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Ultralight Adventure Picnicking: How to Pack and What to Bring

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Adventure picnicking is not always about creating a lavish meal with fresh ingredients out on the trail. Sometimes you just want to take some time out while on a long hike, paddle, or bike ride  to heat up a freeze dried meal and make a cup of hot coffee or tea. Traveling light and using your limited pack space efficiently are the prime concerns.

Ultralight Adventure Picnicking is about minimizing your trail kitchen to the barest essentials, yet still being able to cook and enjoy a meal while on a more extreme adventure.

The gear recommendations below are to give you an idea of how light and compact you can go. This should be considered a starting point, and doesn’t include the extra clothing, gear, and comfort items often needed for more specific types of adventures and the various climates and locations you may be in.

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We’re also not going to get into meal choices and food recipes. Since I’m talking about an ultralight gear setup, the meals you would be cooking would most likely be backpacker freeze dried meals or DIY freezer bag meals where food prep would primarily consist of boiling water. This article is all about keeping it simple, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t or shouldn’t cook a more ambitious recipe with the gear choices outlined here.

Still New to Adventure Picnicking?

Read our in depth primer on this fun way to have an adventure whether you are out in the woods or in the middle of a busy city.

What’s in My Pack?

Anytime I have ever taken my ultralight adventure picnic gear with me to a more public space like a park, I am always approached about the amount of stuff I produce from such a tiny bag.

In my 500 cu inch Marmot lumbar pack I can easily carry cooking gear, utensils, food, and water for two people.And I still have plenty of space for other pieces of adventure gear like a compass, knife, and small first aid kit. I even have room for an ultralight picnic blanket and light rain jacket!

The point is that you are only going out for the day, so if you scale things down, you will be shocked at how much gear you can fit into a tiny bag. Since I’m talking about adventure picnicking, let’s start with ultralight cooking gear and work our way into the rest of the gear you will need.

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It’s all about the cookpot

A good quality ultralight cookpot is probably one of the most important pieces of outdoor gear you will ever own. Out on the trail it becomes the center of your universe and often must serve other duties like acting as a coffee mug, a bowl, and even a protector for delicate gear while hiking. At times it will even feel like a good friend. Trust us on this: Buy a great cook pot and build the rest of your gear around it.

The Perfect Size
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Because the cookpot is so important to backcountry cooking, a standard size has developed over the years and I strongly encourage you to stick with it. A 750 ml cookpot can boil enough water for a freeze dried backpacking meal and a cup of tea. It also is the perfect size to fit a 110 gram (4 ounce) fuel canister and you will have plenty of room left over to store a small stove, lighter or fire steel, and other small items while hiking.

The Perfect Material

So you know how big of a cookpot to get, but what material should it be made out of? This is another easy answer: titanium. Everyone knows titanium is lightweight and durable, but it has another quality that makes it great for ultralight adventure picnicking – it cools quickly.

Above, I mentioned that a 750ml pot would boil enough water for a backpacking meal and a cup of tea. Once you pour off the water for your meal, a titanium pot will cool quickly enough that you be able to use it as a mug in just a few minutes without burning your lips or hands trying to drink from it. And I should note that the reason it cools so quickly is that it is so thin. Titanium is supposedly a poor conductor of heat. Who would have guessed?

Worth the Extra Money

Yes titanium can be considerably more expensive than similar pots made out of aluminum or steel. But in our experience it is money well spent and that is why it is the first piece of gear I am listing. The good news is that it has come down in price in recent years due to more manufacturers entering the marketplace. My favorite brand is TOAKS (read an in depth review here)  but you can find a huge selection of other affordable options on Amazon.  

Get a Bail Handle

If you foresee any possibility you will be cooking over an open flame, whether that be a campfire or small bushbox stove, get a pot with a bail handle!  Not only does it make it much easier and safer to pick up and pour from a fiery hot pot, but it also allows you to suspend your pot over the fire. You may not like the extra weight and protrusion in your pack, but it opens up a world of new possibilities for cooking. I seriously wish my personal pot had one. I feel an upgrade coming!

Choosing the Right Ultralight Camp Stove

If you looking for the lightest and most compact camp stove possible, there are three big considerations that should guide your decision making. Let’s break them down!

Do you need to be able to control the flame for cooking?

