Trying to figure out what type of cooking set to take with you on your next adventure? Or maybe you’re building your very first backpacking mess kit from scratch.
Either way, choosing the right combination of cooking gear isn’t easy. You may have even run into questions like: ‘should I buy a premade mess kit? Or pick out the items individually and build the ideal kit myself?’
From deciding whether to carry a single bowl or frying pan or a full-blown kitchen set, there are loads of options to consider (too many options, maybe).
We’re going to dive into these details as I teach you how to build a backpacking cooking set that’s right for your situation.
But first, here’s a quick look at the top mess kits on the market today.
Ultra light hard-anodized aluminum; one nonstick and one uncoated for maximum versatility
Waterproof SnapBoxes have tight-fitting, snap-lock lids; Pack-up-Cup expands to drink and collapses to carry
Includes 2 Insulated Mugs, 2 Deep Dish Bowls, 2 Folding Sporks, Mesh Bag
Waterproof SnapBoxes have tight-fitting, snap-lock lids; Pack-up-Cup expands to drink and collapses to carry
Mess kit for camping, backpacking, scouting, and meals on-the-go; includes plate, bowl, 3-in-1 spork utensil, and tether for securing kit and contents
REDCAMP camping cookware set weights 0.57lbs/0.261kg, this backpacking cookset is exceptionally lightweight so that your barely feel the weight within the pack on your back, and it take up little space.
16pcs camping cookware set
16pcs camping cookware set
How to Choose the Best Backpacking Cooking Set for You
Everybody’s different. I get that. Let’s talk about a few details that make a real difference when you’re choosing your backpacking cooking kit.
What Type of Trip Are You On?
When I head out solo backpacking and want to go lightweight, I often don’t bring along a mess kit at all.
On the other side of the coin, however, I’ve got a foldable bowl and hot drink Nalgene for trips with others.
Why? Because on group trips meals are made in batches and need to be served. On my solo trips, I make the food freezer bag style and eat it right out of the bag. So consider these questions:
Remember, on solo trips there’s less responsibility and the decisions are all yours. When you travel as a group you’ll need to consider the bigger picture.
What About No Mess Kit at All?
Okay, so imagine that you’re heading out and don’t need to take any dishes or mess kit at all. We’re so used to eating from neat, clean, tidy dishes that we try to take them on the trail.
But what if we get a little barbaric?
When I’m on a solo trip, I do something called Freezer Bag Cooking.
With a method like this, all the cooking happens inside the Ziploc freezer bag. There are no dishes to clean, no extra weight or bulk in the pack, and everything is quick and easy.
Of course, this isn’t the perfect solution for everyone. Some of you may enjoy making meals that require more advanced preparation and that’s fine, too!
Buy a Mess Kit or Make Your Own?
Buying a mess kit is great, but can it be as good as selecting all the parts separate? Usually not.
I find that over time most backpackers learn to tailor every single piece of gear in their pack. So is there ever really a place for a mess kit?
Absolutely. Here are three situations where you should invest in a backpacking cooking set:
If you’re just not sure what you need or you don’t have someone to help you pick out each piece, a kit can be a great place to start.
Sometimes items in kits are more affordable than each item on its own. A mess kit may have 3 total items in it and you only want 2 of them, but it’s cheaper than buying pots or camping utensils individually.
Other times you may want the flexibility of having backup items. Or maybe you want some extra gear for a partner, spouse, or child when they decide to come along.
You’ll know it’s time to make your own mess kit when:
Caring For Your Mess Kit
Most mess kits require some care. It’s easy to fall in love with a fancy looking cooking set and then find out after the fact that it’s annoying to clean up after.
Some of the shortcomings of complex mess kits are:
Mess kits often feature half a dozen or more little containers and components. While this is ideal for Betty Crocker’s kitchen, it’s not always great in the woods.
When you make a meal and get 6 different items covered in food, that means cleaning them. Which takes a trip to get extra water, uses up more soap, takes up more time, and becomes a complex hassle.
The last thing you want after a 10 hour hiking day is a hassle cleaning up after your food.
Just like buying a pet, make sure you first consider how much work your mess kit is going to be. Balance this against how helpful it actually will be. Do you really need 6 separate containers to make dinner in and then clean later?
Cleaning Your Mess Kit
Cleaning your mess kit is super important. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a fact-based look at why cleaning your mess kit is one of the most important parts of life on the trail.
In the paper “Evidence Informed Wilderness Medicine” (Schimelpfenig, 2006) we find that, “practicing "good hygiene" (defined as routine cleaning of cooking utensils and cleaning hands after bowel movements) was associated with a decreased risk [of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea].”
Of course, on the face of it that statement stands to reason. However, when you see case rates of gastrointestinal illness arising from poor hygiene greater than 25% of reported cases it puts things into perspective.
