Whether you’re planning your first backpacking trip or you’ve already had a few under your belt I bet you’ve asked yourself the same question – “What will I eat and how will I cook it?” The eating part we’ll cover in another article but here we’ll talk about backpacking cooking gear and choosing the best bang for your buck. Here well cover all the basics you need to know before choosing the right cooking kit for you. We’ll see if cooking with aluminum is good or bad and do you need a spork or not, and what the heck is a spork anyway? After you’ve gotten yourself a nice backpack to hold your gear, you will need to put the most important thing in there – your backpacking cooking gear, and food of course.
Now some folks may choose to go with the “cold cooking method” – just packing sandwiches, soaking oatmeal and such. More power to those people, that is another way to save weight. Another topic for another time. I like to have a atleast one warm meal when I’m out hiking, it provides a bit of comfort and boosts my spirit.
There are those of us who appreciate the smell of hot coffee in the morning along with a hot meal. I don’t know about you but that is one part I look forward to when I go hiking.
Now there are a few options each with their advantages and disadvantages, but I’ll keep it simple here. Use a propane-butane based cooking system. Easily obtainable, has a few drawbacks and is portable enough.
Long story short – just get a fuel canister stove. Although the gas mixture in the canister can separate in low temperatures and you run out of fuel much quicker, you can combat this by keeping the canister inside your jacket before you pop it out to cook or keep it at the bottom of your sleeping bag. It will be well warmed up in the morning and ready to prepare that hot coffee.. Once it gets down to 15F or colder well… then you should take a look at the winter backpacking cooking gear guide cuz that’s when you should switch to a liquid fuel cooking system anyway.
There is another drawback that you can’t tell how much fuel you got left in the tank. Like all equipment, you’ll get used to it and notice how many times you can cook with 1 full canister. Shaking it can give you a good indication of how much you got left.
The advantages are numerous – you can control the temperature whether you want your food boiling or simmering, you can adjust it just by turning a knob.
Cooking with the right gas canister
If you’re going to be backpacking in cold weather and you’re bringing in your canister system it’s important to pick the right fuel for the job.
“Regular” canisters are filled with a mixture of butane and propane. In order for the butane to be used as fuel it has to be in gas form but at 31F butane turns in to a liquid.
There are 4 season mixes that also add isobutane in the mix and that gets us down to 11-15F of usable range.
Choosing the right backpacking cooking stove
Now you can pick any model of canister stove and it can serve you for a long long time… But if you’re like me – I like to bet on the tried and tested.
Here are of the 3 most popular models
Msr pocketrocket 2 – well build, compact, reliable and simple to use. You can’t ask for more than that.
BRS Titanium – cheaper and very popular knock off version of the pocketrocket. If you are taking this as your only cooking stove keep in mind one thing. There have been reports of the supports melting so either you get a second one/test yours before you run off backpacking or just get the Msr pocketrocket 2
What a recommendation eh? Well, it’s a very popular choice because of the cheap price. If you ask me 25 extra bucks for peace of mind are well spent.
Backpacking Cooking systems
Jetboil Flash cooking system – now if you want everything to fit and have a compact cooking system – the jetboil is a good system to look at. The igniter and extra folded metal pieces at the bottom along with the cozy are designed to quickly and efficiently get your water or meal reach a boiling point. It has an inbuilt igniter but like every prepared hiker – get a back up lighter. Those things can fail and there’s nothing sadder than not getting a warm cup of coffee just because you didn’t bring an extra lighter.
Alright so this is it – it’s a complete user-friendly system, it comes with fuel tank support, the top has a strainer and there’s an indicator at the side that changes color once the pot reaches the boiling point which is a nice touch.
MSR Windburner stove stystem – is a step above the jetboil providing wind protection and a more efficient burner, tough as nails and if something breaks (unlikely) MSR has great warranty support. It does not have a built-in lighter which some might consider a negative but for me, that’s just one less thing to fail – you should be carrying extra lighters and matches anyway. Come to think of it, look no further than the Windeburner, tried, tested, loved. You should also get a canister support stand seeing as this gets kinda tall, the support stand provides that needed extra stability. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better they introduced a french press kit(sold separately of course…). But if you’re getting the windburner you’re sure as hell getting the french press, I mean – real hot coffee that ain’t that instant coffee substitute, what more can I say!
Bonus round – Winter backpacking cooking system
MSR Whisperlite – It takes more room in your backpack but if you want that warm cup of joe in butt freezing temperatures, this is what you have to get. It can be your one-stop-shop for all your cooking needs year-round. The Whisperlite comes in with an included aluminum heat reflector. Now, this system is more involved. You will have to prime the bottle with the provided pump 20-30 time until you feel you can’t anymore.
A few words of caution – be very careful with the winter stoves! It is more dangerous if you try to cook inside the tent or its vestibule. Careful not to spill any fuel. Do a few test runs in your backyard before bringing this on a hiking trip for the first time. Once you are confident how to use it safely the MSR Whisperlite is a good reliable backpacking cooking system.
On to cookware, if you get the MSR Windburner you’re halfway there, or pretty much done if you want to bring only one pot and use it as a cup as well.
