Part of Mark Verber's Guide to Light Weight Backpacking
There is a saying that an army runs on it's stomach. The same could be said for most backpackers. For most, food is not only fuel for the journey, but also a source of enjoyment, comfort, and motivation. There is a wide range of approaches taken by people. Some people have strong philosophical believes which guide food selection like people who only bring "raw foods", vegetarians, etc. Some people prepare full gourmet meals including wine. Some people are completely utilitarian when it comes to food. They select food based on it's ease of preparation, caloric density, and maybe cost / calories. Many of these people bring nothing but power bars, snickers, and energy jel so they can eat "on the go" and don't have to stop to prepare food. Most people though, want tasty food, and often bring special snacks to celebrate accomplishments and reward themselves for hard work. You should know what sort of person you are, and select food that will help you succeed on your journey. Special food can take many forms. For some, it's a special dessert for the end of the day. I encourage people to take food that with enhance their journey.
The food people bring is extremely varied as is how the food is packaged. I know some people who just bring ready to eat food, others who bring canned food, some who carry MREs, and still others who only bring pre-packaged freeze dried food targeted at backpackers. My suggestion is bring enough food to eat healthy (balanced meals) and try to minimize weight. The backpacker oriented freeze dried meals are easy and light, but you can make meals which are just as light (and cheaper) from your local grocery store.
While I am not a fanatic about it, I tend to think there is some merit behind Barry Sear's Zone Diet and related diets. There was a nice article in the NYT about the scientific evidence that a low carb diet is healthy. A simple summary of the Zone diet is that you should take 40% of your calories from carbohydrates, 30% from protein, and 30% from fat. You should aim to take as much of your carbohydrates in a complex form (e.g. not sugar or corn syrup). Of course, the energy properties vary, so to simplify things the Zone talks about blocks: 3g is a block of fat, 7g is a block of protein, 9g is a block carbohydrates (ideally complex whole grains, rather than sugar). During each meal you are suppose to eat an equal number of blocks of fat, carbohydrates, and protein. This is very close to the classic diet recommended for diabetics. The number of blocks depends on your lean body mass and your activity level. I found that using the "athletic" activities level gets me to the right amount of food for 15-25 miles days with reasonable elevation changes (2000-6000ft). If you want to try and calculate how many calories you will burn check out Fitresource. The nice people at FitnessLogs also list the recommended Calorie Coefficients. There was an interesting thread about eating a low calorie diet backpacking which most respondents thought was a bad idea.
My typical three season menu for trips of less than a week weights 18-22oz / day and packs around 1800-2200Kcal. I should note that I have some fat supplies built into my body which I like to reduce on my trips (e.g. I like to lose a bit of weight... typically 1lb on a week trip). I don't vary what I take a lot. Sure, I like gourmet meals at home, but when I am on the trail I am willing to eat more or less the same thing multiple days if the food is light and presents little hassle to make and cleanup. When I am extra lazy I cook my hot meals in freezer bags to avoid any clean-up. My typical three season meals are:
As it gets colder I end up carrying more food (you burn food faster to stay warm). On cooler trips I take 2500Kcal, and even more in the dead of winter.
When the weather gets hot, I often find my appetite will often drop off. At home I known to sometimes suggest ice cream but that doesn't work so well on the trail. When I expect a trip to be hot I typically bring no cook foods because I know I won't be motivated to cook or eat. I will typically shoot for less "heavy" (e.g. hard to digest food), so the ratio of fat and protein to carbs goes down, increase the amount of fresh fruit I take, make sure I have ginger and lemon flavors things (seems to help restore my appetite), and often bring powdered Endure shakes or a lemon flavored sports drink powder. Sometimes I will bring cous cous which I rehydrate without cooking (needs more time than when cooking).
Note: folks who do the long trails (like the PCT) will find that after a few weeks or maybe a month will have burned off all their excess fat. Once that is happens, most hikers find themselves eating significantly more than they expect (more like 4000-5000Kcal).
My preference is to eliminate food preparation so I can get the day started quickly with minimal hassle and don't have to unpack cooking gear. No mess breakfasts include:
Many people like a hot breakfast to get them going in the morning. The single serving packets of oatmeal are actually big enough that you can add water to the packet, avoiding getting a cup or bowl dirty.
