DIY ultralight backpacking gear

cutting holes in stove

Photo courtesy Andrew Skurka.

With an explosion of ultralight outdoor gear on the market and a cultural shift toward endurance events, backpackers are hiking farther and faster. But some of the lightest and most useful gadgets can be assembled in minutes with household materials.

Andrew Skurka is one of the most experienced long-distance backpackers in the world and a discerning critic when it comes to gear. After making hikes of up to nearly 7,800 miles, he knows what works and what doesn’t. So what does a professional rely on to cook his evening meals while in the field? An alcohol-burning stove made from a cat food can.

Skurka started using the “Fancy Feast” stove, made from a 3-ounce aluminum can, after it was presented to him by a visitor at one of his backpacking clinics in 2006. Skurka demonstrated it recently at a presentation in Golden, Colo., and says it works great for one to two people.

Simply put, it’s a matter of removing the lid and food, cleaning the can, and strategically punching vent holes in the side. Then you pour in a tiny bit of denatured alcohol (depending on desired cooking time) and light it up, provided you’re in a well-ventilated area. A cooking pot then goes on top of the can.

The stove has its own underground following with backpackers bent on improving it. While many other shapes have been tried, the cat can, in particular, provides excellent heat flow and conductivity.

Jim Wood has produced some of the most detailed information on the concept. Wood gets somewhat scientific about the placement and number of vent holes and provides the precise measurements on his website. The vent holes are critical for determining if the stove works properly and how quickly it heats food. Wood has created what he calls the “Super Cat,” capable of boiling water rapidly, and another version, “Simmering Cat,” for slower cooking.

On his site, Wood goes over the dangers such as carbon monoxide poisoning and unintentional fires. He also provides tips on making accessories such as wind screens, snuffer caps and boiling pots from other common materials.

Besides low weight and foolproof simplicity, fuel availability is one of the biggest reasons the cat can stoves have become so popular. Denatured alcohol, the fuel of choice because Wood says it burns hot and clean, can be obtained at hardware, automotive and liquor stores. Some people have even assembled the stoves while on the trail.

Other simple tricks

Here are some other ideas gathered from weight-obsessed backpackers to help you keep things light and simple.

Staying dry: Skurka inserts a trash compactor bag inside his pack. The unique dimensions fit nicely and keep his bedding and extra clothing dry in surprise rainstorms or during stream crossings.

Food seasoning: Take multicolored drinking straws and fill them with your favorite herbs and spices. Use a different color for each seasoning and cut the length of the straws for the desired servings. Burn the ends of the straws to seal them.

Fire starting: Make survival fire-starting materials with cotton balls and petroleum jelly. On his blog, Leon Pantenburg describes how to do this along with using a sparking device.

Lighter feet: While it’s nice to relieve your back of excess weight, it’s important not to forget the feet when backpacking. There have been numerous studies about how wearing lighter footwear can save a disproportionate amount of energy compared with lightening the pack. Skurka wears trail running shoes with ankle-high gators to keep out debris. For extra stability, he uses lightweight trekking poles.

    • Chemist
    • November 24th, 2013

    Please do not burn the ends of the plastic straws, as this coats your seasoning in poisonous vapor. What about folding the ends tight and taping them?

      • n8ivgal
      • December 28th, 2015

      @Chemist Thanks for the tip. I’m all for not poisoning myself or anyone else.

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