You just reached your campground after a 8 hour hike with a 40-lbs pack, you're hungry and just want to fry up some food. You want your pan to be quick to heat and cook evenly and clean easily. I’ve had experiences with some rubbish pans that were okay to cook with but a pain in the a** to clean.
Depending on your equipment, cooking can be the most fun or the most dreaded part of camping. A good fry pan is a lifesaver for any camper and depending on how you take care of it, it has the possibility to last you a lifetime. So I did some research (with a lot of coffee), and among many fry pan options, narrowed the list down to 5 models.
But before we get to the bolts and nuts of backpacking fry pans, here's a quick summary:
The most durable option is the MSR Alpine Fry Pan | $26.21 and in our opinion the overall best. Best lightest option is the MSR Quick Skillet | Price not available. If you're looking for the best one for open fires, then your choice is Primus Campfire Frying Pan | $28.99, and it's also a quite durable option. If you want to go for bigger sizes, the GSI Bugaboo | $24.95 offers sizes from 8 to 14-inch, and it also can be the best choice for beginners. The GSI Pinnacle | $37.51 is the best non-stick pan; it has the most advanced Teflon coating without being overkill for most of us.
Also, 3 of these model are nonstick:
- GSI Pinnacle,
- MSR Quick Skillet,
- GSI Bugaboo.
2 of them are stainless steel (not non-stick):
- MSR Alpine Fry Pan,
- Primus Campfire Frying Pan.
So in this post I've laid out everything which I think can be important when you're considering buying one.
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MSR Alpine Fry Pan
MSR Quick Skillet
Most durable and overall best
Best for open fires
Best for ultralighters
Best for big families, groups, and beginners
MSR Alpine Fry Pan
MSR Quick Skillet
Very durable, lightweight, no health concerns, can nest with MSR pots, easy to use
Easy cleanup, most high-tech non-stick on the market
Very durable, great with open fires, no health concerns
Very lightweight and compact, can nest with MSR pots
Offers a wide range of sizes, good non-stick
Not non-stick, removable (not fold-able) handle
Not for open fires, not as durable
Not non-stick, removable (not fold-able) handle
Delicate, prone to dents and scratches, not for open fires
Very heavy and bulky for the larger sizes, not for open fires, not as durable
MSR Alpine Fry Pan
MSR Quick Skillet
Stainless Steel with Aluminum Bottom Disc
Hard Anodized Aluminum with Teflon Radiance Non-Stick Coating
18/8 Stainless Steel with Aluminum Coated Base
Hard Anodized Aluminum with Duralite DX Non-stick Coating
Aluminum with Teflon Classic Non-Stick Coating
MSR Alpine Fry Pan
MSR Quick Skillet
Size and weight
8 inch: (8 in x 2 in) (11.4 ounces – 0.71 lbs)
8 inch: (9.1 in x 8.6 in x 2.6 in) (13.2 ounces – 0.82 lbs)
10 inch: (11.1 in x 10.6 in x 2.8 in) (17.76 ounces - 1.11 lbs)
8.3 inch: (8.3 in x 2 in) (13 ounces – 0.81 lbs)
9.8 inch: (10 in x 2 in)(18 ounces - 1.12 lbs)
7.4 inch: (7.75 x 2.5 inches) (5.9 ounces – 0.37 lbs)
8 inch: (9.2 in x 8.6 in x 2.6 in) (12.8 ounces – 0.8 lbs)
10 inch: (11.1 in x 10.6 in x 2.8) (17.76 ounces – 1.11 lbs)
12 inch: (12.8 in x 12.4 in x 3 in) (28 ounces – 1.75 lbs)
14 inch: (16.6 x 14.6 x 3 in) (60 oz - 3 lbs)
How different can fry pans really be?
During my research, I’ve realized that different people will have different experiences with almost all of the pans on the market. Because, depending on the type of camping, your needs will vary. Before choosing which fry pan you want, you must first decide on the type of camping you usually do.
