How Much Fuel to Pack for Backcountry Cooking
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Isn’t packing fuel for backcountry cooking kind of a guessing game? Sure, you can totally wing it, but that’s a risky approach. Running out of fuel – meaning running out of a reliable way to cook food – is not a scenerio you want to find yourself in. Sure, you can pack more than enough just to be safe, but why waste that space in your pack and carry that extra weight around for no reason?
Okay, so here we are at the grand question: how can you figure out how much fuel you’ll actually need? Well, pull up your hiking socks and take out your notebook, there’s a few things for you to take note of.
(As a bonus, figuring this out also helps you confidently make use of those partially full canisters!)
How to Calculate How Much Fuel You'll Need
It may look a little daunting, but calculating how much fuel you’ll need for backcountry cooking is a relatively simple 4 step process.
Make a meal plan and note which meals require fuel use (stove top cooking or boiled water)
For meals being cooked on the stovetop, write down the amount of cooking time; for meals requiring boiled water, make note of how much water.
Determine the boil time and burn time of your stove
Can't find your stove's boil and burn time?
Your stove’s manufacturing performance specs should display your stove’s particular boil and burn times; if not, a quick google search should find you the answer. Otherwise, you can do at home tests!
How to do an at home boil time and burn time test
Finding boil time is simple and straight forward: Set up your stove and fill your pot with 1 L of water. Turn your stove onto high heat. Time how long it takes for the water to come to a boil.
(ex. 1L = 3m 40 secs)
Burn time is also quite simple, but you’ll need a weight scale:
- Weigh your fuel canister and note how many grams it is currently sitting at. Note that this weight will include the weight of the fuel and the canister.
- Turn the stove onto high heat and let run for 5 minutes.
- Now re-weigh the canister.
The difference in weight determines how many grams of fuel the stove used in 5 minutes. (ex. 5 mins = 11g of fuel) With this, you can calculate how long a full canister would take to burn from full to empty with your stove (ex. 110g = 50 minutes)
- Using the highest power/heat setting when testing is best because this will provide results using the highest level of fuel burning. If you were to test on low heat/low fuel expenditure, less fuel would be used in the testing time frame. Unless you constantly use low heat when using your stove, this will make your results inaccurate for your cooking needs (meaning you will likely underestimate how much fuel you need!)
- It’s smart to do the tests at the same time if you have the means to! (Kills 2 birds with 1 stone)
Using your stove's boil time, determine how many minutes of fuel use you will need to prepare all of your meals.
*If you plan to do any stove top cooking, make sure to add the estimated total cooking time (including heating up the pot or pan) to your total fuel use minutes (as displayed above)
Use one of these equations to determine your fuel needs
Method A: General Guideline
*Can use if you do not have your stove's burn time
The following chart notes the average times typical canisters take to burn from full to empty in ideal conditions. (Ideal conditions meaning fair weather, air and water temperature, altitude, etc.)
With the example meal plan above, only 17.2 minutes of burn time is needed, thus a 110g fuel canister would suffice.
Method B: Calculated Gram Use Estimate
*Weight Scale or Burn Time Required
1. Using the fuel use minutes required for your trip, calculate what % this is of your stove's burn time.
ex: 17.2 / 50 = 34%
2. Convert the percentage of burn time into the amount of grams this represents for your fuel canister
ex: 0.34 x 110 = 38
How to measure remaining fuel in a partially used canister:
Some fuel canisters are refillable, while others have gauges or marking points to determine fuel levels, so it’s easy to know how much fuel you have left. Many isopropyl canisters aren’t like this, so you’ll need to figure out how much fuel is left on your own. You can simply do this with a kitchen weighing scale.
…But it’s not quite as simple as throwing the canister on the scale and calling it a day.
The weight displayed on the scale includes the fuel AND the canister it’s being held in. You’ll want to know how much the canister weighs on it’s own so you can accurately measure the weight of a partially full canister.
The best thing you can do is to check the weight with a brand new canister. If the fuel weight is 110g, but the full canister is weighing in on your scale as 116g, you know the canister’s weight is 6g. Write this on the bottom of your canister with a permanent marker so you have a quick and easy reference.
Now knowing the weight of the canister itself, you can now simply throw the canister on the scale – subtract the canister weight – and voilà! You know how many grams are left in that canister.
Factors that impact fuel usage
There are a few factors that could increase – or even decrease – the amount of fuel you use while cooking in the wilderness.
Wind displaces heat, making the flame less effective, thus increasing fuel needs. Wind can also blow out, or impede the ability to start or maintain the flame of the stove all together.
The colder the environment/air surrounding you is, the more fuel (and time) it will take to heat the contents on the stove. The same applies to the temperature of the water or contents being heated. Cold temperatures may also impact the usability of the fuel overall
Thanks to increased atmospheric pressure, the higher the altitude, the quicker water reaches boiling point. BUT higher altitudes may add cooking time as it takes longer for materials to absorb water at higher altitudes
The higher the heat level set on the stove, the more fuel that gets used.
Practices that help conserve your fuel
While some factors are beyond your control, such as the weather conditions and the altitude at which you are cooking, there are certain steps you can take to maximize the efficiency of your fuel usage:
- Use a wind screen
- Cook in a less exposed area (but not in or near your tent)
- Use a lid to contain heat
- When boiling water, avoid lifting the lid to check if it’s boiling; When you see steam, you know it’s ready!
- Be mindful of heat temperature. High heat – or even heating water to a full boil – isn’t always necessary
- Always monitor your stove and turn it off as soon as possible
- Have everything prepped and ready before turning the stove on (to avoid delays and wasted fuel time)
- Plan meals that requires less cooking time (ex. boil water only)
- If it’s cold out, lightly warm your fuel before use. This can be done with your body heat by stuffing the canister in your jacket.
By taking these and other factors into account, you can ensure that you are using your fuel wisely.
Woohoo! You now have a wealth of tips and tricks to feel confident about how much fuel you’ll need for your next backcountry adventure. So get ready to hit the trails with a spring in your step and a delicious meal waiting for you at the end of the day! Happy cooking, happy trails, and have a fantastic time out there.
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The Foodie Behind the Screen
Hi there! I'm Bri. I'm sharing my love for cooking - and the outdoors - one recipe at a time.