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Backpacking grill product test

Note:  We are talking about campfire cooking grills here, not fire grates.  A grate is a device that goes under your fuel wood, coal, charcoal, buffalo chips, etc. to allow wood to flow under the fuel.  Wood stoves, fireplaces and Weber style cookers have grates in them.  Grills sit above the fuel and hold pots and pans or food above the heat for cooking purposes.  Grates and grills are not the same thing, please.

Most of the grills being advertised or promoted as backpacking type grills on the Internet are not suitable for backcountry use; so here is my evaluation of a few grills that are sold as backpacking type campfire cooking grills.  If a grill is larger or heavier than the grills in this evaluation it is not suitable for hiking or bicycle travel, and probably too big and heavy for most users traveling by motorcycle, raft, canoe, kayak, small boat, ATV, horse or even compact car.

The heaviest grill in this test weighs just under 23 ounces.  The largest surface area is 7 inches by 18 inches.

I like light, legless grills that will fit in a backpack.  The grill should have a carry bag that will keep soot inside the bag.  Rust resistant grills are nice.  The frame should have round corners and be free of parts that will snag or wear your gear.  Simple is better than complex.  Rapid cooling is a positive.  Most backcountry cooking is done in pots and pans, but if you want to grill fish, burger or small anything directly over coals, you probably need a grill specifically designed for that purpose.

Grills:  Select the thumbnail photos for enlargement.

Folding Grill:  For decades, the most commonly available grill suitable for backpacking has been a grill with legs that fold up under the grill body.  The grill body consists of two frame pieces of carbon steel rod that have thin rod stays spot welded to them at about one inch intervals.  I have owned examples made in China, Taiwan and the USA.  The design has remained relatively constant.  My current model weighs 12.7 ounces with a surface area 12.4 x 6.5 inches.  The whole outfit is chrome or nickel plated, depending on the maker. 

The Good:  Cheap, $5 - $15.  With care can provide several seasons of casual use.  Large enough to be useful but still compact.  Lighter and better if legs removed.  Persistence of this design suggests it finds favor among campers.

The Bad:  Cheap.  No carry bag.  Frame rod ends are unfinished and can wear holes in whatever they rub against.  If legs are left on, the grill is not very stable in most real camping situations and you can knock the thing over and your meal into the fire.  Short if legs are removed.  A couple of the samples I have owned had weld failures.  OK for direct grilling of firm meats and larger vegetables, stay spacing a bit wide for burger or most fish.  Plating burns off after some use and the grill can rust.

GSI Grill:  Product is distributed by GSI Outdoors of Spokane, Washington.  Dealers sell it by different names but they are the same thing.  Made in China.  Typical price is around $12.  Grill weight is 22.3 ounces, surface is 15.75 x 7.9 inches.  The frame is in two identical parts with the stays welded between them.  Material is chromed carbon steel rod.  I have only had my sample on the fire a couple of times.  I was afraid the two frame segments might separate and the stays pop away from the frame over campfire heat.  But the grill held up fine.  The stays are closer together over one half of the grill and wider apart on the other half - a nice and thoughtful touch.

The Good:  Rounded edges with no sharp protrusions to poke or rub holes in packs, boat bottoms, clothing, etc.  Inexpensive but thoughtfully designed - the close stay spacing is probably OK for burger or small vegetable pieces.  Seems durable.

The Bad:  No carry bag.  Plating will burn off and grill can rust.  Just my opinion, but I would prefer the grill 1 to 2 inches longer. Heavy for a backpacking grill.

Grilliput Grill:  I paid $30 for my Grilliput.  It doesn't come with a carry bag because it doesn't need one.  This is a modular gizmo with all parts slipping into the dominant main frame stainless steel tube.  All of the other parts are well crafted stainless steel, too.  The Grilliput is a cute and clever gadget from a company called Nuardis.  Far as I can tell, Nuardis is two guys, Reinhard Gerling and Reinhard Balsfulland who make their headquarters in Verl, Germany.  They are marketing people.  The Grilliput seems to be their only product but they are trolling for bright ideas. 

