The One-Burner Kitchen

Wilderness cooking doesn't have to sacrifice all the great flavors you enjoy at home. In fact, it shouldn't because it is especially important to eat well on an expedition. Paddling burns a lot of calories and depletes your body's energy reserves. To keep your stamina and your morale high, try to make at least one meal a day (usually dinner) into a seriously tasty affair. Make dinnertime something to look forward to during your trip. Plan delicious meals that will have your tastebuds watering by the time you reach camp. Of course, that means carrying the proper tools to set up a backcountry kitchen. Here are the basic items that no backcountry kitchen should lack:

  • reliable single-burner stove

  • reliable windproof lighter

  • small 1-liter pot (with lid) and fry pan

  • water filter and/or purification tablets

  • small measuring cup (with markings for fl.oz. and fractions of a cup)

  • utensils (as needed: fork, spoon, knife, and spatula)

  • small plastic containers, film canisters, or plastic bags (to hold seasonings)

  • small bottle of vegetable oil, olive oil, or non-stick spray

  • small bottle of biodegradable dish soap

With a few carefully-selected foods, recipes, and seasonings, this minimal list of backcountry kitchen items will make it possible to crank out respectable meals to rival your menu at home.

The Stove: Don't Get Caught Cooking Without One

Despite romantic talk about how "simple" and "satisfying" it is to cook over an open campfire, cooking will be oh-so-much-easier if you purchase a reliable, single-burner stove. Don't plan on producing consistent, tasty flavors without one. I don't recall ever seeing a flame adjustment knob on a campfire, do you? Well then, you'll need a trusty stove for controlled, low-hassle cooking. There are two major kinds of camp stoves to choose from: "canister" and "liquid fuel." Each type has advantages and disadvantages, which I'll discuss briefly below.

Canister Stoves

Canister stoves run on disposable canisters of compressed gas (usually an iso-butane/propane mix). The main advantage of canister stoves is their packability and convenience. Not only do they fold small and stow easily, but many boast an automatic piezo-electric ignition and superb flame control. Turn on the gas, push the ignition button, and presto: you're cooking! It doesn't get much easier. Canister stoves are also noticeably lighter and more packable than most liquid fuel stoves.

One drawback to canister stoves, however, is that butane doesn't vaporize well at or below near-freezing temperatures. Consequently, the stoves tend to sputter or misfire in cold weather. (You can combat this problem by warming the canister inside your sleeping bag, jacket, or hands before use.) Since many touring kayakers only venture out in warm, summery weather, this may never be an issue, but it's something to consider if you anticipate many cold-weather trips.

Another drawback to canister stoves is the cost of gas. A typical butane canister will provide approximately one to two hours of burn time at maximum flame (depending on the stove), and will cost about $4 to $6 each (in comparison, liquid fuels like white gas cost as little as $3 per gallon). Even so, the smaller size, superior convenience, lighter weight, and cheaper initial cost of canister stoves make them a smart choice for shorter trips. In fact, if you're mostly an overnight tripper or your trips never exceed one week, a canister stove is probably the best choice for you. It will simplify the whole experience of cooking and packing, and deliver fine service.

Features to look for: Push-button piezo-electric ignitions can be very handy, but not absolutely essential if you always pack a lighter. If you use pots larger than 1-liter, choose a stove with a relatively wide burner head and some kind of built-in wind screen. These features help to disperse heat more evenly across the bottom of the pot, resulting in faster, more even heating of your foods. Also, make sure the pot supports are wide enough to support the largest pot you will use. There's nothing more annoying (or potentially dangerous) that trying to balance a boiling pot on top of a shaky, narrow pot support. The MSR SuperFly is a great choice. So is the Dragon stove made by Markill/Northern Lights. If you subscribe to the thin-fish packing philosophy, try the famously diminutive MSR Pocket Rocket, which offers superb flame control and minimal bulk.

Liquid Fuel Stoves

Liquid Fuel stoves run on refillable bottles of white gas which must be pressurized by hand, using the built-in pump. The advantages of liquid fuel stoves include their versatility, cheap operating cost, well-established reliability, and field mantainability. Since these stoves attach to refillable bottles, you can buy different sizes of bottles to accomodate longer or shorter burn times. If, for example, you're going to try some backcountry baking and you need your stove to burn an especially long time, you can always attach it to a larger fuel bottle. On the other hand, if you only use your stove for short periods at a time, you can buy a number of tiny fuel bottles and stow them easily in just about any available nook or cranny inside your hatches or dry bags.

