Building your Packing List


Site Index


Peak to Peak Trail and Wilderness Links
Peak to Peak Trail and Wilderness Links


What to Carry: The Basics of Putting Together a Kit for Hiking the Appalachian Trail. Part III – The Kitchen

Last Edited 27 April 2006

4. Kitchen Group
The kitchen group can have lots of moving pieces and choices – so much even the small amount of parts I am going to talk about can take up a lot of room. So I won’t try to get too involved in each one. But what I will start off with is this: develop a strategy of how you want to eat. Some people don’t like cooking, so they don’t do it and eat a lot of no-cook foods. Others folks like the good feeling of hot food or drink in the belly, so they do cook. And some people even fall sort of in the middle and like to have hot food, but don’t want to cook every meal – so they plan accordingly. Each is a choice made on individual styles of hiking. No one is wrong and everyone is right for what they prefer.

Add to that your style of cooking when you do decide to cook. Some folks want to make pancakes for breakfast with hot coffee every morning, while others will simply make oatmeal. Some will want to stir fry fresh vegetables for dinner while others will be happy with Lipton’s red beans and rice dinner. It seems that most hikers fall into the later of the two categories – easy to cook meals that don’t require much more than boiling some water and digging in.

So before you plan to get a 2 pound gas stove, a two quart pot, a bowl, fork, knife and spoon, a cutting board, coffee grinder, and a Lexan plate at the outfitters – decide how much you actually want to cook and what sort of meals you intend to plan for your hike. If you are going to have a hot rice or pasta meal once a day and eat cold twice a day – then maybe you just need a pot, spoon, and method to boil water.
First I will start with my favorite topic: Stoves.

• There are 5 basic stove types: Gas, canister, alcohol, wood, and solid fuel. There are some designs are made to use more than one fuel source, but I will simply stick to the catagories of stoves rather than try to give an evaluation of various stoves. Each type of stove has its advantages and disadvantages.

o Gas – for years the gas stove has been king of the backpacking stoves. These stoves are designed to use white gas, kerosene, or maybe even car fuel - and some even use multiple fuel times. These stoves are probably the first type of stove on most people’s list when they start outfitting for a long hike. Things to consider with gas:

- Gas stoves are usually the heaviest

- Gas stoves are great for high altitude and cold weather – except that the conditions that make them better than other designs are probably not the conditions you will encounter on the typical AT hike. Well unless you go up the White Mountains in the Winter and want to make a camp up there.

- Gas stoves can clog.

- When gas leaks, it isn’t easy to clean

- Gas requires pumping and usually priming.

- Gas is easy to get in most places and can be purchased by the ounce.

o Canister – canister stoves are getting better, lighter, and the fuel is getting easier to find. A canister stove is a good choice these days for a lot of hikers looking for light weight and low “fiddle factor” since you generally just having to turn it on and light it. Things to consider for canister stove users:

- Canister stoves do not always use everyone else’s’ canisters. If you plan to get a canister stove, try and find one that uses more than one brand cartridge for better re-supply options.

- Canister stoves performance can suffer in low temperatures when the fuel condenses inside the container – causing lengthened boil times and sometimes failure to stay lit.

- Canister stoves weight can stay fairly static since the weight of canisters does not drop drastically as the fuel is used. For planning purposes a good rule of thumb is to expect a canister will weigh about twice the weight of the fuel – so a 4 ounce canister will probably weigh around 8 ounces (4 ounces of fuel and 4 ounces of canister).

- Since you must buy canisters in a set size, you may find yourself carrying multiple canisters instead of just one for some sections since you may have one canister on ½ tank and carry another canister for when the first runs out. I know a hiker that brags about how light his canister stove is compared to alcohol stove users because they have to carry as much weight as his stove weighs with a canister - yet he also carried two spares because he worries about re-supply. Hmmm :-?

- Canister stove speed to boil will drop as a canister is consumed since the pressure for the fuel drops. Take this into account as you play with a demonstrator stove.

