Over the years I’ve gone through more stoves, pots, and cooking utensils than my pocketbook really cares to remember. That’s why I’m going to take a look at some of the best backpacking mess kits and who they might be best suited for.
My goal is to show you the good, bad, and the ugly of backpacking mess kits so you can spend less time shopping and more time hiking.
Some of these kits come with a stove, and others you’ll need to buy your stove separately.
Since this is a practical guide, let’s jump right into it:
What You'll Learn
- Best Backpacking Mess Kits: Reviewed
- How to Choose the Right Backpacking Mess Kit
- Cleaning Your Mess Kit
- A Note for Coffee Drinkers
Best Backpacking Mess Kits: Reviewed
While it’s not technically golden armor, this camping cookware set might be your golden ticket to a full cooking set for the trail!
- 4 colors available
- Comes with a stove
- Carry bag with carabiner
With any mess kit, they often come with more gear than you may need. But that’s okay because you can modify it based on what items and utensils make the most sense for that trip!
With 17 different pieces including bowls, utensils, frying pans, and pots you’ll be able to do anything from boil water to simmer stew and sizzle bacon.
Some hikers complain that the pots and pans aren’t easy to use. The simple truth is that cooking on a backpacking stove is harder than at home on the range.
For the cost of this mess kit, it’s pretty hard to argue. The full mess kit weighs between 1 – 1.5 pounds depending on which pieces you take with you and which you leave at home.
Best for an affordable, diverse mess kit that can cover just about any cooking situation in the field.
When you’ve got a mess kit that works, you’ll know it. How? Because thousands of users will leave great reviews and praise all over the web. That’s the case with the MalloMe mess kit.
- Canister stove with piezo ignition
- 1L pot
- Free cookbook
I gotta admit, I would never make a buying decision based on a free cookbook, but the value-add is a nice touch.
There’s not much that needs adding to this 18-piecer. With a pot, skillet, utensils, bowls, stove and more you’ve already got more than most hikers need.
If anything, leave behind some of the utensils in favor of a single spork to save size and weight. Then pare down the rest of the gear based on what kind of meals you’ll be cooking.
There is one thing you’ll have to remember to add to this (and most mess kits), and that’s stove fuel. Simple canister fuel is cheap and easy to find for the included push-ignition stove so you can get started quickly.
This mess kit feels a little more put together and comprehensive than some others. The little things like the protective case for your stove are a nice addition.
Best for a more refined large mess kit but may have more goodies than most hikers need.
Light My Fire is famous for their plastic spoon / fork combo utensils which then expanded into a whole line of cooking gear for hikers.
There’s no pot or pan in this mess kit, so it’s more of a traditional meal kit minus the stove and pots.
- No pots, pans or stove
- Sealable Tupperware-style containers for food
- Mug for hot drinks
One feature most mess kits seem to overlook time and again is the hot drinks. So many of us love our morning coffee, and with the included mug you can sip on a warm drink in familiar comfort. No one wants to drink coffee out of a metal pot.
In more of a true “mess kit” fashion, it includes strainers, cutting boards, plate/lids, sealing containers, and other kitchen needs.
In fact, it’s one of the few kits out there that gives you some way to seal up leftover food to eat later! It’s a handy idea in my book.
The whole thing holds together with a stretchy silicone band which prevents the contents from spilling out all over your pack.
Best for hikers who already have a stove and pot to cook with and need plates, bowls, and eating utensils.
GSI makes our list of great mess kits because they’re doing a few things, a little better. I’m not saying their mess kits are perfect, but they’ve got a few embellishments I think you’ll love.
- Insulated mugs and bowls with strainer lid
- Doesn’t come with a stove
- 1.4L pot
Among the features that I like in this mess kit is the insulated pot handle. It may seem like a minor point, but the slim and insulated handle is both lightweight and comfortable.
To be fair, many mess kits have insulated handles, but not all are compact or lightweight.
