Backpacking is about carrying everything in your pack and seeing the beauty of remote areas. Treading where few have gone before and having the freedom to stay as long in any place as the reality of life will allow.
Next to shelter, water, and fire there is a very important part of the gear you carrying backpacking – cookware. In this post let’s examine some general considerations to help make a better choice. Much of this information is from REI, so a special thanks to them!
Step #1: Consider the Trips You have Planned
Short trips and simple menus will require the basics only (see below). Longer journeys and bigger groups will likely require more.
The basics (per person)
- Single pot, with a lid that can double as a plate
- Basic utensils (spoon and knife)
- Some way to pick the pot up (either a handle, bail or pot-grabber)
Step #2: Decide Between a Cook Set or Individual Pieces
Collecting your cookware and utensils piece by piece gives you the freedom to choose exactly what you want. You can use items from home, borrow pieces from friends or even raid garage sales.
But purchasing a backpacking cook set will save you space, weight and time. Cook sets (specially designed collections of pots, pans and lids) are designed to “nest” together so the entire set takes up only the space of the largest pot. Many are also designed so stoves (and other utensils) fit inside for even more space efficiency. Because they’re designed specifically for outdoor uses like backpacking, most cook sets are made of lightweight, durable materials that weigh very little but last season after season.
Step #3: Consider the Material Options
- Aluminum Positives: Lightweight, affordable, a good conductor of heat. Good for simmering foods without scorching. Negatives: Breaks down slowly when exposed to acidic foods. Dents and scratches easily.
- Stainless steel Positives: Tougher, more scratch-resistant than aluminum. Negatives: Heavier than aluminum, doesn’t conduct heat as uniformly (can cause hot spots that scorch food).
- Titanium Positives: Super lightweight, extremely tough. A must if weight is your number one concern. Negatives: More expensive than other options. Conducts heat less evenly than stainless steel.
- Nonstick coatings (available on some metal cookware)Positives: Make clean up a breeze. Negatives: Less durable than regular metal surfaces. Most can be scratched by metal utensils.
- Plastic Positives: Lightweight, cheap, non-abrasive. Perfect for utensils and air-tight food containers. Negatives: Not as durable or heat-resistant as metal. Some plastics can pick up and retain food flavors/odors.
Step #4: Focus on the Important Variables
- Pot size: The largest pot in your cook set should hold approximately one pint per backpacker. Smaller pots should fit snugly inside the largest one.
- Number of pots: One pot is usually fine for 1 or 2 people (especially if the lid doubles as a plate). A three-pot set should be enough for groups up to 5 people, unless you have complex meals planned.
- Lids: Lids cut down on cooking time and save fuel. They can also be used as plates or even frying pans. Make sure your lids fit your pots snugly and that they’re easy to pick up. You should have one lid for every pot in your set (or one that fits multiple pots).
- Lifters: Make sure you have some way to pick up your pots and pans. Wire bails and collapsible handles are convenient, but they can break and/or get too hot to touch. Pot-grabbers are durable and easy to use. But you have to remember to pack them!
- The extras: Some cook sets come complete with “extra” pieces (cups, basic utensils, plates). Ask yourself if you really need them, and keep in mind that many of these extras can also be purchased separately, often at a lower price.
Notes on Utensils
When it comes to utensils, minimalist backpackers often make do with nothing more than a knife, spoon and a pot scrubber for clean up. But everything from garlic presses to miniture espresso makers are available these days, if you care to treat yourself and bring them along. The utensils and “extra” cookware you carry with you should match your tastes and your menu. Some choices include:
- Utensils: Spatulas, serving spoons, whisks
- Extras: Frying pans, coffee/tea pots, backcountry ovens, espresso makers, spice containers, squeeze bottles