- Canister stoves don’t spill. There is a remote chance for a puncture.

- Removing a canister stove burner from the canister wastes some fuel, so if you go this way, try to leave the stove and canister together whenever possible.

o Alcohol stoves – these stoves are typically home made, but there are companies that manufacture alcohol stoves for sale. Alcohol stoves generally weigh less than other stove options, these are the things to consider when using alcohol stoves:

- Alcohol is harder to light in cold weather. In these situations you may have to sleep with your fuel bottle or preheat fuel.

- Alcohol can be found in a variety of places and often can be purchased by the ounce.

- Alcohol typically requires about twice as much fuel to achieve the same results as gas or canister stoves because of lower BTUs per pound.

- Alcohol will generally evaporate if spilled, and doesn’t leave a mess like gas.

- Alcohol can be carried in very low weight containers such as soda bottles. Combined with a low stove weight and rapid use of fuel, this makes alcohol fairly weight efficient since the base weight is lower than most any other system and the fuel weight, while sometimes higher at the start from a town, goes down much quicker than other stove types.

- Alcohol typically does not boil water as fast as gas or canister stoves.

- Some alcohol stoves do little more than boil water. If this is all you need for a backpacking meal, you should be happy. If you want to cook, make sure you research this before jumping into alcohol as a stove.

- Alcohol stoves are usually cheap; you can get one for the price of picking up two empty soda cans.

- Alcohol stoves can be made to work for a pair of hikers, but typically they work best for solo hikers interested in boil and eat meals.

- There are different types of alcohol that can burn, but they will not all make good stove fuel. The best option is denatured alcohol and the second best is fuel line de-icer made from methyl alcohol. You could use pure grain alcohol such as Everclear, but it would be very expensive. Along the AT you can usually buy alcohol by the once.

- You need a windscreen with alcohol stoves – don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

o Wood stoves – these stoves present the hikers with the interesting strategy of not worrying about fuel re-supply at all. The idea is to gather wood at your campsite and simply create a contained wood fire to make your meal without a lot of muss and fuss. I must admit I am fascinated by the idea myself and have played with a number of designs and concepts to try to get something like this for my own kit. Things to consider with a wood stove:

- Fuel is almost unlimited. You can cook for very long periods of time.

- Since fuel is not a problem, the stove could even be used for a controlled warming device in some places like under the eating area of a shelter in cold weather

- Since you could also add green wood and leaves, they could be used to “chase” away bugs by creating smoke fires.

- The stoves get dirty with soot and ash - so a method to keep them from getting all that muck in your pack will be needed.

- Add to the last thought that you will probably ALWAYS smell like a wood fire. To some this is a good thing.

- These stoves depend on your ability to get a fire started. If your fire starting skills are limited, you may want to practice getting a flame going in a coffee can before you decide to switch.

- Even though you will not need fuel, you will most likely need a fire starter for working with moist wood or when materials are hard to get started (ever start a fire in the rain or snow?). After using these stoves my favorite starter is cotton balls and Vaseline - which would be easy to re-supply along the trial.

- Because some people want to have a few dependable fires, they often carry some self lighting charcoal as a back up.

- When it comes to using one of these stoves in places where there are fire bans, some rangers may not take to your opinion that this is a stove and not a fire – so you may find yourself in an enforced stove-less period for a while in some areas along the trail.

- When it comes to wood stoves, there are a couple of strategies to make them work which I break down into two categories:

1. Hobo stoves which are stoves that simply create a controlled space for the wood fire and a place to put the pot when you cook. These stoves are often home made devices using a coffee can with air holes. Some people have taken to getting fancy with the idea using sheet metal to create a box puzzle shape that can be taken apart and packed flat inside their backpack – a famous one is the Nimblewill Nomad stove which anyone can make with parts from a hardware store. These sorts of stoves take a little more skill in building and maintaining a fire in a very small space.