Nuardis hires sophisticated marketing firms to promote the product in countries where they think they can make a buck (Euro).  Weight is 19.7 ounces. Working surface is 9 x 10 inches.

The Good:  Clever design, good craftsmanship and materials.  Good product for someone who wants to have a clever novelty.

The Bad:  It's modular.  I wouldn't dream of buying something with a bunch of pieces to take out in the backcountry.  The legs are thin and can sink into soft ground with any weight on the grill.  If you lose them the grill won't work (the legs hold the thing together).  The legs screw into the frame tubes and the narrower tube doesn't have enough thread to support the legs after a little wear, and wear will happen because the legs don't want to stay tight, at least not on my model.  The grill is heavy.  The heavy cap is solid stainless (a clue the designers are not backcountry campers) and remains hot for quite a while.  Both the cap and the frame tube end are abrupt and can wear packs or anything else they rub against.

Backpackgrill.com Grill:  Made in Seattle stainless steel grill with a single stay welded to the frame in lengthwise configuration.  Comes in two models, standard has a straight stay paralleling the sides of the frame and a Deluxe model that has a stay with multiple bends to supply greater support for whatever you are grilling.  I bought a Deluxe model for $25 in spring of 2011.  The web site claims the grills are "made from quality stainless steel rods."  Weight is listed as 7.5 ounces.  My grill is made from good quality quarter inch stainless tubing and the weight is 6.3 ounces.  So the new grills are not going to be as light or as good as the model reviewed here.  The tubing has thick walls.  Dimensions are 5 x 4.5 x 14.25.  The grill has a half inch of taper and slips easily into a plain but sturdy nylon bag with Velcro closure..  They have an "Order Online Today" link which was dead when I checked the web site.  The email address was also dead.  These grills may or may not be available.

The Good:  Strong and sturdy grill of proven design.  Bag should give good service.  Product should provide a lifetime of use.  Price is reasonable.

The Bad:  Tubing heavier than necessary and steel rods will be even heavier.  Welding is crude and unprofessional, but this is a campfire grill and not a work of art.  The Deluxe model doesn't really seem to provide significantly more support for grilled foods than the Standard Model (despite appearances), which is similar to the old REI tubular grills and the Purcell Trench Packers Grill.

TITANIUM BACKPACKING GRILL:  I bought this grill last year from BACKPACKINGLIGHT and the cost was $70.  Advertised weight was .9 ounces and that was what my scale said.  The grill is made of commercially pure titanium wire.  Dimensions are 11.4 x 4.9 inches.  The grill comes in a plastic bag recommended as a carry bag.  Don't expect the plastic bag to last.  This is a clever item, carefully designed and well made in Boulder, Colorado.  The wire ends are cropped close to prevent snagging on anything.  Edges are rounded.  Wire is wrapped properly.  The product should be durable and long lasting.  It is clearly designed for small twig type fires becoming popular with some ultralight backpackers who wish to avoid carrying a stove, still want to have warm food or hot drinks but don't want to use a real campfire.  This grill has one serious problem - see The Bad.

The Good:  Light, well designed, nicely crafted niche market item.

The Bad:  Price.  No real carry bag.  I first tested all the grills by putting pots full of water on them to see if they would support the weight.  I put a kettle with a liter of water on the titanium grill and it held the weight but that seemed like about maximum.  I consider that plenty of cold strength for the intended use.  But when I built a modest twig type fire under the grill and put the kettle on the grill it only took a few seconds for the grill to collapse.  OK, too much weight.  So I used a very light, small kettle with a half liter of water.  It took a few seconds longer for the grill to collapse, but collapse it did until it was sitting right down on the fire. 