Unlike many bulky mess kits, this one all fits inside one single 1.4L pot. While it’s a smaller kit than some on our list, the size will suffice for many who are cooking simple backpacking meals – as is my preference.
This mess kit also solves the need for a mug with sipping lids. Each mug has an accompanying plastic bowl so you can eat breakfast and sip on a hot drink with one boiling of the 1.4L pot.
Best for lightweight and simple backpackers who do minimal messy cooking, or use a lot of freeze-dried backpacking meals.
This isn’t just an organizer – it’s the whole bag of tricks in one place! To be clear, this mess kit is mostly utensil-focused, and it’s heavy!
Not for the ultralight hiker, this is for those who prioritize fancy cooking in the backcountry.
- Luxury utensils for advanced cooking
- Organized carrying case
- Doesn’t come with a stove
Okay, so imagine you’re hiking in a few miles to base camp where you’ll be camping for several days with friends or family. You’re taking day trips to nearby peaks and in the evening you’re cooking up camp-favorite meals!
That’s no time to be using sporks and small utensils. In these situations, you need the luxury of tongs, scissors, spatulas, and ladles.
That’s precisely what you get with this fully-stocked mess kit. Among other things are a large cutting board, full-size knife, and bottle opener multi-tool.
I would say this mess kit is best suited for trips where weight and bulk aren’t too much of a concern, and you’ll be cooking some great meals!
- Plastic sporks, plates, bowls, and mugs
- No stove or cookware
- Mesh carrying bag
Let’s be clear – you’re not going to be doing any cooking with this kit. Instead, this kit is all about what you do when the food is ready!
There is a full set of utensils, bowl, plate, and mugs for 4 people. Of course, they did this for families, but it’s an affordable and effective outdoor eating set for any number of people – just order a few sets.
Each person can pack their own, or you can put it all in the mesh bag.
This mess kit is the most useful for backpackers with a family who love to camp, and enjoy the occasional backyard barbecue with the kids.
MSR’s parent company, Cascade Designs, is famous for all sorts of great outdoor gear. You might recognize them as the makers of Therm-a-Rest camping pads.
- 2 pots, 2 mugs & 2 plates
- No stove
- Very compact and light
This 2-person (surprise) backpacking mess kit has been popular with hikers for years. It’s lightweight, comprehensive, and includes all the cooking and eating gear you need (except for a stove).
The insulated mugs nestle into the smaller pot while the plastic plate/bowls sit atop it all.
When you want to change pots, you can take the removable handle and switch it over. This is a great innovation, keeping weight down while providing options for cooking.
I also like that they made one pot non-stick and one uncoated so you can pick which one makes sense for each meal. Before you ask, yes, there is a pot lid included!
Best for a lightweight, compact mess kit with a balance of versatility and conciseness for hiking partners.
How to Choose the Right Backpacking Mess Kit
So, what makes for a great mess kit? Better yet, what should you be thinking about to find the best mess kit for you? I’m going to answer those questions in detail.
Number of People
This one kind of goes without saying. Depending on the number of people in your party the contents of your mess kit will change.
What’s not so obvious, though, is that you should avoid duplicate items. There’s no need for each person to have their own cooking pot – it’s usually a waste of space and weight.
If you hike with a partner who already has a stove and cook pot, you can probably forego those. Just remember that if you decide to go solo, you might be left high and dry.
Or, you can always leave what you don’t need at home and buy a larger mess kit that you can adapt to each hike.
Weight ties back into pretty much all the other criteria. If weight were not an issue, we would bring a full kitchen along, wouldn’t we!
As mentioned above, you can cut weight to some extent by eliminating unnecessary duplicates of items between party members.
You should also keep weight down by eliminating duplicates of your own items. Most hikers carry a pocket knife or a multi-tool, so do you really need a separate knife for your mess kit? Leave it at home if you can.
