The U.S. GI Canteen Cup: Sometimes, Itís Still The Only Pot I Carry
Aug 4, 2009 (Updated Apr 8, 2013)
Review by morilla
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Readily available; Comparatively inexpensive; Rugged; Durable
Cons:Cheap knockoffs; Doesn't work well with commercial backpacking stoves
The Bottom Line: An inexpesive, rugged, and utilitarian alternative to many expensive, commercial pots.
If you’ve ever watched a WWII movie, there’s the almost inevitable scene where an exhausted GI leans back in his foxhole, hands wrapped appreciatively around a steaming metal mug of coffee. So iconic is this image, that the mug, or canteen cup, has become a nearly mandatory prop for even the most modern of WWII epics. In case you haven’t noticed it, the ubiquitous GI Canteen Cup can be seen carried by Nicholas Cage in Windtalkers, being drunk from by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, and serving as an ice-filled shaving mug for Captain Winters (Damian Lewis) at Bastogne in Band of Brothers.
Recommend this product?
For a growing group of individuals, the GI Canteen Cup and its associated cooking ‘system’ have become an inexpensive, reasonably lightweight alternative to the increasingly expensive cooking pots marketed by ‘outdoor gear’ manufacturers. Well, that’s not quite fair. It’s not that it “has become,” for this cup, in one form or another, has been available to troops and, later, civilians for almost 100 years. For many of us (ahem) older types, GI surplus gear was standard camping/backpacking equipment. It was inexpensive, rugged, durable, and it worked; qualities which weren’t overwhelmed by shi shi chic or a sense of political correctness which dictated that anyone using such stuff must be viewed as a redneck, dangerously militaristic, unacceptably poor, or just a plain ole’ weirdo.
Fortunately, economics being what they are, expensive, chic or stylish gear is no longer seen as necessary and proper ‘attire’ – except for a few aging yuppies and those who spend more time reading ‘outdoor’ magazines than actually outdoors. Likewise, while not all GI issue gear is as functional or as high quality as it should be, individuals have realized (or begun to remember) that it ain’t all bad. In fact, so accepted has the image become, cheap knockoffs of GI-style mess kits, canteen cups, and other gear now flood the market. Thus, the question becomes: “Is the GI Canteen Cup as useful as it used to be?”
A Brief History
The original version of the GI Canteen Cup was designated the M1910, was made of aluminum, and had a flat handle which could be folded around the bottom of the cup. Toward the end of WWII, it began being made from stainless steel, but retained the flat, wrap around handle. Sometime in the early 1970’s or early 1980’s, the flat handle was dropped in favor of today’s ‘butterfly,’ wire handle which swivel to the sides. With either handle style, the cup was designed to friction fit over the bottom of the 1 quart GI Canteen (both the older metal and today’s ‘plastic’); with cup and canteen then being carried inside the belt mounted canteen cover/carrier.
Still an issue item, complete with its own National Stock Number, current models are also intended to have a lightweight, aluminum ‘stove’ (more in a minute) fit over the cup, with the canteen in the cup, then the whole works stored in the carrier; with the carrier having an exterior pocket for a bottle of water treatment tablets. However, with the advent of food ‘heaters’ within the issued MRE’s (Meals Ready To Eat) and a heavy reliance on bottled water, this stove and even the canteen cup itself is, reportedly, not as ubiquitously carried as it once was. (I'm not gonna go there...)
More Than A Cup
My current, actual issue GI Canteen Cup weighs just over 8 ounces and has a ‘full’ capacity of approximately 20 ounces or 2 ½ cups. However, while that’s not quite to the ‘brim,’ 20 ounces is tip-over, better not add any more, the hot chocolate/tea/coffee hits your lips before you’re ready full. As a result, most think of this as having a readily usable capacity of 16 ounces or 2 cups; a measurement conveniently associated with many freeze dried food packages (see Mountain House Says Beef First, Then Stroganoff and Ya Wanna Trade Your Raisins & Spice Oatmeal For The Peaches & Cream?). It is also the correct capacity insofar as the amount of water to be boiled to heat the inserted main entree from an issue MRE. I wonder how that happened?
A comfortable, 16 ounce capacity also works very conveniently when it comes to a can of beef stew or chili (see It Can Sneak Up On Ya) or two 8 oz. cans of Beenie Weenies or ‘instant’ rice or… You get the idea. The GI Canteen Cup was not intended to serve simply as a drinking mug. It was designed to act as a cooking pot. Most often, one simply places the water to be boiled (today, with the MRE entrée inside) or the food to be heated inside the cup, then the cup is placed on a small, twig fire. The trouble with an actual fire is that the Cup will blacken and soot can get on your clothes, cover, hands, etc.
Enter the GI Canteen Cup Stove. Little more than a light piece of sheet aluminum, it is designed to fit over the canteen cup for carry/storage and, when inverted, serves as a heating platform where the Canteen Cup sits reasonably securely on top with a square-ish opening for adding a solid fuel tablet or twigs; with ventilation holes allowing the heat source oxygen. Unfortunately, this thing only sorta, kinda works as intended. While decidedly cleaner than an actual fire when using trioxene bars or hexamine tablets, the trioxene bars are getting a little tougher to find (at least at a price I’m willing to pay). In addition, the GI Stove is too small to allow for Sterno or Canned Heat. (Speaking of which… Since twig fires are becoming more and more problematic, particularly in the tinder dry West, the Magic Heat Stove being my favorite for either the U.S. GI Canteen Cup or the British Crusader Canteen Cup.) Then, of course, there are the issues of having to wait for both the cup and the ‘stove’ to cool; not to mention having to carry one more thing.
