When discussing how to use a camping can opener, it might be a good idea to discuss the invention of cans, can openers, and the various styles of can openers that might be available for a camper or backpacker to use. ‘
Cans, Canning and Can Openers
Cans were first used to preserve food in the early 1800s. Napoleon offered a prize for anyone who could discover a better way to preserve food for travel since getting food to his armies had become a limiting factor.
The winner was Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner who noticed that food cooked in jars kept better than other foods, providing the seal on the jar wasn’t broken. These early “cans” were glass or pottery. This was in 1809. In 1810, Philippe de Girard, a French engineer, improved on the method by using tin cans. The first cans were clunky, heavy things, and the food in them took a long time to cook.
The Napoleonic wars were over before they really caught on. Perhaps that’s why it took a while for the can opener to be invented. Those first cans were opened using a chisel and hammer, a method that you could still employ if you’re caught out without a can opener and you happen to have something like that in your kit.
By the mid-eighteen fifties, food in cans had become something of a status symbol. Therefore, a household gadget to open them was needed, and a can opener was invented. It was essentially a short knife/chisel that incorporated a hook to help guide it around the edge of the can.
The user stabbed the edge of the top of the can, then worked the opener up and down, using lever action to cut through the metal of the lid. The rotary can opener familiar to many of us today was invented in the 1870s. Somewhere in here the bottle opener, sometimes called a church key, was also invented.
Although there have been many refinements designed, these basic can opener styles are still in use today. Camp can openers are essentially ultra-light, pocket-sized versions of these can openers.
How to Use a Camping Can Opener
How to use a camping can opener depends largely on the style of can opener you have on hand. In desperation, you can even use a flat rock if you discover that you have left your can opener behind.
Flat Rock Method
This works best for a flat can that doesn’t have a lot of liquid. Turn the can upside down on rough flat rock.
Rub the can vigorously back and forth on the rock until the sealing seam is rubbed away. You can then pick the top of the can. You’ll probably lose liquids out of the can using this method.
Pocket Knife Method
Place the can on a stable surface, right side up. Open the knife (a long blade might be best for this) and push the sharp point of the knife firmly into the can.
Using an up/down lever motion, work the knife around the edge of the can. This will make a sharp edge on the can, so be careful when handling it.
American P-38 and P-51 Can Openers
These look like a flat piece of metal with one sharp edge that folds down.
The sharp edge is inserted into the can, then the flat part is used as a handle to work the can opener up and down in a lever action.
Many small camp can openers work on a similar principle. There are several different variations on this basic design.
Standard Lever-Style Kitchen Can Openers
If you’re familiar with kitchen equipment circa 1950, you might have used one of these. They work very much like the army issue can openers, but they have a longer handle on them.
Some were also equipped with a corkscrew and with a bottle opener. Like the P-38 & P-51, they are operated by poking the sharp end of the can opener in the can, then working it around the rim, using a lever action.
You can find this style of can opener on multi-tools or Swiss army knives.
Small Propeller Can Openers
Although not usually considered camping gear, you can get propeller-style can openers that are only about three or four inches long.
They have a cutting wheel and a rotary wheel, plus a clamping mechanism. The cutting wheel is set on top of the can just inside the rim, while the rotary wheel is placed below the rim.
The clamping mechanism is then applied, the handle is cranked and the rotary wheel grips the underside of the rim while the cutting edge makes a smooth cut around the rim.
The circular metal that you lift out will be sharp, but the rim of the can will be reasonably smooth. This makes it easier to repurpose tin cans.
Standard Sized Side Can Opener
If you want to reuse your cans at camp, this one is the way to go. It’s another type of rotary can opener, but instead of cutting around the inside of the top of the can, it cuts beneath the edge of the top.
The super thing about this can opener is that it leaves a smooth edge, both top and bottom, and you can set the top of the can back on the bottom.
The Church Key
Developed essentially as a bottle opener, this is perfect for opening juice cans or other cans of liquid.
Hook the short lip that’s on the bottom of the can opener on the rim of the can, and the pointed end of the can opener on the top of the can, then pull up on the back end of the bar. The pointed end digs into the top of the can, making a neat three-cornered hole.
You can also open a regular can this way by making these three-cornered holes side by side all the way around the can. Watch out for those sharp edges.
So did you learn how to use a camping can opener? Specialized camp can openers are likely to be variations on the army can opener. However, new designs come out every year.
This is one of the many pieces of equipment that it’s a good idea to try at home before you head off with your pack.
When you’re hungry and tired isn’t a good time to be learning how to use your can opener.