Sunday, 1 May 2016

My Tramping Gear: A look at my cooking gear


I thought I would do a post about the cooking gear I'm currently using. I could be an total outdoor tech head and call this a "cooking system" except "system" implies some planning while this gear simply coalesced over time.

How your tramping style impacts on your gear

It is a waste of time talking about cook gear without a brief discussion of tramping styles.

Having a brew at Davies Shelter on the Queen Charlotte Track 2016


 Obviously, the style of tramping you follow is going to dictate the type of cooking equipment you are carrying. We can break these down into two main styles: traditionalist and lightweight

If you are a traditionalist you may carry some real food, a white spirit stove, larger pot(s) and possibly even a skillet. If you are an ultra lighter you will have a meths stove, one spoon/spork and a small titanium pot (if that, many have started to cold cook i.e. NO hot meals or hot drinks when on trail!)

Obviously, you should only carry what is absolutely essential to get the job done, nothing more. 

My style is constantly evolving, at present I am half way towards ultralight, gradually changing kit as I go. I'm also pragmatic about this, sometimes adding a small amount of extra weight makes cooking easier or more pleasant. I'm not one of  the "cut off the handles just to save weight" types.

I don't carry a plate or bowl, instead I eat from my cook pot or straight from the bag. 

Me tucking into a BCC Tomato Chicken Alfredo

I still occasionally cook in my pot but the majority of my cooking is heating water to add to dehydrated and freeze dried meals. That and copious amounts of tea of course....

A look at my cooking gear

Because of my tramping style I need very little cooking gear. Here is a list of my cook equipment including everything needed to prepare my typical menu items:

Cook pot, hard anodised aluminium     1     120gms
Cook pot cup/lid                                 1       80gms
Kovea Hiker stove, steel + bag            1     140gms
MSR 300gm gas canister                     1     227gms
Titanium Fork                                      1      18gms
Titanium spoon                                    1       21gms
Victoronix knife (including the 'biner)    1       89gms
Bic lighter                                            1       30gms
Chux cloth                                           1       12gms
Nylon stuff sack                                   1       75gms
Total weight                                              822gms


If you take away the fuel canister that is around 600gms which is pretty good weight wise.

I have all my cooking kit together in a nylon stow bag, if I stop and want to brew up I have everything readily available in the one place. This includes my tea bags and sugar substitute (more on that later), it is so much easier looking for the one blue bag than searching for gear in 2-3 different places. 


My cook gear packed for my next tramp

Cook gear laid out for viewing
I use the Chux cloth as a tea towel to dry my pot etc., I have one with the cook kit and add another to every second days worth of food. This system works well and allows me to leave cleaning cloths at huts if they need them.

I usually have a 2x2cm square of scrubbing pad in a small plastic bag inside the kit for cleaning my cook gear. My bio degradable soap is carried separately in an outside pocket of my pack.

Cook gear, Chux cloth and lighter but no scrubber!
I carry a spoon, knife and fork; many people make due with just a spoon or a spork (spoon and fork combined) but over time I have found it is more practical to carry light versions of all three. My pen knife (classic Victorinox camper) is the only knife I carry because the only thing I ever need to cut is salami, cheese and vegetables.

There is a small carabiner to keep them clipped together. 

If I need a knife for carving a club, hut or rescue vessel then something has gone seriously wrong!


Cook gear, knife, fork and spoon (KFS)
My cook stove is a Kovea Backpacker model which I mainly hold onto out of sentimental attachment. It is a touch heavy at 140gms (including the bag) but I brought it in 1996 and have been using it ever since with no problems. Rest assured, I'm not that much of a sentimalist: if it didn't perform I would replace it, as I have done with a lot of my tramping kit.

I also like the wide burner head (a lot of the newer lightweight stoves have very small burners) and long pot support arms it has. It seems a lot more stable than some of the super lightweight stoves I have seen in use.

This is "olde school styles" i.e. no piezo starter, you have to use a match or lighter to fire it up, this is no disadvantage in my opinion. This stove has seen some real use, still works like new!

Kovea is solid gear, at least the old stuff is.


Kovea backpacker model camp stove
My cook pot has the MSR gas canister inside, as well as my brew kit of tea bags, lighter and Splenda sugar replacement. Not shown are the supply of water purification tablets I carry in the kit so I can make potable water without needing to hunt through my pack.


Packed cooking  pot and ancillary gear
The pot itself is a 1 liter hard anodised aluminium one with folding handles, the lid/cup is made of the same material. Some people prefer titanium cook pots as they are hardier and lighter. The problem is they have hot spots that can burn your food.  As I still occasionally cook in my pot I favour aluminium so I am able to simmer in it. 

This pot has a measuring scale up the side in cups and 200ml graduations.

The bread bag is what I use for rubbish collection, I usually hang it from one of my rear facing pack straps while I am walking. One bag will usually last me for a 3 day tramp.

I also carry 3-4 small freezer bags for storage purposes; like keeping my KFS off the grotty hut benches etc.


Cook pot and gear held inside it
The cup/lid/frypan/plate of this kit will hold about 450ml of liquid, it fills all four stated roles as required.

Ancillary Gear

Flame-less Ration Heaters

The other heating method I sometimes use is one of the Back Country flame-less ration heaters, these boil water through chemical action to heat your food.


These heaters were developed for the US military in the late 1980's to heat their MRE meals. An MRE is a single meal in a plastic bag with an entree in a retort pouch, a Flameless Ration Heater (FRH), various snacks and an accessory pack.

A US military grade Meals Ready to Eat (MRE)



Contents of a US MRE pack: Chicken, vegetables and noodles


The FRH's are good for soldiers as they do away with the need for fires or other obvious cooking methods.


