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Packing pots and pans for camping is a difficult challenge for the best of us. We need to bring along everything that we’ll need to keep ourselves and our companions well-fed, often for several days at a time. And we can’t avoid the physical constraints of weight and volume. Luckily, packing pots and pans for your outdoor cooking isn’t that bad with a little planning, strategy, and the right items.
Packing pots and pans for camping is best done with these strategies: reducing what you bring, bringing lightweight and multipurpose items, and nesting items when packing. To stay organized, use a checklist to make sure you bring only essentials (and that you don’t forget things when leaving camp.)
Whether you’re just a dehydrated meal/cup-and-spork type, or you want to craft gourmet nom-noms out in the wilderness, using the strategies described in this article you can craft a perfect lightweight, simple, and useful camping kitchen.
What to Consider When Packing
Packing for outdoor cooking is challenging for many reasons. Whether you’re car camping, kayaking, backpacking, or just going for an outdoor picnic, you’ll run into many of the same packing challenges.
First, since you must bring everything with you when cooking in the outdoors, there is a tradeoff between bringing what you’d like vs what you can accommodate in terms of space. Backpackers are especially aware, as they must be able to fit everything comfortably into a satchel or backpack.
The odd shapes of cooking tools, like handles, makes them especially difficult to pack. And sharp objects like knives must be packed carefully with the proper cases and padding.
Weight is a key factor when packing as well. Although weight isn’t as much of an issue for car campers, backpackers often need to sacrifice items for the sake of weight, or possibly cut a trip short because they can’t carry enough supplies for the duration that they’d like.
Cleaning cookware becomes challenging in the backcountry as well. You may need to factor cleaning containers, implements, and detergents into your packing strategy. Many campers buy specialized pots and pans specifically because they are easy to clean.
Weather conditions come into play when packing. Although you might have a small mess kit that works well in mild weather, it may not serve you well in high altitudes or very cold temperatures. So you may require bulkier specialized equipment. Car campers might also initially plan to pack their normal kitchen equipment, but that isn’t tough enough to stand up to the weather.
Finally, the size of your group is a factor as well. The more people in your party, the more people you’ll have to carry supplies. But on the other hand, you’ll need more supplies to feed more people.
Choose Items Carefully
Think about how you plan to store, prep, cook, eat, and clean during your time outdoors.
Does your menu include foods that require cooling like meat or eggs? Will you be fishing or hunting and need a place to store your catch? What about keeping foods warm? Consider:
- A cooler
- A Thermos or other insulated vessel for keeping things warm or cold
How complicated is your grub creation? Are you just opening cans and bags? Will you be chopping fresh fruits and veggies? Will you be filleting a fish? Do you need a prep surface? What spices and other ingredients do you need?
Think about these items:
- Can opener
- Cutting board
- Prep surface
- Bowls for prep work
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Spices, condiments, and other flavorings
If you need a prep surface, or will be prepping fish or meat, try a folding prep table:
Method of Cooking
Your method of cooking is probably the biggest indicator of the volume and weight required for your cooking supplies.
If you’re just rehydrating food, you don’t need much. However, you might also want to pull out all the stops and bring a camp stove, reflector oven, or wind screen. Or you might land in the middle, and plan on cooking over the campfire.
However you cook, you’ll need some pots. Strive for 1 pint (500ml) of volume per person in your party. If you only have two people, one pot can suffice. If you have more than that, try to bring additional pots.
Even if you want to keep you cooking simple and just plan on rehydrating, you might still want to bring something smaller to add variety to your meals. For example, skewers or extension forks for roasting hot dogs or marshmallows, or even a popcorn popper. These can deliver fresh hot food yet are quite light and easily transportable.
For cooking methods, consider packing:
- Sautee pan
- Dutch oven
- Lids (they reduce cooking time and conserve fuel)
- Oven mitts or pot gripper
- Cooking utensils like spatulas, cooking spoons, ladles, or tongs
- Spoon rest
- Burner or camp stove
- Reflector oven for baking
- Wind screen
- Extra fuel
- Matches or lighter
- Stove repair kit
- Sandwich toaster or cooking iron
- Extension forks
- Popcorn popper
Will you be dining properly with fork, knife, and spoon? Will you just be getting by with a spork? Will you use disposable or reusable plates?
Will you just be drinking water? Will you need morning coffee or another hot beverage to get you going?
When packing, consider any of:
- Tea kettle
- French press
- Reusable coffee filter
- Coffee ball
Washing and Cleanup
How you plan to wash items affects what you need as well. Washing with soap and water will require a container, scrub brush, and towels.
Washing with snow or sand might only require a towel.
For washing, consider:
- Dish soap or detergent (biodegradable!)
- Wahsing container or camp sink
- Scrub brush or sponge
- Dishcloth for drying
- Trash bags
Consider a camp kitchen, which includes a collapsible sink.
