When you're camping, eating is pretty paramount. For one thing, hiking around with (or even without) a 35-pound (15-kilogram) pack on your back will make you work up an appetite for something more filling than raisins. For another, there isn't a whole lot to do in the forest once the sun starts to slip behind the trees. So, you might as well use that last bit of daylight to cook something warm and delicious to eat around the campfire. Thank goodness there's a lot of great cooking gear out there to make being a camp chef an entertaining culinary experiment.
As with most camping equipment, cooking tools come in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices. Outdoor stores and online retailers offer dozens of stoves, pots, cutlery pieces, dishes and cleaning supplies designed to meet a variety of needs. What gear you choose will depend on certain factors -- like the types of meals you'll be cooking and the size of the group you'll be feeding. And then there's the biggest determining factor -- whether you'll be car camping or backpacking. Experts recommend that hikers carry no more than 15 to 25 percent of their total body mass on their backs, so every ounce you can shave from the weight of your cooking tools will help you meet that goal (and reduce the agony you'll experience on an uphill climb) [source: Curtis].
Delicious outdoor cuisine starts with the heat from a great camp stove. Companies like Coleman and Camp Chef make portable range tops, grills, ovens and even smokers, some of which cost more than $300. Don't expect to carry these cookers very far from the car, though -- some models weigh as much as 85 pounds (39 kilograms).
There are three main types of single-burner stoves for backpackers looking for a smaller alternative, most of which weigh 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) or fewer:
- Liquid fuel stoves: These use readily available fuels like white gas, kerosene, or alcohol, but they don't simmer well and require more maintenance than other stoves. Also, you'll need to factor in the weight of the fuel bottles, which will add 4 or 5 ounces to your pack. Models include the MSR WhisperLite, Primus OmniFuel and Soto Muka, which can cost anywhere from $80 to $160.
- Compressed gas stoves: These burn butane, isobutane or propane. While they don't work well at colder temperatures, they're easy to light and offer sensitive temperature control. They require little maintenance, and both the fuel and the stoves are very lightweight. Examples of this type include the MSR Pocket Rocket, Jetboil, Primus Yellowstone, and Soto OD-1R, which run between $30 and $150.
- Solid fuel stoves: These burn wood or flammable pellets. They're easy to start and require virtually no maintenance, but they have no temperature control and are too small for use with large groups. Models include the Esbit Pocket Stove and Sierra Stove, and cost between $30 and $130.
Before you set out -- don't forget the matches!
Pots and Pans
Obviously the stove won't do you much good unless you have some pots and pans to use with it. The size, type and number that you bring on a trip depends on your cooking style and the number of people you're dining with. If all you need to do is boil water for dehydrated food, then one small pot will probably suffice. But if your trail food is a bit more gourmet, you'll need two good pots and a frying pan. For one to three people, bring a 1.5-liter and a 2.5-liter pot; for groups of six, pack a 2-liter and a 3-liter pot; for eight or more, try a 2-liter and a 4-liter pot.
Backpacking pots and pans are made mainly from three materials:
- Aluminum: Pots made from this metal are strong, light and cheap. They do, however, tend to scratch easily, and food readily sticks to the surface making them difficult to clean. A 2-liter aluminum pot sells for about $15 or $20.
- Stainless steel: This material is slightly more heavy-duty than aluminum, but it's heavier and doesn't distribute heat well. The price is similar to that of aluminum -- about $15 to $20 for a 2-liter pot.
- Titanium: Pots cast from titanium are durable, easy-to-clean and lighter than those made from other metals. The downside? The cost; they can run you about $50 a pot.
Non-stick coatings can make pots easier to clean; just be sure not to scour them with harsh abrasives.
Camping dishes like cups, bowls and plates are much more versatile and durable than the ones we use at home. They're designed to save space and serve multiple purposes, all while surviving the rigors of the great outdoors. Cups have a number of convenient uses. They're great for drinking beverages that are too hot for regular water bottles, and some campers even boil water directly in them. Cups can also be used to measure food or liquid, and backpackers looking to save weight may even eat out of them. Those who prefer a more traditional container from which to eat may pack a bowl. While most are nothing out of the ordinary, some are collapsible and have a bottom that doubles as a cutting board. Camping plates are great for those who stay near the car, but most backpackers see them as a luxury and leave them at home.