Another way of thinking about this is to consider what you will be cooking. If you are just going to boil water, then there is no reason to bring along a canister stove that allows for minute adjustments of the flame and the simmering of food.

If you do need that level of control over the flame your best bet would be the BRS-3000T Titanium Camp Stove. This micro stove is super affordable and ultra compact. Read our full review here. But keep in mind that no matter how light and compact the stove is, you still have to haul along that fuel canister. The BRS-3000T and a fuel canister will usually weigh in around 260g or around 9.2 ounces

Another option that is similar in weight is an alcohol burner style stove like the REDCAMP Mini Alcohol Stove. This timeless stove design runs on denatured alcohol and has a simple snuffer/flame control to help simmer foods. The 145g (5oz) stove with 100 ml of alcohol should weigh in around 224g or 8 oz.

But before you pull the trigger on either of these stove, read on. We’ll show you a way to have incredible control over your cooking flame and the absolute least amount of weight in your pack.

Can you have an open fire where you will be cooking?

The term “open fire” can mean different things in different places, but in most parks it is usually defined as a cooking flame that does not have a mechanical shut off mechanism. Do not assume that because something is labeled a camp stove that it is legal for you to use in a given location. Check with local authorities or park rules first.

That being said, being able to cook on an open flame opens up a world of possibilities, all considerably lighter than the aforementioned ‘ultralight” canister or alcohol stove. These include stoves that run on Sterno and Esbit tablets, and simpler alcohol stoves that you can even make out of an old aluminum beer can.

But if an open flame is an option, I strongly recommend an ultralight firebox stove. Also called a bushbox stove, these simple stove designs are usually little more than tiny metal boxes to hold organic material for a contained fire. Where they really shine is efficiency, and a well designed small bushbox stove can usually boil water in around 15 minutes with just a handful of sticks from the ground around your feet.

Yup. With a bushbox there is no fuel to carry other than a small container of tinder!. And if you are good at starting fires with simple bushcraft skills, you wouldn’t even need that. If this is starting to sound appealing, I’ll go ahead and make a stove recommendation that will not only act as an ultralight firebox, but can also act as a great base, windscreen, and pot holder for a Sterno or alcohol stove, and also works great with Esbit (hexamine) or similar fuel tablets.

The Bushcraft Essentials Bushbox Ultralight Outdoor Pocket Stove weighs only 61g (2.15 oz)! It stacks flat when disassembled and fits into a small pouch measuring 12cm x 9cm (4.7” x 3.5”). It gets very good airflow from its simple triangular design and is efficient enough to burn leaves and other organic matter should you have trouble finding tiny pieces of wood. This is truly the ultimate in versatility and light weight when it comes to camp stoves. Read our full review of the Bushbox Ultralight here.

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Can you just cook on a campfire?

The last option sometimes is not the most obvious to a lot of newer outdoors people planning a day trip, but it’s a fantastic option if you want to cook a more lavish meal and don’t want to carry a stove. Just because you are out for the day doesn’t mean you can’t take the time out to make a small cookfire, right? The limiting factor here is, of course, legality. But if the place you are going allows it, it’s a fantastic and fun option for an adventure picnic.

And if you followed our advice about getting a pot with a bail handle, then you can cook practically anything by hanging the pot over the fire “cowboy style” – even meats like fish or beef. You can also nestle a cookpot into the coals and adjust the heat by either controlling the amount of coals or just moving the pot.

Keep in mind that I’m not even bringing up grilling, tin foil meals, or baking here – just talking ultralight cook pots. But for cooking fresh ingredients and lavish meals out on the trail, a campfire is the way to go.

Making Fire

Regardless of what ultralight stove option you choose, you are going to need a way to light it since most ultralight stoves don’t have igniters. While a gas station Bic lighter may seem like an adequate choice, keep in mind that their failure rate increases exponentially the farther you get from the car. Also, they can succumb to wet conditions pretty easily, leaving you wet and cold in the rain.

I recommend getting a good firesteel Once you get the hang of using one, you will never go into the backcountry without one. There are an infinite variety out on the market, but all are basically a long piece of ferro rod that you scrape a piece of steel against. They work wet or dry and produce a much hotter spark than other methods.