Titanium has a high melting temperature and a reputation for relatively high working temperature, but relatively high doesn't mean campfire temperature.  This product might do fine with very light weight on the grill.  I don't consider it adequate for real cooking.  Fire didn't damage the grill.  Commercially pure titanium wire can be bent back into shape readily.

I was surprised.  BackpackingLight has a sophisticated web site.  They portray themselves as an information organization providing excellent, thoroughly tested products secondarily.  The grill is advertised showing a small trout in aluminum foil over a fire.  The foil may be providing most of the support for the trout. 

Purcell Trench Grills:  I own Purcell Trench manufacturing.  So, of course, I think they are the best.  Purcell Trench grill information is available at this link: GRILLS.  The grills are made of thin wall tubular stainless steel or titanium tube.  Each model is available in an all tube configuration or tubular frame with expanded and flattened stainless steel sheet (mesh) welded to the frame.  Our grills come in three frame sizes.  The small Packers Grill is similar to the standard Backpackgrill.com grill, except much lighter. We approximated the style from a grill REI sold decades ago.  I bought one in the sixties.  We sold our grills through REI for a few years.  Our Voyageur Grill is the largest grill in this test, with a 7 x 18 inch usable surface, and 8 ounce weight.

Purcell Trench grills have rounded, smooth edges.  They are one piece.  You just pull them out of the pack or gear box, put them on the fire pit or ring and start cooking.  They all come with well crafted, coated nylon bags.  Generally, they are light, strong, and will last a lifetime.  Prices vary from $30 to $93.

The Good:  Almost everything. 

The Bad:  Stainless steel is not a good conductor of heat compared to aluminum or carbon steel, so those nice grill marks you get from your cast iron propane grill surface at home will mostly be lacking on stainless grills.  Light weight grills are easy to carry but when you move food on them the grill sometimes wants to follow the food, unlike a heavy campfire grill you haul in your truck.  Our mesh (expanded metal surface grills) will warp over campfire heat due to the high expansion ratio of stainless steel.  The mesh cools back to original shape.  This is a minor problem but can tip a pot a bit.  The mesh grills and the titanium grill benefit from a break-in fire.  Price.

Our Titanium Packers Grill only weighs 1.9 ounces and is made of Grade 9 titanium, about twice as strong as commercially pure titanium.  The tube is stress relieved rather than annealed (like our stainless tube), so it is quite stiff and customers should take care to avoid bending the grill.  Titanium grills require some care - a bit of break-in time - and they will not tolerate as much weight or heat as stainless steel grills. 

Grill Name Weight Dimensions Material Bag Price Legs  Models Smooth Buy
folding 12.7 oz 12.4 x 6.5 C steel  no $8-15  yes     one     no   no
GSI 22.3 oz 15.75 x 7.9 C steel  no  $12   no     one    yes  yes
Grilliput 19.7 oz     9 x 10 S steel  na  $30  yes     one     no   no
BP.com 6.3/7.5 oz   5 x 14.25 S steel  yes  $25   no     two    yes  yes
TBG    .9 oz  11.4 x 4.9 titanium  no  $70   no     one    yes   no
P Trench 2.3-10 oz 5x15 - 7x18 S steel  yes 28-86   no    seven    yes  yes
P T Ti   1.9 oz  5 x 4 x 15 titanium  yes  $66   no     one    yes  yes

The buy rating is subjective.  The only grill in this test that didn't work for me was the TITANIUM BACKPACKING GRILL. 

If a grill doesn't have a bag you can make one, or a sewing contractor can.

What do I recommend?  If you camp a lot and need a light grill, Purcell Trench grills are excellent.  The Backpackgrill.com Grill is plenty tough and serviceable, though it weighs more than necessary.  I was disappointed in the poor welding.

If you can live with more weight, the GSI grill is good.  You have to make a bag for it and keep rust at bay, but it is a nice unit for the price.  It looks to me like the people who designed this grill actually camp and know useful equipment.

