A civilian mess kit, which may serve from one person to a family of eight, is a collection of common kitchen wares designed to be lightweight and easy to store. Such kits are typically constructed from aluminium, though enamelled steel is also common, and some items (such as cutlery or plates) may be made of plastic. A civilian mess kit usually contains (among other items) a skillet, a kettle (which may also serve as a coffee pot), a plate, a cup, and cutlery. Kits usually come with either folding handles or a detachable handle which can be used with other cookware. Items are stored compactly by nesting them in other components (like a Russian doll); the whole kit is placed in a stuff sack.
Kits vary in size depending on how many people they are designed to serve and under what circumstances. A kit designed to serve a family travelling to a camp site by vehicle includes items of about the same size and weight as their domestic counterparts, but a kit for individual backpacking trips is much more compact — the items are smaller, lighter, and serve several purposes (a pot lid might double as a pan or skillet, for example). Items for backpacking may also be constructed of more expensive materials, such as titanium, to further save weight.
Mess kits of almost any type may also include, or be complemented by Flexi-Cups (also known as Fold-A-Cups). These are compact folding drinking cups. The sierra cups are usually no more than four inches wide and two inches deep. They are conical in shape, wider at the top, and typically constructed of stamped aluminium or stainless steel, with a looped wire handle. They may also be constructed of plastic, though this is less common, as sierra cups may also be used directly over a heat source for cooking. Their size varies remarkably little from manufacturer to manufacturer. This, in combination with their conical shape, allows them to be nested inside one another to save space.
While functionally similar to a one-person civilian mess
kit, military mess kits are designed to be even more compact, using their
space as efficiently as
possible. Thus lids will almost always be used for preparing, cooking,
and/or eating, and usually come in two or three pieces. As such, it may
certain features, or use other features to complement it.
When in a large camp, it is common for soldiers to use either normal dining wares, or a multi-compartment mess tray that's similar to a TV Dinner's tray, but much larger.
There are two factors that affect the American Army's
mess kit's design: first, a small camp traditionally uses skillets to cook
food quickly. Second,
soldiers usually eat combat ration, such as C-ration in the past and MRE in
the present, both only needed to be re-heated; as such, they do not need deep
containers to cook stews or rice.
Thus, the flat-oval mess kit is split along the length of the side, creating two halves: the deeper halves forms a deep oval skillet, which has a folding handle that curves near the end into a latch. The shallow end forms a two-compartment lid-plate, where the centre divide is wide in enough so that on the inverse side, the folding handle can be placed. The plate also has a very secure ring that is held in place by friction.
During storage, the lid is placed on top of the skillet, the folding handle is folded over the inverse side of the plate's centre divide, and latched onto the edge of the skillet; Lastly, the lid-plate is secured further by folding the lid's ring toward the centre of the mess kit, which locks onto another latch on the lid; this make the mess kit flat. When in use, each piece may be used individually, or typically used (due to the fact a company of soldiers often cook together), by sliding the lid-plate's centre divider onto the folding handle, and securing it to the handle by the same ring and latch mechanisms, forming a three-compartment mess tray. The soldiers can use the skillet to cook raw food, though it is just deep enough for some stew or rice cooking. It is more common used to heat and contain C-rations or MRE.
To complement the mess kit, soldiers can use the specially moulded cup that fits over the bottom of the Army's standard one-quart canteen for anything that requires a deep pot, such as boiling water. The canteen and cup package also have a specially designed Esbit stove which can fit over the cup, allowing the canteen package to remain very compact.
During World War II, the mess kit itself mainly used Sterno fuel units (stored within a foldable stove). It is likely the Canteen cup stove (using Esbit) was produced from after WWII, since Esbit was designed in Germany.
The American military no longer issues or uses mess kits as the MRE utilizes a flameless heater that doesn't require the use of external heating or cooking utensils. The canteen cup is still issued and used in some instances.
During World War II, both nations' mess kits were similar. In storage, their dimension were similar to the American mess kit's storage dimension; however, instead of splitting along the length of the side, they were split along the width, around two-thirds of the body, creating a pot with handle and a cup, which was useful for cooking and reheating stews and rice. In a variation of this design, the canteen could be placed within the mess kit. They were mainly used in conjunction with a folding Esbit stove, which, when folded, could store Esbit pellets and occupy a very small area. The German mess kit was usually held together with a leather strap, which in combat was used to fasten the mess kit to the soldiers Bread bag. Soldiers who were lacking a bread bag could fasten the strap around their webbing equipment. This design was retained by the DDR army until the fall of the Berlin Wall. The West German Bundeswehr adopted a similar design consisting of an interlocking metal mug and folding-handle saucepan which held a metal water bottle between them when locked together. The whole set was held together with a webbing strap.
During the Great Patriotic War The Soviet army mess kit was a two-piece design similar to that used by the Wehrmacht forces that consisted of a large main canteen part, and a smaller saucepan component that also doubled as the mess tin lid. The kit also had a wire handle which many soldiers used to hang the mess kit from their web equipment or backpack. This design was phased out in the mid-1970s and replaced with a design that featured a metal water bottle held in the middle. The next layer of the set was a large canteen / cooking pot with a wire handle, then a smaller saucepan-type component with a folding metal handle. This last component fitted over the base of the larger cooking pot, the handle was then folded up and clipped over the cooking pot and the lip of the water bottle. The mess set was sometimes issued with a pouch, although this was by no means certain and many soldiers simply hung it onto their equipment from the wire handle. Officers were often issued a satchel- type bag for their mess kits in keeping with their smart image. This latest design of mess kit continues to be used today in the army of the Russian federation and doubtless is still used in the armies of former Soviet republics.
The Swedish (m/42) mess
kit is a complete package, similar in design to a German mess kit, but
larger. It breaks down into two parts, the first part
being a steel stand/windshield/wood-burning stove (with a Trangia alcohol
burner unit), whilst the other part consists of two pots (usually aluminium).
larger pot has a wire handle, or bail, for suspending over a fire; the
smaller has hinged handle. The two pots nest together and stow inside the
The set is completed by a small plastic fuel bottle. It is recommended that
the fuel bottle and burner unit be stored separately, outside the pots (since
Methylated Spirits may otherwise seep out). A Swedish army plastic
can also be fitted inside the pots.
The stove works very well with small sticks, wood chippings, pine cones or Hexi Blocks as fuel.
The Swiss mess kit design is closer to the Canteen-cup system design: a tall, one litre canteen, with a stove (burns woodchips, Hexi Blocks etc.) that cups the bottom of the bottle and a cup/pot that goes over the canteen; the cup can fit inside the stove, better heating its contents.
Other nations' designs, such as those from the United Kingdom or France are designed closer to civilian camping mess kits, with the exception that they are usually rectangular or square in design for easier storage.