The GI Canteen Cup does fit on a little ‘stove’ that has been variously named the “Tommy Cooker,” the “Esbit Stove,” “Hexamine Cooker,” or similar. It just doesn’t fit well. Not to mention, in my experience, this combination also doesn’t work as well as a twig fire, the GI Stove, or a simple Sterno or Canned Heat stove. The last time I tried using one of these little stoves, a GI Canteen Cup (unfortunately, a cheap knockoff), and hexamine tablets was over a decade ago in Arkansas in freezing weather on a fishing trip. After a half an hour of waiting for about a half canteen cup of water to boil (it never did) and heat the package of MRE frankfurters, I gave up and ate ‘em cold. (I was staying in a sanctioned campground with concrete tables and no fire pits – so making a twig fire wasn’t an option.)
Besides being a cup and a pot, the GI Canteen Cup makes for a functional snow scoop. (I have managed to melt snow for drinking water in one.) It also works well for collecting water from trickles. It works well as an eating bowl; conveniently dividing reconstituted freeze-dried meals between two people or holding sufficient instant oatmeal for a real breakfast. Mixing bowel for the more enthusiastic backcountry chefs? Yep. Remember the capacity, which happens to be measured in ‘cups.’ Captain Winters’ shaving mug? Okay, if you wanna go there. I will stipulate that it’s not quite large enough to do the laundry in; but, your skivvies may be a bit smaller…
Far From Perfect
The US GI Canteen Cup does not sit very well on most of the backpacking stoves I’m familiar with. It is also very much in need of a lid. Boiling time can be cut down considerably with any pot, saving not only time but fuel, by using a lid. While some plastic versions do exist, an excellent, stainless steel version exists - the Heavy Cover ® Canteen Cup Boil Cover, see link below. (Heavy Cover ® , Inc. also markets a lid for $11.95 plus shipping that incorporates a ‘drinking spout.’ [see link below] Designed by a former U.S. Marine sergeant who served in Iraq in 2003, it is made of ‘rubber’ and is intended to keep fluids and food warm, not to mention prevent spillage. The "Cover" is for cooking, while the "Lid" is not.) Some will make their own version of a metal lid; but, I’ve never gotten ‘round to it – something I keep telling myself I will do… someday.
As noted, there are any number of cheap knockoffs available. Many of these are made from lower grade stainless steel or even aluminum. Generally, they will have a rough finish; but, you can’t always tell the cheap ones from the good ones by the price – so shop carefully. Even if it says “GI Spec” or “GI Style,” that doesn’t mean it’s as solid or well made as the “Issue” models. Simply looking for ‘issue’ models in surplus stores isn’t always the answer either. Many so-called surplus stores will, these days, carry more knockoffs than actual surplus. In addition, even genuine surplus Canteen Cups can actually be made of aluminum since the pre- and early WWII models were made that way. Aside from the fact that the early, aluminum models had rolled lips which have a reputation for being exceptionally hot, there are all the attendant issues with aluminum leaching into food.
Both the flat and butterfly handles are available in good, issue, stainless steel Canteen Cups. Either style has advantages and disadvantages. Some feel the butterfly, wire handles are less robust than the flat handles. Others, including myself, find them less suitable to cooking over a twig fire; i.e., they will get hot and you must use some sort of cozy to grasp them (my cozy is a bandanna). On the flip side, the flat handled versions are more of a hassle to fold/unfold and more susceptible to bending; which can exacerbate the fold/unfold issue. Most of mine tend to be the butterfly style these days. But, there are times when I do pine for the flat handle. Try ‘em both and see which you prefer.
With modern movies such as Windtalkers, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Great Raid inspiring WWII reenactors, demand has increased for quality reproductions of gear from this era. Just be aware that such gear, marketed specifically to this market niche, can be expensive – with an aluminum canteen, canteen cup, and carrier/cover running upwards of $50. New production offerings can range from around $7 to as high as $15; again, you can’t always judge quality based on price. Genuine surplus Canteen Cups will set you back anywhere from around $4 to $15 depending on condition; with some ‘collectibles’ going for a pretty penny more.
The web and YouTube abound with descriptions, suggestions, recipes, etc. for using the U.S. GI Canteen Cup. There’s a book by Galen Geer entitled Canteen Cup Cookery which came out in 1985 and is still in print ($10); offering suggestions for improving on issue food – MRE’s. Of course, if you are into the collectible thing, there’s a 64 page, 1979 guide by L.C. Scott on Canteens, Cups, Covers Of The U.S. Army: With Reference Section On Foreign Canteens that will only set you back around $90 - $100 depending on your source.
In the end, the U.S. GI Canteen Cup still performs its intended duty admirably. Considering that it's been around for 100 years, I'd say that it was a testament to the design. For those in Scouts, it can and does serve as an economical alternative as a cup/bowl; especially if your young one gets into a modern version of Kick the Can with it. For reenactors, it is an essential piece of equipment. For a growing number of lightweight enthusiasts who don’t feel that 'lightweight' is synonymous with 'expensive,' it provides an usable alternative to increasingly techie 'outdoor gear' that makes your wallet scream in desperation. Is it perfect? No. Is it likely to get you the fisheye of concern from the more commercially equipped? Maybe – but not like it did there for awhile. Is it as usable as other alternatives?
Let’s put it this way… I've had a number of these over the years; with some having come and gone for various reasons. I do own some good, quality, high-end pots from companies such as MSR, GSI, and Snow Peak (see links below). Somehow or another, I still find there are times when the U.S. GI Canteen Cup is the only 'pot' I carry.
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