How to Set Up a Camp Kitchen
There’s just something about camping food, isn’t there? Maybe it’s because we’re typically more active and working up an appetite while we’re camping, or maybe it’s just that our senses are activated by being outdoors all day.
Whatever it is, it’s real. Food is generally a huge part of our camping experience and something that stands out in our memories.
Camp cooking is also something of an art form – a labor of love and a unique challenge in that we have to pack along everything we need and are often nowhere near a grocery store or a source of potable running water.
Setting up a camp kitchen that works for you and your family is a huge part of ensuring that everyone enjoys your time together and has the energy they need for adventuring!
Whether you’re cooking over a fire or a propane stove, camping in the middle of the woods or at an established state park campground, we’ll walk you through our best tips on how to set up a camp kitchen that’s dialed in for maximum efficiency and enjoyability!
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Camp Kitchen Essentials
This is where the magic happens! Depending on your preference and what’s available to you, you may be working with an open flame, a portable propane stove, or some combination of the two.
You’ll want to consider the kind of food you want to pack and prep, how much time you want to spend on meals, and how much cleanup you want to deal with surrounding mealtimes.
For some families, especially with older kiddos, this is as simple as a camp chair and a plate in the lap! With littles, it can take a bit more work to get set up for a successful mealtime.
Regardless, you’ll want to think through your family’s needs and make sure you are prepared for whatever situation you might encounter and also think through on-the-go options for longer daytime adventures.
It’s a dirty job, but somebody (hopefully everybody!) has to do it. Maybe the least fun part of camp cooking, and also a great way to get kids helping out and involved.
Read up on frontcountry Leave No Trace principles to make sure you’re washing and disposing of wastewater responsibly. If you can establish a system to streamline how you tackle the post-meal mayhem, you can get back to the hammock or the trail in no time.
How to Set Up a Camp Kitchen: Cooking Area
Fire Pit vs. Stove
If you have the option available to you (dependent upon local regulations and your knowledge about wildfire danger), you may prefer to do all of your cooking over the fire. Awesome!
There are plenty of ways to make this work, from foil packet meals to the classic hot dog on a stick to, of course, s’mores all day! Make sure you have a hatchet and a sharp utility knife or multi-tool (like this Woodlands Tool Set from UST Gear) on hand for cutting kindling and whittling that perfect point on your marshmallow stick.
Most folks who are feeding a family, however, will find it helpful to have a stand-alone stove setup to make cooking more efficient and have more time for play! If you’re aiming for maximum activity away from the campsite, this option also allows you to jet out after a meal without having to worry about making sure your campfire is completely out.
We’re big fans of the classic Coleman 2-Burner Stove, and the newer GSI Outdoors Selkirk 460 2-burner stove. These double burner gas stoves allow you to cook slightly more “elaborate” meals (you know, pancakes AND bacon!) and boil water quickly for coffee and hot chocolate.
While too heavy to lug into the backcountry, this style of stove folds down nicely if you are looking for a space-saving cooking solution that can accommodate family meals when you’re car camping. Just don’t forget the fuel!
Next Level Options for “Smokeless” Cooking Fires
There are also some great best of both worlds options out there if you want to cook over a real fire but want to minimize smoke and/or just want to take extra precaution to make sure your fire stays contained.
If you have space to pack it along, the Camp Chef Redwood Portable Propane Fire Pit is an excellent option because it not only give you access to an on-demand flame, but it also creates the ability to control heat for cooking and/or comfort.
If you don’t want to part with a wood-burning fire but also want to minimize smoke and maximize efficiency, you could consider the innovative BioLite FirePit. The FirePit burns wood or charcoal, and creates a hyperefficient fire with airjets powered by a rechargeable battery. It also comes with removable grill grate for cooking.
Another wood-burning, smoke-minimizing, portable option is the Solo Stove Firepit. Solo Stove’s unique design creates a super efficient burn that’s not only mesmerizing to watch but a joy to sit around and make memories.
A few of our team members use the Solo Stove Bonfire and love its portability and how quickly it roasts a perfectly golden marshmallow.
Cooking over the full flame can be challenging due to the concentrated head, but if you let it burn down to the coals and have a long set of tongs to reach inside the drum, it can be great for foil packet cooking!
Cooking and Food Prep Surface
If you’re car camping at an established campsite, chances are you will have access to a basic picnic table. This is a great resource since tables are generally not very lightweight or compact to haul!
For those of you who prefer dispersed camping, you may have to get a little bit more creative. Personally, especially with smaller kids, we have tried to keep our cooking and food prep surface separate from our eating area for both safety and convenience.
We typically either utilize the vehicle tailgate or a separate table. No need to be fancy here!
Lots of families love the simple Lifetime Folding Table or a more compact roll-top table like the REI Co-Op Camp Roll Table. If you’re really concerned with weight and space, the Helinox Table One Hard Top is another lightweight option we love! Just make sure you’re on level ground and that your surface is stable enough to prevent the stove from tipping or sliding.
