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Camp Mess Kits/Cooking/Edibles

I receive many requests about amounts of food needed for a weekend, week or longer period of time spent when out and about. In an effort to try and help the new person or the seasoned adventurer I send them this information shown below. It seems if one just adjusts some of the items, it will fit in most camp site very nicely.

A good example of a "camp mess" or "camp kitchen" (cooking items needed in a period camp) are those used by our own father of this country, George Washington.




"General Washington's Military Equipment" Shown below is information on this military "mess kit" or "camp mess" once owned and used by General George Washington, a set-up like this was not uncommon to European Officers, but unusual to the American Forces.

A small 44 page booklet titled "General Washington's Military Equipment" [Mount Vernon, 1963], p.20 says: "His [GW's] military equipage grew gradually as the war dragged on. In April 1776. Benjamin Harbeson of Philadelphia provided a "mess kit" consisting of the following:

1 Nest of Camp Kettles
3 large Tin Canisters
1 doz. Oval tin dishes
9 Tin plates

He [GW] added more plates and canisters the following month. Perhaps part of this order is in the chest of camp utensils preserved at the Smithsonian Institute (Fig.11).

MESS KIT : Chest of wood - covered with leather, lined with green wool. Interior divided into fourteen compartments and containing a tray with nine compartments.

Equipped with the following:
4 tin pots with detachable wooden handles,
6 tin plates, 3 tin platters,
2 knives and 4 forks with black handles,
1 gridiron with collapsible legs,
2 tinder boxes, 8 glass bottles with cork stoppers,
2 glass bottles for pepper and salt with pewter tops.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

National Museum of American History, A Smithsonian Museum " on page 104, there is a photograph of a field mess chest attributed to George Washington, possibly the same kitchen mess referred to. It contains tin plates, platters, utensils, and a tankard.  There is a similar "mess kit" at the Valley Forge Historical Society at the National Park in Pennsylvania, planned to be on display in early 2000. Had seen this "kitchen mess" thirty years ago at this location.

The "mess kit" in question is tin of a high quality that has turned dark with age, not pewtered [tin-lead alloy] as has been suggested. The gentleman from the society said he had trouble finding the mess kit as it is not on display at this time (hoped to make a new setting with it to be included - early in 2000). This is the trouble these days
with the cost of floor space, many items of interest are packed away (if not sold to private collections).

For a "camp mess" I carry a small tin lined brass kettle, carrying this one for the last 7-10 years on horseback, canoe/bateau, or trekking. Had Peter Gobel of GBW make a tin lid which works better than the boilers I have tried,
easier to clean because of depth, plus your can pack your edibles in it.

I boil my tea water, cook my meal and then end up washing in it. Have washed my socks and scarfs as well as myself, a one pot camp.

It's 3-1/2" high, 6-1'4 wide @top, 5-1/4" wide @bottom, has a 1/4" rolled edge with a hand forged iron bail.

About the only thing that is safe to use with pure brass or copper is drinking water and would really question this anymore. I have seen many top quality copper canteens and at least one big samovar looking water can and none were tinned. However, anything acidic (including coffee) will react with untinned copper/brass with adverse health effects.

I make do with coffee, steel-cut oats, dried beans, blue parched corn, pinole or blue corn meal, wild rice, cone or Havana Brown sugar, salt, baking soda, pepper corn, dried fruit, smoked meat, sometimes maple sugar and not much else. Herb tea can cure what ails you; peppermint, red clover and rose hips is excellent and nutritious.

If you live on the trail (unless you're a rich Lord or Duke from Europe and can forward supplies) you must be able to resupply staples as you travel around your area.

Do you have enough room to pack your edibles in your pots, that was one requirement I wanted when looking at the different sizes available from the number of sources.

This small pot will hold enough edibles, tea or coffee bean for a week camp for two, tie the lid on to keep from loosing contents and keep critters out. This one that I have now is starting to get some good miles on it from a number of trips testing equipage.

This is something everyone should consider doing; test your equipment - how many different uses can each items be used for.

Example : a long handle (6-7") hand forged spoon with a hook or loop on the handle end can be used for several camp duties, such as lifting hot items from a cooking fire, hangs to dry, long enough to reach the bottom in most cooking pots, have used hook to carry fish and other items that are slippery.

