The Vagabond's Spatula

Cleaning my pot in the wilderness has always proved a challenge. I’m not hugely concerned with completely sanitizing it – that would not be realistic – but I do like to get all the food remnants out of the pot after every meal. A few extra ants in my ramen? No problem. Fungi and bacteria in the oatmeal? I’d rather avoid that.

Getting every last bit of food out of the pot with a spork doesn’t work. If I’m in a desert or on the beach, sand can be used to scrub the pot. The Equisetum family (Horsetails) are also good scrapers, due to their high silica content. But neither sand nor Horsetails are available frequently enough on my trips to make them realistic solutions. As well, cleaning the pot with those means that I’m dumping food remnants onto the ground, rather than into my belly. If I’ve humped it, I’d rather eat it.

I used to carry a piece of a green scouring pad. Those work great when the sun is available to dry them out after use. Here in Cascadia that means they work about 3 months of the year. The other 9 months – especially in winter – it proves a challenge and a hassle to dry them fully. I don’t like storing the pad with any moisture in it. Doing so would create the perfect incubator for bacteria.

Enter Crow. She had the excellent idea of using a spatula head to clean the pot. It’s a simple system:

  1. Eat dinner out of pot
  2. Clean pot with spatula, licking food remnants off of spatula as you go
  3. Boil water in pot
  4. Pour heated water from pot into bottle for tea

The pot is cleaned with the spatula. Afterward, boiling water in the pot helps to kill any nasties that might be hanging about.

I discovered this idea on Crow’s blog about a year ago. At first I took a small kitchen spatula and cut the handle off. It worked, but there was about 2” of the plastic handle inside of the head that couldn’t be removed, which translated to dead weight. Later I discovered that people actually sell spatulas with removable heads (to make them dishwasher safe, I think). I bought one of those online, but when it arrived the head was a little too small for my tastes. (In the wilderness I always treat my hands as dirty. If I’m licking the spatula, I want it to be big enough where I can hold it with my fingers near the top and lick near the bottom. I do not want to lick where my fingers are.)

About a month after I had started to use the sawed-off spatula, I discovered that GSI made exactly what I wanted: a compact scraper.

GSI Compact Scraper

At 16 grams (0.5 oz), it’s not the lightest possible solution. But it’s lighter than my first attempt, and the perfect size for my needs. The blue part is a soft rubber, like a normal spatula head. The white bit is hard plastic, meant for scraping burnt foods. (Burning your meal, I think, is a mistake you only make once. So far I’ve not actually used the white part to scrape the pot. It’s where I keep my fingers.)

My method of using the scraper differs slightly from Crow’s. I eat the meal with my spork, attempting to get as much of the food as possible. Afterward, there will still be plenty left in the pot.

Pot After Oatmeal

When the spork is of no more use, I pour some water into the pot, swish it around, and drink. (A habit I picked up in southern Idaho’s desert. Water was scarce, so if you used it to clean your pot, you still had to drink it afterward. The taste is not always entirely pleasant, but you get used to it, and are wasting no resource.) This takes care of some of the left over food, but with meals like oatmeal, there’s still gunk left over.

Pot After Water

After this precursory cleaning, I go to work with the scraper: scraping the pot clean, licking clean the spatula as I go (leave no calorie behind, I say). The pot will then be visibly clean.

Pot After Scraping

At this point, I may or may not boil water in the pot. If I have brought enough fuel for an after-meal drink, I’ll boil the water in the pot to finish cleaning it, then dump the water into an old Vitamin Water bottle for a drink. Most of the time I don’t plan on warm drinks. Either way, at the end of the process the pot will still have a little moisture in it. If I’ve just had dinner, the cleaning is complete: I’ll leave the pot till breakfast. On the other hand, if I’m moving again after the meal, I don’t like to pack my pot away wet, so I’ll wipe it down with a small piece of an absorbent camp towel.

The GSI Compact Scraper is now a permanent part of my kitchen. Since I started using it at the end of last year, it’s also the piece of gear that people request to borrow the most! (It goes in my mouth. I never lend it.) I’d recommend any wilderness traveler pick up some sort of cheap spatula or scraper.