So, approximately a quarter of backcountry illnesses can be traced to poor hygiene. How can you avoid being one of those numbers?
Cleaning your mess kit is critical after every meal. Once you’re done cooking and eating follow these steps:
- 1Eat all the food so you don’t throw out food and attract animals
- 2Lick, scrape, clean, or “swish and swill” any remaining debris from your mess kit
- 3Be sure to use a proper sump hole (cat hole) if you do have to dispose of food waste
- 4Grab a mess kit scraper to clean off the hard parts
- 5For metal mess kits, consider using sand and leaves to scour the kit clean
- 6Rinse with a small amount of water disposing of food particles in a cat hole
- 7Clean with a modest amount of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap and scatter the water
Be sure to check for food particles that might accumulate in hidden places. Under the rim of mess kits, at the corners of seams, or in the cracks of some folding rubber mess kits are common places for bacteria growth.
Don’t forget to clean your eating utensils as well!
While it probably shouldn’t need to be said, personal hygiene is equally as important as clean cooking gear. Don’t forget to wash your hands before cooking, eating, or handling your kitchen gear. Shaking hands, touching common items at shelters, and failing to wash hands after using a “facilatree” are all very common sources of pathogen transmission on the trail.
Combining Your Mess Kit and Stove
Some backpacking stove systems have evolved into complete mess kit systems over the years.
JetBoil is famous for this. Their stove system includes a cup/bowl that’s built in. Not only is it fast, energy efficient, and effective — it’s also simple.
Using a bit of forethought you can optimize your mess kit by:
With a simple mess kit such as a single pot for cooking, you can often nest your gas canister and stove inside the pot.
Other, more complex cooking sets, nestle multiple bowls, containers, and spice shakers inside a single larger pot.
No matter how simple or complex your mess kit is, always try to make it efficient.
Our Picks: The 7 Best Backpacking Mess Kits 2020
MSR is one of my all time favorite hiking and backpacking brands. Their parent company, Cascade Designs, also makes Therm-a-Rest and Platypus products. I can attest, their customer service is top notch!
The Quick 2 is one of several mess kits they make from solo up to 4-person mess kits. Since groups of 2 hikers are most common, I chose the Quick 2 System for the #1 spot on our list of best backpacking mess kits!
- 2 plates
- 2 insulated mugs
- 2 cooking pots
This is a complete mess kit that includes cookware and eating utensils. Each item in the kit nests so well with the whole set that it truly seems like a work of art.
When packed, every single item nests into the large pot and takes up very little space, considering that it’s an entire 2-person system. One of my biggest pet peeves is backpacking gear that’s not concise. MSR made sure this whole set nests together without wasting a single bit of space, and I like that.
In most cases, sharing gear when hiking with partners results in an overall reduction of weight carried. For that reason, the nearly 1.75-pound weight ends up being about 7/8 of a pound per person for a complete mess kit.
If you want, you can even pair it with any of MSR’s famous and reliable backpacking stoves.
Light My Fire is probably most well-known for their ubiquitous sporks. They also make an entire line of backpacking mess kit equipment like this 8-piece single person kit.
- 8 piece mess kit
- Waterproof snap-on lids
- Nesting design
Like most mess kits these days, all of the components are made to nest inside one another. So what’s included?
There’s a plate, bowl, cup, cutting board, and spork. There are also two different size containers for storing or carrying extra food.
I do have to admit, I like the collapsing cup. When you’re hiking and have time to enjoy a warm drink, it’s always nice to be afforded the luxury of a cup. Don’t be like me and drink everything out of bags and bowls.
If you’re like me and still trying to figure out why the cutting board has holes in it, it’s because you can use it as a strainer. Whew.
While I wouldn’t say this is an absolute winner for all hikers, it’s certainly a good option for many.
MSR earns another spot on our list with their two-person mess kit. This is different from the Quick 2 System because it doesn’t feature any cooking pots. Just the mess kit.
- 2 cups
- 2 bowls
- 2 sporks
At a gentle 13.2 ounces for two people, that’s well under half a pound each for a complete mess kit. While this mess kit doesn’t have as many total items as others, I think it does a good job of providing just the necessities.
This mess kit is ideal for people who keep meals simple and enjoy a hot drink. For oatmeal and warm dinner, you can rely on the simple, straightforward bowls.
Coffee goes in the insulated mugs so you can enjoy while you pack up camp and get ready to hit the trail for the day. Think about it – if you don’t have a little mug for your coffee, you have to drink it out of your pot or bowl. Trust me, coffee doesn’t taste good when it’s oatmeal flavored.
I like the simple folding sporks as well. I’ve found this is about as complex as my mess kits ever really need to be. If you’ve already got your stove covered – let’s say you use an alcohol stove to boil water – and all you need is the bowls and mugs to put the food in, this is probably a top contestant on your list.
