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Keep It Simple!
Unless you’re cooking a feast or a holiday dinner or plan to do nothing but sit around your campsite all day and eat, keep it as simple as possible. The purpose of your campground kitchen is to sustain and support your camping activities, NOT consume your time and energy.
Apply this concept to your planning and packing. Pack only what you need and plan simple meals. Avoid meals that are labor intensive and messy. Prep as much as you possibly can at home before leaving. This means preboiling vegetables (especially potatoes), chopping meats and vegetables (saves time and dishes), rinsing vegetables, soaking beans, baking biscuits and so on.
Prep at Home:
- Chop vegetables and meats
- Boil Potatoes
- Rinsing and washing
- Premix marinades, pancakes
- Brown meats
- Cook soups/stew for easy reheating at camp
The less work you have to do at the campsite the better, this includes both prepping and clean-up. Check out my post on No Cook Meal Options for time saving menu ideas. Energy saved in the camp kitchen is energy better spent on adventure.
The perfect functioning campground kitchen is clean, efficient and supportive of the needs and activities of the campers.
The Basic Needs
Dry Box: sometimes called a Larder Box, contains your cooking utensils, spices, small gadgets, paper towels, hand towels, condiments that don’t require refrigeration, anything that must be kept dry and could potentially attract wildlife. Your dry box should be secured with a locking lid/strap to keep out wildlife. If you’re camping in bear country, it should be rated bearproof or kept inside a locked vehicle. Ideally, your dry box should be kept inside your vehicle when not in use. For the purpose of car camping, any plastic tote with a lid will do!
What to put in your Dry Box
- Cooking utensils: spatula, tongs, knives, serving spoons, ladle, silverware, scissors
- Meat thermometer
Keep spices inside a large freezer bag or container so they don’t roll loosely about, making a fragrant mess all over everything.
- Hand can opener, bottle opener, and wine opener
- Small chopping board
- Vinyl tablecloth and clips
- Matches in a waterproof container
- Cooking spay and a jar of Crisco
- Wash clothes, dish towels, scouring pads
- Coffee percolator
- Measuring cups
- Dish soap
- Hand soap
- Hand sanitizer
Pro Tip: Keep your dry box packed and ready to go to reduce your workload. Yard sales and thrift shops are excellent places to find extra silverware and kitchenware.
Day Box: Your day box is your picnic box. This is where you store all the above aforementioned when you go off for a day of exploring. In wilderness camping, a day box is like the dry box as it is water and critter proof, but for the purposes of car camping, any old box will do. I have a picnic basket I love to use. You can also use a small cooler, tote, or bag even.
Cold Storage: Wilderness campers (canoe camping, backpacking) typically do not carry a cooler or use any form of cold storage unless it can be brought to a base camp via motorized vehicle. They use a combination of dried, freeze dried, and powdered foods to avoid the need for cold storage. Car campers have the luxury of base campers, and therefore can take advantage of coolers and even mini refrigerators to keep their food and drinks ice cold.
Depending on the amenities, you will need to carry in water. You can purchase large water jugs (2-5 gallons) for less than 20 bucks that have a handy spigot. Most public and private campgrounds have access to water at the gate house, restroom facility and other locations where you can fill your water jugs as needed. As a rule, I bring bottled for drinking and cooking and use the jug water for cleaning and some cooking. An example: bottled water for coffee/tea, but spigot-jug water boiled for washing dishes or instant potatoes.
Washing dishes can be easily accomplished with two cheap dish pans from the dollar store. Fill one pan with boiled hot soapy water for cleaning/soaking/scrubbing and fill one with tepid clear water for rinsing. You must only use Campsuds soap or a similar outdoor product. It’s only five bucks on Amazon. Do the right thing and buy it. When it comes time to pour your dirty dishwater out, dig a hole six to eight inches deep, 200 feet away from any water source (stream, shoreline), then you can lay your head down at night knowing you did the right thing.
The Cooler System
Using two coolers is ideal. One cooler for meats and food. One cooler for drinks. This keeps drinks safe from contamination and keeps your food safe from fluctuating temperatures that result from opening the lid for a drink too often.
Cheap Coolers vs. Expensive
Expensive coolers are much more durable (many of them bearproof) and come with thicker insulation and high-quality seals. They do have two big drawbacks however, they’re expensive and heavy. They will keep your ice longer, but the initial investment is hefty.
