I’m currently making the transition to ultralight backpacker, and there’s one thing I’ve already learned:
Going ultralight can be expensive.
Replacing all my heavy gear with new, lightweight gear could easily cost upwards of $1000 if I went for the quality stuff. I don’t have that kind of money to spare at the moment, so I started looking for cheap and simple DIY options.
What I found was encouraging. There are plenty of pieces of backpacking gear you can easily cobble together yourself. I realized I could make an entire cook system from cheap, household items.
So I did.
What follows are the quick and easy steps I took to make my own DIY ultralight backpacking cookset. Some of you might have most of the materials at your house already and it will thus be essentially free to make. Others will have to run to the store to pick them up, but they shouldn’t cost you more than $20.
After compiling all the materials, it took me only 47 minutes to put this cookset together. The complete set weighs 5.29 oz.
Let’s get crafty.
Table of Contents
The Alcohol Stove: How to Make One in 20 Minutes that Weighs 0.21 oz and Costs a Few Bucks
The backbone of this cookset is the alcohol stove, and there’s good news — it’s exceedingly easy to make and will cost you a few dollars max.
There are dozens (if not hundreds) of alcohol stove designs floating around on the internet, but, for this cookset, I decided on the tried and true Super Cat Alcohol Stove (AKA Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove, Cat Food Alcohol Stove) originally designed by Jim Wood in 2004.
- 3 oz aluminum can of cat food (I used a Fancy Feast can)*
- Single hole punch
*If you’ll be cooking for two, use a 5.5 oz can.
1. Prepare the can of cat food by opening it, dumping out its contents, removing the lid and label, and washing it with soap and water. Use some Goo Gone if you’re having trouble removing all the glue.
2. Press down any sharp, exposed edges on the inside rim with the flat side of your hole punch.
3. Mark 16 evenly spaced dots around the rim of the can using your Sharpie. To do this, you can eyeball it like I did (they don’t need to be perfect) or get all fancy and use a ruler to be more exact. If you eyeball it, I recommend first splitting it into halves, then fourths, then eighths, etc.
4. Punch a row of 16 holes just underneath the rim of the can using your hole punch. Use the dots on the rim as your guide to know where to punch the holes.
5. Make a second row of 16 holes underneath the first row. The holes in the second row should be placed halfway between the holes in the first row.
And that’s it!
Now you have yourself your very own ultralight alcohol stove. If you’re using a 3 oz can like I did, it should weigh about 0.21 oz. Not bad for a few minutes’ worth of work, no?
The Cook Pot: 2 Cheap Ultralight Options
In my research, I stumbled upon two ultralight cook pot options that were insanely easy.
One can be bought from Walmart while the other can be made from an aluminum coffee can. Let’s look first at the Walmart option, which I personally prefer for reasons I’ll get into later.
Option #1: IMUSA Aluminum Mug from Walmart (3.6 oz)
This is exactly what it sounds like: a cheap aluminum mug that weighs 3.6 oz, has a 1.25-quart capacity, and can be found at your local Walmart. There is no work that needs to be done for this option — it’s ready to go as is.
I found mine in the Home & Kitchen department at Walmart, but you might also look in the Outdoors or Sporting Goods sections. Or just buy it online.
The mug is decently sturdy and safe to cook with and eat from. It also comes with a handle, albeit non-collapsible, which can’t be said for Option #2 or most of the other DIY cook pot designs I came across.
The only downside I could foresee with this mug (I’ve used it only a handful of times) is that it might not be very durable. To solve that problem, though, you’ll have to get a good titanium backpacking mug or cook pot.
Option #2: A Modified Coffee Can (3.49 oz)
With just one modification that takes about 30 seconds, you can turn an aluminium coffee can into a cook pot. (Shout-out to sintax77 on YouTube for coming up with this idea.)
If you’re not sure where to get an aluminum coffee can, it can be found in pretty much any grocery store. I found mine at the first place I checked: my local Publix.
