the trail is more important to a bushwalker than simply feeding the calorie monster which swipes at energy levels with every earthen footstep. Eating well boosts morale - an anticipated reward at the end of a long days trudge.
Perhaps more importantly, the bush kitchen equipment you choose to lug with you could be a lifesaver, so it better work. Just as importantly, you'd better know how to use it.
WHICH STOVE TO CHOOSE?
Yes, a camp fire is very romantic and cooks well - there's nothing like the taste of wood-smoked porridge first thing in the morning. But there are downsides: you're reliant on dry wood, wind can be a meal stealer, it's environmentally unfriendly and, in the wrong conditions, can risk setting off a bushfire that'll cook more than your damper.
A stove, on the other hand, is as environmentally sound as fire can be, you can use it in all weather, and its heat can be more controllable. But not all stoves are born equal. So it pays to know your primer from your propane. Your three primary choices are below.
1) LIQUID (MULTI-FUEL) STOVES
Super versatile, liquid-fuel stoves burn white gas (commonly called shellite), unleaded petrol, white spirits and even dry cleaning fluid, which means you can find a fuel to make this style work in most places worldwide. They are favourites for mountaineers as they are reliable and perform well in extreme cold or at high altitude.
The down side is that they can be fiddly to operate (taking longer to get going), they require more maintenance, and they tend to have much less control of flame and therefore heat levels. Because your base fuel is liquid, there's often a little spillage going on, which can blow up in your face - literally - if you're not careful.
Not one for the kids to mess around with. If using in a tent through necessity (snowstorm), you have to watch the fact that liquid multi-fuel stoves emit carcinogenic compounds dangerous to your health and they can flare; not so good for your melt-in-an-instant tarp.
These stoves can also be jet-engine noisy and weigh in on the heavier side. Some models, like the popular MSR Whisperlite, will only run on shellite or petrol and struggle with the 'heavier' fuels like kerosene. In the case of the Whisperlite there is the Internationale model, which has modifications allowing it to run heavy fuels if you change its jet nozzle.
2) LIQUID-GAS CYLINDER STOVES
Relying on a blend of pressurised liquefied gas (usually isobutane/propane) to fire up, these are the easiest of all stoves to operate and, depending on how long your trek is and how many canisters you are going to have to lug, can actually work out to be the lightest.
Quick to ignite, they have the best flame and heat control, meaning all you Tetsuya-wannabes will prefer them. The burners tend to be small, so in general are only suitable for small pots and pans, and the specific gas canisters are less widely available than other fuel sources.
They are popular with Australian trekkers because of their availability here, but head overseas and supply diminishes depending on where you are, especially in developing nations. Because they are quick to light, these are ideal for mid-walk cuppas.
A major drawback is a decline in efficiency as the temperature drops and altitude rises. At very low temperatures the gas does not evaporate well.The canisters can seem expensive, too, although there are those who have (successfully) argued that on a whole-package consideration of stove and fuel costs, gas-stove economics do measure up.
Another drawback is they have a smaller flame zone, so are more suited to cooking for one or two people. The canister usually acts as the stove base, making this model more unstable than most multi-fuel stoves which tend to have outstretched legs.
3) ALCOHOL STOVES
The stove for gadget guys, lightweighters and DIY bods. These run on widely available methylated spirits, or other alcohol blends.
While there are great off -the-shelf examples - the Trangia being the most widely known and used - you can mold one out of a soft drink can if you're stuck. Widely available fuel is the biggest benefit here. The lack of cooking grunt is the biggest downside. An open alcohol flame doesn't burn super hot.
Units are usually simple with no moving parts, meaning no real maintenance or breakdowns, the bane of multi-fuels, which often get clogged. Heat output is lower than other types of stoves, so boiling and cooking times are much longer.
There's also no way to adjust heat output, so intricate camp recipes requiring finesse are out. No souffle.
Windy conditions play havoc with alcohol flames too. The fuel is also heavier than other options for the number of meals it can cook. The stove itself is lightweight and if fuel stops are available or you're only out for a few days, then this is an option. But lots of meals, many days or many people to feed means you'll be lugging a moonshine factory in fuel weight.
Only three types of stove? Of course not - there's plenty more but let's be blunt, they're for flame watchers (people a little too mesmerised by flame and gadgetry), not pragmatists. What the hell, for your edification, other stoves you can lay your hands on if you want to starve:
CHEMICAL SOLID FUEL
A metal stand on which you place a tablet of solid fuel (usually hexamine) the size of a box of matches. These are super stable unlit and easy to carry (as opposed to other fuels for stoves which spill and ignite easily) but heat output is very low. There's no heat control - it's on or off.
Tablets will take about 8-15 minutes to boil 500ml. Given they only last for about 15 minutes, that's a lot of tablets to make a meal.
Natural solid fuel: There are some small stoves on the market that make use of twigs, pine cones and other 'wild found' small fuel items.
The difference between these and just having a regular fire is that the container is designed in a way to maximise the heat potential of whatever fuel you can find (usually wood based, but if there happens to be a yak farm nearby, and you can snag some dry dung).