Of course if you are at a trailhead and have a cooler you can do all sorts of things such as:
In general I don't do a big lunch... but eat smaller snacks through out the day's hiking. In order of my likelihood of using:
For more ideas take a look at articles The Backcountry Cupboard, Freezer Bag Cooking, wildernesscooking.com, the book Backcountry Cooking From Pack to Plate in 10 Minutes by Dorcas Miller, and some notes about Drying Sauces. Also be sure to check out Pack Light, Eat Right by B. Braaten. If you are tired or raiding your local fast food joints for single serving condiments and other meal enhancers, check out Packit Gourment, minimus.biz or alltravelsizes.com. There is a article with an table of calories to weight for various foods which you might find useful. People who are trying to minimize weights often carry fat or protein filled foods and/or suppliment normal food with additives like olive oil, dried milk, and protein powder. You might also what to try some of the ideas in Vegetarian Cooking for backpacking and groovy-biotic cooking.
Some people like to avoid cooking on trips. There are a number of good resources including
Rational: A portable stove enables you to cook nearly anywhere. Most stoves burn clean which makes cleanup easy. While a stove will add weight to your pack, the combination of a stove and foods which you cook are often lighter than ready to eat foods. Boiling water is an effective purification method. In cold locales, stoves are used to melt snow for drinking water. Unless you are purifying your water by boiling you might want to consider warming your water to a bit below boiling. When there are a few bubbles forming the water is around 175F. You can get all the water to 212F (100C) producing significant steam, but you should know that getting water to phase change to steam takes an extra amount of energy.
My Choice: I use a gram cracker stove for esbits with a UL Caldera Cone system for all my solo trips except when I am melting snow for water. If I am cooking for a several people, I use a Snowpeak GigaPower GS-100 canister stove because it is a lighter than most options, easy to use, boils quickly and simmers well. I will also take a canister stove if I expect I will be cooking in an enclosed space because the canister has better flame control and produces less carbon monoxide. If I am boiling 4L pots of water for a large group, or melting snow, or in sub freezing conditions, I go with a Coleman Xtreme liquid fuel stove.
Options: Stoves should be evaluated based on a number of factors: step in weight (stove + fuel container), weight for the length of your trip factoring in fuel efficiency, accessibility of fuel, operating environment restrictions, need for simmering (flame control), initial cost, and cost of operating. Stoveweight vs Time Over 14 Days provides a useful graph which can help you appreciate how the step-in weight and fuel efficiency can effect carry weight. If you want to model out all stove / fuel weight options check out the light-weight stove calculator. For more information, check out the Stove FAQ. [Note: One nit is that the step in weight for the alcohol stove included a heavy nalgene bottle for fuel. That's silly. Use a pop bottle or a platypus and reduce the contain weight by a factor of 4-8x.] I found a nice collection of international fuel names which can be useful when looking for fuel outside your country of origin. This is important because the current TSA regulations prohibited stove fuel in both carry-on and check thru. So if you are flying you need to make sure you can easily acquire your fuel between touching down in the plane and getting to the trail head. Either plan to purchase fuel on the way to your trailhead, have someone pick up fuel for you, or mail your fuel via ground transportation to a dropbox. Not Even the Kitchen Sink provides a nice discussion about technology trends in light weight stoves. If you are planning to use a stove inside a contained area (say a tent) read the five part series Stoves, Tents, Carbon Monoxide (summary: use a Colman Xtreme stove, or a canister stove with side burners like the Snowpeak GS-100 or Vargo Ti).
