How to Set Up a Camp Kitchen
An integral part — and, for many, a big appeal — of camping is forgoing some of life’s luxuries. Depending on your preferences, that could mean no indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, or (gasp!) cell service. But you still have to eat somehow, and canned food can cut it for only so long. That’s where camp kitchens come in, giving you the ability to enjoy high-quality camping meals and improve organization while still roughing it as much as you’d like. That being said, camp kitchens require as much planning as any other part of your trip. We’ll show you what makes a good site for camping kitchens, what they should include, and some best practices for maintenance over the duration of your trip.
Before You Go: Check Campsite Rules
Camp kitchens will differ based on several factors like your outdoor needs, the size of your party, and the length of your expedition. However, your camp-kitchen planning should always start with careful consideration of local rules. For instance, does the campsite provide potable water? What types of fires are allowed, and are there specific clearances that must be observed? Will you be in bear country, where food-storage requirements are a crucial matter of safety? These guidelines will give you an overall idea of what you need to pack and how your campsite kitchen should be structured. In areas with stricter rules, you should generally plan to set up a more compact kitchen that’ll leave you with a smaller footprint and fewer items to account for.
What’s the Best Place for a Camp Kitchen?
It’s not enough to merely stroll into camp, pick out a spot, and start setting up your kitchen. Safety and logistics play huge roles in the location of your camping kitchen, so it’s important to take stock of the area before unpacking and arranging. As you’ll see below, some considerations differ between frontcountry and backcountry areas — “frontcountry” meaning locations close to access roads and (usually) running water, and “backcountry” describing more remote locations that generally lack amenities. Other factors apply across the board, so read on for the makings of a proper camp kitchen site.
Distanced from Your Tent
This is the most important thing to remember when picking a spot for your camping kitchen. Keeping your camp grill distanced from the sleeping area is not only safer, but it also greatly lessens the chances of food odors attracting wildlife when you’re most vulnerable. This goes double if you’re in an area where you can store food in your camp kitchen; though you’ll be following best practices for food storage (more on that below), it’s always better to err on the side of caution in the wilderness.
So, how much distance from your grill should you leave? That’s a topic of spirited debate on camping forums (trust us, we looked), but you should always refer to your owner’s manual for recommended clearances. If you plan to cook over a campfire instead of a grill, look for an established fire ring and build your camp around it. Always choose a spot downwind from your tent so food smells drift in the opposite direction of your sleeping arrangements. You should also keep your kitchen setup separate from your dining area, if only so you aren’t scrambling to clear your camping cookware from the table when it’s time to eat. We recommend creating defined zones for indoor and outdoor kitchens, so why should your camp kitchen be any different?
On Durable, Level, & Well-Protected Ground...
In general, you should always set up camp on a level and solid surface; if you’re not sold, try sleeping on a clump of dirt or while continually rolling downhill. But that’s extra important for your camping kitchen, where a tipped-over grill could spell disaster and cooking on uneven ground would be just plain difficult. A well-established or designated frontcountry campsite is your best bet, but when you’re off the beaten path in backcountry settings, look to make camp on durable ground like compact dirt, rock, or snow. If the spot includes natural shade or windbreaks, even better! When there are no naturally occurring barriers from the elements — remember, fashioning your own from the surrounding landscape is highly frowned upon — you can rely on a windbreak and DIY camping tarp tent of your own.
...But Not Actually on the Ground
This one might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people are content cooking and cleaning close to the ground using portable grills and wash bins. But they’re practically inviting dirt, water, and insects to ruin their dinner and freshly cleaned dishes! Setting up a picnic blanket for a one-off meal is fine, but you’ll presumably be reusing your camp kitchen and need to keep everything in top shape. It’s always better to get your prep, cooking, and cleaning equipment off the ground on a camping table. Besides, do you really want to be hunched over every second you’re in the camp kitchen?
Away from High-Traffic Areas
Think about how frustrating it is when someone tries to squeeze by you in your at-home kitchen. It’s just as annoying when you’re in the wild, not to mention the potential fire hazard of a knocked-over grill or stove. Maintaining a safe distance between your campsite kitchen and tent should reduce foot traffic, but be aware of where you’ve established other areas and walkways. For instance, you don’t want the kitchen to be in the middle of your dining area and the bathroom.
What Do I Need in My Camp Kitchen?
Every camping kitchen needs a source of fire, a prep area, and a place to clean dishes and cookware. We’ll cover those main sections in greater detail below, but we also recommend using our camp cooking checklist for a more comprehensive look at what you might need. Remember to always consider your camping style and tailor your approach based on the type of camping you’ll be doing, how long you’ll be staying, and similar factors. Additionally, keep your focus on minimizing environmental impacts and leaving your campsite better than you found it. To help you get started, let’s look at the elements every camping kitchen should include.
Camping Grill or Other Cooker
Many campers prize the authenticity of a campfire or fire pit, or the tried-and-true familiarity of camp stoves and ranges. As you can probably guess from our name, we’re partial to camp grills! These grills are perfectly travel-size, versatile, and safer and easier to control than an open fire. We won’t fault you for your decision, but whatever you choose, make sure it’s a reliable and controllable source of heat that can handle all your camping meals to keep you fed for the duration of your outdoor adventure.