Now there are quite a few options – the lighter they get the more expensive they are. Stainless steel is the heaviest and least expensive. For a beginner, I’d go with a nice stainless steel stanley 24 oz cook set. I’d ditch the provided cups and store your canister stove kit inside the pot. You can’t beat it on price and it has a lifetime warranty.
Are aluminum pots bad?
Maybe … maybe not…
As of now there are no conclusive studies that prove cooking in aluminum is bad. (Possible Alzheimers but nothing proven) Personally – I’d not volunteer myself as the guinea pig until the results are in.
So on to titanium we go. Light and more expensive than stainless steel. Titanium is the next step when you’re upgrading your cooking gear.
Now what I’d go for here is one of there’s TOAKS titanium pots. Strange about this one is it’s 750ml filled to the very brim so keep that in mind. You’ve got the option of a bail handle and cook over a wood stove of just the regular no handle toaks titanium 750ml version. The difference in price is only ~5$ so I’d just go for the one with the bail handle just to have the option open.
One thing to note is if you’re going to be drinking out of the pot you’ll have to guard your face with your thumb holding the bail handle.
Nevertheless, this is a good titanium pot for a good price.
Don’t forget your hiking coffee cup!
Keeping with the toaks theme this one is also going in the bag. IT has the same compact folding handle design. It can fit on the bottom of a 1 liter water bottle or a 16 oz narrow-mouth Nalgene. You can fit it in the 750ml pot, but the cup won’t fit the fuel canister. Either way, drinking your morning coffee from a cup deserves that little bit of extra space sacrifice.
Are you a spork or a spoon person?
This here is a personal preference and a matter of convenience. You can use even the kitchen utensils from home and it would make little to no difference.
I can make an argument for a spork with a longer handle, cuz that makes things a lot easier when digging into a deep pot or when you’re eating a meal from a freezer bag.
Something like the toaks titanium long spork would fit the bill nicely. Lightweight, sturdy, gets the job done – get one… or two!
“You cooked, it was delicious, now clean up the mess … “
You must keep your backpacking cooking gear clean, hygiene is important! But there won’t always be a stream where you camp so…
Hear me out on this – use dirt! Yes, no mud, just dry dirt, moss would work aswell. Fill the pot out, stir it around, empty it and then repeat a few times.
Now you might think to yourself – “This is disgusting, how am I going to eat from that again?”
This is where it would be a good idea to pack a small kitchen sponge.
We’re almost done, use a tiny amount of water, swirl it around, make sure it passes through the entire surface on the inside of the pot. This is where it would be a good idea to pack a small kitchen sponge. Dump the water out and repeat. Use the rinsed water to clean out the spork aswell.
If there’s snow around you, forget we had the above conversation!
There is a good reason to hang your food in a sealed bag away from your camp.
Bears have a keen sense of smell. You don’t want them coming around your tent, just because you did not seal and store properly your food. Cleaning the pots and utensils also – Yes sadly there’s no escaping dishwashing even when you’re hiking … well not unless you eat all your meals out of freezer bags of course.
There are a few ways of safely storing your food. The most obvious ones – hanging a bear bag over a tree, storing your food in a bear canister or using a designated bear box around the camping site to store your food.
Even when there are no bears in your hiking area it’s a good idea to use a bear bag to protect your food from other critters like mice – those buggers will make holes in your bag if they can get to it.
Now no matter if the bear bag says it’s waterproof(in the specs, If you find a talking bear bag let me know!) – most of them are water-resistant at best.
To save a bit of cash and a lot of headaches with wet spoiled food you can put them in a plastic trash bag and then put it in a bear bag.
Now if you do want a nice bear bag and a plastic bag is just cramping your style you can get a nice robust dry/bear bag like the Earth pack.
Now there are a few places that require you to have a bear canister instead of a bear bag. Trouble is there is no “standard” and one place might approve of your bear canister and another might not. Some places might even swap you “their approved bear canister” and safely hold yours until you get back. Always check the place you want to hike in if they require a bear canister.
Now, these two I’m going to suggest are widely used and most of the time accepted everywhere.
See-through, a safety screw type lid. With the see-through material, it’s easy to locate where you’ve hidden the candy instead of blindly rummaging in there. Although it may look like a beefed-up water bottle this thing has withstood bear attacks.
You can pick the small version for weekend hikes and the larger version for multiday hikes.
Here’s a none see-through container. The lid opens by turning the screws with a coin/screwdriver/washer or a handy pocket knife.
At the end of the day, these bear canister will keep your food dry and safe. One more advantage of their bulky shape is that they make a great stool.
Bear bag(Earth pack)
Now there are some bags that are tough enough to withstand the bear. But if a bear makes mash potatoes in that bag you wouldn’t see much use of it anyway. So, just hanging a water-resistant bag over a tree does the same thing. The earth pack is a good example. It’s compact, well made and a good choice when you don’t need a bear canister.
Picking the right backpacking cooking gear is important. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it has to be adequate and reliable. Reasonably compact and light enough to carry in a backpack. Don’t go overboard with your first cooking set. People always overpack the first time. Go on a short hike, use your new gear and see what you like and what doesn’t see much use. Leave that at home next time.
Prepare a meal at home with the newly bought gear. This can help you spot an issue that can save you from trouble during the hike. Let me know in the comments bellow what is your backpacking cooking gear set up.
As always – Happy Hiking!