Be Hot on Tinder

Of course you are hot on Tinder – you’re an adventure picnicker! But I was actually referring to using tinder material to start a fire. If it has been raining lately and the wood at my destination is likely to be soaked, I will often bring along tinder from home. The best cheap tinder material is in your dryer’s lint trap, so keep a small plastic container in the laundry room to start collecting it. Just remember that lint is very flammable. The more of it you have in one place, the bigger the fire hazard. That’s not a joke.

Before heading out on the trail, just take a small wad of lint and put it in whatever container is most convenient for you. If you really want to make sure you get a fire going in the wet, you can also mix in a dab of petroleum jelly. With tiny pieces of wood or flammable material close at hand, plant the tip of the firesteel in the lint. Scrape the spine of your knife or the striker along the firesteel and as soon as you have a small flame, place the flammable material on top of it. Viola! A fire!

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Water

This may be one of the cheapest things to bring with you while out on the trail, but it is also the heaviest. And the first rookie mistake most people new to the outdoors make is in their selection of water container.

Water Containers

If you are really attached to that stainless water bottle you carry with you to the office or to yoga class, I’m not going to give you any grief. It is so much better than disposable bottles for your health and the environment. However, for outdoor adventures, consider how light disposable plastic bottles are compared to that heavy piece of metal. Yes, I know they are bad for the environment, but who ever said you had to throw them away?

Not all disposable bottle are created equal. The classic for outdoor use is the brand Smart Water. Not only are these bottles great quality, but they thread right into many of the backpacking water filters available on the market. I usually get 20 or 30 trips per bottle before I put them in the recycle bin. That’s not a perfect solution, but it is cheap, ultralight, and lower impact than many other options.

Water Filters

I mentioned backpacking water filters above and if you’ve never used one, they are a great option if you are going to a place with water. Most people don’t think of bringing them on day hikes because they can usually carrying enough water to drink and just eat light snacks or a sandwich. But if you are going to cook out there, not only are you going to need to carry more water, but you will also be carrying cooking gear and ingredients.

Even a simple, inexpensive water filter like the Sawyer Mini can make tens of pounds of water miraculously disappear off your back. Always carry a full bottle of potable water for emergencies, but if there is a mountain stream where you are going, why carry extra water?

Utensils

This is a subject really up to personal choice and the specific food you will be cooking, but we’ll go over a few basics.

Fork, Spoon, or Spork

I’m going to leave this age old backpackers argument right where I found it and just say this: if you do plan to just eat store bought freeze dried backpacking meals like those from Mountain House,  a long handled utensil is better for scooping it out of the deep bag – no matter what the business end is shaped like.

Oh and titanium is lighter and more durable

Knife

A good knife is a must have safety item. You don’t realize how useful one is until you spend some time out in the woods or on the trail. And this usefulness increases exponentially when you bring cooking into the picture

This, however, is another area that really comes down to personal choice, hand size, and a lot of other factors. Just keep in mind that a lot of knives out there have blade styles that are better suited for hunting (or combat) than chopping broccoli or mincing garlic. To keep things simple, look for a wider, drop point style blade. You will also have to decide between a fixed and folding blade.

You can find a lot of useful information in my review of the Gerber Big Rock Camp Knife, a phenomenal knife that is not the best choice for ultralight adventure picnicking, but I tell you why and give you a great alternative.

The Camp Cup

Whether you consider a dedicated camp cup a ridiculous luxury item or a key piece of gear, please read on. I changed my mind on this and maybe you will too.

Using Your Pot as a Cup

So, whenever I was going off on an adventure with my ultralight setup, I always just used my cook pot as both my coffee mug and camp cup. And this has always worked fine. But the one issue that was really getting to me was not having an easy way to measure out water for freeze dried meals since my cookpot doesn’t have graduations and I usually boil a whole pot of water for coffee or tea. After one particularly soggy chicken fajita bowl, I decide to try to find a solution to the water measurement crisis.

A Dedicated Cup

I had been eyeing the Sea to Summit X-Cup for months wondering if it would fit inside my 750ml cook pot. I finally just broke down and bought it, and to my delight it fit perfectly inside my pot – even with my canister stove and a fuel canister! It immediately became part of my core ultralight adventure picnicking gear setup.

Because of the little X-Cup, I not only have a dedicated cup for coffee and tea, but because it also has measurement graduations, I can now get the perfect amount of water into my freeze dried meals. I wish the marks were easier to read, but once you know where they are and what the measurement is, it’s no big deal. And I have to admit, that I really do like being able to sip a hot drink while boiling more water.