For cooking over an open flame, cast iron is the way to go! Grab yourself a Lodge Cast Iron Skillet or Griddle for anything that needs faster frying, or a Lodge Cast Iron Dutch Oven if slow cooking is more your style.
And don’t forget a good set of potholders like the Flexware Jaws from UST Gear to protect your paws!
Cast iron is very versatile and effective, but it can also be trickier to clean. If you prefer to use less elbow grease, any basic non-stick pots and pans will do. When we replace a pan in our home, we generally retire the well-loved one to our car camping kit.
If you don’t have any old pots and pans laying around, you can likely find what you need at a local thrift store or from a local Buy Nothing group. For those who boil a lot of water for warm beverages in the morning or evening, it’s also worth it to find a simple stainless steel kettle to keep in your camp kitchen kit.
Cooking utensils don’t need to be anything special either – just make sure you pack what you need for the meals you’re planning! And while you don’t necessarily need to be super fancy, you do want to make sure that cooking utensils can withstand high heat so you’re not trying to clean up a melted plastic fiasco in the middle of the woods.
We generally don’t leave home without a set of long tongs, a can opener, a big spatula, and a couple of large spoons (one slotted, one solid). A sharp knife and a cutting board should round you out for just about anything you have on the menu!
For most car camping trips, you will have a combination of dry and cold items to store. When considering how to pack and store your food items for your camp kitchen, it’s important to think through both temperature control (keeping things from thawing, spoiling, or melting) and protection from wildlife.
Whatever you use for food storage – plastic tubs, coolers, reuseable bags – you want to make sure the containers are easy to transport so you can move them back and forth from your prep/cooking area to your car or bear bin. You’ll want to be able to put everything away at night or when you leave camp to avoid having your campsite ransacked by rodents and other furry visitors.
If you’re car camping at an established site in bear country, you may have a metal bear bin available to you. If this is the case, USE IT any time you are not actively cooking or eating. Not just for food, but for anything that has an odor to it (toiletries, hand sanitizer, bug spray, etc).
Whenever possible, try to avoid single-use food storage containers. There are tons of great planet-friendly options out there to replicate the convenience of the plastic sandwich bag, like these fantastic Flexware Boil & Store Bags from UST.
Not only can you use these resealable silicone bags to keep snack items like trail mix and dried fruit handy for easy access, but they can also be used to store and re-heat leftovers to minimize waste!
They are also a great option for storing pre-chopped vegetables for foil dinners or any other small items that you might want to prep at home before heading out.
Camp Kitchen Must-Have Supplies and Spices
There are certain staples that we always pack along to have on hand for our camp kitchen – depending on how you do your meals these items may vary but it’s helpful to just keep some things packed up in a bin and ready to go in your car camping kit.
We have found it helpful to keep a roll of heavy duty aluminum foil, a lighter, garbage bags, non-stick cooking spray, a big hand sanitizer pump, and salt and pepper shakers always stocked with our camp kitchen supplies.
You may have other go-to seasoning blends or essential items that you use already – these can be used for camping too, of course.
We have found that there are some things we really don’t want to forget and almost always need regardless of what we’re cooking, and if we can eliminate the possibility of forgetting something essential by just keeping it stored with the camping gear that’s a big bonus!
How to Set Up a Camp Kitchen: Dining Area
Table & Table Covering
Whether you’re utilizing an existing picnic table or bringing your own table, covering it with a simple reusable oilcloth cover makes cleanup so much easier (and protects the table itself from unnecessary wear and tear or nasty sap bombs). We just purchase vinyl oilcloth by the yard and cut it to size for a standard picnic table and any additional tables of our own that we use for camping.
You can also pick up a cheap vinyl tablecloth that is already cut.
Spills and stray debris wipe off super easily with a damp cloth (or sleeve or wet wipe or whatever you have handy!). Grab some metal tablecloth clamps to keep the cloth secured and voila! You’re all set for a first class camp dining experience. Light up the citronella candle and enjoy some ambience. Note: you can also buy the clamps and the tablecloth together!
If you have little ones who still need a high chair, a portable seat with a tray like the Summer Infant Pop ‘N Sit is a lifesaver! These seats can be strapped to the bench of a standard picnic table and used as a booster seat, or they can be placed on the ground and used as a stand-alone seat with the tray attached.
They also fold down to be super compact, and can be set up at a trailhead or wherever else you might find yourself picnicking on a day trip or adventure!
Dishes & Utensils
Simple, versatile, and easy-to-clean is what you’re aiming for here! We absolutely LOVE our UST Flexware Mess Kits, which can be used as a plate, bowl, on-the-go lunchbox, or snack carrier. These kits are great for feeding kids in the car on the way to or from a hike, around camp, in your lap, or around the campfire.
They come with their own lid (super helpful for keeping bugs out of food if kids wander away from their plate during mealtime) and a fork/spoon combo that stores in the lid. We get so much use out of these kits, even when we’re not camping! And they are very reasonably priced.
