We have been camping all our lives and cycle touring for the last 12 years during which time we have visited 21 countries and cycled over 80,000 km. What cooking we do and what system we take with us depends very much on the country and the route we intend to cycle. We have tried a number of different sets of pans, different stoves, and different utensils.
The 3 main bike setups have been 2 rear panniers and a rack bag, 4 panniers, or a bikepacking setup. Each one has it’s own space and weight parameters and is suitable for different types of tour. We also consider the range of temperatures we are likely to experience and what food is likely to be available throughout the trip.
Topics covered: Pan Sets, Stoves, Utensils,
Of course in the end you can only eat what you can buy in stores on the way. For details of recipes and cooking see my blog https://wraggemorleycycles.com/2020/10/02/cooking-on-cycle-tours/
Cooking Pot Systems
We have tried many types of cooking system. I am showing the 5 main ones below but we also have had Titanium – pots very light – but in our opinion useless for cooking, only good for boiling water. Also old style nested 3 pot aluminium billycans which I was given aged 7 and lasted me through to age 50. But the 5 below are the main contenders.
Top left : Military Billycans. – Top centre : MSR Trail Lite Duo. – Top right : MSR Quick 2 System. –
Bottom left : my design interlocking Billycans. – Bottom right : Sea to Summit Xset 3.1 with X pan 8.
We started with the MSR Quick 2 system which as the name suggests has two pots two plates / bowls and two insulated cups. We took this system on a number of trips across Europe. It is really great you can cook almost any meal you want for two people. The non stick pans work really well and having two pans allows you to cook almost any meal you can cook at home. For baking you can make a “Dutch Oven” By crumpling up 3 small balls of aluminium foil putting them in the bottom of big pan, sit the little pan inside and create an extra foil lid over the little pan then put the main lid on the big pan. Just be careful not to overheat the bottom of the big pan and destroy it’s non stick coating. You can then bake cakes or scones, whatever takes your fancy.
So why did we change? Because we wanted to save both space and weight. As our next tour was the Great Divide from Canada down the spine of the Rockies to the Mexican boarder. Lots of climbing! So next we tried the MSR Trail Lite Duo. Which did both these things but also lost the functionality of the second pot. This made it much more difficult to cook a proper bolognaise sauce or stir fry and spaghetti. Still possible but we moved to just cooking the spaghetti and adding flavoured tuna or cheese or ham afterwards. The taller thinner shape made it easier to pack into the panniers. I did also create a “Dutch Oven” for baking, using foil for the inner pot fashioned over the bowl then I crimped 4 vertical creases up the sides which made the pot small enough to go inside but also gave it a little structure and spaced it off the sides of the pot. Again with a foil inner lid. I cooked a 1 egg Victoria sponge this way. Full description of how to make this “Dutch Oven” at the bottom of this Blog.
Next we decided we wanted to try a Bike Packing setup to see if that was better for us than panniers. So we bought the Sea to Summit X Set 3.1 with the additional X Pan 8. This gives a large 2.8 litre pan and an 8 cm frying pan, 2 plates and 2 cups. This meant we were back to being able to cook almost any meal we wanted all in a package that would fit easily into our frame bags. However at 916 g was the heaviest option but gave us the largest mugs, bowls and pans of all the set ups. If I want to do proper cooking this is now my go to setup.
Our next tour was in Australia and New Zealand where we thought we would neither camp nor cook very often. So we took 2 military billycans and a large terry clip to hold them together on the stove and 2 Foldacups. We boiled water in one can and made tea then clipped them both together and cooked spaghetti and a tomato so that most of the water had boiled away then added packs of flavoured tuna or cheese and ham. It worked but the cans were very unstable on the stove and because they are square heat was lost around the sides and it was difficult to get even heat into both cans. Although I did once use a lid to fry some bread it is really too small and I had to use the pliers on my multitool to lift it on and off the stove. They are light and small and we were able to pack the insides so no space was wasted. Although we took panniers on that trip they would also fit in a bikepacking frame bag as they are only 60 mm high.
So when we got back I set about designing a pair of interlocking billycans. Why two? Why not use 1 pan and share? With billycans they are your cooking pot but also your eating bowl and Sarah would not trust me to only eat my share of the food! Also a single pot for two people tends to be too big to fit in a frame bag unless of course it’s collapsible. I designed two interlocking semicircles to fit with the heat output of the stove and only 1 lid that doubles as a decent size frying pan with a clip on handle. A standard billycan is pressed out of a single sheet of aluminium but each of my billycans consists of 2 parts 0.9 mm sheet TIG welded to form each pan. As I’m not a very good welder my cans probably weigh 40g more than a set of expertly welded cans.
With both types of billycan we are able to store:
Can 1: The windshield for the stove, a striker, lighter, some fire lighter and service kit for the stove.
Can 2: Salt, pepper, herbs, bicarb of soda and washing up liquid with sponge, 2 forks, 2 spoons, a folding spatula and 3 measuring spoons.
The weights of both sets of Billycans include the Foldacups for comparison even though we don’t actually store them inside. The pair of cups weigh 49 g.
These are the Snow Peak Titanium set we bought and discarded after the first use because they were so awful to cook with.
