Thursday, February 4, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear: Pots, Cups, and Canteens

The next set of gear I would like to discuss in the context of Classic Backpacking is the cooking and water carrying system. Some of the items are very similar to what we use today, others are not. Just like with the cutting tools, the exact pieces of gear are a matter of personal choice, so I will focus on what items were actually available and used during the time period rather than on what any particular author used.

Cups and Cooking Pots

The first thing that must be noted is that you will see a significant difference in the sources between cooking pots and utensils used for non-movable camp as opposed to those used for traveling on foot through the woods. It appears that just like today, numerous kits were available, and one could find anything from cast iron pots to reflector ovens. When traveling on foot however, most of that was dispensed with, much as we do today.

I take a small frying pan, No. 0 size, which has a square socket for using a wood handle. It is Very light and takes up very little space. I also take a small tinned pail or a quart can fitted with a hay wire bail. If I wish to have a boiled meal occasionally I take a small tin kettle also, but when I wish to go very light, I leave this article behind. Knife, fork and spoon are also dispensed with. A flattened stick answers for a spoon, a pointed one makes a good fork, and the sheath knife answers for cutting everything from slicing bacon to whittling shavings to kindle a fire with.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Camp and Trail Methods, 1910 p.222

Of course, everyone had their own idea of what comprised “minimal” gear: “It is easy to make up a good light weight set of utensils for two or more men (see Vol. I. pp. 118-123), but a satisfactory one-man kit is another matter. The Boy Scout sets do fairly well for a short outing when baked bread is carried, but are inadequate for baking on the journey. A reflector is too cumbersome for a lone woods-cruiser. Let him bake his bread and cakes in a frying-pan (see Vol. I, pp. 344-345). This, calls for an 8 or 9-inch pan. Get one with folding handle (detach able ones are easily lost), or take a common one, cut off all of the handle but about inches, and rivet on this stub a semi-circular socket into which you fit your stick for a handle when you go to cooking. For general use I do not like aluminum frying pans, but when traveling afoot they are satisfactory. A deep aluminum plate fits inside the pan in my kit, along with an aluminum fork, white- metal dessert spoon, and a dish towel. When tied up tightly in a light bag they do not rattle around. You want two little kettles for cereals, dried fruit, tea or coffee, to mix dough in, and the like. A pot that is broad and shallow boils water much sooner than one that is deep and narrow, and it is easier to clean. The kettles must not be too big to stow in the knapsack. Anyway, when one is going afoot he does not want to bother with food that takes long boiling, and so has no use for a large kettle. I choose two 1 -quart aluminum buckets, which can be bought through any dealer in kitchen ware, fill them with part of my foodstuffs, set them bottom to bottom, and tie them tightly in a bag so that the covers will not come off. So there is no waste space, for the food must go somewhere, anyway. The kettles are good protection for perishables. Thus no sooty vessel goes inside another, and you have a package of small diameter. A seamless tin cup is carried wherever convenient, generally outside the pack, where it can be got at when one is thirsty. Aluminum is much too hot for cup and spoon. The complete kit weighs just 2 lbs. 2 oz. including bags. No table knife is carried, as I wear a sheath knife.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p. 103

A wide range of materials was available when it came to pots, from tin to steel, to aluminum, to enamel ware. Each woodsman had his preferences.

Of materials tin and iron are the cheapest and they may be light enough. Here their merits end. Iron will rust and neither iron nor tin will stand rough handling. Utensils of such material are hard to clean when greasy and if the joints be soldered one is kept in mortal fear of their early destruction… Enamel ware is the easiest to keep clean and its poor heat conducting properties makes it for some things preferable. It has a tendency to chip and flake under rough handling or in cold weather… Aluminum alloy is a boon to the camper, it being the ideal material for certain outdoor utensils. It stands up in all climates — tropical, frigid north, in use on horseback trips, in canoe work, sledging or on the hike. It is much the lightest material we have… Aluminum alloy has few merits beyond lightness: it is a quick heat conductor, hence the cup had better be of some other material such as enamel ware so as to save the lips from blistering. Also under the application of dry heat to an aluminum fry pan the food sticks and burns so the fry pan is preferably of light stamped steel. However, where lightness is the great desideratum all parts of the cooking kit should be made of aluminum alloy.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.119-120

One big difference which can be noted between what was carried by writers during the Classic Backpacking period and today is the use of a frying pan. Virtually all of the authors at the time speak of the frying pan as an essential item. In contrast, the item will rarely be seen in the outfit of a modern backpacker. The reason appears to be that a century ago, woodsmen loved to bake bread. They all speak about it at great lengths, and the frying pan was an essential tool even for those traveling light. These days most backpackers have figured out that bread can be replaced with rice or mashed potatoes, and the frying pan has gone out of use.