In the same way, you can leave behind the spoon and fork and opt for a spork instead. These intelligent weight saving moves do add up.
Whenever possible, go with the lightest stove and pot you can for the meals you’ll be cooking. For meals that only need boiling water, many ultralight hikers opt for the uber-lightweight alcohol and esbit stoves.
If you haven’t already chosen your stove, check out our top picks here.
For elaborate meals that call for sauteing, frying, baking or other advanced cooking, you’ll have no choice but to bring along the necessary (and heavy) cookware.
Plastic, metal, or silicone? These are the options you’ll find most of the time when picking out a mess kit.
Pots and pans usually are made from:
- Stainless steel (heaviest)
- Aluminum (lighter)
- Titanium (lightest)
Thin, lightweight pots and pans, particularly aluminum and titanium, tend to burn food due to poor heat dispersion. Be warned!
They’re ideal for boiling water.
For utensils you’ll have to pick from:
- Stainless steel (heaviest)
- Plastic (lighter)
- Titanium (lightest)
Plastic sporks, spoons, and forks tend to break a little too easily. I recommend jumping straight to titanium because you can get a very lightweight titanium spork that will last for many years avoiding the faff of replacing broken plastic utensils.
When it comes to bowls, cups, and plates the jury is out. This is a very personal choice.
For bowls, cups, and plates you’ll have to choose from:
- Stainless Steel
I didn’t rate them on weight because they can vary so wildly depending on design. I’ve had good luck with folding silicone bowls before but they’re not particularly lightweight, they do collapse into almost nothing.
For lightweight or minimalist hikers you’ll probably want to use your cooking pot as your mug/bowl anyways.
When hiking with groups or families, each person will need a bowl or plate to divvy up food after cooking. In this case, choose the material that suits your budget and preferences.
How Bad is an Aluminum Mess Kit?
Aluminum is a fantastic material for a mess kit. We’re addressing it specifically because aluminum mess kits sometimes get a bad reputation.
Aluminum mess kits are great because they’re cheap, lightweight, and they get the job done. Sure, they’re not the pinnacle of technology, but they make sense for those on a budget or beginners.
Aluminum may scratch more easily than stainless steel or titanium so make sure you clean it gently. There’s more info in the next section on cleaning.
Aluminum mess kits are not suited to ultralight backpackers or those seeking the best tech. Titanium is the best choice for backpackers seeking a durable, lightweight, and very reliable material, particularly for pots and pans.
For utensils, bowls, and plates generally titanium or folding silicone based items are most optimal.
All that said, there’s no reason to avoid aluminum if it suits your needs!
Some people consider aluminum unsafe to use for cookware, due to potential toxicity. I won’t get into that conversation here, as there are plenty of resources from both sides of the argument!
Cleaning Your Mess Kit
When you’ve finished cooking, often there’s a scorched mess at the bottom of your pot or pan. To clean up use this process:
- Let soak with water for several minutes
- Scrape out what you can
- Add dirt (sand is ideal) into the pot
- Scrub vigorously with dirt – it’s a great abrasive
- Rinse and wash lightly with 2-3 drops of Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap
Note: If you don’t like the idea of rubbing dirt around in your pots and pans then you can always try an Alpine Pot Scraper. This is a game-changer. These little tools are handy and should always make it into your mess kit!
A Note for Coffee Drinkers
Some hikers are anal about “hot drinks” as they’re called in the backcountry. I’ve guided trips with backpacking instructors who can’t start the day’s hike without savoring a cup of joe. I assume there’s a few of you in the audience of this persuasion.
In that case, seek out a mess kit with a mug or bring your own. Mini-Nalgenes are popular for this. The only problem is that they don’t have any insulation.
I’ve known hikers who like to put their hot drinks inside their puffy jackets on cold alpine mornings for a bit of a boost so you can always try that trick!
Otherwise, opt for something like the GSI mess kit we reviewed earlier which has insulated mugs built right in. Presto!