- Aluminum coffee can
- Smooth-edge can opener
A word on aluminum coffee cans: To know which coffee cans are made out of aluminum, I recommend holding the can in your hand and feeling for the metal ridges in the picture below.
You can also look for one of the three brands that I know offer their coffee in aluminum cans: Kroger’s store brand, Chock full o’Nuts, and Don Francisco.
1. Prepare the coffee can by opening it, dumping out its contents, removing the label, and washing it with soap and water
2. Remove the can’s inner lip using your smooth-edge can opener and discard it. (Technically you don’t have to do this. You could use the can as is. However, the inner lip makes pouring and cleaning difficult, so I recommend you remove it.)
And voila! You now have an aluminum cook pot that holds one quart and weighs about 3.49 oz.
Admittedly, the smooth-edge can opener is not the most common household item. If you don’t have one, just go for the IMUSA mug.
WARNING: Cook in a Coffee Can at Your Own Risk
After I made my own cook pot from an aluminum coffee can, I noticed that the inside of the can I used had a golden tint and there was what appeared to be a piece of tape running down one side of the can.
This gave me pause about using it as a cook pot since I was worried of the potential for unknown chemicals to leach into my food or water. I emailed the brand of coffee whose can I used and asked them if their coffee cans were safe to cook in.
“Although our cans are BPA free and recyclable, we do not recommend baking or cooking in them as this is not the primary use for the cans and it has not been tested.”
Sounds to me like cooking in them isn’t the best idea. I’ve still included this option for the curious but have yet to use my modified coffee can as a cook pot and don’t know if I ever will. Of the two options above, I prefer the IMUSA mug and recommend you go that route.
If you’re in a pinch and only have a coffee can, though, you can definitely use it as a cook pot. Just be sure you understand the potential risks.
The Windscreen: a 0.28 oz Option That You Can Make in 10 Minutes for FREE
If you have aluminum foil and 10 free minutes, you have all you need to make your very own DIY ultralight windscreen. I first learned about this windscreen from Mike Clelland’s great book, Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips.
- Aluminum foil
- Single hole punch
1. Cut a a sheet of aluminum foil of appropriate length. For the IMUSA mug, I used a 25-inch-long sheet, but the ideal length will vary by cook pot. Andrew Skurka recommends that there be a half-inch gap between your windscreen and cook pot with the ends of your windscreen overlapping by 1-1.5 inches. So, with these numbers in mind, to calculate the ideal length for your sheet of aluminum foil:
- Measure the diameter of your cook pot with a ruler, taking into account any pot handles
- Add 1 to this number to get the ideal diameter of your windscreen supposing a half-inch gap between cook pot and windscreen
- Calculate the ideal circumference of your windscreen (ℼ x diameter)
- Add 2.5 inches to this number to account for overlapping and the length that’ll be lost when you fold over the edges in Step 3. The resulting number is the ideal length of your sheet of aluminum foil.
2. Fold your sheet of aluminum foil in half lengthwise (hot dog style).
3. Fold all the edges over about half an inch to add some sturdiness and durability.
4. Punch evenly spaced holes in the bottom of the windscreen using your hole punch to allow for better airflow when cooking.
This windscreen costs nothing, takes 10 minutes to make, clocks in at around 0.28 oz, and folds up nice and easy into my cook pot.
Don’t act like you’re not impressed.
The Pot Lid: How to Turn a Pie Pan into Your Ultralight Pot Lid
A pot lid isn’t necessary, but it reduces boil time and thus conserves fuel. On longer trips, it might actually save you weight by letting you carry less fuel.
The DIY pot lid I decided upon for this cookset is a modified aluminum pie pan. You might have one lying around your kitchen somewhere. If not, you can do like I did and get some from Walmart.
- Aluminum pie pan*
*If your cook pot is larger, you might need to use a larger piece of aluminum, such as an aluminum oven liner or pizza pan.