Canister stoves are understandably becoming quite popular. For most of this section we will discuss stoves that use the standard Lindal-valve. Smaller canister stoves are reasonable light (stove + empty canister 7oz), easy to start, easy to use, don't tend to flair up, simmer well, burns clean, and are more fuel efficient that other options. They operate well in three season conditions (in colder conditions, say <40F keep the canister in your pocket and/or sleeping bag). The downside of canister stoves are: they don't function well in sub-zero conditions, wind can significantly impact performance and wind screens can be tricky because you don't want to overheat the canister, it is hard to get additional canisters in some locations, and the fuel is expensive. Finally, it's a pain not to know how much fuel is in the canister. You can shake it (imprecise) or check it's weight (not practical on the trail), or use a Brunton Gas Gauge. Note: altitude does not significantly impact the performance of the canister stoves except pizo-electric starters tend to have problem above around 10k ft... use a match or a flint based sparker. I don't think canister availability should be an issue unless you are on trip which doesn't have reliable re-supply ever couple of weeks. I use a Snow Peak GS-100 GigaPower Stove (my review). I like it because it is very light, compact, and has four support arms which I have found to be more stable than most of the three arm mini stoves. The GS-100 also produces less carbon monoxide than most stoves. I have also used a Brunton Optimus Cruz a fair bit. The Cruz packs even more compactly that then GigaPower, has a more spread out flame, and seems to run about 30% hotter than the GigaPower... but I found I had to set pots on it near dead center or they would tip over. Other stoves I would consider if I didn't have something already would be the Soto Micro Regulator based on the claims of a number of folks that it is the most fuel efficient canister they have tried (4g / 0.1oz of fuel to boil 2 cups @ 50F?!) or the the Vargo Ti canister stoves because they seems beloved by it's owners. The Monatauk Gnat Stove seems to be the light weight champ at 1.7oz. If you need to suspend a stove check out the MSR SuperFly Ascent. Another option is the MSR Windpro remote cansister system and the Optimus Vega. They are a bit heavier than the direct attach stoves... but has the advantage that once the stove is running, you can turn the canister upside down because once burning, the stove will vaporize the fuel which allows it to be easily used in colder weather. JetBoil has an interesting system, but the step-in weight is sufficiently high that even with it's higher fuel efficiently, it never beats my stand-alone canister stove + pot + fuel for total carry weight. No doubt some of the cool ideas in the JetBoil system will find their way into other cooking systems. The MSR Reactor is a new stove using a number of innovate technologies, with an integrated pot stove which was clearly influenced by JetBoil. The Reactor system is twice as heavy (20oz) and twice as expensive ($145) as my separate canister stove / pot. MSR seems to claim that this stove can be used down to -10F, with the limiting factor being the o-rings which tend to harden in extreme cold. The Ortik HeatIt is an interesting windshield / pot cozy for traditional canister stoves. The small Snow Peak fuel canister weights 7oz runs full out for approx 40 minutes in most stove, which is enough to boil 7 1L pots of water or 12 24oz pots in most conditions. The MSR and Primos fuel canisters will run twice as long. Primos makes "jumbo" a 450g canister which would be useful to someone cooking a lot. You can mail iso butane canisters via surface mail as described in yellowjacket's canister faq. There are two other types of canister stoves. The first type are stoves which can use iso butane in cold weather because it has a warming system that vaporizes the liquid much the same way liquid fuel stoves work. I strongly recommend this type of stove of liquid fuel during the winter because they are less hassle, and safer to use in a tent do to less flare up and lower CO2 emissions, and are often lighter weight. The Coleman Fryestorm is the easiest stove of this type to find. The original Coleman PowerMax Xtreme is no longer sold, but if you want to DIY a lighter stove, the parts for the PowerMax Xtreme can be purchased and there are lots of ideas about PowerMax on a diet and an article about modifying winter canister stoves. The lightest stoves I have read about that can use the canister in liquid form is the FYI 24.8gram stove! The second canister type is made by Gaz and are rather heavy. They are more popular in Europe than in North America. I am not particularly fond of these stoves. I believe the lindal-value isobutane canister stoves are superior in every way.