Like pots and pans, dishes are made with a variety of different materials. Cups and bowls cast from a plastic like polypropylene typically weigh about 2.5 ounces (71 grams) and cost around $3. Stainless steel dishes are a little heavier, measuring 2.5 to 3.5 ounces (71 to 99 grams), and a bit more expensive at $7 to $10. The lightest cups and bowls are made of titanium, weighing less than 2 ounces (57 gram), but they're also the most expensive, costing about $15 for a bowl and $40 for a cup. After a few hiking trips, you'll quickly determine what combination of camping dishes you prefer.
In the rush to get your pack loaded before a long trip, one of the easiest things to forget is your cutlery. This simple but extremely important cooking tool comes in a few different forms and is made from several different types of materials. Some camping cutlery consists of a fork, knife and spoon set resembling what you might have on your table at home. Another design, known as a "spork," combines the scoop of a spoon and the stab of a fork either on the same end or on opposite ends of the utensil. Which option you bring depends on your desire for weight savings and personal preference.
As with pots and dishes, the material from which cutlery is made affects its weight and price, though all tip the scale at less than 1 ounce (28 grams). Some are made from a plastic such as Lexan, Tritan or Acetal. These are cheap, costing $2 or so for a spork, but are prone to scratches, which can hold dirt and bacteria. Aluminum is generally lighter and more durable, but at around $7 costs a bit more. Titanium is also lighter and more heavy-duty, but is the most expensive at a cost of about $10. Regardless of the utensil you ultimately choose, just remember to pack it!
Your meal isn't complete until the dishes are washed and put away, right? Thankfully there are a few cleaning supplies designed specifically for camping that will keep your pots, pans, dishes and cutlery looking as shiny as the day you bought them.
Most campers use some combination of four tools to clean their dishes: soap, a small scouring sponge, a small strainer or bandana, and a dishtowel. First, heat some sterile water with your stove and pour some into each dirty dish. If the food residue is especially stubborn, squirt a little bit of biodegradable camp soap into the dish; otherwise, simply scrub it away with the small scouring sponge. Pour the water through the strainer or bandana so you can pack out the remaining food particles. Finally, dry your dishes with the dishtowel or lay them on the towel to air dry. Camping outfitters like REI, MSR, Discovery and Manduka make towels from a polyester and nylon blend that dry quickly and come in a variety of sizes. You should be able to pick up all of these supplies for less than $30.
Remember to wash dishes 150 to 200 feet (46 to 61 meters) from a lake or stream and your campsite in order to reduce your impact on aquatic habitat and protect your sleeping quarters from unwanted animal visitors -- like grizzly bears!
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- Curtis, Rick. The Backpacker's Field Manual. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005.
- Fullerton, Genny and Katie Harrell. "How to Wash Dishes in Camp." Backpacker Magazine. 2011. (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.backpacker.com/skills-slideshow-how-to-wash-dishes-in-camp/slideshows/94?
- Garcia, Wendi. "Backpacking Cookware Buying Guide." Hikingandbackpacking.com. 2012. (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.hikingandbackpacking.com/articlebackpackcookguide.html
- Hall, Adrienne. Backpacking: A Woman's Guide. Camden, Maine: Ragged Mountain Press, 1998.
- Seattle Backpacker's Magazine. "10 Backcountry Kitchen Essentials." Nov. 19, 2011. (Jan. 25, 2012) http://seattlebackpackersmagazine.com/2011/11/19/10-backcountry-kitchen-essentials/
- The Backpacker Editors. "Gear: Accessories." Backpacker Magazine. 2011. (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.backpacker.com/backpacking_101_gear_accessories/gear/12152
- The Backpacker Editors. "Packing List: Kitchen Kit." Backpacker Magazine. 2011. (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.backpacker.com/backpacking_101_packing_list_kitchen_kit/gear/12165