How to Build a Cook System for Backpacking
Updated: Oct 6, 2019
Camp cooking is one of the simple pleasures in life. Even something as simple as boiling water is a process when you are out on the trail. Unlike at home, you don't have a ready source of water like a tap or Brita jug in the fridge. Once you've found a suitable water source you need the right gear and the knowledge of how to use it to end up with something as simple as hot water.
When looking at what you need to prepare food while on a backpacking trip I prefer to think of things in terms of systems. Everything works together. A stove doesn't work without fuel and a pot without utensils leaves you eating with a stick or your dirty fingers.
Cooking Vs No-Cook Meals
It may seem odd to talk about non-cooking in an article about camp cooking but most people I talk to haven't even considered not cooking. No-Cook is just what it sounds like. Choosing foods you can eat without having to cook. This can mean ready to eat or things that can be cold-soaked.
While it isn't something I would consider during colder weather, I have often gone this route in Summer. The benefits are simplicity, weight savings, and cost savings on gear. If you decide to try the no-cook approach choose calorically dense foods such as nuts, energy bars, dried meats, dried fruit, and cheese.
Rice and oatmeal can be rehydrated without boiling, as well, if you want some more options. It just takes about an hour of soaking. I use a clean, empty peanut butter jar for this. Put the food and water in, mix it up and then put the jar in the water bottle pocket of your backpack. It will hydrate as you hike.
Camp stoves for backpacking come in many different configurations but the aim is to have a lightweight and compact system. Stove design is partly dictated by what fuel it is intended to burn.
Stoves are available for the following fuel types:
Liquid Fuel (white gas, naptha, diesel, kerosene, and unlead gasoline)
The most convenient are stoves that use Iso-Butane canisters. Just screw the stove to the canister, open the valve and light the gas. Options will be either just a burner like the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 or an integrated system where the pot and burner attach together like the Jetboil systems.
Unless you are only going a short distance these aren't recommended for backpacking as the fuel tanks are large and heavy but propane has the benefit of working at a lower temperature than Iso-butane.
Classics like the MSR Whisperlite use an external fuel bottle with a hose to feed the burner. The advantage is that they can burn various types of fuel and work well in freezing temperatures. The cons are that they have to be pre-heated, are relatively heavy and are bulkier. Plus they are very loud. I have relegated mine to winter use only.
These stoves burn various alcohol like methyl hydrate or denatured alcohol. Many people make their own alcohol stoves out of cat food cans or beer cans making them among the lightest and cheapest options available. Commercial options are available as well from Esbit or Trangia. Fuel is readily available (methyl hydrate is an alcohol-based paint thinner) but they can be finicky and are slow to boil water. If it is a longer trip the weight savings on the stove is offset by the extra weight of fuel compared to an Iso-Butane stove. Additionally, they don't work well near or below freezing temperatures.
Wood or Twig Stoves
Think of these stoves as a contained camp fire. They come in various configurations from a metal box that folds flat to a dual-walled cylinder. Your fuel is just twigs and wood that you collect from the forest. Put your wood in, start your fire and then put your pot on top. You obviously don't have to carry fuel but this can be an issue in wet weather conditions since wet wood doesn't burn well. In areas that have a fire ban, they also ban the use of wood stoves such as these so keep that in mind when planning your trip. If you choose to bring a wood stove make sure you bring enough tinder material to get a fire started in damp conditions and work on your fire-making skills.
Other than a wood stove, you will have to bring enough fuel to power your stove. Before you go out, do some experiments to see how much fuel it takes to boil 500 ml of water. This way you will be able to budget the right amount of fuel for your needs. I always bring 25 percent more fuel than I think I will need just to be on the conservative side.
Cooking with a Camp Fire
In areas that allow it, cooking with a campfire is another cooking option. In fact, it is the oldest camp cooking option. Long before camp stoves, people just used fire to cook their food.
If you choose to use a fire for more than just a cool location to tell ghost stories there are a few things to keep in mind.
First is get good at finding standing deadwood in the forest and making fires. You don't want to be relying on a campfire and then not be able to get one started. Check out our article on foolproof ways of making a fire (article to come!)
Don't use ultralight, thin-walled cook wear as it can warp in the heat and then not sit on a stove properly afterward. Stick with stainless steel or cast iron if cooking over a fire.
In addition to cooking in a pot, you can also wrap food in tin foil and place it in the coals to cook. Since whole foods are heavier you will find this only applicable for trips where you aren't hiking far. Plus non-dehydrated food can go bad so you may choose to do this only for your first night.
Like all backpacking gear, you want to aim to keep your cook wear light and compact. There are a number of aluminum and titanium pot options that fit this bill. If you are going solo, a pot of 700-1000 ml will be larger enough to cook enough for one person. For two people then aim for a 1400 ml pot. I use an MSR Titanium Kettle that is 800 ml. This is great for either boiling water or cooking foods that just need rehydration like oatmeal or ramen noodles.
There are kits that come with a cooking pot, stove, bowls, mugs, and utensils if you want to get everything in one package. You can also get frying pans if you have to have your bacon or plan to catch some fish along the way.
If you are planning to cook with a campfire, stainless steel pots are your best option. They are heavier than the titanium or aluminum but won't warp due to the heat.
If you are sharing cooking gear you can get plates or bowls from MSR, GSI or Sea to Summit that are light and durable. To minimize weight I choose to go without any of these and just eat out of my pot.
I do often bring a mug in colder weather so I can enjoy a hot chocolate or tea.