2. Forge stoves - these take the hobo stove one step further and add a system to force air into the burn chamber to increase heat. Some of these stoves simply add an air tube where the user can blow from a comfortable sitting position to add more oxygen to the fire. Others have designed slick bellows using a modified stuff sack, and a few even add electric fans. The most well known version of this sort of stove is the Sierra Zip stove. These stoves do a better job of burning wet wood – but you still have to get a fire started for them to work. These stoves will usually be heavier and bulkier than just a normal hobo stove – and those penalties could easily set them behind other stove options depending on how you look at things.

o Solid fuel stoves are stoves that burn prepared fuel blocks such as Esbit (hexamine), Sterno (solidified alcohol), or Triox (Trioxane solid fuel). These stoves can be fairly complicated or fairly simple. They are often the very lightest of options in stoves since they can be little more than a pot support and a place to put the fuel. A benefit to these stoves is they don’t need fuel bottles, they can’t spill, and the fuel can be stuffed into all sorts of free spaces until you need it. But while most of these fuels could be used to really cook – they are better suited to people that just need to heat water for solo cooking. Since the stove designs can vary according to your needs I will simply cover the pros and cons of each fuel type:

- Esbit (Hexamine) is a white block of fuel that looks a lot like a wax square or circle and can smell like rotting fish. It is the most efficient in terms of how effectively it releases BTUs of energy to heat water than the other fuels, but is also the most expensive. Despite that, when people use solid fuel for backpacking this is usually the most popular because it works better than the other solid fuel options. Things to think about with hexamine:

1. It is sometimes hard to get, usually the best plan for this is to order a bulk of them then have them mail dropped to you.

2. Because it smells like dead fish – it can stink up your pack. Plan to carry it in a foil vapor seal pouch – zip lock bags can still let the smell out.

3. Hexamine is a desiccant – it absorbs moisture. Getting it wet or even damp can make it work worse – so keep it out of the rain and remember the advice to keep it in a vapor seal pouch.

4. Use windscreen – you will need it.

5. As I mentioned before, it usually is only good for solo cooking.

- Sterno (solidified alcohol) is easy to find because many stores carry it for cheap camping supplies and some cooking applications. Sterno comes in a can which contains the fuel that you can blow out and re-seal while burning the fuel from the can itself. Sterno is less efficient in terms of performance than just burning straight alcohol; because of this very few backpackers will use it.

- Trioxane (sometimes also known as military fuel tabs) are often blue or purple tablets that are VERY cheap and come in aluminum foil packs and can be purchased even cheaper in large bulk supplies. They burn hot, and fairly quickly – both of which are not necessarily desirable in fuel. Because of this, you can actually end up spending more money and carrying more fuel to get the desired effect using trioxane than you would if you carried hexamine.


The next thing to consider is your pot. Your pot and stove should compliment each other. It would not be wise to use a two quart pot over a small Esbit stove since it could easily tip over and spill your dinner – and two quarts of pasta could take a long time to cook over such a small flame – if it ever could do it anyway. There are a multitude of pot options out there, but basically your choices will come down to about four basic qualities: metal, size, price, and weight. Some of these things are interconnected – the weight of a pot will be determined by metal and size, as often will the price. A steel pot that is one quart could weigh a pound and only cost $5 while a titanium pot of the same size could weigh about a quarter of that and cost $40. An aluminum pot of the exact same size could cost $5 and weigh about the same as the titanium pot. So based on these relationships, I will simply talk about two of these options: metal and size.

Metals: There are a few choices out there – you could use cast iron or glass, but the three main materials used in backpacking cookware are aluminum, steel, and titanium.

o Aluminum has been used for years. There are some concerns that some people have based on a very old study that linked Alzheimer to aluminum which has since been extensively written about as incorrect. Yet some people still believe in it and/or just don’t want to take the chance. Aluminum has the following properties:

- Great heat transfer properties – aluminum transmits heat evenly so it makes it a great metal for pots.

