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Backpacking - How to Choose Backpacking Cookware

While cookware may not be an essential item during hiking trips, which can be completed within a day, it does play an important role when traveling long distances or on trips that are over a day long. With a mess kit, the scout can purify water as well as prepare meals so they can keep their energy level up. Like tents, stoves, and backpacks, cookware comes in different materials and designs. Each scout should select the kit that they are most comfortable with by determining what is needed and also the time and effort put in maintaining the kit. Compared to the other gears used on a backpacking trip, a mess kit is one of the least expensive items; however, depending on the kit that is selected, it can still pass $100.00. Learn how to choose the proper backpacking cookware based on your appetite and style.

Pack Size
The first step in deciding on the type of mess kit the scout should obtain is to decide on the size of the kit. This varies depending on the type of trip the scout will be participating in, the size of the meals that are being prepared, and whether the scout will be cooking in a group or independently. At the very least, each scout should have the following items:
  • Pot with lid
  • Cup
  • Utensils (Spoon/Fork and Knife)
  • Plate (if lid cannot be used as a plate)
  • Handle or pot holder (if one is not included on the pot)

As noted above, the basic items are relatively short; it will be enough to prepare basic meals on the trip. More advanced meals or situations where large meals are being prepared may require additional cookware. To assist consumers, many cookware manufacturers create Cook Sets where the necessary items required in a mess kit are preassembled. Although it can be a bit more expensive compared to building a mess kit yourself, Cook Sets are normally designed to save space by having multiple pots, pans, and lids nest into the size of the larges pot. Some Cook Sets are even designed to fit the manufacturer's stove and utensils into the nested pot, thereby saving more room.

By selecting different cookware independently, the scout can create their own combination and customize their gear based on their requirements. In addition, scouts can use cookware made from different materials that suit their needs. For instance, a scout may have a pot made from one material that transfers heat very efficiently for boiling water and a large pot/pan made from a different material for cooking their meal. This can not be done if the scout purchased a preassembled Cook Set since most Cook Sets are designed with one primary material.

The material in which the cook kit is designed with is an important factor when choosing the right cook kit. Different cook kits are designed with different materials, each with their pros and cons. Each scout should decide which factors are important to them before selecting a cook kit.

Plastic is cheapest compared to the other materials. It is light weight and non abrasive, which makes it great for cookware with a non stick coating. Although it can be cheap and great for non stick, plastic is not as durable as the other materials and are not as heat resistant as metal cookware. Another disadvantage for plastic is that this type of cookware tends to retain food odors from previous meals which may taint your current meal.

Cast Iron
Cast iron cookware has long been used in base camps and can also be used on backpacking trips. This type of cookware is one of the most durable materials that is used for cooking. Maintaining cast iron cookware is also relatively easy, and as long as the scout doesn't drop the cast iron cookware, it can last for years to come. The primary drawback for cast iron cookware is its weight. Cast iron cookware is extremely heavy, so you won't find many backpackers using cast iron cookware. Another drawback of cast iron is that it does not transfer heat well. The cast iron cookware will absorb a lot of heat before it transfers the heat to your food, as such it will consume a lot of your fuel when cooking the meal.

Aluminum is a popular material in backpacking cookware because of its weight. Compared to cast iron, where a ten inch skillet weighs over five pounds, a nine inch skillet only weighs seven ounces; you can see why this material is so popular. Aluminum is also extremely durable and transfers heat very well. While being extremely light in weight, aluminum does have a few drawbacks. Aluminum will warp if it gets too hot and will breakdown when exposed to acidic foods. There are also concerns that using aluminum cookware may lead to Alzheimer's; however the Food and Drug Administration says that no health risks are associated with the use of aluminum pots, pans or skillets. They further noted that an adult consuming antacid will accumulate over 200 times more aluminum than using aluminum cookware.

With the drawbacks noted above, manufacturers have developed a type of material which is more durable and safer than regular aluminum; enter the anodized aluminum cookware. Anodized aluminum is aluminum that has gone through the anodization process to increase the thickness of the natural oxide layer on the surface of the aluminum. This makes the cookware much more durable and reduces the amount of aluminum leached into the food while being light in weight. Anodized aluminum has a non-stick surface created by the oxide layer which makes clean-up much easier.

Stainless Steel
If you are looking for something that is tough and will last for years, look no further than stainless steel. Stainless steel is durable and won't crack when dropped, unlike cast iron cookware. Compared to aluminum, stainless steel is tougher where it will not warp under extreme heat and is less likely to scratch. While stainless steel sounds like a winner in all categories, it does have some setbacks, specifically it's weight. While it is not as heavy as cast iron, stainless steel is much heavier than plastic and aluminum. Another setback that stainless steel has is its heat distribution. Stainless steel does not distribute heat in a uniformly manner, so users of stainless steel cookware should be ready for hot spots. This in turn will cause food to burn and make clean up more difficult.

