Tuesday 31 August 2021

Pots for Backpacking


I've recently been sent queries by readers on cooking pots and trekking poles so here to end August are two posts I hope give adequate answers. First, an edited piece on pots that first appeared in The Great Outdoors two years ago.

Backpacking kitchen utensils can range from a single pot and spoon through to a multiple pot set including frying pan and more. Most people generally end up somewhere between these two extremes. My backpacking cooking is fairly simple and my solo cook kit usually consists of a 900ml titanium pot, a 600ml titanium pot that doubles as a mug, a lid that fits both pots, 2 spoons (just in case of loss or breakage), and water containers. In winter I swap the 600ml pot for an insulated plastic mug (sometimes I carry both). If sharing with others I carry a plastic bowl and mug.


With cooking pots the main choices to be made are the capacity, the material, and the weight. For solo use an 800 ml to 1 litre pot should be ample. Some backpackers who only boil water for instant meals get by with a smaller pot. For two 1.5-2 litre pots should be fine. The biggest pot I have is a 5 litre one that I used for cooking for ten on ski tours. Most people won't need a pot that big! Note that capacities are for pots filled to the brim, which isn't a good idea. Practical capacities are usually at least 100ml less than that stated.

Which material is best depends on the type of cooking you do. For boiling water and fast cook meals with plenty of liquid any material will do. For more complex cooking with thick sauces or sticky foods like porridge and for frying hard anodised aluminium or non-stick pots are best.

A third consideration is whether to have a pot with a heat exchanger welded to the base. These do reduce the amount of fuel needed and speed boiling times but also add weight. I like a heat exchanger pot in winter for snow melting but otherwise I find a standard pot fine. Heat exchanger pots often have cosies round them to further retain heat in the cold.

If weight is critical then untreated aluminium and titanium are the lightest materials (and also the cheapest and most expensive respectively). A bit heavier but in the middle regarding price is hard anodised aluminium, which may well be the best all-round choice.


Some pots come with folding handles, some require a pot gripper. I don't think either is better than the other. Handles need to be insulated - silicone tubing can be used to replace insulation if it wears or burns off - and to be secure when the pot is full. Some are a little wobbly, which is not good. Grippers need to hold firmly too and be strong enough to support a full pot. 

For carrying it’s useful if pots nest inside each other – they don’t need to be a set, my favourite two- pot nesting combination for many years comes from two different companies. You can also store other items – small stoves, brew kits, dishcloths – inside the pots. One advantage of tall pots is that gas canisters often fit inside too. Wide pots usually aren’t tall enough for this.


The shape of cooking pots does make a difference regarding stability, efficiency, and ease of use. Care is needed not to tip over tall narrow pots, especially with small stoves. Stirring meals is harder in narrow pots too and food is more likely to stick. Theoretically more fuel is needed to boil water in a narrow pot as a smaller area is heated directly than with a wide pot but with the small pots used for backpacking I haven’t noticed a significant difference. Wide pots are more stable and much easier for stirring food and eating from and I prefer these. With a tall pot a long-handled spoon for stirring and eating is useful.


Three metals are used for backpacking pots – aluminium, titanium, and stainless steel. The first comes in uncoated, hard anodised, and non-stick versions. Titanium comes in plain and non-stick. Steel is usually plain.

Uncoated aluminium

The cheapest material is uncoated aluminium. However, if used regularly pots soon become dented and scratched unless great care is taken. I used to go through a set every year. Acidic and salty foods can also damage the material. Uncoated aluminium pots do conduct heat well and are lightweight but unless cost is an issue I would choose something else. Because aluminium conducts heat well it’s not suitable for mugs as the rim will stay hot and can burn your lips.


 ·        Lightweight

·         Good conductor of heat

·         Inexpensive


 ·        Easily dented and scratched

·         Unsuitable for cooking acidic or salty food

·         Cools slowly – unsuitable for hot drinks.


Hard anodised aluminium

To overcome the relative softness of uncoated aluminium it can go through an electro-chemical process that results in a hard finish that doesn’t dent or scratch easily. Hard anodised aluminium still conducts heat well and is lightweight but does cost more than uncoated aluminium.


·         Hard finish

·         Doesn’t react with acidic food

·         Corrosion resistant

·         Good heat conductor

·         Less expensive than titanium


·         Not as light as titanium.

·         Cools slowly – unsuitable for hot drinks.



Non-stick coatings can be applied to aluminium and titanium pots. The big advantage is of course that food doesn’t stick – or at least not much. However, the coatings can be scratched (and then food can stick horribly) so care is needed in use.


 ·       Non-stick

·         Good heat conductor


 ·        Unsuitable for use with metal utensils as these can scratch it.

·         Not durable



If weight and durability both matter then titanium pots are the ones to choose. Titanium isn’t a good heat conductor though, which does have one advantage. The rim cools quickly so it’s a suitable material for mugs, unlike aluminium.


 ·       Ultralight

·         Durable – weight for weight stronger than steel

·         Corrosion-resistant

·         Cools quickly so suitable as a mug – no burnt lips


·         Poor heat conductor so heats unevenly and liable to hot spots

·         Expensive


Stainless steel


·         Durable

·         Cools quickly so suitable as a mug – no burnt lips

·         Corrosion-resistant.


·         Heavy

·         Poor heat conductor



  1. Interesting article, thank you. This is going to sound very pedantic but its not meant to be. You are correct to say that titanium is a poor heat conductor but it's surely not correct to say that the rim of a Ti mug "cools quickly" as a result. Quite the opposite, a poor conductor will not lose its heat, by definition. The reason why a Ti mug does not have a hot rim is because it doesn't get hot in the first place, the heat is not conducted through the sides of the pot to the rim. This characteristic (and this is my point) of Ti is an advantage because it means that food in a Ti pot stays hotter longer than say an aluminium pot. I like Ti for that very reason and its weight, of course.

    1. Thanks Adrian. I guess the rim of a Ti mug doesn't get very hot in the first place. Mine does get warm though but cools very quickly. My mug is a wide one and not that deep(sold as a pot) - you can see it on the ground in the second picture. Maybe the shape means the rim gets warmer than in a tall mug.