Better yet, white gas (the most common type of liquid fuel in the U.S.) costs only about $3.00 per gallon. Unless you take a lot of extended trips, you could feasibly go an entire summer without having to buy more! (Be sure to replace your white gas every three or four months, or store it in small, airtight bottles. White gas degrades with exposure to air, burning filthier and sootier, and thus increasing the likelihood of clogging your stove.) In addition to the cheaper operating cost, white gas performs quite well even at low temperatures, so unlike iso-butane/propane, it should never misfire unless your stove is clogged or damaged, or the gas has been stored improperly. Even if the stove should clog, many of the best liquid fuel stoves are "field maintainable," meaning they can be easily disassembled for maintenance and thorough cleaning.

The main drawback to liquid fuel stoves is the extra effort and vigilance they require from you. Unlike iso-butane canisters, liquid fuel needs to be pressurized manually, both before lighting the stove and periodically while cooking. You also need to light the stove manually (with a lighter or match). Most liquid fuel stoves require "priming" to ignite (usually by lighting a small amount of gas on the burner head and letting it burn for 30 seconds or so before actually turning on the fuel supply). Aside from the fact that this process takes more time and is less convenient than with canister stoves, it can also be a messy, smelly, and potentially dangerous affair. Until you get accustomed to lighting a liquid fuel stove, expect fuel spills and flooding—probably even a few violent flare-ups.

Another drawback to liquid stoves is their heavier, bulkier size. On short trips, liquid fuel stoves cannot match canister stoves for weight, space, and time savings. But if your trips last longer than a week, a liquid fuel stove becomes more practical and packable than many canister stove equivalents. Why? Because unlike canister stoves, liquid fuel can be transferred to a variety of container sizes and shapes. On a long trip, you can store spare fuel in one large, lightweight fuel bottle instead of needing to pack several smaller, heavier butane canisters. The metal shells of all those butane canisters add up, so when the length of your trip requires you to pack more than two butane canisters, the canister stove's weight and space saving advantages over a liquid fuel stove quickly disappear.

Despite the additional hassles, I recommend buying a liquid fuel stove if you frequently take long trips, camp in colder weather, or cook for more than two or three people in the same sitting. White gas stoves are the undisputed kings of outdoor expedition, cold-weather, and large-party cooking. For shorter, small-party trips, it's hard to beat the convenience of a canister stove.

Features to look for: Since good flame control is crucial to consistent, successful cooking, buy a liquid fuel stove equipped with a flame control knob at the base of the stove in addition to the standard control knob on the fuel bottle pump. Liquid fuel stoves which lack the fine-tuning control valve at the base of the stove are often difficult or impossible to use for cooking delicate sauces, eggs, pancakes, or other easily-scorched foods. Also, check for reasonably wide pot supports—wide enough to safely support a standard 1.5-liter or 2-liter pot. I recommend the ultra-dependable Brunton Optimus Nova, the beloved MSR DragonFly, or my personal favorite, the SnowPeak GigaPower WG, which lights easier than the Optimus Nova, burns much quieter than the noisy DragonFly, and needs no priming in warm weather! If you plan to travel to places where white gas is not readily available (outside the U.S. and Canada), the Optimus Nova's or DragonFly's multi-fuel capabilities might make them better choices.

Lighters and Matches: Fire is a Cook's Best Friend

Whether you buy a canister or liquid fuel stove, always carry a high-quality windproof lighter and a small container of waterproof matches. A good windproof lighter is an absolute requirement for liquid fuel stoves (which are not equipped with automatic ignitions) because matches or regular lighters can too easily blow out in windy conditions. But even if you use a canister stove equipped with an automatic ignition, a lighter comes in handy when the ignition breaks or refuses to spark. Stoves are fairly reliable, but don't be entirely dependent on them. You should never need to go hungry just because your stove isn't working. If your stove is hopelessly clogged, tempermental, or broken, a lighter will allow you to light a fire for campfire cooking. Make sure your lighter is working properly and full of fuel before every trip. Of course, lighters can fail too, which is why you should also keep at least a dozen waterproof matches handy as a last resort. Even if the matches are rated as "waterproof," keep them in a dry plastic bag or a small waterproof container to protect and extend their life. Take the matches along on every trip, but don't use them unless you absolutely need to. Consider them your emergency supply.

Pots and Pans: Keep it Simple

Even if you're excited to cook tasty meals in the backcountry, you should avoid the temptation to take the kitchen sink along. Remember, you don't want a pile of dishes to prep and clean after every meal. Keep it simple. For one to three paddlers, a small 1-liter pot with a lid (preferably a lid that doubles as a frying pan) should be adequate. You might also pack a second pot if you want to prepare multi-course meals. Pots can be stainless-steel, aluminum, or titanium, but I recommend aluminum pots with a non-stick coating, such as the MSR Blacklite pots. They're reasonably light, they distribute heat better than titanium, and the non-stick coating makes them easy to clean. Also, be sure to buy a pot with a lid, which will help hold heat to boil water faster, keep food warm, or bake. You may also find that an additional, mug-sized metal cup (10 to 16 fl. oz.) is handy for making hot chocolate on chilly mornings, or heating up a quick lunch (Cup-of-Soup, oatmeal, etc.) when you don't have time to cook a full meal.

