How Camping Cookware Works

By: Heather Kolich
Image Gallery: Extreme Grilling Bringing along the right cookware during a camping trip can make or break your meals. See pictures of extreme grilling.
Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

Unlike kitchen cookware, pots, pans and dishes meant for camping, hiking, kayaking and other adventure sports are built to travel. They often feature lightweight materials and multifunction parts; they can also come with insulated, fold-away handles or removable handles for carrying hot pots. Ideally, they're compact, easy to carry and clean and tough enough to stand up to weather, backcountry use and nontraditional cleaning methods.

It's important to keep your camping style in mind when choosing camping cookware. Cooking outdoors presents difficult challenges, such as rain and wind, that you just don't encounter in a home kitchen. Most camp cooking implements work well for mild, summer outings, but if you camp during the winter or climb to high altitudes, you'll need cookware and stoves that are designed to perform under those conditions. For car campers, cookware weight isn't much of an issue, but for backpackers and other adventurers who carry all their gear with them, weight is a critical factor. Choosing heavier cookware may mean leaving behind an important tool or spare food and fuel, or cutting a day off of the trip.


Your cooking style will also influence your adventure cookware choice. If you're a boiling water cook, content to subsist on instant foods, an aluminum pot, insulated mug and eating utensils are all you'll need. But if you're the base camp chef preparing meals for a group, or even if you just want to cook an occasional meal for yourself, you'll need a wider variety of camping cookware and tools. A fry pan and a Dutch oven are useful choices. Baking isn't off-limits at the campsite if you take along a reflector oven. You can buy tea kettles and coffee percolators designed for camping, but their single function might not justify the space they take up in a backpack. You can reduce size and weight with a coffee press or a one-cup reusable coffee filter, or, if you want to go compact, you can substitute a coffee ball.

Here are some other accessories to consider including in your camping kitchen:

  • A cooler
  • A cutting surface
  • Insulated mugs, thermoses or insulating covers for pots
  • Extra fuel
  • Matches or lighters
  • Cooking utensils, such as tongs, ladles, spatulas, big spoons and knives
  • Spices and condiments
  • Dishcloths and scrubbing sponges
  • A stove repair kit

Explore the variety of camping cookware on the next page.


Types of Camping Cookware

At the very least, your high adventure cooking kit needs a pot with a lid. If you can boil water, you can make coffee and instant oatmeal, reconstitute dehydrated meals, cook pasta and rice, and sterilize your eating utensils. A fry pan gives you the option to cook bacon, eggs and other fresh foods. In a Dutch oven, you can fry bacon, whip up a batch of beans, bake bread and pies, and slow-cook stew in a cooking pit.

Several manufacturers make camping cookware sets built specifically to meet the needs of different groups, from single hikers to a family of six. Many of these include a lid that fits two pots or doubles as a plate, fry pan, strainer or cutting board. Some include dishes and utensils. Sets like these often nest together like Russian dolls that open to reveal ever smaller dolls inside.


You can also opt for all-in-one cooking systems that integrate cookware with a heat source. Jetboil systems, for example, are lightweight, highly portable water boiling kits engineered for fast heating and fuel efficiency. The boiling pot attaches to an ultralight stove that connects to a miniature fuel canister. It has a push-button, no-match lighting mechanism and comes in different sizes to accommodate individual or group needs. These types of integrated systems work well in cold weather and at high altitude [source: Men's Journal].

For heavier cooking, the Safari Chef Grill, manufactured by Cadac SA, is a stove, fuel source and cookware in one foldable, portable package. The propane-powered grill includes a wire grate and a reversible grill insert, with one ridged and one flat surface. The dome doubles as a pot [source: Johnson]. Coleman offers a similar set-up, but the clamshell lid on the "Fold N Go Grill" doesn't double as a pot, and the griddle and stove grate are sold separately [source: Hostetter].

The metal used in your camping cookware affects more than the weight. Read on for some comparisons on the next page.


Camping Cookware Material

Camping equipment manufacturers make camping cookware in aluminum, stainless steel, titanium and cast iron. There's a relationship between cookware weight and cooking results. Heavier cookware yields faster, more even cooking. Cast iron offers the best heat distribution and versatility, but it's very heavy, so it's best for base camp or car camping. You'll need to make a trade-off if you, your kayak or your horse will pack the cookware to your outdoor adventure destination.