When I was about 7 years old I bought a Primus Stove for 2 shillings and 6 pence from a junk shop. Fueled with paraffin and lit with methylated spirits. It was a beast but worked faultlessly in any conditions. Eventually when I was about 18, I was persuaded to change to a Camping GAZ stove burning butane. Easier and cleaner but lacked power especially when it was cold. In those days you couldn’t get mixed butane / propane cylinders. When we started cycle touring seriously I was in my 50s and went looking for a modern Primus stove. I bought the Primus Omnifuel and it is still my favourite despite having tried a number of others. We mostly use it burning petrol which is available any where in the world. In the UK I sometimes convert it to mixed Butane / Propane cartridges. Just a simple change of the jet but reduced power output and less convenient shaped fuel containers. The petrol fuel container fits in a bottle cage. With Petrol you do have the extra weight of the pump which is not needed for butane / propane gas.
I have heard a number of people complain about that they have to keep cleaning their petrol stoves. Whilst I clean and service our stove after every trip, I have only once had a problem on tour and that was because I took some old stale fuel from a can that had sat for a year in a hot garage.
Common causes of carbon soot being created.
- Not enough pressure in the fuel cylinder. If you don’t have enough pressure the fuel does not vapourize properly because the droplets of fuel formed when they pass the needle valve are too large. Even if you are only cooking at a low heat you still need to maintain a good pressure in the fuel tank.
- The jet is not screwed into the body of the stove and vapour leaks around to outside. This causes incomplete combustion and therefore carbon
- The wrong size jet.
- Old or very poor quality fuel. Petrol losses it’s volatility over time. Especially if it is stored in a hot place for extended periods of time.
We also tried a Trangia fueled on methylated spirit. It is vey light and simple with a very small pack size but even on a warm summers night on Dartmoor with not only the flame windshield but also a full windshield round the pot it would not bring our two Military Billycans to the boil. After two full fuel tanks worth we ate warm chewy pasta.
For completeness I am going to add the other stove I considered which is the Bio-Lite wood burner. It purports to be eco friendly using only wood as a fuel and also is able to charge a USB device while burning. It does these things and does them very well. I have used it a number of times when camping with my grandchild in the garden. It also has an optional 2.1 litre Kettle with lid (the stove packs inside the Kettle) and an optional BBQ which is really great. I found it easy to light using their compressed sawdust and wax lighters and easy to use. However when I thought it through I tried to imagine having this as my only source of stove while cycle touring. I could not think of a single trip abroad where I would find enough small dry twigs to feed it at the places I had camped. Carrying them was out of the question because of the bulk needed to cook a full meal. And it is much heavier and bulkier than the alternatives.
So its all great fun and very clever but I have never taken it on a cycle tour but I would take it in my van. You can easily cook for 4 people using this stove.
Another evolution has been what we take to cook with and eat with. In my early days of camping I had clip together sets of Knife, Fork and Spoon which were heavy by todays standards. Nowadays there are a lot of lightweight alternatives. We started with Titanium Knife Fork and Spoon from Life Adventure then moved to a folding fork and spoon from MSR but they tended to get a bit floppy when stirring boiling spaghetti or stew. Next we tried Sporks but they just cracked up when stirring while cooking. We have finally settled on a 6061 T6 aluminium set from Sea to Summit. Although these come in a set with a knife we now only take the fork and spoon as we have much sharper more useful knives on the Leatherman Multitools we carry as part of our toolkit. I don’t have a picture of the personal spork because they both broke up on the first outing.
We have tried several sets of cooking utensils but in the end you can actually cook most things just using your eating knife, fork and spoon. We do however take the folding spatula with us out of the MSR cook set. We find it useful when frying, particularly eggs or fritters.
We also bought an MSR set for washing up, condiments and a chopping board. If we are bikepacking we put the washing up liquid and condiments in one of the billycans. If we have to cut up meat etc. we do it on the packet it comes in or in the frying pan.
And if you are going to make bread etc. you need to be able to measure. So I take 3 small measuring spoons 1/4 cup, 1 tablespoon, 1 teaspoon. This set has the advantage that each measure has a half mark as well. I took these off a supermarket set on a ring and cut the handles down to the minimum useable. I used to carry the 1/2 cup measure instead of the 1/4 but it wouldn’t fit in the billycan with everything else and got broken in my pannier.
Creating a Dutch Oven with the MSR Duo Lite
This is am example of how to create a “Dutch Oven” using the MSR Duo Lite pot and aluminium foil. A “Dutch Oven” works by spreading the heat more evenly. The heat applied to the bottom is conducted up the sides and heats a layer of air between the outer and inner pots. This creates an even temperature within the inner pot with which you can bake. REMEMBER NOT TO OVERHEAT BOTTOM OF THE PAN OR YOU WILL DAMAGE THE COATING!!!!”!
See the Cooking Blog for how to use it. Baking takes a long time and so uses a lot of fuel.
Preparing a new Aluminium pan for cooking
New uncoated aluminium pans need to be “proved” prior to use to prevent aluminium getting into the food.
Wash the pan in detergent and allow to dry completely. Coat the inside surfaces with cooking oil making sure you get into all the corners. I use rapeseed oil whenever possible but any vegetable oil will do. Place the pan on a hot ring – hot enough to evaporate the oil not so hot that it burns – and allow the oil to evaporate. This causes a lot of smoke so best done with the window open or a good extractor fan on. The oil will go a golden brown colour and form a coating on the pan. The pan is now ready for use. The coating will slowly get washed off with use and the process will need to be repeated every now and again.