Hey folks. I hope everyone is doing fine, dealing with the current circumstances as best you can.
Today’s post is just a quickie. It’s a small thing, but I like to think of any trip, long or short, as an accumulation of small things. As such, I do what I can to reduce friction and increase comfort. So with “it’s the little things that make a difference” in mind, I want to talk about possibly the smallest of details… what you use to shovel food into your mouth.
Small details aren’t necessarily small in effect. British Cycling, for example, drilled down on those things that would yield a 1% improvement. They went from having a single gold medal in more than 70 years, to taking 7 of 10 at Beijing, and the same four years later in London. No kidding, they look at everything, including how each member sleeps — they’ll bring their own mattresses and bedding to away meets. Similarly, when you’re cold, wet, and stressed, reducing friction is going to get you fed more easily, which will get you warm and energized sooner.
Anyway… methods. I focused exclusively on titanium. I also focused on established brands you can easily get from common sources. So MSR, Snow Peak, Toaks, Sea to Summit, and Vargo. Everything has at least a fork and spoon, because your knife could be your neck knife, pocketknife, etc. (And if you’re eating some Mountain House, or some rice or pasta sides, or what have you, a knife is pretty much unnecessary.)
I ran everything through three tests. The common foods I tried were fried eggs, some homemade miso noodle soup, and for dessert, Appalachian Trail ice cream from Hayward’s. (Espresso ice cream base with toffee chunks and a fudge swirl. This was the toughest part of the test to endure.) I picked foods that would create some level of different challenge. Eggs are runny, and have crusty edges that resist clean cuts. Noodles slither off your spoon. Ice cream is hard to push a spoon through. Everything was done at home in my kitchen, to ensure conditions were basically identical. Since you asked, no I didn’t have miso soup for breakfast. I used these utensils a few times each, over several days, getting a good overall feel for them. Nothing got tossed in the dishwasher, because those don’t exist on the trail. Everything was scrubbed by hand.
In aggregate, the function of all five sets were close enough that it didn’t matter much. They all had their moments with the eggs. Apart from the Vargo (see below) they did fine with the noodles. And hard ice cream gave them the same hard time as hard ice cream gives any spoon.
To that end, if you skipped reading the rest of this post, and just went out and bought something, you’d do well enough. If you’re like me, and appreciate nuance, keep reading.
As far as weight, they ran somewhat of a gamut. But there’s a lot in your pack that weighs a lot more.
- Snow Peak: 40.18 grams
- MSR: 30.88 grams
- Sea to Summit: 43.88 grams
- Toaks: 47.76 grams
- Vargo: 40.35 grams
- The Snow Peak Spork: 15.04 grams.
Everything listed above was measured as a whole set with all accouterments — if it came with a carabiner, or a pouch, or whatever, it was included. I weighed everything on a calibrated scale that has a resolution of 0.01 grams, so feel free to round up to the tenth of a gram. I’m not so nuts as to count them, either. *grin* All of them are very light; none of them is going to be the straw that breaks your back. Measured as just the spoon and fork across the board, the difference between the lightest and heaviest was a whopping seven grams. A house key weighs more.
So now, it comes down to the subjective analysis. You’re going to be handling them, eating from them, cleaning them up after their use. What’s going on there? In short, quite a bit. Cost-wise, everything is going to run you from about $20-35 — you can spend a lot more on your headlamp. Weight-wise, as I pointed out, no major differences.
Leading the pack… Snow Peak has a product line that’s often several bucks more across the board. Sometimes, I wonder why a stainless steel coffee percolator costs $100. But the Japanese have earned a reputation of fussing over small details, focusing on the experience, and it’s readily apparent in the quality of Snow Peak’s products. Surprisingly, they were cost-competitive with all the others I tested, at $26. Their set omitted the knife, which, of course, I didn’t miss. This was the set I brought to Baxter State Park last year, and I loved it. The utensils have a good feel to them, balancing a good sense of heft with their light weight. (To be fair, they were the heaviest set tested, but again, by only a few grams.) In use, their fork and spoon just feels good in a way that defies explanation. Edges were rounded over, the spoon was big enough to eat my soup, but not so big it felt weird. Digging into the ice cream, the handle didn’t feel bendy. It was nice, and worth the extra five or so bucks. As a plus, the set comes in a nylon pouch so your fork doesn’t poke through your pack. Those guys fuss over details beautifully.
Bringing up the rear… Vargo’s ULV set (“Ultra Light Version”), in contrast, feels very basic, very utilitarian, very bare-bones. The utensils have a uniform bead-blasted finish that was unremarkable. The size and form really harkens to disposable plastic cutlery — everything about fussing over details is lost on these utensils. Where they got away with being lighter than the others is where they cut corners. They feel short and stumpy, with minimal thought given to overall form. The ends have corners that are rounded over, but not by much. Although there was a slight amount of friction in use, this didn’t make things feel overly weird, but it was something I noticed. When washing up, they seemed to grab ahold of the egg, and I had to scrub a fair bit more than usual to get it off. And even still, they didn’t seem “clean.” On a multi-day trip where you’re hanging your food, I’d want these to be inside my bear-hang; certainly away from my tent. On top of that, the spoon was diminutive. If I were only using this for coffee, I’d have never noticed. But with the soup, it was noticeable right away. And that was the same sense I got with the knife and fork — they’re tiny, almost “kid sized.” They were pricey ($25) compared to most other sets in this review, and yet offered the least value. Other sets were very modestly heavier, but offered a much better experience. To me, those five grams weren’t worth it.
