Poetry of a billycan, by Caleb Musgrave

What’s in a pot? That which we call a billycan, by any other name would make coffee just as well…

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Author with his favourite billycan getting ready for lunch (Photo by John Brown)

Many people focus on the cutting implements when it is time to think about gear in the wilderness. They are the glamorous go with you anywhere item, which many will spend great deals of money on. It is almost like a knife to a woodsman is their interpretation of fast cars and pricey jewelry. High quality equipment is what everyone to some degree or another desires. Some spend a great deal of money to possess such items. Whereas others will learn to make their own. Both routes are right, and so are the other varied methods of getting good gear. However one item is always forgotten when the knife discussion arises. That is the billycan. The term billycan originates in Australia, where Aboriginal words blended with settler slang to create an Outback jargon. The word Billycan refers to a cooking pot (often a reused can) used to boil water (retrieved from billabongs). The word Billycan -along with the term Bushcraft- moved up into the northern hemisphere most likely through intermingling of allied troops in one of the two world wars, though the term Billycan may have arrived even earlier. So did Billycans not exist prior? Of course they did. Coffee cans were used by Cowboys and countless other outdoorsmen to boil water in for tea, cooking and of course coffee. The term may not have been present here in North America, but the concept was the same.
A billycan can boil water to make it safe to consume, cook stews and soups, catch rain water and even be used as an oven if proper planning is employed. Billycans can be used as shovels, berry baskets, drums to wake up your fellow campers each morning (as the Voyageur often did here in Canada), can be used as a cutting surface for vegetable and meat. A billycan can be employed as a bowl for eating out of, a cup for drinking out of, and in some instances, as a chamberpot (the author would like to warn the reader to please never confuse the chamberpot billycan as a drinking cup billycan). The uses of a billycan outweigh the fact that it should be a mandatory piece of kit, and is alas, the most difficult to pack into one of those nifty little survival kits we see all over the market. However the billycan kicks back into service by being the perfect container to carry all of the required small items the woodsman may wish to have with him or her. From matches, to a bag of jerky, a billycan can carry them all. Very convenient, no?
A billycan is a personal choice, just like any other item in your kit. The materials can be as varied as ceramics and metals. Yes folks, your cooking pot too can be an anodized, ultra-suave one-and-a-half litre billycan. Or it can be a carefully coiled, formed, dried and fire hardened clay pot. It can be anything in between.
Boiling water with hot rocks is known throughout the world to function. The techniques employed by most result in a sludge at the bottom of the container, often being a mix of ash, soot, and rock dust. Doesn’t that just sound delicious? Proper rock boiling requires a great deal of experience in selecting the proper stones, heating them to the right temperature, dusting off any debris possible, and changing them at the right intervals. It is a lot of work, but it does indeed work. With a lot less sludge too!
Ceramics are a bit less troublesome. You can boil water in them just as easy as you would with a metal cook-pot, though some consideration must be involved. First, the pots must be fired properly, or they will fall apart upon adding water. Secondly, even coals must be used when heating the water in the pot. And sporadic flames could cause a stress crack to appear and destroy your hard earned work. I will often leave my clay pots near the fire to keep them warm so that no shock from cold air to hot coals happens. Clay pots are a wonderful, natural way of making your water safe to drink, or to cook a survival stew.They are cumbersome however, often being five times heavier to an equally sized steel pot. They are also much more fragile. Yes, loose sand can be scooped and moved with a clay pot, but don’t try to dig through hard soil or shovel out a latrine in some gravel!
This leaves us with metal billycans, as they are lighter and tougher than a clay pot, and much easier for the novice to use than hot rock boiling. History has seen a great deal of different metals used. Copper was most likely the first, and sadly is not considered by many as safe to use for cooking implements any longer. This is sad, as copper distributes heat evenly and can heat up much faster than steel or iron. Another advantage is that copper pots can be dented and easily hammered back into position with a hardwood baton. Tin has also been used, though again some speak of ill health effects from its’ continued use. Another disadvantage was that it would frequently break down over prolonged use over a fire. Bronze and brass have had ancient use for water jugs, though it is unclear from research whether cooking vessels were commonly made from these metals. Regardless of the evidence, both brass and bronze are very heavy materials to try to carry along as a daily cooking vessel. Iron quickly was adopted, especially casted iron. This is why dutch ovens made of cast iron are still popular among those who love to cook over an open fire. Their weight made it impractical for a sole person to use when travelling light, but was historically seen on canoe voyages. The downfalls to cast iron, and other iron alloys (except for steel) were that they were bulky, heavy and were very prone to rust. Not good things. This is why tin cooking vessels, plates and cups were predominant in the formation of Euro-American woodsmen, even late into the 1900s.
It is interesting to point out that the nomadic tribes of native peoples of Canada and the northern States rarely traded for any metal cooking pots. As they could not be as easily replaced, repaired or carried as a bark basket. In comparison, agricultural tribes such as the Iroquois and the Huron frequently traded for metal cooking vessels, as they remained in a village for long periods, rather than moving from camp to camp as resources were depleted. It has also been noted by some anthropologists, that agricultural tribes that had such a use for metal pots were the ones that were the quickest to be “civilized”. As other trade goods went from being novel items to required equipment for day to day living, it was easier to encourage European ideals and lifestyle upon them. Interesting way to look at materialism, is it not?
As metal became more and more mastered, steel came into being. This new iron alloy could be made thinner and lighter than their cast iron relatives, yet remain strong. Iron axeheads changed to iron axeheads with a steel bit, and eventually into pure steel axeheads. A similar transformation happened to billycans. We now had easily purchased, easily carried and easily used cooking pots that could be as small as a steel cup, or as large as a cauldron.
Aluminum has also been used, but again, health issues have arisen that makes many people not trust it. Anodized aluminum is considered much safer, but requires a lot of care to not damage the anodized coating. It should be noted that anodizing is considered a fairly environmental method to make aluminum safe for cooking with. It is a very light, and fairly rugged metal for cooking with, and takes heat incredibly fast compared to their steel counterparts.