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Other Gear to Consider

You always have to self sufficient when out in the wild and be prepared for any possibility. I always think of this additional gear as falling into three categories: Health, Safety, Navigation, and Comfort  This may sound like a lot of stuff, but while adventure picnicking, you are typically only out for the day, so you can really pare this down to the most bare essentials.

First Aid Kit

Ultralight first aid kits can be a frustrating topic. The reason is simple: all the ones on the market suck. If you buy one without familiarizing yourself with its contents, then you may get a rude awakening out there on the trail when you are in desperate need of an aspirin or some Imodium. The best approach is to choose an ultralight first aid kit for the bag it comes in and then add what you need.

This cheap hiker first aid kit would be a good starting point, but I would also make sure the supplies in it are protecting from moisture in a small plastic bag.Don’t trust a cheap pouch to keep your medical supplies dry. You can also build your own kit and just put everything in a small dry bag.

Regardless of your approach, make sure you have what you need for light medical emergencies while out on your adventure.

Flashlight

I always carry a small penlight with me even on a trip when I am positive I will be back at the car long before dark. The reality is that things don’t always go as planned and I have been so happy to have a flashlight with me on very many occasions. More often or not the penlight allowed me to stay out longer or add in a cool site that I didn’t know about before I left.

And yes, you can use your smartphone’s built in light, but considering this may be your only communication, I like to reserve the battery power for that purpose.

The penlight I’ve been using for a few years now and have been incredibly happy with is the ThorFire PF01 Mini Pen Light. It’s both reliable and super cheap! Just click the link to get the current price.

If you are a fan of headlamps, an ultralight one that is worth checking out is the Petzl e+LITE I have the first generation of this cool little headlamp, but this new version has nearly twice the lumens. Ugh. So tough to be a gear junky.

Whistle

It may seem like a ridiculous thing to think about in this age of cellular communication, but a dumb little whistle can save your life. If you are injured and out of sight and shouting range from a possible rescuer, even a small whistle can make a loud enough sound to attract attention.

But before you run out to buy a dedicated whistle, check the gear you already have. These days outdoor gear manufacturers are cleverly adding them to packs and other gear. There is even a whistle attached to the Petzl e+LITE mentioned above.  

Compass

A compass is another one of those things that you always want to carry with you if you are headed out into the wild, whether it be land or water. You don’t have to get a super expensive model, but you will appreciate owning and using one that is liquid-filled.

A simple but good quality baseplate compass (also known as a map compass) is the best choice for outdoor activities. They don’t take up much room in your pack, are very affordable, and will last you many years. The standard for hiking compasses is without a doubt the SUUNTO A-30. It’s an easy-to-read compass with a lot of great features. 

Using a compass is a big topic which we will cover here on Tribal Feast sooner or later. There are tons of great video tutorials online, so take a little time out to learn how to use a compass if you are not already familiar. And make sure you set the declination on your compass for the area you will be using it!

Bring One Thing for Comfort  

What would bring you comfort out on your adventure? Is it a clothing item that would keep you warm or dry? Maybe it is a camera or an electronic gadget that you would want to use while out in the wild. Or maybe it is just a small tchotchke that puts a smile on your face. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to bring it.  This is a picnic after all!

How Are You Going To Carry It All?

Okay, you have all your gear together, now you have to decide how to carry it. Keep in mind, though, that the size of the pack you choose will most often be determined by what other adventure gear and clothing you need while you are out on specific adventures during a variety of weather conditions and seasons. Make sure you have adequate space to expand your gear selection a bit if the situation arises.

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Is that a Fanny Pack?

The outdoor industry may have tried to rebrand the lowly fanny pack as a “lumbar pack” to try to make it cool, but let’s be real here: it’s still a fanny pack, it just sits a bit higher. Whenever I wear my “lumber pack” I always think of those words of wisdom spoken by Lester Bangs, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, in Almost Famous:

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”  – Lester Bangs

So no, you won’t be cool with a lumbar pack – at least not by today’s fashion standard. But, to be fair, there are a few differences between a conventional fanny pack and a lumbar pack, and the most important is size: a lumber pack has appreciably more space than a fanny pack. Because of this, lumbar packs often have additional support usually in the form of a shoulder strap.

