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Ask any backpacker what makes a good sleep system and they will instantly come up with an answer. Rephrase the question on what are good backpacking kitchen essentials and you are likely to hear a deafening silence. Yet your kitchen is just as important as your sleep system.
But why is a backpacking kitchen as important as a sleep system? Your sleep system protects you from the elements. You keep rain, wind, and freezing cold at bay with a good tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. In a similar manner, a well-equipped backpacking kitchen system adds an additional layer of protection to your backpacking adventure enjoyment.
Backpacking can be strenuous and burn a lot of calories. Food must be replenished for your body to operate at maximum efficiency. A properly equipped backpacking kitchen gives you the ability to fix delicious, as well as nutritious, meals on the trail.
You need to rely on your gear
Gear weight, size, and functionality are the primary considerations. A properly equipped system should not take up too much room in your backpack.
In addition, it should not add so much weight that you struggle to carry it. And lastly, the wilderness environment tests backpacking gear to its limits.
A backpacker needs to rely on the gear carried. For example, you must be able to light your stove in cold and windy conditions. In addition, your food must be protected from animals and rodents.
A properly equipped backpacking kitchen contains for following:
- Oil & Spices
- Water Filtration
- Cleaning Supplies
- Food Storage
Do you really need a stove for backpacking?
At the very least, a backpacking stove is required to boil water. Pre-packaged freeze-dried meals only require boiling water. Other foods such as pasta side dishes and minute rice may require actual cooking.
Minimalist backpackers have even been known to ditch the stove entirely. Nuts, cheese, salami, crackers, trail bars, and dried fruits require no cooking.
So why does a backpacker need a stove? The reason centers on pleasure. It is more enjoyable to eat a hot meal at the end of a long day backpacking.
Moreover, a good cup of coffee or hot chocolate offers a perk-me-up in the morning. The Geez cannot function if he doesn’t have his morning cup of coffee. You can learn about the different methods for making coffee while backpacking in this post.
Types of backpacking Kitchen Stoves
There are four basic types of backpacking stoves based on the type of fuel burned. The type of stove you take depends on several things.
- Will temperatures be above freezing?
- Is wood readily available?
- Do fire permits allow wood burning outside improved campgrounds?
- Do wilderness regulations require a fuel shut-off valve on backpacking stoves?
- How windy will it be?
- How much weight are you willing to carry?
- Is fuel readily available at your hiking destination if you run out?
Canister stoves use propane/isobutane fuel canisters. They attach directly on top of the canister or with a gas hose connecting the canister to the stove. Some have piezoelectric ignition. Others require a match or lighter to ignite.
In addition to piezo ignition, more expensive backpacking stoves have micro fuel pressure regulators. A pressure regulator allows continuous output in colder weather and/or low fuel conditions. Also, simmering requires the stove to maintain a constant flame. A regulator enhances this ability.
Integrated canister stove systems, such as MSR’s Jetboil and Fire-Maple’s Personal Cooking System, are a cooking pot and stove combination. The pot includes a heat exchanger on the bottom. Because of this, water boils much faster and the stove uses less fuel.
Although heavier than a stand-alone stove, the integrated system’s high-efficiency design reduces wind interference and speeds boil times. The high-efficiency design boils water up to 30% faster. Thus, it burns less fuel than non-integrated stoves.
The Trangia Cooking System goes one step further. The Spirit Burner burns propane/isobutane in addition to liquid fuels. Or you can get an alcohol burner for it.
Made in Sweden, the Trangia is a stormproof backpacking kitchen cooking system. It comes complete with a frying pan/lid and cooking pot. A fellow hiking group member uses this product. He made a barbeque grill out of an electric stove burner cover. Everyone was jealous when he cooked the steaks he brought for the first night.
Stand-alone stoves, such as MSR’s Pocket Rocket Deluxe and the Soto Windmaster, are popular on the trail. Each has piezo ignition, micro fuel pressure regulators, and a burner design that is wind resistant.
And lastly, there is an abundance of low-cost canister backpacking stoves on the market. These generally come without all the whistles and bells of the more expensive ones. Features such as piezo ignition, fuel pressure regulators, and quality are often lacking. That being said, low-cost canister stoves boil water just as efficiently. You just need a match or butane lighter to ignite them.
The downside to canister stoves is the fuel is slightly more expensive. Also, fuel canisters can be harder to find internationally.
2. Liquid Fuel
Liquid fuel stoves, such as MSR’s Whisperlite and Primus OmniFuel, are able to burn gasoline, diesel, white gas, and kerosene. These stoves are generally heavier than other types of backpacking stoves.
The main advantage of liquid fuel stoves is their ability to burn easily sourced fuels. This can be a real benefit when backpacking in remote locations or internationally. Propane/Isobutane canisters are not always available. However, diesel and gasoline are. In addition, freezing weather does not lessen their efficiency.