Being a car-camper allows flexibility on the weight and size department, whereas a multi-day backpacker would prioritize low weight and the ease of cleaning. For this comparison, we're focusing on fry pans for backpackers, so we're going to compare these 5 models on the basis of material, size, weight, care and durability.
Choosing the material of the cookware is really the most important part. All the other factors become important after you choose the material. For backpackers, the most common four materials are:
- Stainless steel,
- Cast iron.
...is the most commonly used material among campers and backpackers. In the past, people were worried about aluminum leaching into the food or reacting with acidic foods to produce harmful compounds. Modern-day pans are usually made from hard-anodized aluminum that gets rid of the risks. Also most researchers note that the aluminum leaching from the pans is miniscule and doesn’t pose a real threat .
When aluminum reacts with air, a layer of aluminum oxide forms at the surface. This layer prevents further reactions with other substances. Through a series of electrochemical reactions manufacturers create a thick layer of aluminum oxide that create a very durable and non-reactive material. Hard-anodized aluminum is 3 times more resistant than regular aluminum !
Most aluminum cookware is sold with nonstick coatings. GSI Pinnacle, MSR Quick Skillet and GSI Bugaboo are all hard-anodized aluminum with nonstick coating. GSI pans feature Teflon coating and the MSR Quick Skillet features Duralite nonstick coating.
Also, it claims to reduce the formation of hotspots and create an evenly heated surface for cooking:
While the coating makes cooking and cleaning easier, it also makes the pan less durable. Coatings tend to be scratched very easily and the pans should be used with great care. Overheating should be avoided because it would damage the coating. Only mild detergents and soft cleaning sponges should be used.
Also, note that since these pans are all hard-anodized aluminum, you wouldn't be exposed to reactive aluminum even if the pans are scratched.
...is lighter but more expensive alternative to aluminum. Due to the price of the material, not many companies offer titanium cookware, they also aren't commonly used in the camping crowd. Some backpackers who are devoted to making their pack the lightest go for titanium cookware. However, unlike aluminum, titanium causes hot spots and is more useful for things like boiling liquids .
So maybe going for a titanium pot (for boiling water) would make sense; but for a fry pan, titanium isn't the best option. Since titanium also comes with non-stick coatings, all the rules for protecting aluminum pans with coatings also apply to titanium pans.
...is a good compromise between durability and lightness. It's more scratch resistant and reliable . It does tend to cause some hot spots during cooking, but it’s also able to endure harder cleaning methods that would damage an aluminum or titanium pan. You don’t have to worry about a stainless steel pan getting dents or scratches, either. You'd literally have to throw these pans over a cliff to damage them! (don't do it tho)
...if you're STILL worried about leaching, then go for stainless steel.
On the downside, stainless steel is not non-stick, in fact whatever you’re cooking will most definitely stick. You can prevent this by using a more oil than you would for a non-stick pan. However, since steel can take more vigorous cleaning the sticking is not really an issue. Another disadvantage to aluminum is that it takes stainless steel longer to heat up.
As an added bonus; unlike aluminum and titanium, stainless steel can also be used on open flames. So if you're planning to make some campfire meals, look for a stainless steel pan.
MSR Alpine Fry Pan and Primus Campfire Frying Pan are both stainless steel models. The Primus Campfire boasts its ability to be used on open fires. They also both incorporate an aluminum disc into the base that decreases the aforementioned heating time problem of stainless steel.
...would honestly be the worst possible choice for a backpacker! It's extremely heavy compared to the others and would make you throw the pan away and say, “I’ll just eat protein bars” on day 2. However, it's great for gourmet car-campers that like to cook on open flames and really enjoy their camping meals.
It should also be noted that you probably wouldn’t be able to use a cast iron pan on a classical mini camping gas stove. You'd need an equally sturdy stove to use it on.
Choosing a pan the handle probably isn't your first priority -and it shouldn't be-, but it's often the weakest spot of a pan. All these models in this review feature fold-able or removable handles that make packing them significantly easier and smaller. A fold-able handle is more useful since removing the handle might cause it to get lost. However, for larger pans over 10-inches, the handles are all removable.
