Gear Basics: Backpacking Kitchen Gear
Choosing your kitchen gear for backpacking should be based on how you plan to cook and eat meals on trips. For a lot of backpackers, the need to boil water to pour into a prepackaged freeze-dried meal and to make instant coffee or tea is all they need. For others, it can be more elaborate, with a stove and cookset tailored to their cooking style.
This post is an excerpt from the book “I Heart Backpacking: How to Get Started” by Lisa D. Holmes and Sara Carroll
When choosing a stove think about how you will use it most. Will you just be boiling water or do you want a simmer feature to do more gourmet backcountry cooking? Will you need the stove to work flawlessly at high elevations or during winter camping trips? Or will you eventually find yourself backpacking in areas of the world where certain types of fuel may not be found? There is no one stove that will fit every person’s needs but this guide may help you find the features you require.
There are four main types of stoves to consider for backpacking use: canister, integrated canister, liquid fuel, and alternative fuel.
Canister stoves are are by far the best choice for most backpackers due to being small, lightweight and easy to use. These stoves have been designed take up minimal space, with pot supports that fold down when not in use. Canister stoves run off of a pressurized blend of propane and butane or isobutane fuel, available at outdoor retailers. Connect the stove to the fuel canister via a threaded valve, then set your pot on top of the stove supports. To light, use a lighter or look for a stove with a built-in piezo igniter. Models with this feature are lit by turning on the fuel, then press the piezo button which creates a spark to light the stove. Burner heads on canister stoves vary in size and style. Some offer larger burners that work well for group cooking, while compact burners generally perform better with smaller lightweight pots. The shape of the burner head affects performance as well, for example, concave burner heads provide better wind resistence.
Integrated canister stoves feature a burner that connects to a pot with heat exchangers on the bottom. The heat exchanger makes integrated canister stoves more fuel efficient and wind resistant than regular canister stoves. Though they tend to be a bit heavier and bulkier, they are popular due to being the easiest to use of all types of backpacking stoves. Some models are meant for boiling water only, while other models feature the ability to control the temperature for simmering capability.
Remote canisters stoves have a fuel hose to separate the burner from the fuel canister. These stoves often have a larger and more stable base to set pots on, and the ability to invert the fuel canister makes this type of stove perform better than other canister stoves in colder temperatures.
Tip: when empty, you can recycle fuel canisters by puncturing them. Make sure they are empty first, and use a crunch tool to make the job easier.
Liquid gas stoves, like remote canister stovers, separate the burner from the fuel source, connecting to a bottle filled with liquid gas. The fuel is usually inexpensive white gas, though some models will also work with diesel, kerosene, or auto fuel. The liquid fuel stove requires more effort to use since they need to be primed before use and require regular cleaning and maintenance. In return for the added work, these stoves will perform in extremely cold temperatures and at higher elevations.
Alternative fuel stoves include alcohol stoves, solid fuel stoves, and wood burning stoves. Alcohol stoves are especially liked by thru-hikers since they are ultralight and don’t rely on purchasing fuel canisters. They run on denatured alcohol which is readily available and inexpensive. There are even DIY options for making your own stove using a soda or cat food can. Solid fuel stoves are similar to alcohol stoves except they utilize fuel tablets. They are also ultralight, but the fuel has an odor that can be offensive to some, and it leaves a sticky residue on your pot. A downside to both of these stoves is that they don’t burn as hot and can take a long time to boil water. During high fire danger times, using them may be prohibited since they don’t have a way to turn them off.
Wood burning stoves are another alternative fuel option to consider. Modern wood burning systems are efficient, lightweight, and some even generate enough electricity to charge electronic gadgets. With all their interesting tricks, wood burning stoves do need dry fuel (and plenty of it) to work. They also may be prohibited during periods of high fire danger.
Cookware & Utensils
While there is a vast array of kitchen gear can be bought at an outdoor retailer, unless you plan to do gourmet cooking, you probably only need to add a mug and a spoon or spork to your cook set. Instead of using a plate or bowl, I prefer to eat directly from my pan. I also like to have a separate mug for making tea or coffee that isn’t “flavored” by what I cooked in my pot. For an eating utensil, I prefer a long handled spoon with silicone edges. There are very few times when I find that a fork or knife is needed.
Mugs: for the best packability, look for a mug that can nest inside your cook pot. A small cook pot with folding handles works well for this, with the benefit of being able to heat water directly in the pot/mug. Want to go lighter? Use your main cook pot as a mug.
Utensils: consider a longer handle for stirring (and keeping your hand out of the heat) while cooking, or for easier access when eating directly from a food package. Spoons with silicone coatings on the edges can make getting every last bit of food left in a cookpot or package much easier.
Clean up: only minimal supplies are needing for cleaning up after cooking. I use a small mini-dropper bottle with biodegradable soap (I like Dr. Bronners unscented) and a pack towel for wiping out and drying my cook pot. I also cut a small piece out of a scrubby for removing stuck-on food.
For a complete list of the gear I use for cooking, see My Backpacking Kitchen Gear post.
If you don’t store your food properly, you may attract wildlife to your campsite. For this reason, keeping food in a tent or on the ground near the tent is not recommended. Most people think of protecting food from bears, but small critters (such as chipmunks and mice) can be especially troublesome and will gnaw through backpacks and tents to get to food. Store food at least 100 feet from your camp area.
Hanging food: Most places will require food to be hung. In bear country, the hang will need to be 15 feet off the ground and 8 feet away from the base of the tree. In areas where bears aren’t an issue it is still necessary to do a critter hang to keep mice and other small animals out of your food. It’s not easy to find ideal locations for hanging food, so plan on taking extra time to find a suitable spot when you set up camp.
Bear canisters: In some backcountry locations, such as national parks, bear canisters may be required for storage of food, trash, and scented items. Some ranger stations loan or rent bear canisters in areas where they are required. While bears may be able to retrieve and move a bear canister, they will not be able to get inside. Don’t keep the canister in your tent. Instead, store it at least 100 feet away from your campsite. You can leave it on the ground, but be careful about leaving it in a place where it could roll off a cliff or into a stream if knocked around by curious wildlife or clumsy campers.
Bear bags: Specialty bear sacks are made from a high-density material that bears can’t tear apart and are much less bulky and lighter weight than bear canisters. A big advantage of a bear bags is that it doesn’t need to be hung as high in a tree as a traditional food bag. A lower branch on a tree or around the trunk of a tree is usually sufficient, just make sure you’ve properly closed the bag. Note that in areas where hard-sided bear canisters are required, a bear bag does not meet that requirement.
Bear wires: Some backcountry campsites have tall poles or wire pulley systems for hanging food, or metal food lockers for communal food storage. These are more common in heavy-use areas where bears are accustomed to looking for food.
Bear boxes: Usually found in popular locations in national parks in the Pacific Northwest, bear boxes are metal storage containers with doors that bears can’t open. Be sure to use these whenever they are available since they were likely installed after bears learned how to access food from backpackers.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for some items, which means that I make a small commission if a purchase is made. This does not change the price of the item. I am not sponsored by any gear companies and the items listed here are owned by me and unless otherwise stated, are purchased with my own funds. All gear reviews are honest and not paid for by any company. Thank you for supporting this blog!