Unlike traditional backpacking stoves that use gas or liquid fuel, alcohol stoves use readily available denatured alcohol, ethanol, or methanol. Even common rubbing alcohol can be used in a pinch. Alcohol does not require a special storage container. In the event of leakage, the alcohol evaporates quickly, leaving no lingering smell or residue.
Minimalists and ultralight backpackers tend to favor alcohol stoves. Stoves such as the Trangia Spirit Burner and Evernew require separate pot support. Whereas, the Vargo Triad includes an integrated stand to hold your pot. Being fashioned out of thin metal, alcohol stoves weigh next to nothing. There are no moving parts to break. In addition, alcohol fuel is relatively cheap to buy.
Alcohol stoves do not have a fuel valve to adjust the flame or shut it off. Therefore the stove burns at full flame until the fuel in the reservoir is completely used up.
Alcohol stoves cannot simmer food because the burner is always at full flame. They are best suited for boiling water. Backpackers adjust the time it takes to boil water for meals by measuring the amount of alcohol poured into the reservoir.
Because alcohol stoves cannot be shut off once lit, some wilderness areas prohibit their use. In addition, fire regulations often do the same. If the stove is knocked over the alcohol spills out and continues to burn. This creates a fire hazard.
Wood backpacking cookstoves are also lightweight. You don’t have to carry your fuel with you. Gather wood and twigs for the stove at your campsite.
The drawback to wood stoves is fuel availability. Not every campsite has burnable fuel available. Hiking at high elevations and desert adventures limits the availability of wood and twigs.
Also, wilderness regulations may ban wood gathering. Add to that, fire restrictions may prohibit wood-burning stoves. And lastly, wood-burning deposits soot on your pots and pans. You must keep both the stove and cookware in a dedicated stuff sack to prevent soot from getting all over everything.
Types of FUEL for your backpacking kitchen essentials
A properly equipped backpacking kitchen essential includes fuel sufficient for the wilderness adventure. The most common fuel sources include propane/Isobutane canisters, liquid fuels, alcohol, and wood. Wood is the only fuel source that doesn’t need to be purchased.
1. Compressed Gas
Gas canisters used for backpacking contain a propane/isobutene mix. The mixture of fuels serves a dual purpose. Because of propane’s inherent pressure, it requires a heavy-walled container.
That makes propane not suitable for backpacking. By mixing the two fuels, a much lighter-weight canister is achieved. Moreover, butane does not ignite or burn well when cold. The addition of propane allows the mixture to burn well in colder environments.
Propane/Isobutane canisters can be purchased in three different sizes. Each fuel canister contains approximately 3 ½, 8, or 16 ounces of fuel. The length of your backpacking adventure, as well as how much fuel your stove burns, will determine how much fuel to take.
2. Liquid Fuel
Liquid petroleum fuels include white gas (Coleman camping fuel), gasoline, and kerosene. Some stoves are able to burn all three fuels. These are designated as multi-fuel stoves. Unlike compressed gas canisters that are naturally pressurized, liquid fuel stoves require the fuel container to be manually pressurized.
Liquid fuels are more suited for sub-freezing temperatures. White gas stoves will operate in temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees. However, Propane/Isobutane stoves falter at sub-freezing temperatures.
Check your local REI or sporting goods store to purchase.
Denatured alcohol is the fuel of choice for many backpackers. Alcohol is readily available at hardware stores. A lightweight Nalgene container is all that is needed to store the alcohol. If it happens to spill the alcohol evaporated without leaving a residual smell on clothing or other items in your backpack.
The disadvantage of using alcohol for backpacking is three-fold.
- Alcohol does not burn as hot.
- It takes a minute or two to generate a cooking flame.
- The stove must be protected from wind or the flame will blow out.
- And lastly, the flame cannot be regulated for simmering foods.
Wood can be used to boil water and cook food as well. However, there are a number of reasons most backpackers avoid wood as a fuel source.
First and foremost, fire restrictions may prevent open flame fires. Recent forest fires have added to those restrictions. In addition, wood fires are hard to start in wet weather. A hot meal is impossible if you can’t get the wood to light. And finally, wood is not always available.
Backpacking often crosses the tree line at high elevations. Also, desert adventures and canyoneering make finding fuel sources next to impossible.
Cookware For Your Backpacking Kitchen System
The sparse reality of backpacking is quickly realized. Everything must be carried with you in your backpack.
Therefore you don’t have the luxury of having multiple choices to cook with. At most, you carry a pot with a lid. Sometimes you carry a frying pan as well.