Another example : is the cooking pot, it can have several uses like; cooking your meal, boiling your water, washing you and your camp items, washing your clothing, a fire bucket and a water container.

Always select an item that can be used for several uses, less to care for or carry; our forefathers (most common folks that is) did not have the resources to own all the neat types of equipage we see available today, if it was even available.

With research we find some items advertised today that are modern items or ideas that have been reproduced to look old and sold as correct, when they where not even invented yet for the advertised time period. Look at the Rev War books available that show actual equipment from the period, lots of good information, many of these items we see today, only made of modern materials like stainless steel or plastic.

How early in the "North American" trade has the brass kettle been traded to the natives or was otherwise available commercially? There are many account or records of brass kettles used in the American and Canadian fur trade, from the late 1600's to late 1800's.

A few examples are:
Plymouth Plantation (supply list date May 1679,
Rivers Trade, p.181) lists
(7) brass kettles, (4) copper pots.

Ross Cox (_Columbia River, p. 75) says the Pacific
Fur Company was
trading brass kettles in 1812.

Copper fragments found at archeological digs of pre 1821 Canadian fur posts are often tinned, not always but a good percentage, same for digs at several Forts in the United States.  Copper and brass "preserving pans" used for making jams and jellies were not tinned because the sugar mixture in the pans got hot enough to melt the tin.

A great book on fake Canadian antiques :
"Can fake" by Royal Ontario Museum curator emeritus Donald Webster (ISBN 0-7710-8905-8). To anyone interested in buying antiques although the examples are Canadian, the principles of fakery discussed apply to antiques everywhere, and fakery is widespread. I had heard about this book on the e-mail hist_list and picked one up, interesting.

I got several pots that where from the 1850 to 1870 period when the government put the Indians on the reservations, two are not tinned and one is, same with a couple of pans made of brass - tinned and not tinned. Asked Charles Hanson about this and from what he found, it depended on the government contract, supplier, pricing and quality as to how heavy a material the items were made from. Tin was cheaper than brass or copper, so he felt that it was possible a tinned brass or copper pot (lighter gauge brass or copper material) could bring as much $$$$ as a same weight item that wasn't tinned. Thus the tinned pot, or pan item was cheaper and would show more profit for the trader, health issues weren't a problem in those days.

It's only been since W.W.II that we have been really worried about what we use to drink from, eat on or cook in, look at the amount of pewter our grand folks used for those special events.


These daily rations are taken from the French and Indian War's period records:

Cornmeal or oats 2 handfuls
Peas or beans 2 handfuls
Parched corn 2 handfuls
Dried meat 3-6 pieces (venison, beef, fish)
Dried fruit 1-2 handfuls (apples, peaches, raisins, pumpkin or combination)
Small red potatoes 2-3 each
Small onions 1 each
Maple or muscavado sugar 1-2 Tb
Salt 1/2 Tb
Peppercorns 4-10 each
Coffee 1-2 handfuls
(Alternate) Chocolate 1/2 - 1 full cake or tea 1-2 Tb.

Another daily rations from the Fur Trade period are much similar:

corn meal (per person) mixed with Havana sugar (2 cupped hand fulls),
corn flour (2 cupped hand fulls),
wild rice (cupped hand full),
barley pearled (cupped hand full),
split peas (cupped hand full),
fruit [dried apples or peaches] (2 cupped hand fulls),
dried meat strips broken into 3" pieces (2 cupped hand fulls),
parched corn w/ local nuts (3 cupped hand fulls),
tea (same measurement per person, lasts for 3-4 days - cupped hand full) a little on the weak side last day or two.


This has worked for a 5 day outing, moving around camp, scouting, etc. but only lasts about 3 hard days of paddling (hard work will use up your supplies very fast).


Lets start with the measurement for:   a "cupped hand full" = ( 1) measuring cup.

This doesn't sound like much, I agree, but remember most dried edibles do swell when water is added. Rice, barley and peas will double in size or mount prepared.   Most of us (not all) can go with less food from a few days to several weeks without any problem - doctors will tell you that the amount we eat regularly is a mind-set in most cases, we can do with less and would probably do better weight and health wise.