In the picture below you can see an assortment of pots, cups, and pans available from the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog on p.51.

In summary, cooking kits back in the Classic Backpacking period were as numerous, as diverse, and as attractive to woodsmen as they are today. They could be selected from a wide range of materials including tin, steel, enamel ware, and aluminum. The pot, kettle, frying pan, and cup were popular items, and the size of the kit depended on how light one needed to travel. The preferred material appears to have been aluminum, except for cups, where less conductive materials were a better choice.


The issue of canteens is a tricky one. In this respect, the authors in the 1880 through 1930 period seem to differ significantly from our current accepted practices. Specifically, water storage was not a significant consideration for them. Some carried no canteen at all, and those who did usually settled for only one. 

I have not included a water bottle, but, although I have never carried one, there are a few places, such as the New Forest, where it would be most advisable to take one.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.374

Canteens are nearly always a necessity in mountainous regions where your work carries you on the ridges high above the valleys where the streams are. In the desert a special water supply must be planned for. In ordinary hunting or tramping trips the smaller Army canteen supplies the more urgent needs. Where the water supply is contaminated it is necessary to boil and filter the water for drinking. This can be done at mealtimes and then cooled and carried in the canteen for use on the march. The purpose of the felt covering of the canteen is to keep the contents cool by the evaporation from the wetted felt.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.122

One may travel where water is hard to find, though this seldom is the case in a timbered region. The best canteen is one of aluminum, which neither leaks nor rusts like the old-fashioned tin affairs. It should have a canvas cover with felt lining. When the felt is wet its moisture cools the water in the canteen by evaporation. The canvas cover prevents too rapid evaporation, and keeps the canteen from wetting one's clothing. At night, or in case of illness, the thing can be used as a hot-water bottle, the insulation keeping the water hot for a considerable time. The best pattern is the present regulation army canteen, which is shaped like a flat flask, but with one side rounded a little and the other concaved to fit the body. It has a flat bottom, so you can stand it up. The aluminum screw-cap, held by a chain, cannot jolt out like the corks of common canteens.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.134

The only reference I have found to needing to carry more water, and specifically how to do it, is a paragraph written by Kephart: “In mountaineering it often happens that one plans to camp on or near the summit, and wants to carry water with him from some head spring, to save a long climb down after it. A large canteen would be cumbersome. A half-gallon rubber water-bottle solves the problem. It weighs less than a pound, and takes up little room in the pack. In cold weather, such a bottle, filled with hot water, may save packing the weight and bulk of an extra blanket.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.135

From reading through the texts, I have extrapolated several theories. One is that woodsmen at the time primarily stayed to areas where water was readily available. That would allow for the use of a single canteen or no canteen at all. While Fordyce mentions boiling one’s water when in camp and then carrying it in a canteen, doing that with just a single canteen when traveling for a full day is not exactly practical unless more, untreated water can be found and used along the way. Two, there is a notable lack of discussion about water storage and winter travel. While Kephart talks about using the bottle as a hot water bottle in cold weather, it seems very academic, with little discussion about the issue that come up with such canteens in cold weather. As someone who has used canteens from this time period, I can tell you that there is a lot of information left out with respect to cold weather use. 

Now, let’s look at some more specific examples of available canteens. Let’s start with the one used by Kephart himself. 

It is a complete kit. The exact same kit can be seen on p.58 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.

From a functional standpoint there are two types of canteens that were available and widely used during the Classic Backpacking period of 1880 through 1930. During the earlier period the most widely available canteens would have been Civil War surplus similar to the one in the picture below, belonging to Kephart.

These canteens were made of tined or enamel steel and later aluminum. They featured a cork stopper.