The canister stove systems (such as Jetboil, FireMaple, and Trangia) include the pot as part of the system. Since most backpackers merely boil water, the included pot is sufficient. Coffee, hot chocolate, oatmeal, and freeze-dried meals only require hot water; actual cooking isn’t normally required.
All other stove types require at least a pot for boiling water. A lid for the pot, although not required, is useful for keeping dirt and insects out. Moreover, water boils quicker with less fuel used if a lid is on the pot. Also, a frying pan can be used to heat food when your pot is in use.
Titanium and aluminum cookware are the best choices
Titanium weighs the least and does not impart any flavor to your food. Although bulletproof, stay away from stainless steel cookware. It just weighs too much for backpacking.
There are many choices in cookware. The Geez prefers the Toaks 1100ml Titanium pot/fry pan combo. It is large enough to fit your stove and fuel canister inside. In addition, the frying pan is designed as a lid for the pot so it doesn’t take up extra room in your backpack.
I like to fish when backpacking. If I happen to catch any I need a frying pan to cook them. I also like scrambled eggs and pancakes once in a while. They are so much easier to cook in a frying pan.
One of the problems with pots and pans is they get very hot. Even if they have insulated handles, I cannot count how many times I have burned my fingers. A titanium pot gripper tool solves that problem.
A spatula and a spoon for cooking finish the list of backpacking cookware. Although not required, both a small spatula and a long-handled cooking spoon are nice to have.
TABLEWARE is a backpacking kitchen essential
The standard rule of thumb is you need a plate, cup, bowl, and silverware. However, backpackers seldom take all of these items. Weight and space requirements are the deciding factors. A long-handled spoon, or spork, and a cup are all you really need.
Silverware can be purchased in a set. The Toaks titanium silverware set weighs 1.7 ounces and includes a knife, fork, and spoon. Many forego the silverware set and use their pocket knife and a spork (spoon/fork combination) instead. A long-handled spork is especially useful for eating directly from freeze-dried meal pouches. It can reach the bottom of the meal pouch without getting your hand and fingers dirty.
Most backpackers eat directly from a freeze-dried meal pouch or cooking pot. Face it, who wants to clean an extra plate when the pot already has food in it.
As for a cup and bowl, I have a GSI Outdoors Infinity backpacking mug that works for both. It has an insulated sleeve so hot coffee stays warm.
Use the mug as a bowl for oatmeal in the morning. Just remove the polypropylene mug from the insulated cozy and use it as a bowl for oatmeal in the morning.
And lastly, the mug can be used as a measuring cup since it has quantity markings engraved on it.
OIL & SPICES to spice it up
Backpacking food doesn’t have to be bland. Salt and pepper are common everyday spices. Garlic salt is another. They enhance the flavor of most foods. Pan-fried fish are delicious. But without salt and pepper, even fresh-caught fish is bland.
Other spices are equally tasty. For example, cinnamon and brown sugar sprinkled on rehydrated apple slices make a quick treat for dessert. If you like hot sauce, Shirricha can be dehydrated and used as needed to spice up your meals.
In addition, you need oil and butter as well. Butter adds flavor to foods. Titanium frying pans require oil or butter to keep food from burning. Cleaning burnt food stuck to the bottom of a pan is no fun.
Both oil and butter are nutritionally dense. They provide more calories per ounce than most foods. Backpacking is strenuous exercise. You require extra calories to maintain peak energy.
Add Water Filtration to Your List of Essentials
Clean water is not only necessary for drinking but also while cooking. Water sources in many wilderness
settings are polluted.
Boiling water for cooking meals will kill harmful pathogens. However, boiling
water for drinking and cooking purposes uses extra fuel. Backpackers try to minimize weight whenever
possible. Therefore, filtering water is a better alternative.
A water filter system, such as the Sawyer Squeeze or Platypus GravityWorks, filters out sediment,
microplastics, bacteria, and protozoa from your drinking water. The filter membrane stops them from
flowing through with the clean water. As a result, your water is safe to drink and good for cooking.
RELATED: How to Purify Water When Backpacking
CLEANING SUPPLIES to add to your backpacking kitchen
After finishing meals dirty dishes must be cleaned. Seasoned backpackers often don’t bother with cleaning them. Silverware rinsed with cold water or licked clean works just fine.
Use sand to clean the majority of foodstuff off pots and pans before rinsing with water. However, germs still thrive in the wilderness. You don’t want a case of “Montezuma’s Revenge” spoiling your trip.
Biodegradable dish soap, a 2 x 3-inch piece of Scotch-Brite scrub sponge, and a small micro-fiber towel to dry your dishes complete the list of cleaning supplies.
For the ultimate in luxury when backpacking, a collapsible kitchen sink such as the ones made by Sea to Summit makes cleaning your dishes a breeze. And it works for more than just washing dishes.
