Guide to Cooking on the Trail

Guide to Cooking on the Trail

Stove and Cookware Selection

Some considerations you will need to think about when deciding what type of stove and cookware to bring with you are:

  • Weather – Gas canisters usually do not work in temps below 20° F. For temps this low, you will want to take an inverted canister or white gas stove.
  • Group size – If you are cooking for a larger group you will probably want to bring a larger cookpot and a larger cookpot requires a stove that has burner arms long enough to support it.
  •  Meal types – Freezer bag meals or prepackaged freeze dried meals will just need hot water so you can get away with a simpler system.  You can get by with just titanium mug and a very small and basic stove.  If you want to cook one pot meals, you will need a larger pot, more fuel, and an efficient stove with simmer function. 
  • Elevation – Gas canisters often do not work at high elevations so if you want to camp above

Check out my pages on lightweight cookware and ultralight stove options for more information on specific pots and stoves.

Cooking Utensils

Don’t forget about your cooking utensils and odds and ends.  There are lots of gadgets you can throw into your cooking kit, just remember every ounce counts.  If you care more about comfort than weight, go right ahead and bring those extras.  A spoon or spork is a necessity.  If you are with a group, you will probably want to bring some sort of bowls.  Maybe each person can bring a titanium mug to both eat and drink from.  Silicone squishy cups/bowls work well too.  You will need matches or a lighter and possibly a windscreen.  If you plan to bring any alcohol, make sure to pack a bottle opener and/or corkscrew.  For large groups, you might want to consider some sort of water storage while at camp.

Figuring Out How Much Fuel to Take

Every trip you take will be different and there are lots of variables that can affect how much fuel you will need.  How much fuel you will need depends on what type of stove and cookpot you have.  Altitude, temperature, and wind also affect fuel consumption.  You will need to figure out how many hot meals you are going to have on your trip.  For simplicity purposes, I count each hot meal as a liter of water.  You then need to either research or do your own testing to figure out how many ounces of fuel it takes your specific equipment to boil each liter of water.  Here is how I do it:

Step 1 – Get a digital kitchen scale and weigh your fuel before cooking

Step 2 – Use the pot and stove you will be using on your trip to boil 1 L of water.  Be sure you try to match the temperature of water you expect to find on the trip.  Colder water takes longer to boil.  Turn the stove off once water comes to a boil.

Step 3 –  Weight the fuel again after cooking.  The difference in the two weights is the amount of fuel per liter of water boiled.  Record your results.

Step 4 – Repeat this experiment several times using the same canister.  You will want to let your pot and stove cool between trials and use new cold water each time.  Record your results.

Step 5 – Get an average for ounces of fuel per liter of water by adding up your results and dividing by the number of trials.

Once you know roughly how many ounces of fuel you will need, you should probably add some extra to allow for altitude, temperature, and windy conditions.

Tips for Conserving Fuel

  • Use a windscreen, rock, log, or your body to block the wind
  •  Presoak tough to cook foods for 5-10 minutes in cold water before boiling
  •  Only allow flame to burn when it is heating your food/water. Have all your cooking equipment handy and within arms reach.  Fill your pot and open any packages before lighting the stove.
  • Only use as much water as you need.  More water, means a longer boil time so be sure to use the minimum amount of water for your meal.
  • Use a tight fitting lid and do not open it to take a peak.  The steam helps cook your food and/or boil your water.
  • Once your water is boiling, turn the flame down or off.  You do not need a full flame to keep water boiling.
  • Use the correct size cookpot.  The flame should be in direct contact with your pot without spilling over the edges.  Broad- bottomed, shallow cookpots tend to be more efficient than nar
    row, tall cookpots.

High Altitude Cookingcooking-high-altitude

At high altitudes (2000 ft or more) the air pressure is decreased which results in a lower boiling point for water.  Its a common misconception that it will take your water longer to boil at a high elevation.  You water will actually boil faster the higher you go, but your food will take longer to cook in that water since the boiling point (temperature) of the water is lower.  Of course this doesn’t take into account cold or windy conditions which are often common with high altitude and can affect your boil time.  At sea level, water will boil when it reaches 212° F.  With each 500 ft. gained, the boiling point of water is lowered by about about 1° F.

ElevationBoiling Point (degrees Fahrenheit)
Sea Level212
2000 ft.208
5000 ft.203
8000 ft.197
10,000 ft.194
12,000 ft.190
14,000 ft.186


You cannot simply turn the heat up and hope that your food will cook faster.  Water cannot exceed its own boiling point so all you can do is cook for a longer period of time.  A good rule of thumb is that for foods that cook in less than 20 minutes (at sea level) you should add 1 minute of cook time per 1000 ft. of elevation gain.  For foods that cook in more than 20 minutes (at sea level) you should add 2 minutes of cook time per 1000 ft. of elevation gain.

At extreme elevations, typically above 18,000 ft., a pressure cooker is used.  A pressure cooker is a sealed vessel which traps steam and increases internal pressure causing temps to rise.  They make small pressure cookers specifically for mountain climbers but your average backpacker will not need one of these.  If you plan to be above 8000 ft. or so plan to take a little extra fuel.

Water tips

You are most likely going to want to choose a campsite near water so that you have easy access for cooking, cleaning, and treating for the next day.

If you have leftover water from cooking pasta or a watery meal, don’t discard it.  Instead, drink it, add it to another dish, or use it to make hot chocolate or tea.

If you are camping in the high alpine, you may have to boil snow as your main source of water.  Keep in mind this will consume quite a bit of extra fuel.

My favorite water purification method is the Sawyer Squeeze.  This is a small filter you attach to a bag filled with dirty water and then squeeze the bag, sending the water through the filter and into a clean water bottle.  You can also attach the Sawyer to your water bottle and drink directly out of it.  Its a really simple and easy method for filtering your water.

==> Click here for more info on the Sawyer Squeeze  <==


Most backpackers dread having to do the dishes after a long day of hiking.  I know this is my least favorite camp chore and its why I usually take freezer bag meals.  Cleaning your pot out means you will have to purify more water and depending on how far you are from a water source and how late it is, this can seem like quite the chore every evening.  The traditional way to wash dishes in the back country is with a cut up sponge.  If you need to use soap use ONE DROP of biodegradable soap such as Campsuds or Dr. Bronner’s.  Carry the dirty water 200 feet away from all water sources and disperse on the ground.  Dry your pot with a bandanna or camp towel or allow it to air dry.  Squeeze out any excess water in your sponge or towel and allow to air dry to prevent bacteria growth.

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4 thoughts on “Guide to Cooking on the Trail”

  • It’s like a huge energy-war, every little bit counts..
    Cooking on the trail is not only a challenge but an art itself

    To come up with perfect “game” plan for each & every occasion requires both, experience & valuable ideas..

    I’ve never been up on 10 000+ ft yet, where temp can get below 20° F. Do regular gas canisters really stop working in these conditions?

    • Yes, usually below freezing your gas canister will work poorly. It might just sputter and then go out, or not work at all. In order for the canister to work properly, the pressure inside the canister must be greater than the pressure outside of the canister. As soon as the canister temperature goes below freezing, the internal pressure drops. In a pinch, you can warm it up close to your body or with hand warmers but once the canister cools off it will stop working again.

  • Hi Katie
    Back in the days when I was hiking more often than now the Internet did not exist – can you imagine such a thing?! I was quite a challenge to find some useful information on the right equipment. Now we have Mr. Google and great website like yours. Thank you!

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