- Cheap – aluminum is probably one of the cheapest options when buying a pot. But there are some options in aluminum cookware that changes this, like if you go for anodized (hardened) aluminum pots or aluminum pots with Teflon coatings.

- Strength – of the three choices, aluminum is the most likely to get bent up and dented.

o Steel has also been around for years. It is easy to find steel pots in catalogues and outfitters. For people on a budget that are worried about aluminum, this is their usual choice. Steel has the following properties

- Steel has good heat transfer, but can serve as a heat sink – meaning it can store heat which could be good or bad. If you want a pot that will stay warm longer, this can help. But if you are trying to use less fuel then steel can store some of that heat and not transfer it to the meal as well as other metals.

- Cheap – as mentioned above, you can usually find steel pots at a reasonable price.

- Weight – steel pots will generally weigh a lot more than the other two choices. These days most hikers tend to avoid it because of this.

- Rust – steel pots can rust, although most will not if kept up properly.

- Strength – steep pots can stand up to a lot of abuse and still work great.

o Titanium is relatively new but is very popular. The reasons are simple; it combines the strength of steel with the light weight of aluminum. It does have some drawbacks though. Here are some things to consider with titanium:

- Titanium is generally expensive. But shop around – some companies are selling some good solo pots at a fairly reasonable price. One thing I have found is pots are all made from the same quality of titanium, but not always the same thickness. They are an aluminum/titanium alloy not pure titanium which would be VERY expensive and honestly not as efficient as the alloy.

- Strength – even the alloy is very strong; it is strong like steel, while being light like aluminum – plus it won’t rust like steel can.

- Pure titanium is considered an insulator – which would be bad for a pot material. But since titanium is strong, it can be made into thinner walled pots than aluminum while maintaining better strength. And since there is some aluminum in the mix, it doesn’t “insulate” the meal in the pot from the heat of the stove. One drawback to this is since the pot is thinner; there is a higher chance for burning food.

o Pot sizes are a personal preference thing. So what do you need to consider? Well if you are going solo, start from the basic standpoint of what do I need and then work up from there based on style. The smallest pot I found effective for a solo hiker that still allowed me to eat well was a 0.72 liter pot. That said, I have found a slightly larger pot easier to cook in – so I now use a 0.9 L pot for backpacking. With that as a baseline, think of how you plan to eat.

- If you are in a group and want to cook in one pot – will you all eat from the same pot or will you have individual bowls to eat from? If so, then consider just getting separate pots and cooking and eating from your own pot. This gives some benefits such as each person cooking and seasoning meals to their own personal taste but may have drawbacks like longer cooking times or needing separate stoves.

- If you are a person that likes a large meal, then how large? If you need two Lipton’s meals to feel full, then you probably need at least a 1.5 liter pot. If you like to eat a lot but could be happy with one meal, some flat bread, and some GORP with dinner - then maybe you can do with the smaller pot anyway and mix cooked and uncooked foods in a meal.

- Remember that your stove and pot need to work together. A huge pot won’t always work on a small alcohol stove. You also don’t need a large gas stove to heat water in a 0.72 liter pot – a small alcohol stove will do just fine while weighing less and the smaller flames may actually make it easier to cook without burning food. Just things to consider.

Pots can come with other options like a frying pan lid, or a cool stuff sack, a flat lid, built in handles, pot lifters included, special bottoms to connect to certain stoves, etc. All these choices are extras which are more individual style and what they need. The merits of each one are something for the individual hiker to decide. Have fun with it based on what you want. The same is true of your utensils and other dishes. If you eat from the pot, then no need for bowls and plates. If your dishes are simple rice and noodles, then a spoon can do or maybe even chopsticks – no need for a fork unless you just want one. If you want hot coffee you may want an insulated cup, but if you are just doing cold drinks, you water bottle can do it all. Maybe you are a coffee snob and want a French press or maybe you can drink the cheap flow-thru bags on the trail and satisfy your gourmet coffee craving in towns when you re-supply.