1. Trim the baffled edges off your pie pan so that all that is left is the flat base.
2. Place the base of the pie pan on a table with your cook pot centered on top of it.
3. Carefully fold the exposed edges of the base up and around your cook pot. Continue this around the entire cook pot.
Complete! My finished pot lid weighs 0.18 oz and fits snugly over my IMUSA mug. Since the IMUSA mug has a handle, I didn’t fold down the pie pan around that area.
An even simpler and lighter alternative would be to simply use a sheet of aluminum foil and just wrap it around the mouth of the cook pot. It is likely less fuel efficient, but I haven’t compared the boil times for these two options myself so can’t comment on to what degree.
The Alcohol Fuel, Storage Bottle, & Measuring Cup: A System So Cheap You’ll Flip
The final critical part of your cookset is your alcohol fuel. There are three major considerations here:
- Which fuel to use
- How to store your fuel properly
- How to measure your fuel correctly
Let’s look at each in turn.
Which Fuel Should You Use for Your Stove?
Recently we conducted timed boil tests of 5 popular alcohol fuels. You can see our results and recommendations in our guide to the best alcohol stove fuels.
How to Store Your Fuel Safely So It Doesn’t Spill Inside Your Pack
You don’t want to spill your alcohol fuel. Doing so would be a fire hazard and potentially leave you without the ability to prepare food.
After some research, I learned that one of the easiest and most popular ways to store alcohol stove fuel is in a simple soda bottle. Just pick up a bottle whose size corresponds with the amount of fuel you’ll need for your trip. A mini Coke bottle has worked well for me.
(If you want more ideas, check out this article I wrote on ultralight alcohol fuel bottles.)
How to Measure Your Alcohol Stove Fuel Correctly So You Conserve Fuel
From my research, it appears most backpackers let their alcohol stoves burn themselves out, so using the right amount of fuel is important. A popular (and ultralight) way of doing this is with a simple measuring cup.
After researching various options, I learned that one of the cheapest, lightest measuring cups is the one on top of your bottle of cough syrup.
If you don’t have cough syrup in your house, you can go buy a bottle for cheap. Included with most bottles (double check!) is a little measuring cup that has the 30 mL (1 fl oz) amount clearly marked out for you already. Mine weighs 0.11 oz and does the job perfectly.
Oh, and I Use a Mini BIC as My Lighter
Mini BICs are near-perfect backpacking lighters. They’re cheap, reliable, and ultralight.
Even after I tested it against the best backpacking lighters available, it still came out on top. If you’re unsure which lighter to use, just pick up a Mini BIC.
5 Optional Upgrades to Add Further Down the Road if You’d Like
Pat yourself on the back, you’re done! You’ve made your very own ultralight backpacking cookset for likely less than $20. If yours is like mine, it weighs around 4.76 oz (excluding alcohol fuel and your camp spork of choice). Not bad!
Now you can check “cook system” off your ultralight gear wishlist. 😉
Despite having some drawbacks and limitations, this cookset will work well for most people in most situations.
If you ever feel like souping up your cook system, here are some ideas on how you can take it to the next level if you ever decide to commit the time or money to doing so:
- Replace your aluminum cook pot with a fancy titanium one
- Buy a pot gripper if your pot doesn’t have a handle
- Make your own pot cozy
- Make a fancier alcohol stove (e.g. a soda can stove)
- Spray the bottom of the outside of your cook pot with Rust-Oleum High Heat Paint to reduce cook times
Or if building your entire cook kit yourself is too much, you can always buy a premade set. Check out the following guides for our reviews and recommendations:
- Best backpacking stoves
- Best mess kits for camping and backpacking
- Best camping cookware sets
- Best backpacking cookware sets
What Does Your Ultralight Cookset Look Like?
This is by no means the only DIY ultralight cookset you could make. There are plenty of different types of stoves, pots, and more out there. (Heck, there are even people out there with 1.9 oz DIY cooksets.) This is just an article detailing what I found was easiest and cheapest for me to make given my needs.
If you have any thoughts on this setup or your own ideas on how to make an ultralight cookset, we’d love to hear them! Leave a comment below sharing your thoughts.