Yes, solar camp stoves exist. They are plastic sheet contraptions that capture and focus the sun to make an 'oven'. This is slow food at its slowest. If there's no sun you're stuff ed. But, hey, it's the most environmentally friendly. That is until you're so starved waiting for your food that you go kill a kangaroo. Which some people would argue is still environmentally friendly. Some people. Not us.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER WHEN BUYING A STOVE
When buying a stove, there's more to consider than if it has a coff ee plunger, although that could be regarded as a deal breaker by some (me). Proceed directly to the Jet Boil. Others argue there's more to a stove than add-on gadgets:
Fuel: What is available in the location in which you will be trekking? For instance, in the backblocks of Nepal - a popular place to trek - you generally won't find anything other than kerosene.
So you'll need a multi-fuel stove with a jet nozzle that can handle kero (as opposed to one that is built only for unleaded petrol and white gas/Shellite).
On popular paths, even up to Namche Bazaar, you will find liquid gas canisters - but they aren't the best at altitude nor in the cold, which brings us to the next point; What conditions will you be trekking in?
In super cold or high locales, you'll want to steer clear of alcohol stoves and liquid canister gas: both struggle with negative degrees and altitude. If extreme chill and heights over 3000-4000m aren't a concern, and weight is, then liquid gas canisters are a great option for anything up to five or so days.
Why only so long?
After that the balance of weight of fuel versus meals able to be cooked swings back to multi-fuel models. Which brings us to the next point: How heavy a stove are you prepared to carry?
This consideration effectively comes down to not so much the stove unit, but the burn efficiency of the fuel, the number of days you'll be trekking (or the number of meals you'll cook) and the pans you're lugging.
In general, the lightest stove kits are the worst performers. Since wood (or solar) stoves don't require packing in fuel, they are the lightest. Solid chemical systems remain lightweight, even on extended trips. Alcohol stove systems are lighter than petrol and gas canister stoves but not as efficient, so need more fuel.
Despite the 'heavy' metal canisters used for liquid gas, their efficiency makes canister kits lighter than alcohol systems on longer trips.
Multi-fuel stove systems can be heavy - both in terms of the unit and fuel - but their efficiency enables them to be lighter weight overall on treks requiring more than about 70-80 meals (a 'meal' being one burn-to-boil of 500ml, which may add up to much more than three 'meals' a day. Talking to you, coffee/tea addicts).
Confused yet? Best to choose your stove based on other factors, then find the lightest in your chosen category. At the end of the day the type and amount of food you in tend cooking (and their containers) varies pack weight much more than the stove itself. How long will you be in the bush? The longer you're out there, the more you'll swing from alcohol or canister gas to multi-fuel stove.
Assuming availability, canister gas stoves are the best for treks with less than 45-50 meals. After that, the balance of efficiency versus weight swings to multi-fuel stoves.
What is the performance and efficiency ('burn time')? This is more the crux of a purchase decision if you're not looking to be a lightweight, uber-gear freak.
Gas canister and multi-fuels burn hottest, boiling water quicker and requiring less fuel over time, meaning they also last the longest per gram. They are also more controllable (gas canister more so), meaning you can slow the rate of fuel use when simmering.
How many people do you need to cook for? This point gets back to performance - ever tried cooking for four or more people with an alcohol stove? Slow going.
This also matters when looking at the actual unit: Jet Boils (gas canister) only have small pots attached, best for solo cooking only. Obvious point: the more people, the bigger the unit and the stronger your heat source needs to be.
What do you want to cook (aka how fussy are you)? This really boils down (pun intended) to how much control you need over your flame. For meals requiring variable and precise control in the cooking process, you'll want to lean toward gas canisters if possible. Multi-fuels don't have as much control over the flame, but they do have some. Alcohol stoves can only be controlled (on some models like a Trangia) by part-closing a swing lid over the burn opening.
OTHER STOVE TYPES: NO CONTROL WHATSOEVER
What is your budget? We can argue details all day, but if the wallet doesn't extend to that fancy multi-fuel (often the most expensive units) or an endless supply of canisters (the most expensive fuel source), your choice will be made for you by economics. Homemade alcohol stoves, when combined with relatively alcohol, means they are inexpensive. The stove units for canister stoves are usually on the economical side, too (but not the canisters).
How patient are you? If you opt for multi-fuels, you'll need to deal with fiddly set up and fiddly maintenance, but quick cooking. Gas canister stoves are for those with no time for detail except when it comes to cooking the actual food with precision. Alcohol stoves are mostly straightforward.
Safety? A big question if you're handing the stove to your teenagers or if you're just a bit of a klutz. Multi-fuels can go 'whuumph'. They also get messy with fuel spillage (I am yet to dismantle bottle from stove without getting shellite all over me). Same goes for alcohol in terms of spillage, but it is a more stable fuel than petrol.
Gas canisters are no mess, no fuss and generally very safe. Solid chemical fuels are also extremely safe. They won't cook your food, but they are safe.
You need to be mindful when dealing with all stoves of fumes and CO2 build-up, especially in enclosed areas (a cave sleepover) or if you've retreated to your tent - which you should not do when cooking unless absolutely necessary.
And even then, I take it half back. The souffle - depending on your interpretation - can be done on a camp stove and I have photographic evidence.
Okay, so it was a White Wings pudding, not souffle. Technicality. It was chocolate, and I managed to cook it on the Optimus Crux, light and fluffy. I managed this triumph of bush dessert cuisine by boiling it, one pot placed inside another water pot on the bubble. Eat your hearts out Matt Preston and George Calombaris!