If you’re chained to a desk five days a week and you spend your evenings in pursuit of your outdoor passions, you know that finding the time to cook well can be a nearly impossible task. When the weekend finally rolls around and you decide to drive up a quiet mountain road, turn off your cell phone, and set up camp next to a winding creek, you give yourself the time to cook better than you probably do in your home kitchen. In addition to the simple pleasure of eating well, balanced and nutritious meals are essential to performance whether your plans include cruising mountain bike trails or battling your way up multi-pitch rock climbs.
With a bit of planning, ambition, and the right camp kitchen setup, there is nothing to stop you from cooking like a pro and eating like royalty. No matter the length of the trip or number of people, there are a few things that should go in your camp kit every time. Here are 10 essentials that are worth turning around for.
The first step to assembling a killer camp kitchen is designating a chuck box. A chuck box can be as simple and economical as a large plastic tote or as complex as a hand-crafted wooden box (DIY tutorials are widely available online) complete with fold-out tables, equipment-specific compartments, and removable legs. The function of a chuck box is to keep all your cooking essentials organized and stored in the same place. That way, when you make an impromptu decision to load up the car and head to the hills, you can simply grab the chuck box and know you’ll have everything you need (except your stove, table, and well-stocked cooler) to whip up a tasty meal.
Pots – large and medium
Skillet / griddle
Hot pad or leather fire gloves
Plates, bowls, mugs
Matches or Lighter
Knives – large and paring
Bottle opener (w/corkscrew, if you’re not bringing box wine or screw-tops)
Coffee making system of choice (percolator / French press / filters, etc.)
Basic Spice Kit (olive oil, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, chili powder, basil, rosemary, oregano, etc.)
Dry storage food items (chips, cookies, peanut butter, etc.)
Pot scrubber / scraper
Wash bucket or camp sink
Trash Bags, Resealable Baggies
A reliable stove system is central to every serious camp kitchen, and we’re not talking about the lightweight backpacking variety. Depending on the amount of packing space in your vehicle, you can decide to go with a compact two-burner system that runs on a one-pound propane canister or you can equip yourself with a larger and more powerful two- or three-burner system that runs on a standard 20-pound propane tank.
Generally, you just want to make sure that each burner on the stove you select puts out at least 10,000 BTU/hr, which is the average output of a household stove burner. A number of the larger models that run on standard 20-pound propane tanks will crank out an impressive 30,000 BTU/hr per burner, providing you with an immense range of culinary ability. Many models can also be accessorized with grill boxes and griddles, which make serving up a stack of pancakes or juicy T-bone steaks a simple task.
A quality hard-shell cooler is essential for eating well in the outdoors. While a soft-sided cooler may suffice for quick trips, a hard-shell will insulate far better and protect your food from being crushed in a fully packed vehicle. Yeti coolers are the gold standard of coolers, renown for preserving ice for up to five days, and bearproof to boot. Others brands to check out include Pelican and Orion.
Unless you chop veggies with the lightning speed of an Iron Chef, it’s a good idea to plan meals and do prep work before leaving home. You can then pack your cooler with sealed, labeled bags of pre-chopped veggies and meats for each meal, so you can start cooking with minimal prep time.
If you plan on packing lots of canned and bottled beverages (which you should), consider bringing a second beverage-specific cooler. Beverage coolers are opened and closed frequently, which allows chilled air to quickly escape. If your food is stored in a separate cooler that is opened less frequently, your temperature-sensitive foods will stay chilled for a longer period of time.
When car camping, I prefer spots that are impacted but not established, meaning groups have already been to the spot and created a fire ring, but a government agency hasn’t come in and put in amenities such as picnic tables. However, it’s always nice to have a table to spread your kitchen essentials on when you’re cooking up a feast, because regardless of how much prep work you accomplish at home, there will still be food prep tasks that will need to be done in camp.
For this reason, I recommend bringing along a sturdy camp table, and if you’ve ever struggled to balance a cutting board on your lap, chances are you’ll agree. A fold-up or roll-up camp table is a great option, especially if your vehicle has limited packing space. If you happen to drive a pickup, a piece of plywood or a cutting board on your tailgate should do just fine.
From quiches to casseroles to hot apple pie, a Dutch oven will allow you to bake just about anything you might stick in your oven at home. With a well-seasoned Dutch oven added to your kitchen setup, you’ll have the versatility to prepare a much wider range of dishes, especially of the gourmet variety. The prized virtue of a Dutch Oven is its ability to evenly distribute heat, allowing you to cover it with charcoal briquettes, position it in hot coals near an open fire, or place it on the stove top. Some models even feature a deep dish lid that can double as a skillet.
If you properly care for your cast iron cookware, which involves never cleaning it with soap (you can just scour it with dirt or sand, just make sure to rinse it really, really well). and making sure it is fully dry before storage. If cared for properly, your cast iron will eventually acquire a natural non-stick cooking surface that’s referred to as ‛seasoning.’ Seasoning results from oils penetrating the surface of the cast iron over time, which will create a non-stick patina surface. That being said, many people swear by disposable Dutch oven liners, which make cleanup a breeze.
This is listed in the chuck box, but because there are so many options out there, and it’s SO incredibly important, it merits some further discussion. In my own opinion, a percolator is the way to go for a few reasons: first, it lets you know when its ready—it’s such a happy moment when you see it “perking!” Second, it seems to make better/cleaner coffee with fewer grinds in your cup. And lastly, it just seems more classy than a French press in a plastic container. But then, I know plenty of people who are more into the convenience of a press-style coffeemaker or the purported superiority of pour-over systems.
The truly dedicated coffee aficionado might bring a hand grinder along, but an airtight container for grounds is less time consuming and complicated.
If you’ve been camping for several years, you’ve probably gone through a few water jugs. A square, blue jug probably comes to mind, right? Those do tend to be heavy, though, so you might want to upgrade to one of the newer types (like the Ultimate Survival Technologies Water Cube), which are not only much lighter, but collapsible to they take up less space on the return. When packing for a trip, you definitely can’t bring too much water. Plan on seven gallons for two people for two nights, and scale from there.
If you’re going to be near a source of water, you may also want to consider using a base camp-style gravity filtration system. Easy to use, it means you have a sure source of clean drinking water, in case you miscalculate your needs or don’t want to have to lug a lot of water to the campsite. A folding bucket is a great complement to a setup like this, since you will likely be needing water for other uses like washing.
Cooking in the dark somehow just isn’t as fun. Whether you got back from a bike ride later than expected or lost track of them time during Happy Hour, you’ll want more than just a headlamp to light up your prep area. If your camping setup doesn’t include a lantern, it should for this very reason. Better yet, a string of battery-powered LEDs over the camp kitchen can give it a festive air that might even take the drudgery out of food prep.
This is my all-time favorite camp kitchen hack—cooking your custom-made dinner over the campfire coals in a foil packet. It’s easy, cleanup is a snap, and if you organize it right everyone gets to customize their own dinner to their taste. There isn’t a whole lot to it—just assemble any combo of veggies, meat, herbs and spices, and fat on foil, wrap it up, and pop on the coals (not open flame!) for about 35-45 minutes. Flip a few times (those heavy-duty gloves come in handy for this), open, and enjoy!
OK, so maybe you don’t NEED this. But you have to admit, the idea of a frosty margarita after a day of hiking or biking sounds pretty good, right? I thought so. Check it out.
Throw these essentials into the truck the next time you hit the road, and cook up (and clean up) your meals with ease. And remember: simpler is better, so bring what you’ll use and leave the rest at home.