Recently I’ve looked at field stoves a couple of times and most outdoor people also know how to get a fire going. There are different ways to create a heat source, and that’s the first thing you need to be able to cook. It’s not enough on its own, though. Unless you’re happy with a diet of toast, tent-peg sausages, and s’mores, you’re going to need something to cook in.
If you’re doing a family camping trip with a big tent and the car, it’s simple. You can afford to take proper pots and pans with you because weight and space aren’t so much of an issue. If you’re taking a big gas stove, go with stainless steel cookware – it’s easy to keep clean. If you plan to cook over an open fire, cast iron can’t be beaten. A Lodge skillet and Dutch oven will do a fantastic job, although of course, they do weigh a ton.
Obviously, that’s a showstopper if you’re backpacking or deployed into the field – you have enough to carry anyway without adding a nine-pound skillet. Even a small saucepan is heavier – and bulkier – than you need. That’s where specialized cookware comes in.
Civilian campers have an array of compact cook sets to choose from, but the classic option is military mess tins. These are light and don’t take up a lot of space. They have folding handles for easy storage, and they’re designed to be used over small stoves. One popular model is the GI mess kit, a two-part item made up of a shallow pan and a plate divided into two compartments. The pan has a folding handle that clips the whole thing together. Its main drawback is it’s too shallow to be much use for boiling water; however, the steel mug designed to be carried with the standard GI one-quart canteen can manage that if required. The US Army stopped issuing the mess kit in 2002, but it’s still officially approved for field use if you want to buy one. The last model was the M-1942; this was made of steel, but most reproductions are aluminium.
An alternative is British mess tins. These are a simpler design – just two rectangular pans, one slightly smaller so it can be stored inside the larger one. There are advantages though. They’re deeper, so can be used for boiling water and are much better for any actual cooking. Both tins in a set have folding handles. In practice many soldiers only carry one, often along with a privately purchased steel canteen cup, and recently Jetboil stoves – which pack inside an included pot – are becoming more popular. The British design is even older than the GI mess kit – it was introduced in 1937 and current issue ones are basically identical. Genuine military tins are steel, but again many reproductions are aluminium.
Material does make a difference. Aluminum is lighter, but there’s some evidence it could be a health hazard if used for cooking. On the other hand, it’s not very strong evidence and, anyway, occasional use isn’t likely to do any harm. What’s undeniable is that steel is stronger and more heat resistant.
There are civilian alternatives to mess tins, and some of the new titanium cooksets are well worth a look – they’re expensive, but also light and ultra-tough. Some stoves also come with their own cooksets, like the Trangia spirit stove or most Jetboil models. Just be aware that, if you’re deploying, you might not be able to take your stove or resupply with fuel in theatre – a solution that works with issued heating systems still has the edge.
Finally, you’ll need utensils. In the field a spoon is probably all you need; you’ll be carrying a knife anyway, and a fork can’t eat anything a spoon can’t. There are various sporks that also work well, combining knife, fork and spoon in a single item. The best are the ones that have everything at one end – usually a spoon with a serrated edge and small fork tines at the tip – but nobody seems to make them anymore. Double-ended sporks can get messy if you use both ends for the same meal. Most soldiers and many backpackers just carry a spoon, usually a standard steel soup spoon. MRE spoons are also a good option; you can melt a hole in the handle and tie it to a pocket. They do break sometimes so it’s best to carry a couple of spares, but they’re light and free. In the late 1980s there was a military fashion for cut-down wooden spoons, because these avoided metal to metal sounds. Common sense says that if the enemy is close enough to hear your spoon you probably shouldn’t be cooking.
So, overall, it looks like the best solution for portable cookware is also the cheapest and easiest – one or two mess tins and a spoon, along with a steel canteen mug. It isn’t a lot of weight but along with your stove, it adds up to a compact, versatile and rugged cooking system.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.