Let’s not kid ourselves. The best part about spending time in the outdoors isn’t the wide open spaces, the fresh moving air, or the soul-nourishing solitude. It’s the food. Everyone knows that there is something about the great outdoors that just makes food taste better, whether you’re spending a weekend at the lake or a month on the Colorado Trail.
Food is important to the adventurer not only because of the calories it provides, but also because of the comfort it can provide to the weary traveler. Gathering around a meal, after all, is one of the most essential human experiences. That’s why the camping cookware kit is one of the most important elements in your gear collection.
The best camping cookware for outdoor activities like camping and backpacking allows us to experience the comfort of home cooking wherever we go with the portability and convenience of something designed to be carried in a backpack.
Our team took a look at what’s on the market today, and we’ve made a list of the 6 best camping cookware sets for your educational pleasure.
The Best Group Cookset
MSR FLEX 4 Cook Set
Metal: hard-anodized aluminum (5.2L Pot) & Aluminum (3.2L pan)
Weight: 3lbs 10oz
Capacity: 5.2L pot / 3.2L nonstick pan
Best For: The Camp Chef extraordinaire
The MSR FLEX 4 is one of the most comprehensive cook sets on the market, boasting more features, better durability, and unmatched packability. It also happens to have one of the largest capacities of any stacking cookware set, making it the absolute perfect option when you have to cook for groups of four or more people. This makes it a naturally perfect choice for the adventurous culinary enthusiast who won’t accept anything from the best, even when you’re out in the middle of nowhere.
Let’s take a look at base features:
The centerpiece of the FLEX 4 is a 5.3 Liter hard-anodized aluminum pot. That certainly qualifies it for one of the biggest base pots out there. MSR says it’s good for groups of about four people, but our team estimates that it could probably handle more than that depending on the meal.
The second pot is a 3.2 Liter aluminum saucepan, and inside of that you’ve got plates and mugs that pack away perfectly. We were able to cook dinner and hot cocoa at the same time, which means a lot when you’ve had a long day on the trail.
The biggest drawback here is the aluminum construction, which even in the case of the bigger hard-anodized 5.3 Liter pot, means a certain degree of flimsiness that you would not get with steel or titanium. Of course, aluminum lighter than steel, and cheaper than titanium, so there you have it.
You also have to keep an eye out for the folding pan handles, as they don’t seem to be connected all that well and feel like it wouldn’t take that much to break them off. In addition, the non-stick coating on these didn’t stand up to our spatula chip test, which means you can expect it to flake off over time.
Best 2-Person Cook Set
MSR QUICK 2-System Cook Set
Metal: hard-anodized aluminum (both pots)
Weight: 1lb 12oz
Capacity: 2.5L pot / 1.5L nonstick pan
Best For: The Dynamic Duo
One of the biggest challenges that backpackers and long distance travelers face when planning out their adventure is how much cookware to bring to accommodate the group without the added weight that a full size cooking kit would bring. MSR’s QUICK 2-person cook set is the perfect option for the trail partners who are looking to maximize efficiency and minimize pack weight. While not the smallest nor the lightest 2 person set on the market, the QUICK set is an affordable and durable option that gets the job done.
The basic design is about the same as MSR’s larger FLEX 4 kit, which means you get 2 pots, 2 plates, two mugs, and straining lids. It’s just about everything you need, and everything nests inside of the larger 2.5L pot for ease of carry. When she’s all packed up the size is about 8”x5”, small enough for most adventures but perhaps a bit bulky for the ultralight crowd.
The dish design on MSR’s cook kits continues to please. We love the deep-dish style that allows it to function as bowl or dish as needed, not to mention the stacking capability and remarkably lightweight construction. In fact the plates are strong enough to hold up against dinner knives. So if you happen to be one of those people that like to cook steak out in the woods, these plates would be up to the task.