Alcohol stoves are the darling of the ultra-light community. The base weight of an alcohol stove system can be lighter than an ounce, can be very inexpensive if you make the stove (wings archive, stove types by zen, jason klass stoves, supercat), have no moving parts to fail, fuel is easy acquired many locations (hardware stores, automotive stores - HEET, paint stores, outdoor stores, or in some states that permit >180 proof, Everclear. I like the denatured alcohol made by Sunnyside best since it's mostly ethanol which is nicer than methanol. Alcohol is easy to transport making resupply easy and it burns quietly. Alcohol as a fuel has less BTUs / ounce than other fuels commonly used backpacking so if you have a lot of cooking to do (long trips without resupply, melting snow, cooking for lots of people) you would be better served with a different fuel source. Some people express concern with using alcohol at elevation. There might be issues at extreme elevation, but I know of no one who has had trouble using alcohol below 15k ft. Cold can eventually impact performance but I have found that keeping the fuel in my jacket pocket and using the stove on an insulated mat takes care of any potential issue. It is possible to knock over a running alcohol stove which could be a fire hazard, so some parks ban the use of open stoves during times of high risk of fire. Most alcohol stoves do not simmer well, they can just boil water. So if you want to do complex cooking you might be better served using a different type of stove. Basic "simmering" can be accomplished through the use of a cozy such as those sold by AntiGravityGear or homemade with reflectix. A commonly asked question is how much fuel does it take to boil X amount of water. There is not fixed answer for this. The amount of fuel required depends on how much water you boil at one time, the temp of the water, the fuel efficiency of the stove, how much wind, and the size/shape of the pot. My experience is that the amount of fuel required to boil 16oz (.5L) is somewhere between 0.3 and 1.5 oz of alcohol depending on stove and conditions. Most stoves will be between 0.5-1oz. My favorite homemade stoves because the are easy to make and effective are the Penny Alcohol Stove and the Cat Stove. If you want to buy a pre-made stove I would recommend the Caldera Cone Stove (easy to use, stable, fairly efficient, good in wind, fairly fast, doesn't pack into pot, don't try to use with wood--it will melt), UL Compact Caldera Cone and the Caldera Cone Sidewinder (like their big brother but small enough to fit inside some it's mated pot at the cost of a small amount of fuel efficiency), Ti-Tri Caldera (can be used with wood, expensive). The Caldera Cone seems to be the most popular alcohol and esbits system among ultralight backpackers I have contact with. If the "cones" aren't for you, I would recommend looking at whiteboxstoves which makes a very durable stove which is beloved by many. In the past I have recommended the thermojet stove (easy to use, stable, can simmer, reasonably fast, doesn't pack into pot, not as refined as the Caldera Cone), or the ion stove (tiny, super efficient, easy to use, easy to pack, but s-l-o-w - 15 minutes to boil 16oz, currently out of production). The FeatherFire looks interesting with the ability to control the flame which makes simmering possible. Brasslite makes stoves which are more durable than most home made stoves and one of their models simmer very well though it's not as efficient as some of the other stoves. The mini bull beercan set looks like it would be very easy to use as well as being reasonably compact. The Squeezebox Stove looks like a very interesting design, though it looks extremely labor intensive to make. Vargo make the cool looking Triad which unfortunately performs badly, I would skip it. There is a pretty nice survey numerous alchohol stoves by runswithwihippets... though I wish he would have ranked stoves by efficiency rather than boil time. You could also look at the commercial alcohol stove survey and performance report at BPL. You might also want to looks at the BPL.com Reader Reviews: Alcohol Stove. Many people carry alcohol in light weight plastic containers. When people need a lot of fuel, Mountain Dew bottles seems to be popular because they are a different color than containers people drink out of. On shorter trips I use a small 2 oz bottle that Camp Suds came in. On longer trips I used an 8oz Playtpus Lil' Nipper with a cap from BPL. [Note: some people have reported problems with the BPL cap leaking, but I haven't had a problem.] Alas, the Lil' Nipper isn't sold anymore, but there are some disposable flasks which might be a good replacement,.