GSI Pinnacle and GSI Bugaboo have SureLock folding handle technology made of rubber. MSR Quick Skillet has a easier to hold talon handle. While these materials are easier to hold and use, they also tend to melt in high heat. So it's important not to expose the handles to high temperatures.
MSR Alpine Fry Pan features a detachable steel handle with lock. Compared to rubber handles this is more durable but it would also get very hot when used with open flames. Primus Campfire Frying Pan has a detachable stainless steel handle with a lock.
When lock isn't used correctly, it poses serious danger. If it isn't locked and you grip the handle strongly, the pan detaches from the handle. You might seriously burn yourself and definitely ruin whatever food you’re cooking.
Caring for Your Pan
Let’s get this out of the way, if you take good care of your pan any of these pans could possibly last you a lifetime. However, if you're reckless, and usually chuck your dirty pans in your pack and clean them later, go for a stainless steel pan. While non-stick pans are way easier to clean and use, they're also way easier to damage. Only mild detergents and soft sponges should be used with non-stick pans. On the flip side, if you're a careful cook, and you're camping without access to running water, non-stick pans become “clean” or at least reusable after a quick wipe.
Unlike the other models, the Primus Campfire Frying Pan is sold with a protective storage case. If you're worried about scratching the pan while it's in your pack, this is a great addition. You might also want to consider either purchasing a storage case or wrapping your pan up in cloth for the other models. As we’ve already discussed before, the non-stick coatings are prone to scratching.
Especially the MSR Quick Skillet is made of very lightweight material, which means that it could easily obtain dents if you're not careful. Other aluminum models like the GSI Bugaboo and GSI Pinnacle are also prone to dents.
Choosing the Right Size
Both the weight and the size of your fry pan are things to consider. When you're packing for a week long backpacking trip with no access to civilization, every ounce and inch counts. If you were cooking for only one or two, you'd want to choose a pan fairly small and light. However, if you frequently go camping with your family, and/or with your car; you might want to consider larger options.
Among the models we're comparing, MSR Quick Skillet is the lightest at only 0.37 lbs. It also takes up the least space in your (probably) already full backpack. It's also quite deep for its diameter - which would allow you to cook a wider range of meals just using the MSR Quick Skillet.
If you're using a pan too small for your group, in most cases, you'll try to fit more food there than it can take. Overcrowding a pan leads to uneven cooking. Instead of doing that, either get a bigger pan or cook in batches.
GSI Bugaboo comes with a really wide selection of sizes from 8 inch to 14 inch. The 14-inch is a monster of a frying pan with a weight of 3 lbs 12 oz. That's more for car-campers than for backpackers. However, if you camp with a large group of friends or family, this might be a great choice.
Combining with Other Cooking Equipment
More often than not, you'll need other cooking equipment besides a fry pan. Pots of varied sizes, teapots or quick boilers may come in handy. MSR Quick Skillet and MSR Alpine Fry Pan both nest with pots from MSR.
This is because they have more perpendicular sides that allow nesting. The MSR Quick Skillet nests with Quick 2, Base 2 and Alpinist 2 cookware from MSR. The MSR Alpine Fry Pan can nest inside Alpine 3L Pot. Once again the set that MSR Quick Skillet is offered with is way more compact and light than the alternative.
MSR Alpine Fry Pan Review
The most durable out of all of these models is the MSR Alpine Fry Pan | $26.21 - and it's also probably the best choice for 90% of us. It’s made of stainless steel with an aluminum bottom disc that allows even cooking. If you're a camper who cooks and cleans with harsh materials – this is your pan. Honestly, you can probably just tie it to your pack and drag it along the path and it'd be fine after a quick rinse.
Stainless steel, as we’ve discussed, is a completely health-safe and durable material. The MSR Fry Pan is offered in a single 8-inch size. It has 2-inch depth that allows it to also be used for boiling things. Normally, you'd expect the steel to be heavier, but the aluminum disc also decreases the weight. At 11.4 ounces, it's twice the weight of MSR Quick Skillet, but is still lightweight.
Honestly, I prefer to have an old-fashioned but dependable pan!