Of course the biggest drawback is the aluminum construction. It’s an affordable and lightweight material, we’ll give you that, but it simple isn’t durable enough to last more than a few years of serious use. Even dropping one of these pans from a few feet in the air is likely to cause some denting. It’s not the biggest issue for the casual camper, but those of us who like to keep our cookware for life might want to consider going with something made out of titanium.
The QUICK 2-Person cook set suffers from the same flaw as the FLEX 4, and indeed any pot that’s made of hard-anodized aluminum. Unfortunately due to the inferior heat conduction of aluminum versus other kinds of metal, your camp stove is likely to create a narrow hot spot in the center of the pot. This can lead to burning, which ruins meals and makes for difficult cleanup.
The solution of course is to make sure you are stirring constantly when cooking on one of these pots to make sure that the heat is being distributed nice and evenly.
Best Cook Set for Car Camping
GSI Outdoors PINNACLE 2 to 4 Person Cook Set
Metal: hard-anodized aluminum
Weight: 3lbs 12oz
Capacity: 3L pot / 2L nonstick pan
Best For: Keeping in your car camping kit for unexpected adventures
Somewhere between the compact convenience of a 2 person set and a 4 person set lives the GSI Outdoors PINNACLE model cook set. It’s right in the middle in terms of both size and weight, providing an additional option for crews of varying sizes to bring the perfect amount of cookware, no more and no less.
The main pot is 3L and the secondary pot is 2L. This means that when nested and packed this thing isn’t going to be big to fit in the pack, nor too heavy for a group of two people hitting the trail. What it also means is that it’s big enough to handle more than that if need be. GSI Outdoors claims 2 to 4 people, and our team agrees. You can totally feed four people out of this cook set if the need strikes. We found it to be absolutely perfect for the three of us, and we tend to be quite hungry when we’ve been playing outside.
GSI’s stackability is comparable to their competitors’ products over at MSR, which means there isn’t much new here that can’t be found in other cook sets. GSI does have their own patented clip-handle system which holds up better than MSR’s system and is significantly sturdier as long as you have the hang of it.
I think the coolest thing hands down about the PINNACLE cook set is that its canvas carrying sack is WATERPROOF, so it doubles as a water bowl or wash basin. This is one of the coolest additions to camp kitchens in a while, and it doubles as a sturdy and functional way to keep your cookware protected in travel.
It’s a bit heavy for backpacking. At close to 4 pounds it would be hard who decides who has to carry this thing. For this reason we wonder if this model would be better suited in a car camping kit, where the weight wouldn’t be an issue and you still get to take advantage of the compact design.
Our biggest issue with the PINNACLE cook set was the pot lids. They’re made of mostly plastic, which does seem to be quite durable and lightweight, but they are far too sensitive to heat which is a drawback when you are working around a stove or near a campfire.
Also, it would be nice to have an additional handle so you can move more than one pot at a time, but it only comes with one.
Most Durable Cook Set
Stanley BASE CAMP 4-Person Cook Set
Metal: 8/18 Stainless Steel
Weight: 5lbs 6oz
Capacity: 3.0L pot / nonstick frying pan
Best For: Car camping and van life
Unless I am forgetting something, the tool manufacturer STANLEY didn’t exactly start off making camping gear, but their recent entry into the market feels like a logical extension for a brand that is known for its durability, versatility, and reliability. We decided to see how they would do with a cook set, so we gave the BASE CAMP a try.
First things first: the BASE CAMP is probably the most affordable 4-Person cook set in its class, less than half of some of its competitors. For that reason alone we expected to be able to immediately spot the lower quality that you would expect of such a price drop, but surprisingly, the construction totally holds up. That’s because unlike the other kits we reviewed, Stanley decided to use stainless steel for absolute crush-proof durability.
Of course steel is significantly heavier than aluminum or titanium, so the BASE CAMP is far better suited for a college dorm or the back of an adventure van or tucked away in the backpack of a long distance hiker. This kind of weight just doesn’t make sense, but the added durability more than makes up for it.