We try to eat two small regular meals daily, gathering or foraging for edibles in our short trips around camp when scouting game or looking at the area. When you get in a mind-set of watching for edibles as you make your scouts, it's surprising what you find, even if not hunting for squirrel, rabbits or flying foul. Wild edibles are everywhere it's just the problem of figuring out what your looking at.

Working around water is always a good place for small plants that are edible, as well as the little crayfish, fish and small animals getting a drink. I think you are getting the idea or already do this in your normal outing experiences.

I have a good friend that I wrote an article about a few years ago in the T&LR journal Dr. Jerry LaVelle, he's an expert at foraged edibles in the Rockies, takes a small frying pan, buffalo grease, period fishing kit and he's off for the weekend. His wife gets a little rattled about his limited resources, but he uses what is available at
hand, cat-tail flour for bread (bannock), has different plant leaves for a salad and so on, she's good for about two weekends like this a year. But it can be done, so she goes to prove that she's a tough as he is !!!! I wish I had the mind-set, the ability or guts to believe enough in myself to do this as much as he has.

Morning meal:
corn meal w/ Havana Brown sugar, (Havana Brown is an old sugar [less costly than white sugar in the colonial
days] have switched to blue corn - better taste) 1/2 cup per person with water, a few small pieces of
fruit and small amount of tea (save the tea leaves), corn flour, use a 1/2 cup per person of flour to make "bannock"
bread (will produce a loaf per say the size of a regular hot dog). Surprisingly this will satisfy you, no matter what your brain says.

Afternoon snack:
some parched corn, a little fruit and whatever you may find in your travels.

Evening meal:
with a little testing you will be able to judge the amount of rice or barley needed to make a small
portion, and not waste anything. We have used mixed small amount of wild rice, barley pearled, split peas and a little jerky (changing the meal of one or two items) to make a stew, make with a little more water than what your
wife would use - fills you up with the broth. Use your used tea leaves for a mild tea flavor. Use any
left overs and try and eat late in the evening (going to bed on a full belly).

Don't forget what you have foraged during the day that can be prepared to supplement your evening or morning meal. Our biggest problem seems to be mind-set that we are going to starve, hell you'll die from lack of water long before you'll starve.


An old friend (in his mid 70s') had a heart attack, had been very active all his farming life, he refused any medical care when he found it was possible he would not walk again, his doctor respected his wishes and had him taken home. I would visit him in the evenings, he refused food and liquids and it took him 14 days to die. The lack of liquid is what shut him down, he only lost a few pounds in that period.


So the chance of you doing great harm on a weekend or a week from the lack of food is really not a major problem according to most doctors, unless you have medical problems, special medication, etc. that may require you to use with food.

But do make sure you keep liquids in your system, plus a good drink of water is somewhat filling by itself.

This all sounds great, right. Well it's easier to write or tell it - than when packing for that adventure, you'll find yourself cheating and adding this and that - just in case. You'll stop and think and remember that first hunting trip (a day long) and all the extra stuff you took that Dad told you wasn't needed, well just in case.

The big thing is do some testing the night the wife had to work late, make up a meal, simple - small in amount, bottom line is testing. With your experience you'll have NO problem, it's just that mind-set that we all fight with. I'm always packing and unpacking different amounts, if you take just so much - small amount of food, and leave out "the just in case" factor, then your options are get along with what you got and start foraging.

In one of the back issues of T&LR a fellow got sick from his copper pot. He remembered from his military training, took a bone and burned it in the fire and charred deeply, then ground it fine, added water and drank it. In a few hours he felt ok.

Charcoal sure does work. I been there and made myself the medicine from burnt wood. I made a thick past and ate it like pudding. Then drank just enough water to wash it down. In a few hours I felt ok.

With our ability to cultivate, forage, or supply ourselves in the New World and the chance for a free life style, still some would turn their backs on opportunity and accept the English Rule, their taxes, etc. But several of our statesmen saw this as an act of treason and thought such acts where unthinkable, see Samuel Adams remarks below.

Remember good old common sense and a little knowledge will take you a long ways.


Until next time, we leave as friends and followers of those that went before us.

Buck Conner  

"One who trades”

"Uno quién negocia"

“Unqui commerce”