The Water Filter: Good Cooking Starts with Pure Water

Obviously, you can't cook, bake, or rehydrate food (or clean your pots afterward) without plenty of pure water. That means you'll need a top-quality water filter. There are two main kinds of water filters available: paper and ceramic. I recommend ceramic for a number of reasons which I'll discuss briefly.

Paper or Ceramic: Which Filter is Best?

The main advantage of paper filters is their faster filtration rate. An average paper filter may filter approximately one liter of water per minute, whereas an average ceramic filter may take a minute and a half to filter that same amount. (Some ceramic filters, such as the MSR Waterworks EX and the MSR Miniworks EX, filter fast enough to make this difference almost moot.) What makes ceramic filters superior to paper filters, however, is their field mantainability. If a paper filter clogs, you need to replace it with a spare filter (hopefully you brought a spare). If a ceramic filter clogs, you can pull out the ceramic core, scrub it clean, and resume use. Most ceramic cores can be scrubbed many, many times before they need replacing. Personally, I prefer MSR filters, which are some of the most maintainable, longest-lasting filters available. MSR filters also include an inner, carbon core which improves the taste of the water.

Without going into too many of the details, I strongly recommend that you purchase the MSR Miniworks EX or MSR Waterworks EX water filter. Both are well-built and effective. The Miniworks EX, used by the U.S. Marine Corps, filters down to the 0.3 micron level, which is sufficient to filter out all bacteria and protozoa that pose a health risk to humans (giardia, cryptosporidia, etc.). The Waterworks EX utilizes the same ceramic core and pump design, but incorporates an additional paper filter to increase effective filtration down to the 0.2 micron level (smaller is better because it filters out more contaminants). Frankly, this added effectiveness is probably overkill from a health standpoint, but it will make some users feel better to know they're using the best mechanical filtration available. Personally, I use the Miniworks EX. Both of these filters are threaded to screw directly onto a wide-mouth Nalgene bottle or MSR dromedary bag, making them incredibly convenient to use. Whatever filter you choose to buy, be sure it filters down to at least 0.3 microns or better.

One final bit of advice about water filters: If you invest in a ceramic filter, store it in a padded pouch of some kind. Otherwise, if your filter takes an unexpected tumble, the ceramic core may crack and become useless. For the MSR Miniworks or Waterworks filters, I recommend Outdoor Research's Padded Cell #2—a padded, zippered case which fits perfectly around either filter.

Viruses: When and How to Treat Them

No mechanical filter on the market will remove viruses. Many viruses attach themselves to larger particles and therefore will be filtered out. However, if you're in an area where you have to worry about them at all (anywhere water is shared by many humans or potentially contaminated by human waste) the only surefire way to safeguard against viruses is to add a chemical step (iodine or chlorine) to the filtering process. Chemicals can be added before or after mechanical filtration. However, if you treat the water chemically first, your mechanical filter will remove all or most of the taste of the chlorine or iodine. This is the order I recommend since the taste of iodine or chlorine can upset the stomach and ruin the taste of otherwise tasty cooking. While I'm on the subject, I should mention that some mechanical filter manufacturers do claim that their filters can eliminate viruses according to EPA standards, but almost invariably, these filters are built with some kind of iodinated core (in other words, they have iodine built in to kill viruses as you filter the water). While this sounds great, it isn't entirely reliable. Chemicals require time to work properly, and the difference between pumping water through an iodinated core, versus adding iodine tablets to a container of water and allowing them sit for 20 to 30 minutes, is significant. In the latter case, you can be sure the chemicals have done their job regardless of the water quality, temperature, and other variables. Be wary of filters which claim to "do it all" with just a mechanical filter—unless, of course, it's a filter system like the one made by SweetWater, which simply packages a mechanical filter together with a chlorine-based ViralStop chemical additive.

Sterilization: A Clean Kitchen is a Happy Kitchen

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of good kitchen hygiene. Unless you want to get seriously ill, make sure you're cleaning and sterilizing your pots, pans, and utensils properly. No backcountry kitchen should be without some form of strong antibacterial dish soap, detergent, or spray. A bottle of diluted chlorine bleach will also suffice, or in a pinch, a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer. Just make sure to use something that actually kills bacteria and germs. If it doesn't say "antibacterial" or "germicidal" on the bottle, find something else. Also, be sure you pack a small scrub pad. 3M ScotchBrite heavy duty cleaning pads work very well. If you're worried about space, cut one down to a small, 3" x 3" square (preferably no smaller); it should pack away easily into any small corner of your pots. It's also very handy (but not absolutely crucial) to pack a small hand-towel or washcloth for drying dishes and hands after cleaning.