The lumbar pack I’ve been using, the Marmot Bodega, is unfortunately no longer made. With 8.2 L (500 cu inches) of capacity, it is the perfect size for ultralight adventures. You can also attach things to the outside easily, and at times I have attached either my Helinox Chair One or a camera tripod to it. But honestly, in these instances I would have been happier using my day pack. I just didn’t have it with me.

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If I was to replace it with lumbar pack that was available on today’s market, I would probably choose the Osprey Talon 6. At 6 L (366 cu in) capacity though, it is appreciably smaller than my Bodega. But I often have a lot of empty space in my Bodega, so I’m sure I would be happy downsizing. And Osprey makes phenomenal gear!

My lumbar pack was a great choice for some of the long Florida backcountry day hikes I did when I lived there. I wasn’t worried about the temperature dropping or rain, since hiking in a warm downpour was exhilarating. And I didn’t have to worry about anyone making comments about my ‘fanny pack” since I was usually in the middle of nowhere and there aren’t a ton of hikers in Florida. A good reason to go!

Hydration Pack

Another option for keeping things as compact as possible is a hydration pack. Most on the market do not have adequate extra space for adventure picnicking, but there is one that truly excels: the Camelbak M.U.L.E.

As its name implies, the Camelbak M.U.L.E. is made to carry gear. With 12L (730 cu in) capacity, you should have plenty of space for extra gear or fresh ingredients if you are going to get more elaborate with your cooking on your adventure picnic.

The price of a Camelbak M.U.L.E may be a bit higher than some of the other options on the list, but keep in mind that it comes with a very well designed 3L hydration bladder. How you carry water is an extra expense and concern with other options here.

Everyone Should Own a Good Day Pack

If you spend a lot of time doing outdoor activities, owning a good day pack is a must. I’m not going to get into specific attributes too much here since there are so many packs on the market that will be serviceable for adventure picnicking. The main concerns are compactness and pack volume.

Day packs are appreciably smaller than a more traditional backpacks you would use for overnight hiking and usually fall into the 15L to 35L range. The aforementioned Camelbak M.U.L.E is almost large enough to fit into the category of day packs, so if you are really good at paring down your gear, you could easily consider it a day pack.

Because we are talking about going ultralight, I would refrain from getting any pack over 25L (1525 cu in) unless you have a specific need for carrying extra gear, such as headed out in the snow. The  20 L (1220 cu in) Osprey Daylite Plus is a great pack that hangs well and has plenty of room for any of the cooking gear mentioned above, a water bladder, a light jacket, and even a camp chair!

This size pack is also the perfect choice for a fancy feast in the wild and provides plenty of room for fresh vegetables, an ultralight picnic blanket, and a bottle of wine (or two). I use my Daylite Plus a lot for hiking around town where I will stop by a farmer’s market to buy produce then invariably bump into friends and ending up staying out after dark. It’s great knowing my veggies are safe and sound and that I have a light jacket handy as well as a spare battery to charge my phone.

Final Thoughts

Just a few last things to consider:

Great Gear Should Disappear

By this I mean that the reason you spend money on gear is so you don’t have to focus on it anymore. If a piece of gear functions flawlessly, you can pay better attention to your surrounding and less to it. Bad gear takes your attention away from your surroundings. See? Good gear disappears.

Look for things that can serve multiple uses.

If an item can serve two purposes and it keeps you from having to carry another item, you should take that into account when assessing the weight of that particular piece of gear. For example, I could just use a rubber band to keep the lid on my TOAKS cookpot, but the original stuff sack it came in makes a great ultralight pot cozy. Look for things that serve more than one meaningful purpose. And make sure whatever tasks you expect of that piece of gear, it can perform it well.

If You Don’t Have What You Need, Improvise

The beauty of the outdoor lifestyle is that we don’t have to be cool (or even clean!). If you don’t have that hot new piece of gear you want, don’t let it keep you off the trail. If you don’t have a cooking pot, re purpose a tin can. No backpack? Use a shopping bag. Just get out there and have an adventure!

Forge Ahead Into the Unknown

While I’ve offered some specific gear suggestions above, make both your gear selection and your adventure your own. Sports grow and evolve because people try new things and experiment with different approaches. The appeal of adventure picnicking is that it involves skills and challenges from many different areas of life. Take what you know and use it to push ahead into uncharted territory, whether that means going to a new place you’ve never been before or cooking a new dish you’ve never attempted.

Just get out there!

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