Titanium is often considered the ideal material for backpacking cookware because of its weight. Its weight saving even exceeds that of aluminum; but not by much. A 3.8 liter pot made of aluminum will weigh approximately 16 ounces where a 4 liter pot made of titanium will weigh a bit more than 15 ounces. For minimalists the .5 ounce per liter difference between titanium and aluminum is worth the extra cash for titanium. Another factor why many backpackers select titanium is that it is tougher than aluminum and is excellent for boiling water because of the thin walls of titanium cookware. The main drawback of titanium cookware is its price. It can easily be three times more expensive than aluminum. Titanium also acts like stainless steel in the way that it does not distribute heat evenly which, in turn, causes hot spots.

As noted above, there are different materials in which cookware is made and designed of. Each material has their positives and negatives. The table below breaks down the positive factor with the negative factor for your review.

Material Advantage Disadvantage
  • Cheap
  • Light weight
  • Non Abrasive
  • Not heat resistant (can only be used in utensils)
  • Retain food odors
Cast Iron
  • Durable
  • Easy to maintain
  • Heavy
  • May crack when dropped
  • Durable
  • Light Weight
  • Affordable
  • Breaks down when exposed to acidic foods
  • Dents and scratches easily
Stainless Steel
  • Durable
  • Affordable
  • Heavier than aluminum
  • Does not distribute heat evenly
  • Durable
  • Extremely Light Weight
  • Expensive
  • Does not distribute heat evenly

Other Factors
Aside from deciding on the cook kit's material, there are other factors that should be looked at. These factors are listed below:
  • Lids
  • Pot Size
  • Quantity of Pots and Pans
  • Pot and Pan Lifters
  • Accessories

The cookware that the scout decides on getting should have a lid. Having a lid on the pot/cup that is being used will dramatically increase the efficiency of the stove, thereby reducing the quantity of the fuel used to create the meal. Also, keep in mind that many manufacturers design lids that can double as a frying pan. This will allow the scout to reduce the weight of the overall cookware as well as save room in their pack. For scouts who decide to build their own cook set, please ensure that the lids fit the pots before the backpacking trip. Different manufacturers may have different sizes and having the proper lid will help when you are cooking your meal.

Pot size is also another factor in selecting a backpacking cookware. Remember a backpacking backpack's room is limited. As such the size of the pot should be determined by the scout's appetite. If the scout has a big appetite, it would be best to have a larger pot. Another thing to keep in mind is the overall size of the pot. The wider the pot, the easier it is to cook in. If the pot is the size of a cup, it would be extremely difficult to do much, other than boiling water.

Quantity of Pots and Pans
The quantity of pots and pans that are included in a cookware is also dependent on the scout's cooking style. Some scouts may like at least two pots for themselves where other scouts may not like the extra weight and would prefer having only one pot. Normally one pot, with lid, is sufficient for two scouts. Additional pots may be needed if the scout is cooking in a patrol.

Pot and Pan Lifters
Unlike traditional pots and pans, the handles, or lifters, are not always connected to the pot or pan. Many manufactures design their pots and pans without handles. In order to lift the pot or pan, the scout would need a lifter which looks like a pair of pliers designed for the cookware. While these are very durable, scouts tend to forget them and would normally have to improvised. Another design that manufacturers use are folding wire handles. They perform the same purpose as the lifters but these are connected to the pot/pan. While convenient, these handles are not as sturdy as lifters and have a chance of breaking. A scout should decide on which type of handle/lifter before selecting their cook kit.

Accessories in this case are utensils, cups, plates, and any additional items that you may want to bring. Many preassembled cook kits now come with their own plates, cups, and utensils. While some may find that this adds to the weight of the cook set, many others may find this convenient. If accessories are a must when deciding on a cook kit, keep in mind that accessories can be purchased independently. The only thing that the scout needs to check is whether the cook kit and its accessories can be made to fit into one small package.

There isn't a specific guide for determining the number of pieces required in a mess kit, the size of each pot, or even the material in which the cook kit is made out of. It mainly depends on how the scout uses the kit, and whether the scout has the room in the pack or whether they are willing to have a kit that is a bit heavier. Scouts who have a heartier appetite may require larger pots to cook larger portions, while scouts who like to cook multiple items for each meal may need multiple pots. These are all factors that each scout should think of before selecting a kit. The main goal is to select a kit that the scout is comfortable with because a good cook kit can keep the energy up on the trail.