Of course, it's not enough just to bring cleaning supplies along. You have to actually use them—consistently and thoroughly. The first task after every meal should be to clean your pots, pans, and utensils (before any leftover food has a chance to harden or congeal, else the task of cleaning will be much more difficult). You can use any water whatsoever to clean off the pots to begin with; however, once all the visible food or sauce residue has been removed, squirt a generous amount of dish soap or detergent into the pots, add about an inch of purified water (from your drinking supply), and soak or scrub the pots and utensils thoroughly. Even better, place one of the soap-and-water-filled pots back on the stove to heat up the sudsy water to a nice hot temperature (though not scalding) before you commence scrubbing. This will help ensure you break loose any remaining food particles and kill all the bacteria and germs. Then, pour out the dishwater, wipe out the remaining suds, and rinse with a generous splash of purified water. When finished, dry the pots and utensils with a clean towel or set them somewhere clean to air dry.

Utensils are Handier than Hands

I highly recommend that you bring along some kind of spatula and strainer. A spatula is well worth its weight and bulk when cooking eggs, pancakes, biscuits, or anything else that must be scooped or flipped. A strainer is also useful whenever you cook pasta; however, if you're desperate to save space, you can use the pot lid as a makeshift strainer by holding it over the pot while leaving a small open crack to pour out the water. I recommend the folding spatula and folding strainer made by MSR. They are made of durable nylon and their foldable design makes them convenient to pack. You can buy them individually or as part of the larger MSR Alpine Kitchen Cupboard. The latter also includes a folding ladle and several plastic containers for storing seasonings and spices. All of these are stored inside a plastic organizer bowl (with a lid that can double as another plate), which nests conveniently inside the MSR Blacklite Gourmet pot set. I only recommend the Blacklite Gourmet set to larger groups, as I think solo paddlers or small expedition parties will find it to be overkill. Remember: Keep it simple.

In addition to cooking utensils, you will need eating utensils. Any smart kayaker will already have a good knife which can be used to cut, chop, or slice food as needed. But you should also pack a fork and a spoon. Some die-hard minimalists insist that a spoon alone is enough. I disagree. If you're really dead set against bringing both, try to track down a "spork" (essentially a spoon with a few prongs on the end so it doubles as a fork). Honestly, how much extra weight or bulk can a spoon or fork add? Do yourself a favor and bring both. The first time you have to eat pasta with a spoon or soup with a fork, you'll be glad you listened.

Portable Spice-Racks and Plastic Containers Galore

If you like to take a lot of different spices and seasonings along for cooking, you're going to need something to carry them in. You don't need anything fancy. Film canisters or any other small plastic containers with a secure lid will work fine. (Coghlan's makes plastic shaker lids that snap onto film canisters to convert them into convenient seasoning containers.)

Since space and packability are important, try to avoid packing a full cabinet's worth of spices and seasonings. Salt and pepper are probably the most essential, but beyond that, avoid packing more than three or four other spices. For each spice or seasoning, try to find a container just large enough to hold the quantity you expect to use—no more, no less. If, for example, you only plan to use a few teaspoons of paprika for a single recipe on your entire trip, don't store it in a three-inch tall jar or you're wasting precious space. On the other hand, if you need a lot of salt, you might want to fill two film canisters full of it. If you pack these items intelligently, you may be able to fit all of your seasonings and utensils inside your pots, where they won't take up additional space in your hull.

If you don't like the idea of packing several separate seasoning containers, buy a multi-spice container like the one made by Kenyon (available at some outdoor retailers and some Wal-Marts). A multi-spice container is a single round plastic jar divided into four or six pie-shaped compartments, each with its own flip-top lid, each filled with a different spice. The Kenyon Multi-Spice container includes: salt, black pepper, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, curry powder, and paprika—a sufficient assortment of spices to keep your taste buds satisfied. The drawback, of course, is that you need to find space for this one larger container instead of a few little nooks and crannies for several small containers.

Ziploc freezer bags work great for anything which might be too bulky to carry in a hard container, such as flour or pancake mix (assuming you need to bring along a lot of it), although you may want to pack these more plentiful ingredients somewhere other than inside your pots, where they will certainly take up much room regardless.

Oils and Non-Stick Sprays

Always, always, always bring along a small bottle of vegetable oil, olive oil, or non-stick spray, and give your pots and pans a light coating of it before you cook any solid food (eggs, meat, pancakes, etc.—anything except stews or soups). That way, if you should happen to burn your meal a little, it will be much easier to clean your pots and pans afterward. It will also be far easier to scoop eggs, pancakes, and biscuits out of the frying pan in one piece. Personally, I use Bertoli extra light olive oil because it's mild enough not to interfere with the taste of my cooking.

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