Bushcraft Kit (Billy Cans)

In a break from the norm, I’m going to talk about bushcraft kit but I’m going to do it with a slight twist. Most reviews I read seem to be written by people who’ve just picked up new stuff. They haven’t really used it and often it seems if you check back later that they sold it and bought something else or just stopped using it for unspecified reasons (maybe because it was crap?).

So, here is the first of my reviews.  I use the word review in the loosest sense. I’d like you to get a flavor of how I’ve used these items and what you might want to consider yourself rather than some in-depth technical discussion.

All the stuff I’ll present to you over the next few weeks I have exhaustively used in all sorts of conditions and it’s all stuff I love – much of it after ten or more years of use. It’s not always going to be pretty or appeal to the gearheads out there but it’ll be honest and it’ll be stuff that works – for me anyway!

May I present the humble billy can

A billy can is something it’s easy to take for granted and I often do. For anyone new to bushcraft, you’ll tend to hear bushcraft folk going on about billy cans rather than cookpots or pots and pans. For me, a billy needs to be able to work for both campfire cooking and for cooking with stoves. A jack of all trades.

For anyone not familiar with the humble billy can, Wikipedia tells me that the term “billycan” is derived from the large cans used for transporting bouilli or bullies beef on Australia-bound ships or during exploration of the outback, which after use were modified for boiling water over a fire.

The most basic of billy cans is just that – a used tin can with a handle attached to it. It’s functional. No messing.

What I want in a billy can

When using a cooking pot on a campfire it’s far easier to have a handle (technical term bail arm, just like on a bucket and on fishing reels too!).

The pot can then be suspended using some sort of pot hanger to avoid your delicious campfire cooking ending up in the fire as it inevitably will if you try to balance a pot on the firewood.

Pot hangers also remove the need to use stones as pot supports and leave a scorched and unsightly mess behind at your campsite.

Some people use a length of braided cable such as bicycle brake cable for a bail arm so the billy is easier to pack.

I like to have a fairly sturdy billy can. It does all sorts of things when I’m out on the trail. I boil water in it, wash in it, make coffee in it, cook in it, and boil up wood ash to soften cordage in it. It needs to be equally at home on a campfire, on a tent stove, or on a lightweight wood or gas stove.

A volume of about a liter and a half or two liters (one liter = 2.11 US pints) has always been enough. Much larger and it’s a pain in the arse to pack.

When it came to choosing my billy can I was driven by simplicity

Billy, as I call him, started life as a stainless steel storage tin. He came from a cash and carry for £2.50 (about US$4 back then) if I remember correctly. This was probably summer 2003.

He was brought home and unceremoniously hit with a center punch before two holes were drilled and a piece of steel coat hanger wire inserted in him.

At the time I bought a few other cans and have used some while teaching but for my personal kit have never had need of another billy can since. He’s still going strong and doing everything I ask of him whether it’s campfire cooking, boiling up coffee or washing my underwear.

You can buy the almost quintessentially “bushcraft” Zebra billy cans at most good retailers but I can assure you it won’t be the same. For a couple of quid and fifteen minutes work, you can have your very own Billy.

Some pictures from the family album

This is billy when he was fresh-faced and not yet dirtied by soot. Ahhh. You can see the bail arm here and how it’s suspended using the pot hanger. The bail arm looks quite long and it is. As you can see in the photo at the top the Zebras (at the left and right of the lineup) have a bail arm that rests against the side of the can. Billy’s bail arm reaches down far enough to tuck away underneath for packing.

The soot situation soon changed. On rapid boil-up duty for a brew!

This bit of stainless steel and coathanger wire has been a companion on many a trip. Here we are wild camping somewhere near Bowfell in the Lake District (can’t quite remember where!). Billy is just visible in the grass at the front of the tarp.

Next up it’s a good old boil-up and a bit of campfire cooking on a frosty night in January. A big fire with a reflector at the back as this was a night with no sleeping bag.

In conclusion

A billy can is an exceedingly simple bit of kit. It’s not sexy and not something people collect or salivate over but it’s one of the most used items of my kit. Never underestimate the usefulness of a vessel that can be used for collecting,  storing, washing, heating, boiling, baking, and more besides. Having said that, a tin can’s a tin can isn’t it?