In the middle… MSR had a finish that aspired to Snow Peak’s, and felt nice to use — this goes inline with MSR’s overall design philosophy. While not outright polished, they were pretty smooth in general, although the handle ends had slight but noticeable sharp edges. The handles were a bit wider, and they had a very slight longitudinal bend, which helped with rigidity, especially when ploughing into the ice cream (but those sharp ends were also noticed in the heel of my hand.) The bowl of the spoon was a bit bigger, feeling slightly too big in use. Of course, that meant my soup disappeared from my bowl that much faster (not at all a bad thing) so you decide there. I will readily concede that unless you’ve come across some really awesome trail magic, ice cream isn’t typically found on the trail, whereas noodle soup on the trail is about as common an occurrence as snow on Mt Washington. It’s usually $20, but they’ve got them for about $15 on their website right now.
Sea to Summit’s set was also pretty good, but it fell short in a few places. It felt thinner and less substantial, and less rounded over than the MSR set. But like the MSR set, they too had the longitudinal bend down the middles of the handles, helping them feel more rigid. The bead-blasted finish had a similar food-clinginess that the Vargo set had. And yep, I’d be sure they were in my bear-hang when I went to bed at night. Other than that, it was fine… just nothing out of the ordinary (good or bad) about it. Given that they were the most expensive set ($35 at Moosejaw) I would have wanted more attention to detail. And honestly, for $10 less, I’ll get the Snow Peak set and bring a pocket knife.
Toaks astonished me. From the bottom of the handle onward, they polished the business end of each piece to a bright shine. I wish their product photos could capture this better, because it’s a real differentiator. If any set made me feel like I was using my usual home cutlery, this was it. The edges weren’t as rounded as Snow Peaks, but the handles flared outward at the middles, giving a lot to grab onto. They didn’t have that longitudinal bend like MSR or Sea to Summit, and they had large holes to make them lighter, which probably contributed to a sense of bendiness. However, because of the polished surface, clean-up was a total breeze — the advantage in this case was totally theirs. And if that wasn’t enough, the $20 price tag definitely got my attention.
Neither MSR nor Snow Peak included a knife in their sets. And realistically, if I weren’t car camping or something similar, every set that came with one would find the knife left at home. They’re not very useful for food prep when compared with a decent Swiss Army or even a neck knife. Eating-wise, there wasn’t any significant difference in their function. They were all mediocre, although the Vargo with its small size was even more so. If you got the Snow Peak or MSR set and really wanted a knife, grabbing a plastic one from Dunkin’ Donuts or somewhere similar would do about the same job, with the exception of spreading peanut butter or something like that.
Lastly, the spork. For no particular reason, I felt I had to include one, although because it was going to be an obvious fail, the English breakfast was omitted from its test. Against the noodle soup, its tines gave it an obvious advantage, in that the noodles couldn’t slither away. The obvious disadvantage in that test was with the soup itself. I normally have noodles with chopsticks, which do even worse than a spork, so whatever. The ice cream stood no chance. If the spork had an unexpected failing, it was in that it’s too good at its task if you’re trying to keep a vaguely healthy diet while a quart of ice cream is sitting in front of you. This is not the utensil to use on New Year’s Day, when you’re promising yourself that you’ll cut back on dessert.
Overall, the best three were the Snow Peak, MSR, and Toaks sets. There was nuance between them, so this is a “you decide” moment. Toaks were highly polished, but the handles were thinner and a bit bendy — although their bulbous shape did feel nice in the hand. Snow Peak and MSR were both smooth and non-clingy, with nicely rounded edges. You can’t go wrong with either of the three. If and when I get to hike the AT, I’ll probably bring the Snow Peak set, with the Toaks or MSR in reserve to be mailed out if I need.
Oh yeah… the soup? Nothing extravagant. Some rice noodles, a couple spoons of miso, a splash of mirin, a spoonful of yeast extract, a handful of chopped scallions, and a healthy spoonful of minced ginger. Water and a little sesame oil. Heat and eat. On a cool weekend in autumn, I don’t see why the ingredients couldn’t survive the trail until at least dinnertime. You might not want to wait that long. It’s understandable.
All right… that’s probably good enough for now. I know the Coronavirus stuff has daily life in a tizzy for most folks, if not everyone. Try the best you can to stay sane. Remember to wash your hands and all that good stuff, and be nice to your neighbors. Their nerves are just as frazzled as yours. Get outside as you’re able. We’re going to get through this together.
As always, stay safe out there.