Another key piece to your kitchen is water. No matter what else you decide about hiking style, you need to have water. The problems with water are how to carry it, how much to carry, and how (or if) you should treat it. There are a number of products out there that some people say you need and cannot do without so it can make it hard to decide. The absolute truth is you could go without any water carrier or filter/treatment and survive. But as hikers, we don’t want to just survive. So what do we need to consider when we plan for this? The answers boil down to water availability, reliability of water, weather, and style/preference. If you hike in moderate weather where there are lots of streams, then you could get by with very little water on you. If you are hiking where the water is scarce and it is hot, then you may need three liters of water with you to get to the next source without getting a heat injury. You must make the decision based on all these things – there is no easy answer, and what may work in one situation will not work or be the preferred method in all situations.

So in saying that, I will start by talking about treatment/filter methods and options. There are a lot out there and it can be a very sensitive subject, especially when you consider you have to have FAITH in how your water safety strategy works. A person with a filter may have invested a lot or money and sometimes work effort in their filter to make sure they stay healthy. A person that doesn’t treat at all and drinks from the source also has invested their heath in the faith that there is nothing there to hurt them. In either case a person can dismiss illness as bad cheese, or attribute their continued existence to their method being the best. The thing to consider is everyone that does any of these (including variants on these methods) is still alive and hiking. Saying that (and given the space I have dedicated to this article) I will not try to go too deep into the weeds about the probability of different contaminants and what works best against each and what is ineffective against each – I will simply go into the basics about each method and let you decide what you have trust in and feel will work for you.

• Filters. Filters are relatively new to the backpacking scene. They consist of some sort of material which the water must pass. The idea is to have a material that is small enough for water to pass through while keeping contaminants out including minerals and living things like bacteria and viruses. There are filters out there that have great flow rates, but that may be because they have large pores to allow the water to pass through – which could be a bad idea because they really don’t filter out much at all. Things to consider with filters:

o Mechanical filters require pumping. All filters don’t pump at the same rate or with the same action. While some may pump well and work fast, others take a lot of effort for a little bit of water. Try asking other hikers with experience using these filters about their performance before buying one in order to avoid being surprised on the trail.

o Something good about the mechanical pump system is it allows you to put your pick up line in a shallow pool even filled with junk and pump the water up and into a container as clean water. Nice trick.

o Filter systems can maintain water in them (usually around the filter or in the pump) which can actually be a good breeding place for organisms. If you decide to go filter, learn to correctly maintain it or you can actually create problems for yourself.

o Filter systems also usually have an end for the “contaminated” water and an end for the “purified” water. You may believe a filter works for you, but if you store these with the ends in contact you are creating “cross contamination” which basically means you are ruining all your efforts because of how you store the filter system.

o Some filters are gravity feed which is cool if you want to purify all your water for the next day while at camp or have the time to sit and wait while you are at the water source while the water feeds through the filter - just so you can drink it. Some of these sorts of systems also work as an in-line filter for hydration systems with hoses, so you can suck the water through the system.

o Even filter systems cannot block out all viruses unless they include an iodine membrane in the filter – so even with a filter designed to do this, you are getting some iodine in you (if that concerns you at all).

o Pump systems usually weigh a lot more than other systems, and in-line/gravity feed systems usually don’t add a lot of weight to your pack.

• Chemicals. Some chemicals have been around and used for years – namely chlorine and iodine. Other chemicals are new on the market like chlorine dioxide and Minox systems (an electronic device to create a chemical treatment using water). All chemical treatments have to remain in contact with the water a certain amount of time to be effective.

o Chlorine is easy to get – bleach. But that said, remember bleach is MOSTLY water. You need a capful of bleach per quart to make it work. And with the way bleach works, you need to keep adding it until you can smell it in the water to ensure it works. Also – don’t use scented bleach – it is poison.