In 1903 the British Mark VI canteens entered the market, and were widely available especially in Europe. They were made of blue enamel steel and had a cork stopper. Just like the above Civil War canteens, they had a felt lining designed to cool the canteen through evaporation in hot weather.

In 1910 the US Army adopted the M1910 canteen. It is the one referred to by Kephart in the above quote. Unlike its predecessors, it utilized a threaded screw-on aluminum cap. Similar German canteens were also available in Europe during this time. 

In the 1940s the US Army transitioned to a plastic screw-on cap for the M1910 bottles. 

In the above pictures you see examples of two period correct canteens (left and center) and the one I am currently using (right).

The one on the left is a Mark VII canteen. It is a later production run than the Mark VI, but for all practical purposes is nearly identical to the 1903 versions. These are widely available on the market. As you can see, it has a cork stopped. Overall it is a good bottle, but I’ve resisted using it because it is horrible to use in cold weather. The felt lining inevitably gets wet and then turns into ice. The narrow opening freezes very quickly, and the cork stopper absorbs water and freezes in place. If you are planning on using such bottle in cold weather, replace the cork stopper with a solid wood one. It will not hold as well, but it will be less likely to freeze shut. 

The middle bottle is a M1910 model. It is a version produced in 1916. The original 1910 versions had a cap that had a flat top. As mentioned by Kephart, the screw-on top is an improvement over the cork one. If you can find such a bottle in good condition, it would be a great choice. 

The bottle on the right is a Laken Clasica 34 oz Water Bottle. They are currently in production and will cost you about $15. I’ve discarded the cover that comes with the canteen. In most respects it is functionally similar to the M1910 bottles. It is good quality and I think it is much better than the replica army aluminum bottles that you see elsewhere. The shape is also reminiscent of designs during this period. It is not period correct in that it uses a plastic cap, which would not have been in use until the 1940s. The reason why I decided to use the Laken canteen instead of my M1910 bottle is that I know that for most people who maybe interested in doing this, it is very hard to find a M1910 bottle with aluminum cap in good condition, and certainly not for an affordable price.So, I wanted to give another, readily available option. While the plastic cap is an improvement, it is not large enough to significantly alter the experience. 

My Choices

I’ve already mentioned why I chose the Laken canteen in my discussion above. It holds a quart of water and weight 6.5oz.

My pot is an Open Country 2 quart aluminum pot. It is cheap, readily available, and weighs 7.7oz. It also has the added benefit of being virtually identical to the ports in the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.

For the cup I went with a GSI enamel ware cup. It weighs 3.8oz. It is heavier than the aluminum equivalent, but it reminds me of a cup I used to use when I was young, so I like it. 

The spoon is just a regular tea spoon. It weighs 0.9oz. 

Unlike many most of the authors in the Classic Backpacking period, I have not included a frying pan in my kit. For many years now I have managed without one, and I don’t see a need for it now. I’m not interested in baking bread, and if I was to try it, I’m sure I can come up with different methods. 

Water Purification

While I am on the topic of canteens and pots, I might as well touch on the subject of water purification. 

As I have noted previously, water purification was not a major topic of conversation during this period. Fordyce mentions boiling one’s water when in camp, but that’s about it, and only when the water source was “polluted”. 

There seems to have been some thought given to removing turbidity from the water. In one of the above pictures, next to the early model canteen, there seems to be something like a Milbank bag, and in catalogs there were more elaborate filtration contraptions. On p.73 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog you can see the following contraption:

The idea is similar to modern filter bottles, but it was only designed to filter out turbidity. It did not purify the water or filter out bacteria or protozoa. 

While chemicals like iodine and chlorine existed at the time, they were not used in water purification. Iodine was developed as a purification method in the 1940s by the Army.

So, the only period correct method for actually purifying one’s water is through boiling. For those of us who are trying to do this these days, and are not willing to risk drinking unpurified water, this creates a serious challenge. For people on the move, it is not practical to stop and boil water whenever you need it and wherever you find it. Carrying a single canteen adds to the problem because it makes it hard to boil all of your water at night and carry enough of it for a full day until you set up your next camp. It is a tricky issue and I have not been able to find a good solution. So far I have managed fine, where the days are only 10 hours long, and the temperatures are cool. I’m not sure how well that will do in the summer. I could just get a rubber bladder like Kephart recommends, although I might just end up with a second canteen if the pack can fit it. 

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