If you are among the crowd who can't start their day without a cup of coffee there are options for you when on the trail.
The easiest would be instant coffee. Single serving packages are available in different flavors. You can get them with sugar and creamer mixed in already if that is how you take your morning joe. You can also just bring instant coffee in a ziplock bag.
For coffee snobs, there are French presses, percolators, and mini espresso makers for backpacking. I wouldn't suggest these for a thru-hike but a weekend getaway where weight isn't as much of an issue would be just fine. Think of it as glamping on foot.
And of course, if you are going to have coffee you can either drink it out of the pot or bring a mug. I'm partial the GSI plastic mugs as they are light, tough and cheap.
You need a way to carry your food and store it away from animals at night. This can be a waterproof stuff sack with a kit to hang it in a tree or a bear-resistant canister.
At night you want to store your food at least 100 meters away from where you are sleeping so animals aren't attracted by the scent of food. While bears are the animal most people are worried about it is actually mice and other rodents that are the biggest problem.
If you choose the hanging route you need a 10-liter stuff sack and 50 feet of cord. You want to toss the cord over a tree branch and hoist your bag so it is at least 12 feet off the ground and 6 feet out from the trunk and branch. A small nylon bag can help with this. Attach your cord to the bag and then put a small rock in the bag. This is easier than trying to tie your cord to a rock. By hanging your food you make it inaccessible to the animals.
The other option is a bear-resistant canister. These are tough plastic barrels that have smooth sides that keep bears and any other animal out of your food. Since I go to some parks that mandate the use of bear canisters I bought my own and now use it whenever I go backpacking. You still store it 100 meters from your camp but don't have to hang it. As a bonus, the bear canister also makes a great stool.
However, you store your food at night, make sure to also put any fragrant items such as skin cream and toothpaste in with your food.
Additionally, you will need to divide up your food. I use freezer Ziplock bags for this. By removing any excess packaging and dividing up your food you will save both weight and space.
For backpacking, you want to focus on food that is calorically dense with minimal water weight. Whole foods such as meat and vegetables don't transport well and are relatively heavy for the number of calories they have.
Aim for 125 calories per once of weight in the food you carry. It takes about 2 pounds of food per day to get enough calories since you will be burning a lot of energy hiking all day.
This often means foods that require adding water. Oatmeal, instant mashed potatoes, ramen noodles, and instant rice are all good energy sources. Protein in the form of beef jerky or cured meats like pepperoni can be added to these meals. When making oatmeal I will add a scoop of flavored protein powder to increase the calories and satiety of my breakfast.
Other good choices are freeze-dried meals like those from Mountain House or Backpackers Pantry. You can find these at most outdoor or camping stores. All you have to do is boil 2 cups of water and pour it in the bag. It takes 10-15 minutes to rehydrate and you can then eat it right out of the bag so no dishes to clean. These meals have gotten really good flavor-wise. The only downfall is they are more expensive compared to supermarket bought options.
You can also get a dehydrator and make your own dehydrated meals. Make sure you add some extra salt for its preservative properties and help replace the sodium you are sweating out. When making your own dehydrated meals make sure you cut all the ingredients fairly small so they dehydrate evenly. Avoid having any big chunks.
To increase the calories of any meal you can add some olive or coconut oil. Since fat takes longer to digest this will keep you feeling full longer.
I usually only cook breakfast and dinner so lunch and snacks are ready to eat foods.
Clif Bars and other energy bars
Beef jerky and pepperoni sticks
Bagels with peanut butter
Additionally, I will bring various drink mixes such as electrolyte energy drink, hot chocolate, and tea.
To minimize weight a spork is a great option. This is a spoon with tines in it like a fork. The bowl of the spoon is enough to eat soup but you can also use the tines to fork up ramen noodles. The Sea to Summit long-handled spork is made of aluminum making it both light and durable. The length is long enough to eat out of a freeze-dried meal bag without getting food all over your hands.
Knife, fork and spoon sets are also available but since most of our food is in a single bowl, I find a single utensil is all that I need.
I also carry a Victorinox or Swiss Army knife so I can cut cheese or dried sausage. I use the Climber model as it also has scissors and tweezers making it part of my first aid kit. Hand sanitizer works well to clean the blades when you have used the knife for food.
If you will be cooking in your pot I suggest bringing a small plastic scouring pad. This will allow you to clean out any food residue. I don't bother with soap to clean my pot since it will be boiled a couple of times a day so bacteria buildup is not an issue.
If you are concerned with bacteria then carry some disinfectant Wet Wipes. They can be used for your cooking gear as well as personal hygiene. Once used make sure you pack them out in your garbage.
When you clean your pot, mug and utensils use filtered or disinfected water so you aren't risking water-borne illnesses like Giardia. Clean your cooking gear at least 50 meters away from water sources so you don't risk contaminating the water.
Like all good backpackers, you should be practicing Leave No Trace. This means that when you move on from your campsite there should be no sign you were there. If you brought it in with you take it out with you. For this, I carry a 1-gallon freezer Ziplock bag. This is enough space to carry out all of my garbage.
If you see any garbage left behind by others consider taking it out with you. We each can make an impact in keeping the wild environments clean.
Backcountry camp cooking can be as simple as trail mix and chocolate bars or as gourmet as making your own dehydrated meals. You decide how you want to eat.
If your trip will see you covering a lot of miles, focus on keeping the weight and bulk down as extra weight will take its toll.
And while you hike think about what you want to eat when you hit civilization again. This is one of my favorite trail games.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard