Go Light, Cook Right
Backpacking Kitchen Essentials
Just because you’re headed into the wilderness for a multi-day backpacking trip doesn’t mean you have to forage for your own food like some survival guru or chew on crumbly granola bars until you’ve ground your taste buds into submission. For seasoned backpackers, there’s a science to proper trailside cooking when you’re miles from the creature comforts you’ve become accustomed to at home.
But before you can whip up a delicious meal after a long day on the trail, you’re going to need the right items in your backpacking kitchen arsenal, so you don’t pack unnecessary weight or forget cooking necessities when you’re far from civilization. That’s why we’ve created this list of backpacking kitchen essentials, so you have everything needed to cook a hot, filling meal after burning calories on the trail.
1. Lightweight Backpacking Stoves
Serving as the foundation for any backpacking kitchen is a compact stove that’s easy to pack, especially compared to the larger two-burner stoves you’d take on a car camping trip. Not only do these lightweight backpacking stoves free up valuable real estate inside your backpack, but they’re powerful enough to cook a range of pre-packaged meals and boil water in only a couple of minutes. Seeing there’s a wide variety of backpacking stoves on the market, you’ll first need to identify the specific environments and seasons you’ll be using the stove in before finding what’s right for your needs.
Lightweight canister stoves powered by a mixture of propane and butane/isobutane fuel are the most popular choice among backpackers, seeing their versatility at cooking a number of tasty meals, fast boiling times, and replaceable fuel canisters easily found at sporting goods stores. These stoves boast a lightweight, compact design that screws into your canister of fuel, plus they often fold up to save space inside your pack. However, they’re more difficult to operate in the cold, so we’d recommend keeping the fuel canister inside your sleeping bag or puffy jacket for easier operation when the mercury drops below 40 degrees.
Looking at some of the best options on the market, we really enjoy Jetboil Stoves for their rapid boiling times, thanks to Jetboil ingeniously combining the cooking cup and stove burner into the same vessel to increase thermal efficiency. Some of our favorite stoves from Jetboil include the MiniMo Stove for its impressive heat output and compact design, as well as the larger Sumo Stove that comes with a 1.8-liter FluxRing cooking cup for easily feeding a couple of hungry backpackers.
Other popular canister stoves include the MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove for its ultra-lightweight design and ability to boil water in as little as 3.5 minutes, the Snow Peak GigaPower Stove Auto Ignition for its 10,000 BTU output and compact design that folds into an included carrying case, as well as the Optimus Elektra FE Cook System for its attachable windscreen that reduces heat loss in blustery conditions.
Liquid Fuel Stoves
If you’re the type of backpacker who’s ticking off higher peaks and trekking across northern environments where temperatures are downright frigid, you’ll want to pack a liquid fuel stove. Liquid fuel stoves burn more consistently in cold conditions, thanks to their white gas fuel source. Although these stoves run off a refillable fuel bottle that’s able to use kerosene, diesel, or gasoline fuel, they’re most commonly filled with white gas. That’s because white gas burns cleaner than other fuel types and provides a high amount of BTUs in extremely cold conditions.
Take a good look at liquid fuel stoves made by popular brands like MSR, Primus, and Optimus. In particular, the MSR WhisperLite International Multi-Fuel Stove is one of the most versatile we’ve experienced with its larger diameter fuel line that resists clogging, even when you’re using less-than-ideal fuel sources like diesel or gasoline (usually while traveling to distant countries). Also, it’s lightweight, tipping the scales at a mere 10.9 ounces, so you’ll be able to travel anywhere with this stove. Another great option is the Optimus Nova Stove for backpackers facing extreme conditions. It’s relatively lightweight at only 15 ounces and uses a quick-priming action for a roaring flame in very little time, even in the coldest of conditions.
Relatively new to the market, BioLite’s CampStove 2 frees you from relying on a fuel canister on lengthy backpacking trips by using readily available fuel found in the forest, such as twigs or smaller pieces of wood. You can purchase BioLite BioFuel Pellets if you’re traveling to an area devoid of twigs or wood, such as a barren desert or grassland environment. The stove uses a patented combustion technology that burns off wood smoke before it gets a chance to escape and affect your food’s flavor, complete with a built-in fan that gives you four different speeds to control the flame size.