Or if you only need something simpler, try a collapsible wash basin.
Also be sure that your washing detergent is biodegradable and safe to use outdoors. Sierra Dawn Campsuds is great for safe campsite washing.
Bring Multipurpose Items
The easiest way to reduce the number of items you bring is by finding multipurpose items. They will allow you to get a two-for-one, or even a three-for-one.
Here are some tips we’ve crafted over the years:
- Some cooksets have lids that double as plates, pans, cutting board, or strainer. Some cooksets also have a single lid which can fit any pan in the set.
- Use a pot as a fry pan. Or use a dutch oven as both a pot and as a frying pan.
- Opt for sporks (also called foons) instead of both spoons and forks, or a spork with a serrated edge to sub for spoons, forks, and knives.
These sporks come with a serrated edge to sub as a knife as well.
And these sporks come with a built-in bottle opener.
- There are spoons with a telescoping handle called tele-foons that can double a stirring spoon or serving spoon. There are also telescoping forks that can double as a skewer for roasting over the campfire.
- Use a kitchen organizer that can tidy your supplies while packed, then double as a hanging kitchen cupboard once you’ve set up camp.
- If you can bring plastic containers, such as when car camping, these can double as cooking surfaces or makeshift coolers once you’ve arrived.
- If you need a sink for washing, try an inflatable camp sink that doubles as a wash basin or floating cooler.
- Instead of mugs, bring insulated travel mugs which double as a way to keep food hot as you rehydrate it.
- If you’ll be doing more complex cooking, invest in a stove that has built-in cookware. The Cadac Safari Chef Grill is a stove that comes with a built-in grill and pot, so you don’t need to bring any pots and pans.
- If you don’t have the need for a full camp stove, try just a JetBoil system. It’s essentially a boiling pot attached to a small, light stove. It requires no matches or lighter, and comes in a variety of sizes depending on your party. If you’ll just be rehydrating dried food, this is a great compact and lightweight option.
- If you will be cooking but your party is small, you can look at a palm-sized stove. They are ultralight (about 3 ounces) and have a small burner and mini fuel canister.
To save space when packing, find items that you can stack inside of each other (like Russian dolls).
Mess kits are one such stacking item. They are cookware sets made specifically for camping and backpacking. Each piece is designed to fit inside of another piece, to minimize the amount of space required. Additionally, many pieces collapse or disassemble to make themselves even smaller.
Keep reading about cookware material, when considering what type of mess kit to buy.
Even if you don’t have a mess kit, you can still save on space by nesting smaller items inside larger items. For example, group your pots and bowls by size. Find the largest one, and try to place the next largest one inside of it. Then place the next largest one inside of that. And so on. At the end, try to place the smallest items like cups, mugs, and utensils within the smallest bowls and pans.
You’ll be able to pack your pots and pans more effectively when camping if you stay organized.
Camping Cookware Organizers
Camping cookware organizers can be a great option when packing for your outdoor adventures. They are typically large bags that have various compartments, straps, and pouches inside them.
The compartments in organizers allow you to pack items safely, especially small items which might roll around or fall to the bottom of your pack. They provide safe storage of sharp items like knives. And they provide efficient packing, so that the amount of space your items require is reduced.
You can use an organizer not only to pack your items for easy transport, but also to keep you organized throughout your trip. They provide a dedicated place for each item, so you can easily find things later on when you need them.
Organizers also keep your cookware clean and tucked away when you’re not using it. You don’t have to worry about water, dust, animals, or insects getting into your kitchen supplies.
Padding Between Items
Camping cookware has a rough life. It gets packed together in close quarters, it’s subjected to extreme temperatures, and it rattles around in your pack as you move it from place to place.
Keep your pots and pans protected with some padding in between each item. This will cushion each piece against bumps in the car or in your backpack, and it will prevent blackened cooking surfaces from rubbing onto the surface of other pieces. Cushioning is especially important with nonstick cookware which can scratch easily.
As always, weight and reusability are primary concerns. So you’ll want your padding to be either useful or light (and preferably both!)
One option is to use foam dividers. These will be incredibly lightweight so that you won’t even know that they’re in your pack. They can even be trimmed down so that you only use what you need.
Another option is to use cloth items as padding. Here, you can use cloth which you can repurpose for other uses, such as dish towels or utility cloths. Provided they aren’t touching a blackened pan, you could even insert your extra clothing in between the cookware.
While not feasible for backpacking, you can use storage boxes in your car when driving to your basecamp or when car camping. These aid in organization, easy transport from your car to the campsite and back, and they keep out moisture and hungry critters.
You can consider different sized bins and/or different bins for different purposes. For example, you could have one large bin entirely for cookware, another medium bin for dishware, and one small bin for restockable items (foil, matches, etc).