Solid fuel stoves provide structure to burn combustible solids. The most common form of this are esbits stoves which are designed to hold solid fuel tablets off the ground while they burn. Esbits can be very simple to use, have no risk of spilling, and are fuel / weight efficient. A well design esbits system such as the Caldera Cone with the optional esbits holder can bring 16oz of water to boil in 7-8 minutes using less than 15grams of fuel or do two smaller boils. Some people have found that they could warm water up enough for their needs using 5 gram esbit tablets. Other interesting looking esbits systems include the beercan esbit stove, DIY beercan esbit stove. David Lewis designed a esbit heinlein beercan stove which weights just 49 grams (1.7 ounces) and the commercial Caldera Keg GVP. My original experience with esbits was quite negative. I couldn't get 16 oz of water to boil with the typical esbits stoves. part of the problem was my pot was too far away from the esbits. I recently learned that distance between the esbits and port bottom will impact performance significantly. I also didn't like that esbits smell a bit like rotten eggs and left an sticky residue / black gunk on pots. Since I tried them with the UL Caldera my opinion has been changing because I found that it was able to efficiently bring my 16oz of water to a boil, I could live with the smell, and the residue was managable. The only downside in my mind now is that they can be hard to light. In the wind it has taken me a minute to start with Bic lighter. WetFire is an alternative to esbits and is reportedly lights more easily, burns hotter and cleaner, leaving no residue on the pot. It has been suggested that Weber Lighter Cubes are similar to WetFire, but are larger and significantly cheaper. Typically I bring around 12 ounces of water to boil for my dinner... blow out the esbits. Eat. Relight the esbits, and have enough fuel to 8oz cup of tea. I then use the tea bag is as sponge... I knock off any food particles on the inside of the mug before drinking. The tanic acid in the tea seems to help cut through an oily remnants of dinner so a quick rinse takes care of the inside, and then use the tea bag to remove the esbits residue from the outside of the pot (before it hardens) when I am finished drinking the tea. One downside that is still true... they are more expensive that many of the other options.
Pressurized Liquid Fuel stoves have been the main stay of camping stoves. Most will burn white gas, many will burn other fuels as well. The step in weight for these stoves is at least 15oz, and in some cases close to two pounds between a heavy stove and fuel bottle. On the other hand, if you have to do a lot of cooking, especially in cold weather, nothing can compare the the large fuel supplies that can be brought to bear. There are a number of multi-fuel pressurized liquid fuel stoves which can burn almost any flammable liquid simplifies re-supply, especially when you are outside Northern America. I haven't used this type of stove much in since the late 1990s. There was a thread on BPL about most reliable gasoline stoves which ould be useful to read. The MSR Whisperlite has been very populate for years... but I am not fond of it. It's not light, it sounds like a jet engine not a whisper, doesn't simmer, and can be temperamental. I think the MSR SimmerLite is a much nicer stove (lighter, less temperamental, and simmers well). The faithful MSR XGK has always impressed me with it's durability, can burn just about any fuel, and it's ability to function in extreme conditions though it is even louder than the Whisperlite. There are also a few options which use canister gas in liquid form such as the Coleman Xtreme series or stoves which use the traditional iso butane canisters upside down. These have the advantage of easy use of canister stoves but will function well in colder temperatures. For multi-fuel stove, a number of people seem to like the more modern MSR Dragon Fly, though there are a number of new entries in this field, including a number which will also run on isobutane canisters. I still have a soft spot for the Svea 123 Stove. I know several people who are using the same Svea 123 stove they purchase in the 1960s. The Svea 123 still compares favorably from a fully loaded weight perspective to more "modern" white gas stoves. The Svea 123R doesn't put out as much heat at some of the modern liquid fuel stoves... so it's not great for cooking for big groups, but it it quite efficent which makes it nice for solo or use by a couple. There are a number of other companies that make liquid fuel stoves, but since I don't use them, I haven't been following them very closely.
Capillary pump stoves using Vapore technology (exclusively licensed by MSR for outdoor stoves?). This technology looks very impressive. Ultimately stoves using this technology could use lighter weight fuel canisters and be extremely efficient. There have been a number of web articles about the MSR/vapore stove. There is a article about the MSR Vapore MIWH Stove being trialed by the military.
Wood burning fire made from material found on the ground. If you keep the fire small enough for just cooking then in many locations, this is an environmentally friendly way to cook. The down side is that there are places that small fires aren't recommended either because of the danger of forest fires or that the fuel supply / conditions are not appropriate. There are several designs for small, portable stoves which burn wood. The fire box in wood burning stoves typically is either steel or titanium because aluminum will melt. My favorite is the Traildesigns.CalderaTi-Tri & Inferno. Other commercial backpacking wood stoves include the emberlit fire ant, jfalk stove, bushbubby stove, trailstove, , beaner stove, makairametal.wildwood stove, Honey stove, Magic Flame NG stove, Vargo Hexagon Wood Stove and the heavier littlbug stove. There are several DIY stoves include Nimblewill Nomad Stove, penny wood stove. Garlington Stove, ikea cutlery container stove. An interesting variation of this is the Sierra Zip Stove stove which uses a small electric fan to drive the fire. If you just want to boil water, there are light weight versions of the Kelly Kettle originally popularized by fisherman including the new Boilerwerks and Ultralight Kelly Kettle. Finally, there are stoves designed for warming shelters in addition to cooking on top of. They have chimneys to vent the carbon monoxide (or other icky stuff) outside the tend. Examples of this include Ti-goats vortex titanium stove, Kifaru. stoves, and chimpac's Centerpole chimney/stove.