Unlike most of the cook sets for camping that are on our list, this one features one large pot (3.5L) and one frying pan, as opposed to two pots. This is an absolute necessity for the bacon enthusiasts, not to mention anyone who is looking to grill up that Rainbow Trout that you just pulled from the creek. The added versatility of a frying pan opens up a lot of recipes that can’t be made with pots alone.
The best part: Stanley seems to have figured out multi-layer construction, which gives the both the pot and the frying pan the ability to properly distribute heat and therefore prevent hot spots.
If we have anything to say about the BASE CAMP, it might be that the plates and cups are too small for our hungry bodies. They are about the same size as other pack plates but without the dish-style capacity. Also, Stanley hasn’t quite nailed the ‘spork’, so you might want to swap it out for your own set of cutlery.
Best Entry-Level Cook Set
Optimus TERRA HE Non-Stick Cook Set
Metal: Anodized aluminum
Capacity: 1.5L HE pot / 1.5L nonstick pot
Best For: Entry Level Outdoor Enthusiasts
One thing we learned about OPTIMUS in the process of doing our review was that it is actually part of the KATADYN group, the same people known for their backpacking water filters, who are apparently expanding their reach into the outdoor gear industry with an impressive line of camp fuel, camping stoves, and cookware, everything that the outdoor enthusiast is going to need for their next foray into the wilderness.
The ‘HE’ in ‘TERRA HE’ stands for heat exchanger, and it’s probably the most unique feature on the TERRA model, and a welcome surprise considering the price. What the heat exchanger does is ensure that your stove’s heat energy is being used in the most efficient way possible, leading to faster cooking times (up to a 20% reduction in cook time) and more even heat distribution (that means no burning!). When you get off the mountain and it’s your job to whip up the mac & cheese for a group of ravenous camp mates, that reduced cooking time is going to work in your favor.
Holding the TERRA makes it obvious that the construction is less dense and sturdy than the other cook sets that we took a look at. It’s all anodized aluminum, but not hard-anodized, which could account for the increase pliability that these pots have. You can bend them out of shape with your hands, so it’s not unlikely that they can suffer damage if not carefully packed. Of course, they bend back into shape just as easily, so perhaps it’s not a huge issue.
The non-stick coating is an important feature for any aluminum cook set. Aluminum on its own is a poor surface for cooking food, and requires some form of coating to make it possible to cook anything without scorching and sticking. The TERRA’s non-stick coating works great for most purposes. And the heat exchanger seemed to do its job; everything cooked swiftly and evenly.
However you can tell the non-stick coating is going to be prone to chipping. After one weekend of camp use, our pot already has a tiny flake on the edge missing. Now how long will this take before it affects cooking performance? Only time will tell. But if the remarkably low price is any indicator, we’d place our money on two seasons of heavy use.
Best Backpacking Cookset
GSI HALULITE MICRODUALIST Cookset For Two
Metal: Halulite / Aluminum
Weight: 1lb 5oz
Capacity: 1.5L pot
Best For: The Long Distance Adventurer
At just over a pound, GSI’s MICRODUALIST 2-person cook set is by a significant margin the lightest Cookset on our list, and with that comes increased packability and compact portability. Backpackers will love just how light this kit is and how easily it fits into the backpack.
The thing is: some adventures move pretty fast. You don’t always have the luxury of a full cook set with frying pan and multiple pots, because the extra weight would slow you down too much. The MICRODUALIST is perfect for long distance adventures where most of the meals are dried and only going to require hot water to cook.
The pot and lid are made from Halulite, which is GSI’s proprietary alloy and claims to increase heat distribution even better than titanium. GSI’s claim is that this increased efficiency will actually allow you to use less fuel when you’re cooking, which would be quite handy indeed for anyone of the ultralight mentality. We tested this claim as best we could and we can say that, yes, the Halulite construction does seem to play a role in how fast this thing can boil water, but it didn’t seem any faster than our trusty titanium cook set.