The CampStove 2 boils one liter of water in as little as 4.5 minutes with the KettlePot, which conveniently nests on top and doubles as a carrying case for your stove. To grill and cook food, you’ll have to purchase the Portable Grill that’s good for a number of burgers, steaks, chicken breasts, or fish fillets. Another cool feature is the CampStove 2’s ability to transform heat energy into charging power for your portable electronics, which is stored within its 2600mAh battery for USB charging at any time.
2. Compact Cookware
For the sake of efficiency and comfort, we recommend leaving bulky pots and pans at home. You’ll thank us when you’re not hauling excess pounds down the trail, especially across rugged, physically demanding terrain.
Our favorite compact cookware includes the Optimus Terra Solo Cook Set for backpackers going especially light, as it weighs a mere 7.3 ounces without compromising cooking performance with its non-stick anodized aluminum pot and fry pan. Snow Peak’s Trek 900 Titanium Cookset is another stellar choice, as it’s made from titanium that’s lighter than aluminum, but without sacrificing durability. This titanium cookset includes a 30-ounce pot for boiling water needed for pre-packaged meals, as well as a frying pan that doubles as a lid when you need to simmer a stew.
If you’re seeking something a bit more substantial, the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist comes with a non-stick anodized aluminum pot and strainer lid, as well as two bowls, mugs with sip tops, and Foons (i.e. fork/spoon hybrids).
3. Camp Cutlery and Cooking Utensils
Unless you’re keen on eating your food with your hands or using cutlery from home, you’re going to want to pick up some lightweight eating utensils for dining without compromise. You can get as minimalist as you’d like, opting for a single spork and a bowl or go all-out with every eating utensil, bowl, and plate imaginable. Ultimately, it’s up to your particular needs and circumstances, ranging from the minimalist end of the spectrum dominated by thru-hikers to substantial mess kits popular with weekend backpackers.
Looking at the minimalist end of things, you can fulfill your eating and serving needs with a setup as simple as a Sea To Summit Delta Spork with Knife, GSI Outdoors Gourmet Nesting Mug and Bowl, and a GSI Outdoors Pivot Spatula. If you want to cook and dine without forgoing many of the creature comforts of home, kits like the MSR 2-Person Mess Kit or the Sea To Summit Delta Camp Set fit the bill quite nicely with their numerous plates, bowls, mugs, cups, and eating utensils. Really, there’s no right or wrong way to pack for an upcoming backpacking trip and your set-up will vary, depending on your trip length and available pack space.
4. Water Filters and Purifiers
High alpine lakes and crystal-clear streams in the backcountry are deceivingly dirty—in terms of harboring nasty pathogens that make you really sick once ingested. You can always boil your water with your backpacking stove to properly kill bacteria, inactivated viruses, and protozoa. However, this approach is often time consuming, seeing you’ll have to fetch water from the nearest source, then boil it to remove harmful pathogens before you can even take your first sip.
A far more convenient way to remove these harmful pathogens is by purchasing a good filtration system. There’s a number of great water filters on the market, but we really enjoy the Katadyn Base Camp Pro 10L Water Filter for larger backpacking groups, as you can fill 10 liters of water from a nearby stream or lake, then hang it at camp for everyone to use for the entire day. To ensure your drinking water is clean, an Ultra Flow pleated glass-fiber filter removes harmful bacteria, gut-wrenching cysts like Giardia and Cryptosporidium, as well as sediment from your water supply.
f you’re looking for something smaller for minimalist trips where speed and lightweight performance are of concern, try the MSR TrailShot for its ultra-light design that filters out harmful bacteria, stomach-upsetting protozoa, and suspended sediment. Not only does the TrailShot weigh a mere five ounces, but its pump-style filter cleans one liter of water in as little as 60 seconds. The upside to purchasing this tiny filter is the ability to use it on shorter hikes, mountain bike rides, and days at the crag where its smaller size easily fits in your day pack.
One thing to note, the previously mentioned filters don’t provide protection from harmful viruses you’ll encounter in developing countries. If you’d like protection from viruses while backpacking or traveling abroad, you’ll need to purchase a water purification system. You can get fancy with SteriPENs that use UV light to purify the water or use something as simple as MSR Aquatabs or Katadyn Micropur Purification Tablets to rid your water of viruses, bacteria, and protozoa like Cryptosporidium and Giardia.