Cooking in the backcountry during the winter season poses unique challenges.
First, water sources such as lakes and streams are typically frozen, so the water we need for hydration and cooking comes primarily from melting snow. Since all of our water needs come from having to melt snow, we need cooking systems that have more capacity and more power. Most cooking systems that we might consider “ultralight” for three-season conditions are inadequate for the winter, because of their limited capacity to hold the larger volumes of snow that are required to melt water efficiently, and the limited power required to boil larger volumes of water.
Second, cold winter temperatures combined with generally windier conditions place unique demands on some types of stoves. Cold temperatures and wind cause some types of stoves to operate at lower power. In addition, faster rates of heat loss from the stove system as a whole will increase boil times and fuel consumption.
And third, the consequences of a cooking system failure during the winter are more severe than during the other seasons. If our stove fails during the summer, and we have to cold-soak our food or otherwise forgo a hot meal, it’s not a big deal. During the winter, however, hot food has a profound impact not only on calorie intake requirements (which are higher in the winter) but also on overall morale. In addition, the ability to make hot drinks and food can impact your overall safety and well-being in situations where you become extremely cold (e.g., hypothermia management).
The primary purpose of this article is to review ultralight stoves and cooking systems in the context of their applicability to winter backpacking.
Stove systems will be evaluated on the following criteria:
- Their applicability for boiling large volumes of water (capacity and power).
- Fuel performance at low temperatures (power and efficiency).
- Reliability and field maintainability.
In addition, I will evaluate stove systems based on their ability to be used inside a tent or tent vestibule. There are situations, of course, where the risk of cooking in your tent may be worth having a hot meal or drink in very stormy conditions. The reader is referred to our series on cooking in tents and carbon monoxide production from stoves for more information to help inform them of the risks involved.