Over the years buying a trail cooking pot is one of the questions we get asked most. It can be very confusing to figure out what to buy, and even more easy to overbuy.
Unless you decide to go ‘no cook’, eventually you have to break down and get a kitchen set up, and a cooking pot will be in the top 2 items you buy. It can be very overwhelming, especially if you wander into a large REI and have no clue where to start. Outside of your stove your biggest item to decide on will be your cooking pot(s). But, if you don’t have a kitchen setup get the pot before the stove – you want to love your pot most of all and you don’t want to be mismatched. Not all stoves and pot sets work well together. If for example, you prefer a wide and shallow pot, you will need a wider stove, where as a tall/narrow pot can take smaller stoves.
Things to consider when buying a pot:
What kind of metal do you want? This is going to be a big part of your decision. What is your backpacking style like? Do you take everything? Are you trying to go UL? Is your wallet on a diet? Your major choices will be:
Titanium(TI): The darling of light weight packers it does have its pros – it is very thin metal so pots are light. It heats up fast, helping water boil even faster. If unlined you can use metal utensils and scrub pads. Cons – thin walls get blistering hot but don’t retain heat well after removing from heat source, never cook dry, the metal will heat super hot and can warp as well as turn new shades, is notorious for frying on food if you take your eyes off the pot or use too hot a stove – you can get non stick versions but again, you have to have a stove that can simmer – high temps will destroy the lining. Isn’t much lighter than HAA, is often twice as much in cost but does come in mugs and smaller pots – so for minimalist setups it may be your only option. And Ti has the “cool factor”.
Best use – boiling water or cooking liquids such as stews and soups. Works well well alcohol stoves and high performance canister stoves.
Hard Anodized Aluminum (HAA): The pros of it are light, transfers heat well (retains it, fans it out so your food cooks more evenly), durable, strong and very affordable. Naturally non stick, though some companies add a super slick lining for ease in cleanup. The hard anodizing allows you to cook acidic foods (cleanup should be done promptly!) and does not impart any metal taste. Cons are that not all companies make their products thin walled, some pots made of it can be very heavy. You will need to research if your pot is OK for use with metal utensils. Some HAA pots will get scratched, some are OK. Find out also if scrub pads are OK to use.
Best use – Overall HAA is your best buy for the majority of uses. Shop carefully to get what you need and to keep it affordable and light.
Stainless Steel: Is not used as much these days, but can still be found. Pros: High quality, nearly indestructible, very inexpensive. Good for base camping, car camping and for melting snow for water in winter. Can use metal utensils and scrub pads. Cons: the weight of the metal makes it not normally a good choice for backpackers.
Best use – Snow melting in winter (very durable, handles being exposed to heat well), use in fires, use by young kids who are hard on gear.
Aluminum: Rarely seen these days and that is NO loss! Plain aluminum was often used in the old days to make “mess kits” sold to Scouts and similar. It was light, but dented easily and often imparted an aftertaste to food/liquids. Can use metal utensils and scrub pads – but you have a “metal” smell on your hand after cleaning. You also have to avoid using acidic foods in it. Avoid it, just not worth it – and none of the major companies make anything with it these days, you will mostly find it in “surplus stores” imported from China.
Best use – Honestly? None. Avoid. You really don’t want it!
What kind of pot do you want?
So you figured out what material you want, now you need to decide what pot to get. And do you have choices! Every year multiple new pots come out, plenty to dazzle and confuse the heck out of anyone.
There are three basic styles though:
Tall and Narrow – Often used in smaller pot sizes, from 12 ounce mugs to up to 1.8 Liter or so, it works well for boiling water and meals that have liquid. You will often need a longer handled utensil to stir. Can make clean up a pain if you made a messy meal. Works well on alcohol stoves and narrow canister stoves. Best for 1 to 2 people.
Wide and Shallow – Often seen in larger pots from 1.5 Liter to 2 to 3 or even 4 Liter. They work well on remote fed canister stoves, liquid fuel and stable canister stoves and as well on large propane camp stoves for car camping. You can find great options for 1 to as many people as you need. Typically a 2 Liter wide pot can cook for 2 to 3 people. Wide pots are perfect for gourmet cooking, where you need room to move food around. It can make boiling water harder and longer if your stove is made for a narrower pot. Super cheap often equals bad handles!
The kettle – It is low, wide and short but is typically under a Liter. It works well on all stoves and is very stable. Some are for just boiling water, others allow you to cook in them.
No matter what you decide on make sure that the pot is sturdy and well built. Some off brands cut corners on the handles. You will see floppy metal handles that don’t stay put or worse, plastic handles that can melt if used on the wrong stove! Buyer beware, a $25 bargain may well mean you end up buying twice. Or the top of the pot is rolled weird so food gets trapped under (example? Certain versions of the “grease pot” which is a cheap $10 or less “pot” used by some UL hikers)
As well, don’t assume that a set will be better than buying pots by the piece. In all honesty, some sets are great (especially if you have no kitchen when you get going) but better to say have a pot for solo trips, one for if you have a partner and one for luxury car camping. It is common to see new backpackers carry everything in a set – if it has 3 pots, they carry all 3, with all 3 lids. Sets have become huge in the past 3 years or so, every one is making them it seems. It makes sense though – it is a great way to offer convenience and value to the customers. But do ask yourself if you will use the waterproof bucket that holds the set, the mugs, plates, etc before you buy. If No, then just buy the pot and save $20 to 50.
Also ask yourself what you will really cook. If you know you are a committed FBC or freeze dried meal maker, then go as simple and light as you can. A hiker kettle will be your friend! If you swap between FBC and simple one pot meals consider a narrow 1.8 Liter or so pot so you can do both. If you like to cook big gourmet meals, then invest into a large 2 Liter or bigger wide pot for ease of cooking and cleanup. And consider getting non stick on it for quick simple cleanup.
Check that the lid sits well, is easy to take off and that most of all, the handle on the pot is VERY secure. Most companies have gotten with the times and gone to securely clicking in/locking handles. You should NOT have to take the handle off the pot to take off the lid except for in the base models or in small mess kits these days. This makes cooking safer as you can hold on to the pot while you stir. Many pots now have drain holes as part of the lid, allowing you to safely drain water when making pasta, it also allows steam to whistle out while you cook, less boil overs.
Do make sure to test the new pot(s) at home first to make sure you are comfortable with it. Test it outside, on non level lawn/dirt, in the wind. Make sure you practice lifting the pot fully loaded with water and draining it. This will let you know that you are comfortable with it.
Once you know what you want then you have to match the stove to it. And do make sure they will be compatible. If your pot has coated or plastic handles, a hot alcohol stove can easily lick up the sides and melt them. If you are using an MSR Pocket Rocket stove or similar canister stove, larger and wide pots will not be stable on the narrow arms. These are things to check out. Bring your pot with you when you shop if you can and test it filled with water for stability.