Plain aluminum is the lightest and cheapest material. You can pick up a scout-style mess kit for less than $10. If you're a budget backpacker whose culinary aspirations stop at boiling water for summer backcountry meals, plain aluminum is your pick. Foods with more body than broth, however, will stick to unmodified aluminum and stainless steel. They'll also suffer from uneven heating, and the shiny material doesn't retain heat as well as darkened cookware does. But there are some good upgrades on both materials that make them more user-friendly without breaking the bank:


  • Hard, anodized aluminum has thicker walls, and its dark color absorbs and evenly distributes heat.
  • Ceramic coated aluminum is a brightly colored, baked-on ceramic that provides even heat distribution and a chemical-free non-stick cooking surface. This typically offers easy clean-up without adding too much weight [source: Hostetter]. A 30.4 ounce (0.9 liter) deep pot with an 8.8 ounce (0.26 liter) lid and fry pan weighs 7.4 ounces (210 grams) [source: Evernew].
  • Copper bottoms help distribute heat more evenly on stainless steel cookware, but they add noticeable weight.

Corrosion-resistant titanium is light like aluminum, strong like stainless steel, and sticky like both of them. It's also expensive, however. Non-stick coatings are available on all of these except cast iron. Because it's a bit delicate, you'll need to handle this type of cookware carefully to avoid scratching the non-stick surfaces.

Learn about camping stoves, fuel sources and using your camping cookware on the next page.


Using Camping Cookware

Camp cooking devices vary depending on your activity and campsite. A multi-burner camp stove is preferable for base camp, where groups share meals. Rugged terrain adventurists need something lightweight and portable. Several adventure sport equipment manufacturers offer palm-sized stoves. Weighing around 3 ounces (85 grams), they consist of three moveable pot supports attached to a small burner that screws into a miniature fuel canister.

Camping stoves use different types of fuel, each with advantages and drawbacks:


  • Naphtha, or white gas, is the most volatile stove fuel, but it provides excellent heat and is the best choice for winter or high-altitude camping.
  • Kerosene is cheap, readily available and safer to use, but it's smoky and smelly.
  • Methanol or wood alcohol is the least volatile cooking fuel, but it's a poor choice for cold temperatures because it only provides half the heat of white gas [source: Logue].
  • Propane or butane is good for summer, but it doesn't work well in winter [source: Mason, Logue].

You can't take cooking fuel on an airplane, so if the first leg of your outdoor adventure includes a flight, call ahead to make sure the fuel you need is available.

When you're ready to cook, think in terms of heat and fuel conservation and low environmental impact. Prepare only as much food as you can eat, and fill your pot before you light the burner. If your stove comes equipped with a temperature or flame control mechanism, use it. Whenever possible, keep your cooking pot covered. The lid traps heat and redirects it to your food. To keep dehydrated or freeze-dried food hot while it soaks, put it into a covered, insulated travel mug, or cover the pot with a cozy after you take it off of the heat source.

At the end of every meal, dirty dishes tend to linger. Learn how to clean and store your camping cookware on the next page.


Washing and Storing Camping Cookware

No matter how far from civilization your outdoor adventure takes you, somebody's got to do the dishes. In the wild, washing up sometimes requires creativity. If it's possible and practical to wash your cookware with soap and water, warm the water in your cooking pot and use biodegradable soap. Allow as few food particles as possible into the wash water. When you're done, strain food particles out of the water and carry it well away from your campsite and any water sources before scattering it on the ground.

Instead of soap, you can use sand and snow to scrub your pots and dishes, followed by a hot water rinse to melt away traces of grease and kill germs. Boiling water alone is sufficient to sanitize your camping cookware if a scrubbing would scratch non-stick surfaces. Well-seasoned cast iron cookware has a non-stick surface that you can just wipe clean. If scrubbing is necessary, use coarse salt. It scours away food that's stuck on and adds seasoning to the next meal.


When you're ready to pack up and move on, a layer of cloth between nested cookware prevents scratching of non-stick surfaces. Store your cookware in a stuff sack to keep it from transferring fire blackening to other gear.

Thoroughly wash and dry all of your camping cookware when you return home. Nest sets together and store in a cool, moisture- and humidity-free place.

For lots more information on camping and cookware, venture over to the next page.


Lots More Information

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