Chow time is one of our favorite things about camping. Whether it’s a steamy pot of cheesy pasta or warm biscuits fresh out of the Dutch oven, good food makes for good times on the trail. Proper nutrition is key when you’re hiking and spending time in the outdoors because it nourishes your body and your spirits. But cooking takes a little work and the right kind of gear.
The term “mess kit” might seem old-fashioned. (Brief history lesson: “Mess” originally referred to a portion of food. As long ago as the 15th century, “mess” also meant a group of four people who sat to eat together.) Today’s camping and backpacking kits for cooking and eating offer a functional, neat modernization for a piece of timeless gear.
Often, the pieces (a cook pot, bowl, cup, etc.) nest together in a compact package that fits easily inside a backpack. These packages are generally lighter weight and more affordable than buying each piece individually. And with a mess kit, before each trip you can pick and choose exactly which pieces of the kit you want/need on the trail. Expect to pay from $10 to $30 for a basic kit.
BOWLS, SPOONS, CUPS
The bare minimum you need for eating on most outings is a bowl, a spoon and a cup. An unbreakable bowl works well for everything you’ll eat, and a spoon (or spork) will help you shovel almost anything into your face.
It’s not always best or even possible to cook by campfire. Open fires might be prohibited where you’re camping, maybe dry firewood is nowhere to be found, or perhaps you just want to have less impact on Mother Earth. That’s where backpacking stoves come in.
We recommend two basic kinds:
Canister (or cartridge) stoves: Small, lightweight and affordable stoves that screw onto canisters of pressurized gas (about $3 each). They’re easy to use and pretty much maintenance-free, but empty canisters aren’t refillable or recyclable and must be packed out.
Liquid-fuel stoves: Compact stoves that use refillable fuel bottles usually containing white gas or propane. They are extremely reliable and work well even in frigid temperatures. Liquid-fuel stoves are generally more expensive, slightly more complicated, and require regular maintenance and cleaning. But they’re also easier on the planet (and, eventually, your wallet) because the fuel bottles are refillable.
On most outings, pots and pans are shared to save both weight and money. Pots can be made of everything from sturdy stainless steel to aluminum and super-light titanium. Stainless steel is the most durable and heaviest; aluminum is affordable and lightweight but not so durable; and titanium cookware is durable and super-light but very expensive. Prices range from $15 to $100, and some come with a nonstick coating. Always look for a pot that comes with a lid, because it speeds up boiling times and often can be flipped over and used as a frying pan.
A camping classic for decades, the Dutch oven is a heavy cast-iron pot with a lid. Though much too heavy for backpacking, this is a must-have for base camps and car-camping trips. Placing the oven over a campfire, you can easily fry fish, cook stews and beans, and bake pies, bread and cobblers. A new Dutch oven must always be seasoned first, rubbed inside with grease or butter to make it nonstick and protect the metal from rusting.