Solar: There are a number of companies such as Soltac which make portable, solar powered ovens which can be used to cook food in the back country. These devices typically weight between 10oz and 2lbs and use just sun light for "fuel". Of course, they are only useful if you have good sun light available and typically take a lot longer than more traditional systems.
Flameless: There are a small number of flameless systems such as what are built into MREs. These systems often use calcium chloride or magnesium sulfate which produce an exothermic reaction When mixed with water. There is no flame, so it can be easily and safely used inside a tent. The downside is typically cost for the heating packets and weight,
Additional Information: Hikin Jim's blog Adventures in Stoving is filled with reviews and notes about stove efficency. Section Hikers Stove Guide is likely more up-to-date than mine.
Low Cost: Wood fire contained by rocks, make an alcohol or esbits stove discussed above.
Rational: If you want to cook food, you need something that holds the water and/or food as you heat it up.
My Choice: When I am traveling solo I use a MLD 850ml titanium Pot/Mug. Boiling water for 2, I use a .9L Everenew wide bottle pot. I use an Evernew 1.3 L when I am cook in for two in the the pot, or for up four people if I am just boiling water which will be poured into an external bag to "cook" the food. If I am cooking in the pot for 4 people, I found the .9 and 1.3 together will work, though a 2L pot would be a better option.
Options: What cookware is best for you will depend on how many people you are cooking for, and what style of cooking. Cookware is typical made from aluminum, titanium, or steel. For backpacking, I would leave the steel at home... its heavy. Titanium will be more expensive. For a given volume, aluminum is lighter, but titanium is stronger... so in theory you can use less of it. It seems in practice that at small volume (1L or less), titanium pots tend to be lighter than similar size aluminum pots, but as the volume of the pot increases (say to 2L or 4L), the pots end up weighting pretty much the same. My experience is that given similar size / weight pots, titanium will be more durable. If you are just boiling water, Titanium and aluminum works well, but if you are doing serious cooking you would want the more even heating of aluminum. With aluminum pots, I generally prefer hard anodized than those with non-stick coatings because they are more durable when scraped and scorched. Both hard anodized and the more traditional non-stick coatings prevent the nasty metal taste than comes from cooking tomato based products in untreated aluminum. The next issue to consider is the shape of the pot. The wider to pot, the more heat will be applied to your pot rather than just going up into the air making wider pots more efficient. The downside of wider pots is than if you are using a narrow pot stand, it can be tricky to set the pot down centered. Tall, narrow pots have a tendency to pack more easily and can double as cups. The final issue is whether you want built in handles of some sort. I am a big fan of well designed built in handles. For pots larger than 2L I like a bail style handle which lets you suspend the pot as well as makes it much less likely that you tip the pot to the side. For smaller pots, I like fold away handles. I really like the silicon covered handles used by Evernew because they provide enough insulation that I have never burnt my hand. Some people express concern that the coating will burn, but I have not had a problem with this. On a single trip I melted a small section of the coating.