Cheap coolers are cheap. Most of them under 50 bucks. Sometimes you can acquire them second hand. They are not as durable as an expensive cooler, but you’re car camping so your cooler shouldn’t be enduring too much trauma unless you’re intentionally abusing it. If you take care of it, the cheap cooler can last for generations. Following these recommendations, you should be able to get the most out of your cheap cooler without breaking the bank on bagged ice.
Prechilling is important, especially if you have a cheap cooler. This will greatly increase the insulating qualities of the cooler and help you save money on ice. Put all your cold items into your refrigerator at least 24 prior to putting them into the cooler. Start with drinks chilled in the fridge, and of course bring plenty to restock. Those warm drinks you add later will eat up the ice but starting out with a cold cooler and cold drinks will help save ice considerably.
Freeze meats you don’t plan to eat until the third, fourth (and so on) day of the trip. Freeze water bottles and jugs at home. These make nice solid blocks of ice that later turn into drinking water. Freeze anything you possibly can that won’t be needed for the first couple of days.
It is possible to have frozen storage at camp using dry ice. To do this would require a dedicated cooler, as the dry ice would freeze everything solid.
Keep your cooler clean and organized. Make sure items are sealed tightly and use plastic baggies to keep pretty much everything in. I recommend having zip-loc baggies in every shape and size. They’re handy for storing butter, cheese, leftovers, meats, pretty much everything that can fit. Plastic egg containers are handy for keeping your eggs safe and can be purchased at any big box store. If you don’t have plastic egg containers, make sure to avoid cardboard egg boxes from the store as they get wet and fall apart. If you want to avoid having your condiment labels get wet and fall off, store them in plastic bags too.
Cooking at Camp
Cooking with fire has both benefits and drawbacks. The benefits are there’s less equipment. All you need are the basics like utensils, a pot, a few pans, a Dutch-oven, and portable grate if you must, and you can cook most anything. If you have access to rocks and sticks, then you can build an oven or grill fit for a king. And there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with cooking on an open fire. As you dabble in the ancient artform you feel rooted with nature, connected with your ancestors and a primordial feeling of pride swells as you begin to master your fire skills.
There’s an art to cooking with fire but it isn’t difficult nor is it shrouded in mystery. It’s actually quite simple, very rewarding and practically in your DNA. We will cover this subject at depth in a later post.
It’s perfectly possible to start camping with only a cast iron pan and pot and able be to prepare basic dishes. If you add a two-burner stove to your inventory, you’ll be able to conveniently cook for a small family.
The Two-Burner Stove
The classic two burner stove is an essential piece of gear that should be considered a necessary investment. They are convenient for quick breakfasts, boiling water, or frying a burger if needed. They can operate safely under a canopy or in a screen tent in the event of pouring rain.
The Charcoal Grill
Small portable charcoal grills that fold up are convenient and affordable. Tabletop charcoal grills can be purchased for under 20 bucks and grills with folding legs for under 50 bucks. A charcoal grill is a cheaper alternative to propane and gives you some advantages to cooking over the fire. Charcoal gives you a more heat control and is portable, leaving no trace as long you as you carry out your ash pile. This allows you to take your grill with you for day trips if you so choose. Many state parks and recreation areas even offer permanent grills at picnic areas.
Propane or Not to Propane?
There are also many options for portable propane grills. Propane is easy and convenient, giving you the ability to have instant, controllable heat with not much clean up. Small propane table top grills are affordable and compact. Coleman’s Grill 2 Go or RoadTrip X-Cursion are foldable full size grills. Portable propane grills like the RoadTrip series start out with a price tag around $150 and steadily increase. While a propane grill is a significantly larger investment than a charcoal grill, the price of propane versus charcoal briquets eventually pays off. Especially if you end up having to buy your charcoal at a gas station or camp store.
If you’re looking for something a little more durable, with a whole lot more cooking power, check out the line of professional wilderness camping equipment from the fine folks at Camp Chef. Their rugged, powerful equipment, built for wilderness and expedition camping, will take your outdoor cooking game to whole new dimension. If you’re cooking for a large group, their big, powerful, and portable camp systems are the way to go.
I was introduced to the Camp Chef brand when my parents purchased a two-burner Expedition model nearly fifteen years ago. And it still looks just as glorious as it did when it was new. In the beginning of 2020, Mark and I purchased our own, the three-burner Big Gas Grill. It’s big and it’s heavy but it’s bad ass. It makes cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner a breeze with virtually no clean up whatsoever. When we camp with friends, it gives me the opportunity to play chef and feed the masses, whilst dazzling everyone with my outdoor culinary skills and superior equipment.