Workstation for Cooking & Prep
What would you do without counter space in your indoor kitchen? (We’d just go outside and grill, but you get the point we’re trying to make.) Your camp kitchen needs a spot for slicing, chopping, plating, and all the other not-so-glorious prep work that goes into making marvelous meals; if you’re using a portable camp grill, it should have a firm base off the ground as well. Camping tables are incredibly useful here because they often contain storage compartments for accessories and cookware, but a folding table will do just fine in a pinch. It bears repeating that you shouldn’t use picnic or dining tables for food prep — that’ll only lead to clutter and frantic shuffling as you transition from cooking to eating.
Like any good kitchen, your camp setup should have a spot for washing food, hands, and dishes. Frontcountry campsites may have a community wash station, in which case you’ve got this taken care of. For other areas, we can’t overstate the benefit of having a collapsible sink or washing bins to use with potable water (which you might also be responsible for bringing or sourcing).
Keep this zone stocked with biodegradable soap, and always remember to strain food remains from your wastewater before scattering it at least 200 feet from any water source (as instructed by the National Park Service). Your sanitation station should include a drying area for dishes and cookware, whether that’s in a bin or sitting out on a table to air-dry. Just be sure to fully dry everything you’ve washed before storing it for the night so lingering moisture doesn’t promote mold growth in your containers.
Maintaining Your Camp Kitchen
Congrats, you now have the know-how to put together an efficient camping kitchen! Keeping it that way, though? That’ll take a bit more work. This shouldn’t come as a surprise — the outdoors is (or at least it should be) a dirtier and more dangerous place than your home kitchen. Fortunately, tidying up in your camping kitchen is fairly simple and well worth the extra effort. They say a clean kitchen is a happy kitchen, so it only makes sense that a happy camp kitchen makes for a happy camper.
We know how easy it can be let loose once you’re out in the wild and living the #camplife. But if there’s one place where you need to stay strict and focused, it’s with your camp kitchen. There should be well-defined homes for everything from fuel and cooking accessories to plates and cookware, and they should always be put back where they came from. Otherwise, you’ll be rifling through all your camping gear to find that exact pan or set of plates every time you settle down to cook. Organization becomes even more important if you plan to stay on the move and set up in a new location every evening.
Beyond simply knowing where everything is, having a highly organized camp kitchen will help you with packing. Structuring your kitchen forces you to think about and streamline your take-alongs — you know food prep items should stay together, while cookware and dinnerware need separate storage units. Even if you have extra room in your kitchen bags and bins, resist the urge to toss in non-cooking items simply to bring one fewer bag. You’ll be thankful for this approach when you’re at the campsite and can easily locate whatever you need.
Safely Store Food
Perhaps the most important part of your organization is food storage, which plays 3 crucial roles: keeping out insects, masking scents from larger wildlife, and controlling temperature. It’s easy to see how your camp kitchen — no, your entire trip — could be ruined by improperly stored food, and it’s not always as simple as just closing off food items after use.
Always start by checking for park or trail requirements; you may be asked to use bear-proof storage depending on the area. The National Park Service, for example, urges all backcountry campers to store food in bear-safe containers hung 10 feet above the ground and 5 feet away from tree trunks. Some designated campgrounds in backcountry settings may provide bear boxes along with cables or poles to hang food, and that’s where doing a bit of research beforehand pays off.
In frontcountry environments or other areas without much wildlife activity, requirements will probably be different. That being said, it’s still wise to store your food away from the main campsite, even if you have a camping table that includes storage sections (use them for cookware and dinnerware instead). You can’t go wrong with separate bins that are tightly sealed and insulated. When packing storage units, separate items that can be crushed from those that can’t, and always put the lighter and more delicate items on top. Lastly, keep storage bins and coolers in shaded areas to help with temperature regulation.
Clean Right Away
We’ve covered the importance of proper food storage when camping, and dealing with food residue is just as critical. Odors linger and attract all manner of wildlife, so wash dishes, scrub cookware, and clean your grill immediately after eating. In addition to making sure insects and critters aren’t drawn to your camp kitchen, cleaning your space will promote food safety for the duration of your trip. House rules can still apply in the great outdoors: you cook and they clean, or vice versa!
Correctly Dispose of Trash
If you think critters want to rummage through your pre-cooked food, just wait until they get their paws on your trash. You can prevent this, of course, by once again checking park regulations and disposing of food waste accordingly. Areas with designated trash receptacles make this easy: just bundle up your garbage and make a trip there as frequently as you can. Remote regions probably won’t provide such amenities, in which case you should tie off your trash and store it in a vehicle or other secure location overnight until you can take it to a waste-disposal site. Pop-up garbage cans are especially handy for stopping trash smells from filling your vehicle. Before you head out, remember that proper trash disposal isn’t just to keep animals away — it’s the responsible thing to do for our environment.
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