Solo: My favorite pot today is a mug style MLD Ti Pot (no longer sold, but the Toaks 850ml Pot seems to be nearly identical): perfect for simple, solo cooking in the pot! The pot practically hold around 800ml which is plenty of room for anything I make for myself on a solo trip. There is room to boil water and to cook the food in the pot. Small mugs often required me to cook in freezer bags which is sometimes nice, but it's good to have the option not to do this. This pot is one of the lightest on the market at 3.7oz including lid and handles. The lid has straining holes which can be useful when makes a variety of foods. This pot and can hold the UL Caldera, stove, eating utensils, lighter, and fuel for several days in a small, compact package. The pot is narrow enough for hot drinks not to slosh out as you drink from the pot, which often happened which I used larger diameter mug/pots. Drinking from a pot/mug directly can burn your lips if you try too soon after you have taken the pot off your stove. The Snow Peak HotLips Silicone Lip Protector have removed that problem for me. The only downside to the MLD 850 is that since it has a moderately narrow bottom, it is not as fuel efficient as the the next pot I will mention. The slightly less efficient heat transfer hasn't been an issue because I can take care of aa my cooking needs using a single esbits fuel cube. The Evernew Ultralight Titanium 0.9 L pot is also a great choice, especially if you are going to do more than boil water, cook cous cous or ramen. It is light weight, durable, has nice handles, has a small pouring spout which works "ok", and is wide enough to you don't lose a lot of heat up the sides. In fact, I have found the .9L wide pot to be the most fuel efficient of any <1L pot that I have tried, typically by 20%. The GSI Soloist looks like a very nice system which holds a cup, bowl, small fuel canister and stove. One of the cheapest options is the Open Country3 cup pot which is just $15. Another popular option are kettles made by MSR or Evernew or If you boil water for bag meals, you could consider tea kettles from GSI and others which weights ~5oz and has a wide, fuel efficient bottom. Hardcore ultra-lighters often using mugs for drinking and cooking such as the a Snowpeak 600, Snow Peak Trek 700, or the IMUSA Aluminum Mug. It's easy to burn your lips if you drink from the mug/pot you boiled the water in. The lids on the Snowpeak mugs aren't so great. but there is are aftermarket ultralight mug lids. It's also possible to use larger beer cans as pots such as the 24oz Foster's can.
Two People: I think a single 1.3 L pot such as the Evernew 1.3 L Nonstick Titanium Pot is ideal for 2 people who are traveling light. The GSI Dualist looks nice, coming with two bowls, two cups, and room for a large fuel canister and stove. Some people use larger pots such as the value priced Anti Gravity Gear 2L pot which can be used with larger groups as well. If you are doing fancier cooking, you might look at something like the nesting 1&1.5 L set
Larger Groups: Four people will typically want a 1.5 & 2 L nesting cook. There are a number of other nice sets made by MSR, GSI, Evernew. Many people automatically bring all the pots in their cooking set. If you plan your meals well you should often be able to do everything with a single pot... don't bring the pots you aren't going to use. If you have more than four people you could consider whether you want to use even larger pots, or break into smaller groups to avoid having to bring huge pots, and to boiling 4L+ on a single stove.
Other Approaches: I know some people who really like bring light weight ovens such as the bakepacker because it expands cooking options beyond what can be accomplished in basic pots.
Low Cost: The WalMart (now K-mart) grease pot has been the traditional low weight, low cost option among thru-hikers, ultralighters and dirtbags, or minimalist using a IMUSA Aluminum Mug. Personally, I would recommend Anti Gravity Gear pots because a few more dollars buys a good anti-stick coating, a lid, and a better lip making the pot easier to clean and less likely to spill.
Rational: If you are eating food that isn't ready to eat you need a way to hold it without getting covered in food.
My Choice: When traveling solo I eat out of my pot, use a MSR Folding Spork which packs inside my pot while still extend long enough to reach into freeze dry cook bags.If I am on a group trip I typically bring a GSI nesting bowl/mug because it nests perfectly with a large fuel canister. Typically my partner uses the bowl and I use the mug.
Options: As mentioned above, if you are on a solo trip, then consider eating out of your cooking pot (or zip-lock bag if you are bag cooking. In groups, eating out of the pot is typically not appropriate. A minimalist approach in a group is to carry a single sierra cup, bowl or mug, and to drink and eat your meal in stages. Alternatively you could bring a large bowl (zip-lock 2 cup container makes a dandy backpacking bowl) and a light weight cup/mug. You will also need a spoon, though some people like a spork or foon (a spoon whose front is fork-like). I would recommend getting utensils made from Lexan because they are cheap, light weight, reasonably durable, don't have a "taste" like steel, and won't scratch pots like titanium. If you are using backpacker oriented freeze dry meals you might want an extra long spoon that lets you mix the food without getting you hand down into the bag. Recently GSI started making a nice line of ulta-light utensils which include telescoping utensils and a nice bowl & cup designed to nest with small fuel canisters. I would recommend avoiding the Light My Fire Spork. There are numerous reports of it breaking in the field. I also don't like the design, but that's just me.