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Author’s favorite billycan heating up some rice and beans while a steel water bottle melts snow for drinking water, and a modern ultralight kettle heats water for tea and coffee. (Photo by Paul Wilde)

Titanium is also popular now, though the billycans made from them are rarely inexpensive (though each year the prices do seem to drop). Like aluminum, they take heat fast and evenly, though some say too fast. It can also hold the heat for a while, which is good for a hot meal, but not so much for when boiling water to make is safe to drink. The heat can stay for a long time, and can quickly give painful burns to fingers or lips.
The modern woodsman has many options to choose from. It can be hard to make a choice in this world of ads, gear reviews everywhere, and everyone and their uncle being “experts”. A few good options for a cooking vessel are; Steel mugs, Stainless steel water bottles (specifically the kind with no seam, no paint and no linings of any kind), apple juice cans with wire bails (beware, as the lining of such a can could possibly transfer BPA and other chemicals into drinking water), store-bought camping pots, homemade cooking pots, and metal containers used to house survival equipment.
Out of everything, a Billycan ought to hold at least a litre of water. Ultralight backpackers often carry smaller pots and kettles, and argue that it can be heated faster, therefore the water boiled quicker. This is true, however is it not more practical to boil a litre of water at a time, rather than having to frequently heat water to boiling? The constant boiling and cooling process can be a pain in the rear after a few hours of drinking only a few hundred millilitres at a time! So good advice for longterm living, is to use a billycan that holds a reasonable amount of water, and one litre is definitely a reasonable amount. Other important features to a billycan are; strong, light, has a secure bail (the handle you hang the billycan over a fire from), there is a snug fitting lid, and that it does not leach undesirable heavy metals or chemicals into the drinking water.
Many people focus on the concept of surviving with just a knife. I have gotten by on many occasions with just a cracked stone, or a sharpened tin lid. However, each time I did so, I struggled to get adequate drinking water. To me, a billycan is as important as a knife, and in some instances more valuable of a tool. With a blanket, a knife, a fire starting device and a billycan, one with enough experience can get by quite comfortably for a good amount of time. So let us remember practicality, and always make sure to thank our billycans.

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End of the road, time for some coffee (photo by Caleb Musgrave)