Besides plastic storage boxes, large toolboxes can also work (they will be heavier though). You can even install a permanent drawer system into the back of your vehicle. This can come in handy if you are a serious car camper, and want a permanent storage place right in your vehicle.
If you’ll be moving items from your car to your campsite, consider a wheeled drawer system or a collapsible cart. Your items can stay neatly packed up, but easily transported from the car.
Keep a Checklist
Consider making a checklist of all the items inside each container or organizer. Not only will it help you when packing initially, but it will remind you of items you might forget when packing up your campsite. You can make sure everything you brought with is packed up before you go.
Checklists help you from forgetting to leave larger, more expensive items as your campsite. But they are especially useful for all of the smaller items which you might lose track of. They can even help you keep track of the items you restock frequently like trash bags or spices.
Lightweight Materials to Reduce Weight
To reduce weight, it’s important to opt for the most lightweight items you can find that meet your needs. Some of the heaviest items you will bring are pots and pans, so the material of these items can make a big difference.
Outdoor cooking equipment like pots and pans are generally made from any of: aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, and cast iron. These materials are in order from lightest to heaviest and represent a spectrum.
The heavier the cookware, the better cooking results because heavier cookware produces the evenest heat distribution. However, the downside is that it’s just heavier. Let’s review the pros and cons of each material and guide your decision about which material is best for you.
Aluminum is the lightest and cheapest material for camp cookware. You can easily pick up an aluminum mess kit for just a few bucks. It’s lightweight, a good conductor of heat, and affordable. On the downside, it doesn’t distribute heat evenly, so it can scorch food. It’s also not as durable, as it scratches and dents easily. It can impart a different taste to cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens cooked in it. It can also break down from the acids in acidic foods and liquids.
When should you use aluminum:
- You’re a budget backpacker
- You’ll just be rehydrating food and boiling water, or just simmering food to heat it up (i.e. you won’t be cooking on high heat)
- Ceramic-coated aluminum to distribute heat more evenly and provides a nonstick cooking surface. It yields easy cleanup and doesn’t add too much weight to a pan.
- Hard-anodized aluminum to more evenly distribute heat. As it is thicker, it will add additional weight to a pan. On the plus side, it is scratch-resistant and very durable.
Stainless steel is a more tough, more durable option than aluminum. It will resist scratches and standup to backwoods cooking better than aluminum. The downsides to stainless steel are added weight, and it doesn’t conduct heat uniformly and so can scorch food.
When you should use stainless steel:
- You’re looking for a sturdier, more durable option than aluminum cookware.
- A stainless steel pan with a copper bottom will help to distribute heat more evenly. It will add additional weight though.
Titanium is an even more durable option than both aluminum and stainless steel. It’s incredibly lightweight, and it can be lighter than aluminum, in fact. Titanium will heat up quickly but can result in uneven heat distribution and can get overheated. It’s strong and corrosion-resistant. As you might guess, titanium is the most expensive option.
When you should use titanium:
- You have the budget for light, strong, and durable outdoor kitchen equipment that distributes heat evenly.
Cast iron is the quintessential frontier and outdoor cooking option. It’s tough and doesn’t require cleaning with soaps or detergents. (Food actually tastes better the more seasoning the pan accumulates.)
It is very versatile and can be used on a stove, on a grill, or even directly in the fire. Cast iron provides a very even heat distribution and will cook food uniformly.
The downside to cast iron is mainly its weight. It’s incredibly heavy and isn’t suited for long backpacking trips where it needs to be carried in. It’s also brittle and rusts easily, so care must be taken to not drop it or let it get wet.
When you should use cast iron:
- You’re camping in the car or at a campsite which is close to your car (e.g. base camp)
All of the above options we’ve discussed require oil or fat for cooking, because otherwise food will stick to the cooking surface. With the exception of cast iron, all of the other materials can be found with nonstick coatings.
Nonstick coatings allow you to cook with less or no fat, so they can be healthier options. They’re also easy to clean up, as food doesn’t get stuck on as easily as metal pans.
You’ll need to be more careful with nonstick coatings. They are less durable than metal surfaces, and so they can become scratched easily from abrasive sponges and metal cooking utensils. If you use nonstick cookware, you’ll likely need to use plastic spatulas, spoons, and tongs.
You should also be cautious of overheating the cookware. At high temperatures, the coating can become damaged or emit toxic fumes. In addition, these types of pans often have plastic handles that can melt. So this type of cookware is not suited for cooking over an open flame. Best to stick to your camp stove.
When you should use nonstick coatings:
- You’re health-conscious and want to cook with less oils and fats.
- You’re ok using plastic cooking utensils and packing your pots and pans carefully.
- You will be bringing a stove and don’t plan to cook on the campfire.
We hope this has been a thorough guide on how to pack pots and pans for camping. Best of luck in your outdoor cooking endeavors, and happy camping!