Low Cost: There are plenty of "disposable" containers that get thrown out each day... you shouldn't have a hard time finding something that with work for you. My favorite item are the disposable plastic bowl for single serving of noodles or soap. Cost is around $1 and you get food as well. These bowl are durable, very light (.2oz) and holds the right amount of food. Fast food restaurants have cheap, flimsy plastic flatware. If you are using these cheap utensils, take a couple in case one of them breaks. Two "disposal" utensils will often be lighter weight than one more durable item.
I try to minimize how much cleanup I do. On longer trips and trips where the meal isn't that messy (say ramon noodles) I will cook and eat out of my pot. When cooking messy meals, I boil water in the pot, and then "cook" in a freezer bag which is inside a bag cozy. I eat out of the bag and then pack it out. On group trips I use a Orikaso Bowl which can be unfolded and licked mostly clean. [After using the Orikaso for a year or more I am questioning whether it's actually easier to clean than my old bowl. The licking part is easier, but I am not sure that the whole process is or not.] Once things are licked "clean" I use a nylon scrapper to getting any remaining food scraps off without scratching pots and eating wares. A bit of sand can work if you are very careful. Often times there still be a oily film on the items scrapped. Some people use hot water and soap, but I try to avoid that because if you don't rinse well enough you can get diarrhea from ingesting the soap and because I don't like adding soap, even biodegradable, to the water system. Once I have all the particular matter removed I boil a pot of water and make tea. The boiling sterilizes, the tea has tannic acid which helps cut the grease. You can use the tea-bag itself as a fragile sponge.
In most parts of the country correctly hanging food in a bear bags can be effective though it takes a bit of skill. Unfortunately bags won't protect your food in the Sierras were the bears see backpackers and think "Great, I get another treat filled piñata tonight". In the Sierras protect your food and the bears by storing your food in bear boxes or using a bear resistant container such as the BearVault (nice and reasonably priced), Wild Ideas Bearikade (lightest hard wall, and expensive), or the Garcia Backpackers' Cache (the original which I am not fond of). Bareboxer makes some smaller canisters which are good for short trips. Andrew did a nice analysis of bear canisters volume vs price and price. The bearier 700 is an interesting looking modular system that hopes to be approved summer of 2011. Photon sent a nicely written email to backpackinglight mailing list suggesting that you should use canisters in the Sierras. Why use a can? First, it might save the life of a bear. Those which get used to raid people's food will eventually be destroyed. Second, loosing your food, especially 4 days into a 9 day trip really sucks. There is a nice document about how to pack a bear canister hosted by PCTA. There are some people who advocate "stealth camping" which is stay away from camp sites that bears habitually visit, cooking your food before you get to your campsite, and sleeping with your food on the theory that a bear will be less likely to bother a human and you will be in a position to defend your food. I don't recommend this in areas with black bears, and I think anyone is insane to do this in brown bear territory. For extra insurance some stealth campers make sure that smelly things are stored in something like O.P. SAK Barrier bag which look a lot like a normal zip-lock bag, but is in theory, odor-proof. Another option Ursack which is basically a stuff sack made from very strong threads. The ursack has been on the "conditionally approved" list periodically, but hasn't lasted more than a season before the get pulled. So I wouldn't recommend them in places with rigid rules... but they maybe be appropriate and effective in more lay-back areas. A new development are portable electrified containers such as the Palisade EST. There isn't a single organization that is managing bear canister policies in the Sierras anymore, but the is a list of the places that have bear canister requirements in the Sierras. Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (research) bear resistant container create the regulations governing food protection and do not endorse stealth camping as an acceptable method. A technique I used when canoeing and kayaking (and seems to be effective, but you might not find it effective) was to seal my food in a water tight container, and then sinking that container in a near by stream. Eastern Slope Grizzly Bear Group and USGS Alaska Science Center Bear Project have some of the best information about grizzly safety. There is a nice map of where sierra bear boxes are located.
For longer trips, especially when constrained by the use of bear canisters, it is important to know how to pack bear canisters.
Minimize Fuel Consumption: Boil only the amount of water you need. Have the water in the pot before you light the stove, so you can immediately start heating the water. Use a wind screen. Consider using a pot cozy rather than simmering.