This is an ideal mess kit for people who regularly hike with a partner and keep meals relatively simple.
I have to admit, I like this mess kit as much or more than any others on the list. It might be a bit heavier and frankly, there may be a few unnecessary items in it, but it’s got a lot going on.
- Aluminum pot and frying pan
- Metal collapsible spoon
- Serving spoons included
In total there is a pot with a lid, a frying pan, two bowls, a serving ladle, serving spoon, spork, and cleaning sponge.
With an overall weight of 15 ounces, it’s not particularly ultralight but it’s also not ridiculous. I might ditch the serving ladle and one of the bowls if you want to pare down the weight a bit without losing value. Get rid of the sponge and clean with your hands to simplify even more.
I love the metal spork and the bamboo spoon. Too many mess kits are being made with cheap, easy to break plastic these days. Honestly just scraping the pot with the wooden spoon should be enough to scrub the dishes clean most of the time.
Overall I like this set, but it might be one that could easily be improved by adding or changing a few of your own items. In this case, just paring down a couple things could help personalize this kit a lot.
Maybe even leave the frying pan at home if you don’t do a lot of frying.
Update 2020: This set is now available in 1,2, or 3 liter sizes. Each size still includes the same contents.
Imagine combining a plate, bowl, spoon, fork, knife, and self-sealing food storage container. Put all this together in a lightweight, easy to use mess kit and you’ve got the UCO 4-piece.
- Airtight meal storage container
- 3-1 spork w/ retainer tether
- Spork matches bowl radius
Attention to detail is important when designing a product. UCO took that seriously. In this mess kit the spoon matches the bowl exactly. What I mean is that the spoon radius is the same as the bowl edges. That means you can easily and perfectly scrape bowl clean every time which speeds up cleaning and efficiency.
When stored the spork is retained by a rubber lanyard. This retainer also holds the bowl and plate together to form an airtight food storage seal.
At just under 10 ounces this mess kit has some real value on the trail. It’s a modern mess kit made from modern materials that can serve more than one purpose at a time. Perfect!
If you like the MalloMe set but you prefer a deeper pot for boiling, this might be the set for you. Many backpackers just use a 1L pot for boiling water, but you need a few more tools, eh? This set strikes a balance!
- 9 pcs mess kit
- Mesh carrying bag
- 1L main pot
Let me be clear - while this set is advertised as a 9 piece kit it’s more like a 5 piece. There is a 1L pot, a small pan (lid), folding spork, bowl, and a carrying mesh bag. The other 4 pieces (which I find are mostly unnecessary for backpacking), are a second bowl, a scrubber sponge, a “survival bracelet”, and a “survival tool card” you can probably chuck this stuff to save weight.
So who might want this kit? If you regularly boil water the 1L pot will be ideal. Packing it all in using the skillet as a lid probably even leaves room for a small canister stove. You can either eat from the bowl or the pot if you want to leave the plastic bowl behind.
I started backpacking carrying a very similar set and it’s a great spot to start for beginners or general use.
If you want a camping mess kit that includes everything and the kitchen sink, this one might be for you. By far our most robust selection of mess kit tools on the list, the Bisgear set even includes the stove.
- Anodized aluminum pot and pan
- Includes gas stove
- Full set of metal silverware
This set definitely includes a few items you can pare down to save weight and space. There are three separate plastic bowls that can be shaved down to just one if you want to keep it light.
Ditch the extra metal fork and spoon and instead just take the spork. Don’t like sporks? Ditch the spork and take the spoon and fork. Either way, it’s saving some weight.
I love that this set comes with piezo ignition canister stove. It’s the perfect stove companion for the aluminum pot and pan. Plus canister stoves are by far the easiest and simplest stoves to use.
If you’re looking to get your cooking gear setup and mess kit a single package, this is the one for you!
There are actually quite a few combination kits like this that are available. Take your time and do a bit of looking around if this kit isn’t quite what you want. There’s going to be one that is.
Not everybody wants a mess kit. I already own so many pieces of backpacking gear, it would be a waste of money and resources to buy a whole kit.
If you’re like me, maybe it’s better to buy just the pieces you need. A spork here, a bowl there, etc.
Most new backpackers don’t have a pile of gear lying around to start with. In that case, things can be a lot quicker and easier if you just start with a kit.
Over time you’ll probably want to change parts of it to better suit your needs. You may leave parts behind. You might modify pot handles to be longer, stronger, or better insulated.
Heck, you might even get rid of parts of your mess kit altogether and replace them with new goodies.
One thing is for sure, though. Whether you’ve selected every time yourself, or bought a premade one – everyone carries some type of mess kit into the woods. Just because you’re looking at buying one premade doesn’t make it any worse than someone’s custom-made mess kit. It just might be the perfect mess kit for your backpack right out of the box.