o Iodine can be bought in tablets or in a glass jar of iodine crystals that you soak in water to make the iodine solution. Tablets are easy to use and weigh very little, but can leave a stronger iodine taste than the iodine crystal method. The iodine crystals however, weigh more and are stored in a glass bottle that could break (but I have never heard of this happening with those that use it). Iodine tablets come in bottles that can last about a week of trail time, while the iodine crystals could probably last for an entire thru-hike plus some. Iodine leaves a taste in the water which can be killed with vitamin C tablets (AFTER the water has been in contact with iodine for 30 minutes). Some people have health concerns about the long term exposure to iodine - but iodine is needed by the body - check any salt in the US and you will see the word "iodized" because iodine is added to prevent goiters and thyroid problems. So unless you have an iodine sensitivity, you should be fine.

o Chlorine dioxide is a chemical recently introduced to backpacking. It is similar to the chlorine used in urban water treatment, and is more effective than chlorine bleach with lower amounts - and it has almost no smell or taste. It is more expensive that iodine and the containers will not last as long – but it is light and easy to use.

o Minox creates a chemical in a chamber by using water and the device – so it takes some time and is sort of expensive.

• No treatment or some treatment. The fact is no one really knows how bad or good the water is in the back country along the AT. No one has done a comprehensive study of the water along it. There are many hikers that have gone the entire length and never filter or treated water. Maybe you will feel safe doing this yourself.

Remember bad water can happen even if you filter or treat because either you screwed it up yourself through cross contamination or you method was ineffective against what got you anyway. The truth is not even municipal water is always safe – and there is evidence that dirty hands will be more of a threat to your health than you water is, so try not to sweat the question about water treatment too much.

So now you have your water. How much do you carry and how? There are many ways to decide this. In hot weather general guidance is you need about 1 quart (liter) of water per hour when active. So using your trail guide you see that the next good water past camp is 7 miles away. Given that the average person will make 2 MPH, the hiker should need 3.5 hours to get there, so 3.5 liters would be about right. In cooler weather you can get by on less, but you still need to drink. So the next question is the how do you plan to tote water? Basically it comes down to three different ways: bottles, bladders, and hydration systems.

• Bottles can be as simple as an empty soda bottle or as fancy as a Nalgene bottle or as exotic as Russian surplus canteens. You decide. Nalgene weighs more and costs more (although sometimes you can get them free as give always). Soda bottles and other drinks can cost less and weigh less – and they come with a drink already in them. The main difference is while Nalgene bottles can hold hot water without deforming if they had too, a soda bottle might not.

• Bladders are collapsible containers that you can store flat when empty or have them open up to just as much as you need when you fill them.

• Hydration systems are the same as bladders, but they add a hose so you can drink from them without getting them out of your pack while you walk.

• Most hikers use some sort of combination. Some will use bottles for hiking and to drink from at meals and have a bladder for camp and carrying large amounts of water on dry trail stretches. Some will have a bladder or multiple bladders for flexibility.

Food Bag
And to finish up the section I will cover the food bag. Most hikers have something they call a food bag. While you could put all your food in your backpack in the bottom container or in separate zip-lock baggies, the food bag has become a strategy that most follow because it is convenient and it works. A food bag allows you to centralize your food supply, like a pantry – so when it is meal time you can pull out one bag and dig in to it when prepare meals without strewing your pack contents everywhere. It allows you to hang your food from the rafters when in shelters to keep the mice out of it. It makes it easier to string from a line and hang from a tree when you are in bear country, and it makes it easier to unpack and pack a single part of your load when in town for re-supply.

There is a need for bear proof containers out west where large bears can be a nuisance. While there are bears in the east, they are normally not the problem they are out west. The majority of hikers make it just fine without any special containers or Kevlar bear bags along the Appalachian Trail – but if you want to bring something like that, by all means do so. But for the majority a simple stuff sack will work, and add about 50’ of cord for bear-bagging so you have a lot of freedom and you can even use the line for other things like clothing or shoelaces if you need to.