Lots of people are interested in saving weight and using space efficiently when they go out on the trail, but when I suggested this idea on a backpacking forum a few weeks ago the silence was resounding. Which surprises me, because it’s a lightweight spacesaving concept that I’ve actually used and I know it works. Not only that, it isn’t my idea and it comes from a very respectable source. Actually, several of them, the first time I ever saw this at work was when I was in 7th grade in Science lab and Dr. Thornton the school principle demonstrated it with a waxed paper bag on a Bunsen burner.
All you need to boil water–or soup, or tea, or any other simple recipe like boiled rice–is a paper container sealed with a food grade waterproofing and a heat source. Waxed paper containers work fine. The paper will not burn because the water keeps it at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, below the combustion temperature of the paper. That boiling point temperature changes a little with altitude, but at least on planet Earth this will work, even in the mountains. You can even boil water in ordinary paper, but it’s tricky. Paper that isn’t waterproof softens and leaks a little bit.
The reason this idea doesn’t work well for hikers depending on portable stoves is that backpacking stoves are not built to hold paper pots. You need a stable grill to be able to do this properly. Paper pots are unstable and difficult to handle. They are not the kind of container you can safely rest on your lap while you eat. Using paper pots takes practice and you can expect to look like a fool the first time you try it. Once you learn the tricks, you’ll look some sort of genius.
If you use a wood fire, you can build a grill of green twigs and use paper containers for cooking. Instant rice, instant soup, rehydrating dehydrated food — paper containers can be practical. It’s even possible to fry bacon and eggs in a paper bag if you’re careful. The bacon grease takes the place of the wax. This may not be the gear you plan to depend upon when you go on a long hike, but it’s a useful trick to know and it can lighten your load.
I first tried this after reading a book entitled “How to Become a Ninja” back in the 80’s. I expected funny and silly things from the book, but was surprised to detect real information, things I had learned in the military and in other places, along with a lot of things I hadn’t ever heard about. That inspired me to take some of the things that sounded wild and crazy more seriously, and test them myself. I thought the paper pot idea sounded really interesting, but tricky. The original story relates how a ninja master demonstrated methods of building a discreet fire and boiling water for tea (or cooking, this was a training example) using a paper bag and origami paper cups. You begin by digging a small firepit and using the earth for a raised windbreak around it, open on one side to provide draft. Build the fire in the pit and lay straight green twigs over the windbreak ridge as a grill. If you keep the pit small you can make a stable cooking platform this way. The ninja fellow taught a much more complicated firepit design for stealth situations, that involved a separate draft pit elevated above the fire, plus interconnecting tunnels. While there are military advantages to that type of pit, it’s too complex just for camping. The ordinary firepit is stealthy enough for no-trace travel if you just knock the dirt back over the dead fire.
Moving the pot after the food is cooked is the tricky part and you might have to scrape the fire out and eat from the pot right where it is. The ninja master used an ordinary brown paper bag for the cooking, and it even leaked a few drops and still worked. I’ve not had much success with cheap brown paper lunch bags, since they leak more than a little, but small grocery bags often hold water pretty well. Even better, a paper bag designed to be strong and waterproof. Barf bags usually catch food headed in the other direction but they make really good pots also. They’re also strong enough that you can hold them by the upper rim and move them. Origami pots aren’t that durable, although knowing how to fold one from a piece of scrap paper might someday be the only way you have to boil water. It’s a good trick to learn.
Other ways to cook with
wood. I’ve cooked food
in mud-packs in the back
yard and people liked it.
Paper utensils can also be used in earth ovens. This is my favorite way to cook food when I’m camping somewhere for extended periods. Sure, you could use tinfoil, but you have to haul the tinfoil out and garbage seems to expand if you have to carry it. Paper burns after you’re done with it. Dig a pit, build a fire and let it burn down to coals. Wrap your food in baking parchment or seal it in a paper bag. Coat the papered food in a thick layer of mud — a layer half an inch thick is enough. Put the food parcel directly on the coals, and build another fire on top. When it burns down to coals, cover the firepit with earth. Hours later you can come back to camp, dig up the pit, and supper’s ready. The steam from the mud layer cooks the food, and the hardened clay that remains when the mud dries out protects the meal. Sealed in the unbroken clay pack the food will keep for a day or more without refrigeration. The paper layer keeps the dirt out.
Some practice is needed to judge the fire right, because you need a certain amount of coals to cook a specific amount of food. If you’re at a wilderness fishing camp, with the right surroundings for safe fire building, it’s a very interesting way to cook a meal. Advantages? You can fold up the cooking gear and put it in your pocket. It’s almost weightless and takes up almost no cargo space. When you’re done with it you can burn it and bury the ashes and it’s gone.
I’m always interested in survival tricks, even though a Svea 123 and an aluminum pot is what I take on treks. Going for a day hike with a knife, a lighter, some sheets of waxed paper, a few tea bags and some ramen noodles is an interesting alternative and a good trick to know. If you’re in a bad situation and all you have is garbage to work with, an empty milk or juice box can boil water, and if you’re careful, you can boil water in a plastic bottle. Do some extra boiling if you have to cook with garbage. Some useful origami patterns for paper pots are available at Origami Pots.