I don't recommend the folding grill, the Grilliput or the TITANIUM BACKPACKING GRILL from Backpackinglight. 

The folding grill has been around for decades but always had weaknesses.  It would only take a few seconds with a file or grinder to knock down the sharp ends of the frame rods.  Folding legs are mostly a bad idea and the frame and stays could be improved.  It would be nice to see someone improve the folding grill rather than makers emulate a mediocre design that uses history and inertia to recommend it.  A lighter, narrower version of the GSI grill would be useful.

The Grilliput is a cute, clever, nicely crafted novelty item.  But it is a pain to have to put the thing together and clean it up and put it back in the tube, make sure you don't lose any parts and baby the delicate threads of the thin inner frame tube.  It is heavier than it could or should be.  I don't see it as a tool for serious backcountry campers.

Both the folding grill and the Grilliput work and I imagine lots of people like those grills.  I just don't think they are as good as they should be and there are better options.  In contrast, the TITANIUM BACKPACKING GRILL did not work for me.  I wrote a letter to Backpackinglight but didn't received a reply. 

The TITANIUM BACKPACKING GRILL label and packing materials do not include an address or phone number of the maker, or any kind of guarantee.  There is an email address but I didn't receive a reply to mine.  The company making the grill apparently does not have a web page, address or telephone listing in Boulder, Colorado.

On December 31, 2012 I received an e-mail from Gary Dunckel, maker of the TITANIUM BACKPACKING GRILL.  It was a pleasant note and here is what Mr. Dunkel had to say,  " You are certainly right, this grill does have its limitations, but it also will work once you have experience with it."

Gary continues, "I have also found that the metal will sag under load, but this is minimized when spreading the weight over the long axis of the grill.  It works better cooking a trout than it does with a pot of water sitting in the middle.  I try to place the support rocks as close together as I can when boiling water, to effectively shorten the grill.  I also like to place the pot partially on one of the support rocks, which takes much of the weight off the grill, but still boils the water.  My habit is to create a small alcove away from the main campfire, and simply move coals from the main fire to the alcove as needed.  This reduces the intense heat, but still allows enough to grill a steak.  I remove the pot whenever I can, to prevent further sag.  It's a rather finicky grill, yes, but the low weight is its greatest asset."

Gary Dunckel's products can be found at www.QiWiz.net. and he can be reached at DRZOOZ@aol.com.

Alternatives:  Sometimes used REI tube or Purcell Trench grills can be found at garage sales.  Campmor used to sell an expanding, two piece grill of stainless steel tubing that was well made and thoughtfully designed.

Some river runners and horse packers use oven racks from camper or toaster ovens.  Most toaster ovens won't take much heat.  Camper ovens are generally heavier and bulky.  They are typically chrome plated carbon steel.  My complaint is that people haul them into the backcountry and leave them.  I have been in camps that had four or five of those things around - warped, burned, rusted junk.

There are other light weight, small grills on the market for twig type fires.  I have seen a couple made of titanium rod stock.  I haven't  been very impressed with the designs but I am sure we will see improvements.  Tripods are popular with some users.  I have one, don't like it.  The grill moves around too much while I tend the food and I dislike having to carry the tripod.  Without a rock ring or trench to control fire heat you have the same problem backyard barbeque grills of the '50s and '60s had, fire sucks air in and sends heat up in a narrow column under food in the center of the suspended grill.  This is the same problem grills with legs but no rock ring or trench have.  Nobody makes those old style backyard barbeque grills anymore for a reason, the same reason you need a rock ring or trench for your campfire cooking grill.

Campfire grills are accessories.  I have cooked lots of meals on a campfire without a grill.  You can suspend kettles from sticks, rest fry pans on rocks, set pots on coals (will cool rapidly from oxygen debt, though).  Me, I'm willing to carry a campfire grill.

Comments may be sent to Don Tryon dtryon@purcelltrench.com

Have a nice camping season.

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