If you aren’t as concerned with portability, another great option are the Re-Play plates and utensils. Not only are they made from recycled milk jugs, they are brightly colored, durable, easy to clean, and have built-in dividers for kids (or adults) who are picky about foods touching.
For the grown-ups who may want a bit more versatility out of their utensils, UST also makes a fantastic Utilitensil Set. Made out of durable stainless steel, this set is ultra-lightweight and built to last a lifetime.
The handles of fork, spoon, and serrated knife feature integrated tools like a bottle opener, can opener, hex wrench, butterfly wrench, and ruler! The included carry-case also keeps the utensils protected and clean when stored.
For drinkware, we always pack a set of basic enamel mugs like these ones from GSI Outdoors for hot cocoa, coffee, and tea. If you prefer an insulated option, REI makes a great simple insulated mug with a lid that is great for kids or adults.
Personally, I don’t go anywhere without my Yeti Rambler Mug because it does such a great job keeping my coffee hot for hours. I inevitably have to sip on my coffee slowly while doing a million other critical mom jobs, so a good mug is a staple for a successful morning!
Whatever bin or container you use to store your dishes and utensils can also double as a wash bin (more on that later) if you choose something with solid sides.
We are big fans of the UST Flexware Tub because it folds down flat when not in use, has convenient carry handles, and has enough space to be used as a large wash basin for pots and pans.
Whether you’re bringing all of your water from home, filling up from a campground tap, or filtering from a natural source, you want to make sure you have plenty of water on hand for drinking, washing, and cooking.
We always pack along a full Aqua-Tainer to make sure our bases are covered in case we end up without access to a convenient water source at our campsite.
If you want to have the ability to filter additional water for drinking or cooking, a gravity filtration system like the Platypus GravityWorks is a great low-effort, high payoff option! Just fill the dirty reservoir from a running fresh water source, hang the system from a tree, and let it do its thing while you go about your business around camp.
How to Set Up a Camp Kitchen: Wash Station
Tubs & Soap
And now for the fun part – cleanup! Depending on the size of your family and how much cookware you’re utilizing, you’ll need a few containers for washing dishes. The Leave No Trace Center recommends the four bucket method:
- Bucket #1 (aka the funk bucket!) = Cold Rinse (this should be where any stubborn food scraps go)
- Bucket #2 = Hot Wash (half cold, half boiling soapy water for scrubbing)
- Bucket #3 = Hot Rinse (half cold, half boiling water for removing soap residue)
- Bucket #4 = Cold Bleach (6-7 drops of bleach per gallon of water for sanitizing)
If you’re collecting wash water from a nearby water source (a great job for kid helpers!), you may prefer to have something with a handle like the UST Flexware Bucket 2.0 or the UST Flexware Sink. Again, all of these UST Flexware buckets and tubs fold down flat when not in use so if space is a consideration they are an excellent choice.
The bucket holds up to 10 liters of water, so it can easily handle our family’s dishes for a typical meal. If we’re group camping and know we’ll have a larger volume of dishes, we generally use the higher volume Flexware Tub instead.
Another consideration in light of our commitment to Leave No Trace practices is a good quality biodegradable soap! We love UST’s Pack a Long Camp Soap, which can also be used to wash hands, gear, and laundry. Campsuds also makes a great concentrated soap that works with both fresh and salt water.
Whatever soap you use, just do your homework and make sure that it’s biodegradable. Remember to dump your wastewater at least 200 feet from any water source, and strain the water to remove food scraps before dumping it. All food scraps should be placed in the garbage and packed out!
Scrapers, Cloths, and Towels
For removing stubborn food particles, a simple scraper like the Lodge Scraper Combo or the MSR Alpine Dish Brush/Scraper can make life a whole lot easier. You’ll want to have a few sponges on hand, and several towels for drying dishes and hands. This is another great use for rags and dish or hand towels that may have been retired from use in your home kitchen!
Depending on personal preference, weather and conditions, this could be as simple as making space to lay everything out on the picnic table to air dry (this is optimal especially if you’ve sanitized dishes with bleach water).
If you’re skipping the bleach and you’re in more of a hurry to put things away, you may want to do a quick towel dry before airing everything out and storing it again. Just make sure everything is as dry as possible before it goes back into a bin, especially one with a lid that’s going to trap remaining moisture.
Find Your System
Hopefully you’ve found some helpful hints here in establishing your own system for how to set up a camp kitchen. Whatever you choose to do, make sure it works for you and is something that makes it easier for your family to get out and enjoy yourselves when you’re camping.
Related Camp Kitchen Articles:
- Cast Iron Cooking and Care
- Definitive Packing List for Car Camping with Kids
- Dispersed camping for families – tips & tricks
- When a Bear Wanders Into Camp + Leave No Trace Tips
- Ideas for Picnic Meals
How to Set Up a Camp Kitchen
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