For instance, you can use your kitchen sink to freshen up and wash the trail dust off at the end of the day. Or perhaps you need to soak a sprained ankle. Although you can live without one, a kitchen sink is nice to take with you.
These items make cleaning your dirty dishes easy. Just make sure to follow wilderness backpacking rules. Clean dishes at least 100 feet away from lakes, rivers, and streams to prevent contamination.
Backpacking FOOD STORAGE for your safety
There are hungry critters out there when backpacking. They want to eat your food as much as you do. Don’t let the lack of proper food storage ruin your outdoor pursuits.
Food thieves come in all sizes. From the smallest mouse to the infamous bear, your food is a worthy target. Don’t think for a minute they won’t try to steal it.
When the Geez started backpacking in the 70s, hanging food from a tree limb was the norm. I could hike for hours on end and never see another soul. Backpacking trails are now so congested that quota systems are in place in many areas.
Backpackers still use the tree hanging method. However, bears are much smarter these days. People food is no longer safe from wilderness critters. Because of the sheer number of hikers in the backcountry, wildlife frequently wander into campsites.
Bears have figured out that food sacks hanging in trees have tasty treats in them. Therefore, plan to use other food storage methods for your backpacking kitchen system. But, if you want to try this method use this handy hanging system.
Yosemite National Park and parts of Sequoia and Kings Canyon require approved bear canisters, such as Bearikade Weekender. Even then, some bears have figured out how to defeat them. The BearVault is the most well-known. Because they resemble a stool, they provide seating at camp. Unfortunately, they weigh 2 pounds or more.
Also, check if you are backpacking in a National Park, the BearVault may not be approved for all parks, or in areas like the Adirondacks.
Some of the approved storage containers come in different sizes. Most will easily hold 5 days worth of food on the trail, but the larger ones can hold 7 days or more.
At night set your bear canister at least 100 feet away from your campsite. If possible, wedge the food storage container between rocks to make it harder for bears and other animals to mess with it. This will make it harder for a bear to roll it away. A favorite tactic of educated bears is to roll the containers to a steep cliff or drop-off and let gravity crack the container open.
In addition, place reflective tape on the bear canister. It makes it easier to find if it has been disturbed.
Ursack has a product line of bear and rodent-proof bags. Unlike the bear canister, these bags are extremely lightweight. The Ursack Major weighs in at a mere 8 ounces. The Ursack AllMighty weighs just 13 ounces.
Both food storage bags carry the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) certification. This means that a Grizzly bear was unable to rip the bag open during a full hour of trying. A quarter-inch hole poked in the bag with the bear’s claws was the only damage to the bag.
There’s no longer a need to choose between bear and critter protection.
The AllMitey is virtually puncture-proof, making it rodent-proof as well. Not only will it keep out the bear’s teeth and claws, but it will also prevent mice, raccoons, squirrels, marmots, and other sharp-toothed critters from getting your food. This makes the Almighty the overall choice for food protection even though it weighs slightly more.
Coupled with an Opsak odor-proof bag, Ursack food storage bags become virtually blind to blind to animals’ keen sense of smell. In addition, add an aluminum liner. The liner will keep the bear from sinking its teeth into the bag and crushing the food.
The best way to store the bag at night is to tie it to a tree. Tie it around the trunk of a tree or hang it from a tree limb. In addition, you can wedge it between rocks.
Unfortunately several National Parks, Yosemite included, do not allow Ursack. This is truly a travesty since the bag has IGBC certification. Old geezers like me want to backpack with as little base weight as possible.
If backpacking in non-bear wilderness territories, protection from scavengers is all you need. Therefore, a RatSack Cache Bag is ideal. They are made in the U.S. of knitted stainless steel mesh. It doesn’t rust or break down and protects your food from sharp-tooth critters.
The stainless steel mesh bag includes a grommet at the top. Hang it from a tree limb to prevent ground-dwelling critters from messing with it. Moreover, if your food is protected from water and moisture you can tie paracord to the grommet and toss it in the water.
Sometimes a dry sack is all that is needed is to protect your food from water and moisture. An ultralight dry sack is perfect for this. One or more sealable plastic bags can protect your food. However, a dry sack sized to the amount of food you are taking is better.
Dry sacks, or dry bags as they are often called, are used extensively in kayaking and rafting adventures. They protect not only gear but food as well. Backpacking in the rain also presents problems. Moisture can make food soggy. Soggy food is extremely unappetizing.
A well-equipped kitchen is not just a luxury, but essential when backpacking. Unless you strive to become a “gram weenie” and forego hot food altogether, you need to consider backpacking kitchen gear.
You can tailor the amount and type of gear you take for each individual adventure. For example, eating freeze-dried meals exclusively only requires very few items. Cooking meals on the trail requires more.
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