Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Low Cost Cooking Pots for Backpacking and Bushcraft

Before I start this post, I want to make it clear as always, that my choices are heavily informed by the style of bushcraft and backpacking that I do. Please keep that in mind when you read anything that I write. Mainly, all of my bushcraft involves carrying all of my tools and equipment in a backpack for an extended period of time. All the tools I carry must be light and compact enough so that I can hike with them on my back for at least two thirds of a day.

The reason why I wanted to make this post is due to the increasing popularity of the Zebra billy cans in the bushcraft community. Recently I suggested that there are better options out there and was asked what those options were. This is my attempt to point out some of them.

I’ll start with a general overview of the type of pot I like to carry into the woods. Obviously, it must be metal so can be used for cooking. From my experience, I would like it to be at least 1L (1Qt/4cups) per person. Ideally, it would be anywhere between 1.5L to 2L. The reason I say that is that many meals will require two cups of water (0.5L). When you add to that a cup of dried content (rice, noodles, etc) you get at least three cups of content in the container. Once the boiling starts, you will get a good amount of overflow if using a 1L container. Here I will try to look at pots that are close to 2L or 2Qt in volume. The comparisons will be very similar if we look at smaller or larger pots of the same line or design.

I also prefer a pot that is wider than it is tall. That way it provides for a better distribution of the heat, can be used as a frying pan, and is easier to eat out of. This is a personal choice, so I will not dwell much on it. It is just something to keep in mind. I will include the height of each pot I look at so you can make your judgments based on the volume.

Most important of all, the pot has to be light, so I can carry it over long distances.

In this post I will not go into the pots I personally use, because they are no longer in production, and they are titanium, making them cost more than the average user would be willing to spend.

Now, let’s take a look at the Zebra billy can, which has become so popular, in my opinion mainly because of the endorsement of Ray Mears, a popular bushcraft expert.

The Zebra Billy Can

Zebra makes several sizes of billy cans, ranging from 12cm to 16cm in diameter. Here I will be using the 14cm billy can because in volume it is closer to what I look for, as described above.

Volume: 64oz (1.9L)
Height: 6.25 inches
Weight 1lb 10oz (26oz)
Material: Stainless Steel
Cost: $29.00

The Zebra Billy Cans are very well made and durable. Each contains a small pan which inserts into the larger billy. The price of the pot is not low by any means, and is what I would consider mid range. The part that strikes me the most is that the billy can weighs as much as a Small Forest Axe, coming in at almost 1.75lb. For me, such a weight is impermissible when it comes to a pot. An axe, yes, but not a pot. The thickness of the metal provides for decent heat distribution for such a high pot, but of course adds to the weight. There are many other options which for that weight and price will allow you to cook gourmet dinners in the bush.

Let’s compare it to some other available cooking pots.

The Open Country Pots

Just like Zebra, Open Country makes different size post. Here I will be looking at the 2 quart pot because it has the desired volume.

Volume: 64oz (1.9L)
Height: 4.5 inches
Weight: 0.62lb (9.92oz)
Material: Non Stick Aluminum
Cost: $11.00

When compared to the Zebra pot, the Open Country one is two and a half times lighter, and almost three times cheaper. It does not have any type of insert. It is made out of aluminum. They have a non stick and regular options. The biggest down side to this pot is that they are made of thin metal. That makes them very light, but not as durable as the Zebra cans. You can easily bend them (although they are easy to fix with just bare hands), and if you hit them with your knife, they will puncture. The Open Country pot is significantly lower and wider than the Zebra can. It also has a handle by which it can be suspended.

The East German Three Piece Mess Kit

This is an army surplus mess kit which seems to be widely available. Similar models have been produced starting in WWII, so some variation in size should be expected.

Volume: About 57oz (1.7L)
Height: 6.7 inches
Weight: 1lb (16oz)
Material: Aluminum
Cost: Under $10.00

These mess kits have three parts. The main container, a lid, which serves as a pan and an insert, which fits in a similar manner to the Zebra insert. It is about a third of the price of a Zebra billy can and a third lighter. It is made out of aluminum, but the walls are thick, and the design appears to be very durable. It has high walls, and can be suspended over a fire using the handle. This is one of my favorite cooking set ups; cheap, fairly light, and durable.

The AntiGravityGear Pots

AntiGravityGear makes a number of different pots. The one I am looking at here is the 2 quart aluminum pot.

Volume: 64oz (1.9L)
Height: 6.5 inches
Weight: 0.37lb (5.9oz)
Material: Non Stick Aluminum
Cost: $13.00

The clear advantage of the AntiGravityPot is its weight. It is a fifth of the weight of a Zebra pot. It is also less than half the price. The main disadvantage is the durability. The walls of the pot are very thin, and it is easy to bend. Make sure to keep it away from any sharp objets and pack it securely.

While you are there, you may also want to grab a pot holder, which will set you back another $2.50.

The MSR BlackLite Cookset

This is a cooking set manufactured by MSR. The set contains a 2L pot, a nesting 1.5L pot, a lid, and a pot grabber. I do not believe it is manufactured any more, but they are still available. Get them while they are there.

Volume: 68oz (2L) and 51oz (1.5L)
Height: 3.75 inches (large pot)
Weight: 1lb 2oz (18oz)
Material: Non Stick Aluminum
Cost $30.00

This is a perfect example, of getting more for your money. For the price of a single Zebra pot (with a small plate insert) you get two large pots and the pot grabber. On top of that, the whole set is still half a pound lighter than a single Zebra pot. The MSR pots are tough and very durable. They also distribute heat very well.

The MSR Base 2 Pot Set

This is a newer product by MSR. It includes a 2.5L pot, a 1.5L pot a strainer lit, and a removable pot handle.

Volume: 85oz (2.5L) and 51oz (1.5L)
Height: 5 inches (large pot)
Weight: 1lb 1oz (17oz)
Material: Non Stick Aluminum
Cost: $45.00

This is another great option from MSR. It includes two large pot. They are made of fairly thick aluminum, and are very durable. The whole set is more than half a pound lighter than a single, smaller Zebra pot. The cost is higher, but you get two posts instead of one.

The Coleman Fyrestorm 2 Person Cook Kit

This is a product by Coleman originally designed for their Fyrestorm stoves. The set contain a 1.8L pot, a smaller 1.4L pot, lid and pot grabber.

Volume: 61oz (1.8L) and 47oz (1.4L)
Height: 5.75 inches (large pot)
Weight: 1lb 8oz (24oz)
Material: Hard Anodized Aluminum
Cost: It retails for under $20.00

Coleman is not known for light weight equipment, and it shows. The two pot set up is still a bit lighter than the Zebra pots, but heavier than all the other examples, coming in at 1.5lb. On the up side, hard anodized aluminum is very strong and very durable. The set has two good size pots and a pot grabber.

As always, this is just my opinion. The only point of this post is to point out some options. There are certainly more out there. More importantly, I want to make sure you don’t buy the hype. Don’t waste your money just so you can look like a more “authentic” bushcrafter. Sadly, more and more people are following the trends and buying what amounts to bushcraft outfits and costumes. Trust me, you will be just as much of a bushcrafter with a higher quality MSR pot as with the alternative, designed to make you look like you are using “old school” equipment.

In the end, maybe you are doing something like car camping, and the weight will not matter, nor will the ease of cooking. Then again, if weight was not an issue, there are many excellent heavy cook sets out there that would significantly outperform the Zebra billy can. If however you are carrying a pack on your back for extended distances, I would strongly recommend a pot that weighs less than your axe. Again, the Zebra billy cans are not bad, there are just many much better options.