GSI does not offer non-stick coating with Halulite products, and that’s probably a good thing. Most non-stick coatings will chip off even after moderate use. In addition, if you have better control of heat distribution and scorching, then the non-stick element becomes less important anyway. The Halulite itself is not very thick, so expect a certain degree of flex to these products.
Again we have to mention the inadequacy of the included cutlery. Do yourself a favor and pick up a titanium spork and swap it out.
Overall however this is a remarkably high-performing backpacking cook set that isn’t expensive and looks like it will last a few seasons out there.
Best Value Cookset
WINTERIAL 10-Piece Cookware & Pot Set
Metal: Aluminum oxide
Capacity: 2qt pot / 1qt frying pan
Best For: The Value Seekers & Tea Aficionados
The outdoor company WINTERIAL is primarily a budget-conscious provider of gear and goods, but that doesn’t mean that you are necessarily getting an inferior product. In fact, our team was somewhat taken aback by cool WINTERIAL’s cook set is.
First off, it’s the only one we looked at that included a tea kettle. The ability to make hot or even boiling water in a closed container means that you can make hot tea over the coals of the campfire if you so desire. It also frees up the cook pot and frying pan for other uses, meaning you can actually cook 3 different things at a time if you had enough stoves or a big enough fire.
Winterial praises the aluminum oxide construction as providing “high thermal conductivity”, though in our own tests we didn’t find any significantly improved heat distribution properties compared to the other models in our list. If fact one of the first things we noticed was how quickly a hot spot formed when we were using the frying pan with our lightweight stove. Overall however it was a good cooking experience. The Teflon coating certainly seems to add a high degree of non-stick performance.
One thing the Winterial set lacks is measuring marks on any of the cookware. For many campers this might not be an issue and it is easy enough to use your water bottle to do the measuring. However the food geeks in the bunch might not be able to be as precise as they would like.
Also, it’s unfortunate how the handles don’t lock into place. They are somewhat loosely mounted so they have a tendency to flail about, which can make things difficult in low light situations or on uneven ground.
We had a lot of fun looking at all the new camping cookware that has hit the market in 2020. Camping cook sets, In our humble opinion, are one of the most important pieces of gear in any adventurer’s collection. Everyone knows that food tastes better in the woods, so why not make the best of it by taking your time to select the best cookset for you.
Personally I do a lot of car camping, and when I’m out there I like to get a little rowdy. That means I want a cookset that can stand up to the conditions. For this reason my favorite pick is the Stanley BASE CAMP 4-Person cook set. I fully intend to keep this thing in my car the whole summer long, and I know it’s going to be able to handle anything I can throw at it.
However it’s not the one I will be taking on backpacking trips. For distance travel our top pick is the GSI MICRODUALIST, which is unbeatable when it comes to the way it balances price and quality. It sure can’t cook as much food as the Stanley cook set, but that’s not quite what you’re looking for on longer adventures.
What’s the Deal with Camping Cookware?
Anyone not familiar with camping cookware might be asking: What’s the difference between camping cook sets and the stuff I have at home?
Camping cookware kits are designed to be both lightweight and compact, making it possible to take with you on the trail. They are designed to nest inside each other, which allows multiple pieces of cooking equipment to fit inside one another and therefore take up less space.
A Starter Guide to Camping Cook Sets
The options out there can be dizzying. Fortunately, the quality of a cookset can be determined by inspecting the following factors:
This is one of the most popular choices for cookware construction because it offers the low-density weight benefits of aluminum but with the added durability of a anodizing treatment.
Anodizing is the process of actually changing the molecular structure of the oxide layer of the metal to make it thicker. To put it simply, this means for a stronger surface that is more resistant to corrosion
While some people have debated the potential health hazards of anodizing, there have been no specific health studies suggesting that it causes any harm.
When a product is advertised as ‘Aluminum Oxide’ construction, it refers to the natural oxide layer that forms on any aluminum that is exposed to oxygen. So in essence, all aluminum cookware sets are aluminum oxide cookware sets.
Aluminum is a metal that offers a high durability to weight ratio. In addition it is less expensive that steel or titanium but still offers a high degree of heat conduction.