It’s true that stainless steel will sometimes cause the food the stick but you can safely clean it. This isn't a very big problem to me - just use a little extra butter and a good detergent afterwards and I'm good. There is no fear of any health problems and you don’t have to worry about how to protect it. A good trade-off if you ask me.
The only real downside to this workhorse is the handle. It’s detachable meaning that it might get lost. (Worst case you buy a pot grabber) It’s also stainless steel meaning that it might overheat.
MSR official site states that even though stainless steel can be used on open fires they DO NOT recommend it! So this pan would be OK to use on campfires - but if you'll use the pan more on open fires than on stoves, we recommend Primus Campfire Frying Pan. It also comes with a 10-inch option.
GSI Pinnacle Review
The GSI Pinnacle | $37.51 is the cooler cousin of the GSI Bugaboo. It does the same things but better.
It’s also made of hard-anodized aluminum but it has Teflon Radiance Non-Stick coating. This increases scratch resistance and durability. It also creates a more even cooking surface that prevents the formation of hot spots and thus burned food. Unlike MSR Quick Skillet, it isn't "premium", especially when you think about the increased technology.
It’s offered in two sizes: 8-inch and 10-inch. They respectively have 13.2 and 17.7-ounces weight. The handle is silicone and folds conveniently as shown below.
The downside to the Pinnacle is that it’s not really lightweight. If that's your main concern, go for the MSR Quick Skillet. However, the extra weight of the GSI Pinnacle adds to its durability and hence lifetime. You should also take good care of this pan just like you would take care of any non-stick pan.
Primus Campfire Frying Pan Review
The Primus Campfire Frying Pan | $28.99 (as you can guess from the name) is also unproblematic for cooking on open fires. So if you don’t prefer to carry a camping stove with you and you cook on campfires – this is your pan. It has very similar properties to the MSR Alpine Fry Pan. It's stainless steel with an aluminum-coated base for even heating. The handle is also stainless steel, it detaches and secures with a lock.
The Primus comes with a storage case which makes it safe from scratches in your pack (not that you can really scratch stainless steel).
It's in two sizes: 8-inch and the 10-inch. They are 13 ounces and 18 ounces, respectively. You get serious cooking area without increasing the weight seriously. This might come in handy if you are carrying one fry pan for a larger (3+) group.
MSR Quick Skillet Review
Among the models that we compared, MSR Quick Skillet | $55.99 is by far the lightest and most compact with 5.9-ounces and 7.4 inch diameter. It'll take the least amount of valuable space in your pack and it won’t add much to the overall pack weight (almost nothing!). The size is perfect if you're cooking for one or two. The folding handle is an added bonus for fitting neatly in your pack.
Since the walls are tall, this pan can even be used to boil things. This increases the variety of meals that can be cooked with just this pan. For a lightweight backpacker, having one multipurpose tool like the MSR Quick Skillet is a lifesaver - which is another reason that it's perfect for ultralighters. It also nests with other cookware from MSR.
Apart from the fact that it can and will be overkill for most of us, the only real downside to this pan is that since it's so lightweight the walls of the pan are very thin. This means that it'll easily dent with time. Also, the pan can easily overheat if you don’t use it carefully. Constantly rotating and moving the insides is good practice.
Also maybe getting/fitting a protective case for transport might be a good idea for most.
GSI Bugaboo Review
If you're looking for a pan for beginners, we recommend the GSI Bugaboo | $24.95. It offers a wide range of size options. 12-inch pan is remarkably compact for its size. Even though normally a pan that size would have a detachable handle, it still has a fold-able one!
To be frank, the 14-inch pan is very heavy and bulky and I'd never carry it for a backpacking trip. However, if you're mostly going for car camping with your large group of friends and/or family, then why not go for the biggest? The 14-inch Bugaboo can fit all the bacon and eggs you could want.
The GSI Bugaboo is also more for beginners than the alternatives without compromising the quality. It's a very similar design to the GSI Pinnacle, with the exception of the Teflon Radiance coating - but it still does very well in terms of heat distribution and conductivity.