The sodium salts in a FRH are activated by water, you chuck your retort pouch in with them and viola... one heated meal. No mess, no fuss but horribly disastrous to the environment.

These are good with anything in a metalised or thick plastic retort pouch, such as the Back Country range, Kaweka meals and the MTR Indian curries.

Just handle the pouch carefully when heated as they are goddamn hot!

Water Bottles

I have long ago given up on using heavy metal or rigid plastic bottles for carrying water in. Instead I use empty juice or water bottles which I refill, and then discard after a couple of months or when they start to degrade.

It is well worth considering this alternate:  recycled bottles are cheaper, lighter, easier to replace and the recycling is good for the environment.

My criteria for potential sources are:

Must be less than 100gms empty
Easy to replace
Wide mouth on bottle, 1+ liter capacity
Made of a food grade or non BPA plastic
Easy to remove any labels for ease of cleaning

Fresh-Up Juice bottle
What i have been using for the last three years are Fresh Up juice bottles, these tick all my boxes and I even like the juice they contain when new. These weigh 70gms empty compared to 175 for a medium sized Nalgene bottle.

Ready for the field
Set up for use is easy, strip off the label, wash them and fill them with water. Simple!

Brew Kit

When I am out tramping I drink tea for a hot drink. I prefer Earl Grey from Dilmah but anything is acceptable if I am running short of supplies. I usually have a brew with breakfast, occasionally one at lunch  and 2-3 at the end of the day.

Delicious Dilmah Tea: and its ethically grown as well...
 
I used to carry sugar for tea but it is very heavy, so I switched to a sugar substitute. Splenda is the tastiest sugar substitute I have found, it doesn't have that bitter aftertaste others have.There are 200 tablets per pack, the total weight is a minuscule 12 gms! 

One tablet = 1 teaspoon of sugar

I am aware of the controversy about these sugar substitutes but given that I only use it for 20-30 days a year or less I figure I'm probably o.k. 

Splenda sugar replacement

Isobutane Canisters


I use both the small and medium sized isobutane gas canisters, a small one (110gms) will last for 1-3 nights depending on use while the medium version (227gms) will see me for five days. I do not use the large canisters (450gms) as it would just be extra weight to carry.

I usually boil water 3-4 times per day for tea, drinks and meals.

Three sizes of gas canister


My favourite gas brand is Kovea, but the MSR version is also good and far more widespread. My stove will accept ALL screw on type gas canisters. 


227ml MSR Isobutane gas bottle
Most of the loose cook kit fits inside the pot; this is good as it is a smaller packed space as well as protecting it from knocks. The stove in its pouch goes into the bottom of the bag with the chux cloth, KFS and scrub pad, then the pot ensemble goes on top. A nice neat package.

The cook pot with gear stored inside

Stove Windshields


One thing which I occasionally carry is a windshield to protect my cooker flame from wind gusts.  A wind gust can extinguish your cooker or at a minimum make it much less efficient.

I have two different windshields, the first is a commercially produced version made by Macpac. This is a fold out screen with connectors so that it can be shaped into a circle. The main problem with this is the weight, it is 110gms so has been relegated to base camp cooking duty.
Macpac cooker windshield

My other wind shield is home made from an heavy foil roasting tray. This version weighs hardly anything (37gms) and if damaged can be easily and cheaply replaced. There are a set of instructions on Lotsafreshair's website about how to make one of these at home. 

A foil wind shield from http://lotsafreshair.com
 If I'm huting or bush camping I don't usually bother with a wind shield or I will make an expedient one from some rocks or chunks of wood. I would carry a wind shield if camping out on tops or a ridge as wind is more of a problem there. 

Miscellaneous Gear


Gas bottle support, Macpac brand


 The other thing I carry is a support for my stove gas canister. These cooker over gas canister stoves are notoriously unstable, mainly due to the small diameter of the gas bottle at its base. What a pot support does is increase the diameter on the ground, making it much more stable. 

My version is from Macpac, it will accept all three sizes of canister & weighs 20gms, again it is carried if I expect to be camping out.

Other cook gear I use


My previous cook set in use Lake Christabel Hut 2014
I used to carry a lightweight stainless steel pot and  a separate cup but exchanged these for my current set up last year. Stainless is great for clean up but it is a lot heavier.The stainless pot weighs in at 227gms (no lid), the cup weighs 90gms so that is 317gms as opposed to my current 210 gms.

I also have a fry pan made from the same material (they were a set) which weighs only 97gms. 

I still use both if part of a larger tramping group or for base camping as you need your own cup etc. and the pot (at 1.2 litres in volume) is much better for cooking real food in.


Brewing up on the bed of the Blue Grey River 2014
Just one other item I'd like to mention, if you use isobutane gas canisters then like me you will end up with a lot of hard to dispose of empties. Normally these cannot be recycled due to the chance of residual gas causing an explosion so you need to get one of these:

The Jetboil Crunchit

This is a Jetboil Crunchit!

If you have a Crunchit you can use it to safely vent any gas canister, the resulting metal can then be placed in your usual metal recycling bin. They cost $16 NZD and will be one of the most cost effective pieces of gear you will ever buy. Mine stays at home so that after a trip I can recycle the metal responsibily. 

Find them online, at any Macpac/Kathmandu/Bivouac Outdoor/Hunting and Fishing store in New Zealand and at most other good outdoor retailers.

 The cook gear in use...


Here are some assorted photos of the current cook kit in action....

Brewing up at Rod Donald Hut, March 2016

Cooker and cook pot in use, Packhorse Hut 2016
Cook gear boiling water at Mid Robinson Hut, 2015

So there you have it, a short introduction to my cooking gear!