8/18 Stainless Steel
When stainless steel is presented with a preceding fraction, like ‘8/18’, it is referring to the grade of steel being used. The first number, in this case 8, refers to the amount of chromium present, and the second number, ‘18’, the amount of nickel.
Chromium is effective at protecting the steel against oxidization, and Nickel is good at protecting the steel from corrosion.
GSI markets their Halulite line as constructed of a ‘proprietary alloy’, but in reality it has been confirmed that it’s the same thing as anodized aluminum. So basically, it is a stronger and more resilient aluminum.
The defining characteristic of modern camping cookware is its ability to stack inside itself, something that is also known as nesting construction. This makes it possible to bring a number of different pieces of cookware without it taking up a whole lot of space.
However, a solo backpacker is going to have less space available than a group of friends going camping out at the lake. For this reason there is a high degree of variance in how big these things are and how much they weigh. Be sure to check the product specifications before you make a purchase.
Camping cookware sets come in a few different sizes. Generally speaking, it’s good to have at a very minimum 0.75 liters capacity per person to make sure you have enough space.
- Solo / Ultralight cook sets are usually between 1 and 1.5 liters.
- 2-Person cook sets range from 1 to 3 liters.
- 3-4 Person cook sets can be from 2 to 4 liters.
Frequently Asked Questions
In general, it is not a good idea to use this kind of camping cookware over direct campfire flames. This is because many models feature coating that can actually melt in that kind of increased heat.
In addition, these pots and pans usually feature handles that have plastic coating, which can melt in the presence of strong ambient heat like campfires and cause burning to the skin.
Camping cookware like the stuff we reviewed here is specifically designed to be used with small backpacking stoves where the heat is restricted to a small surface area.
RELATED: Learn How to Cook Over an Open Fire
The type of metal in your cookset determines properties like it’s overall weight, thickness, durability, and heat conduction. Take a look at our Starter Guide to Camping Cooksets for more information on how different kinds of metal determine the overall performance of a cookware kit.
Here’s a topic that even our team can’t decide on. In fact, we’re pretty split down the middle. Because the two brands have become direct competitors in a number of specialty markets, many of their products are comparable both in terms of price and quality. However, since you’re asking our personal opinion:
- GSI makes a better ultralight model with the MICRODUALIST
- MSR is the way to go with a larger 4-perosn k it like the FLEX 4
This depends both on what kind of metal was used in construction and what the intended use of the product is for. For instance, steel is heavier than aluminum or titanium. In addition, cook sets designed for backpacking can be as light at 1.3 pounds, while larger steel-constructed cook sets designed for car camping and weekend getaways can weigh as much as 6 pounds.
Different manufacturers offer a range of different equipment that comes included with these cook sets, with some offering up to as many as 12 different cooking pieces. In general, most cook sets include:
- A Big Pot – Usually sized between 2 and 4 liters, this pot does the bulk of the cooking
- A Small Pot – Usually sized between 1 and 2 liters and used for secondary cooking
- A Frying Pan – This is sometimes included instead of a small pot
- Drinking Vessels – Most often these are insulated mugs
- Plates or Bowls – Something to eat on
Generally speaking, no. Camping cook sets like the ones we looked at here do not include stoves, nor do they include space for stoves or fuel canisters. While there are some models that offer this, none of the models we looked at today include stoves. These cook sets are designed to be as small as possible, so every inch of space is used if possible. However, it is possible to swap out a mug or cup and perhaps create enough space for your stove inside the cook set.
In the last few decades there have been conflicting reports on whether or not aluminum cookware poses a threat to human health. While aluminum itself is dangerous if ingested, there have been no findings that suggest that harmful amounts of aluminum are introduced to food through aluminum cookware. The consensus today is that aluminum cookware is completely safe for humans.
However it has been demonstrated that aluminum surfaces degrade more rapidly with the presence of acid and can affect the flavor of more acidic foods like tomatoes and vinegar-based dishes.