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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- When it comes to wood stoves, there are a couple of
strategies to make them work which I break down into two
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
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
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
4. Use windscreen – you will need it.
5. As I mentioned before, it usually is only good for solo
- 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
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
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
- 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
- Rust – steel pots can rust, although most will not if kept up
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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.
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
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
• 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
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
• 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
• 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.
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.