You’ve finished setting up your tent, inflating air mattresses and collecting wood for the fire. Now you’re ready to settle down in a camp chair and enjoy some fireside chow.
Or, like many campers, you dread the idea of having to cook in the great outdoors. The delicious aromas of dutch oven chili and grilled brats are wafting over from the next campsite. But you’re thinking about the dirty picnic table, the jumbled grocery bags, and a stuffed cooler with everything you need at the bottom.
You want to cook the delicious recipe for beer-butt chicken you’ve seen on Pinterest or the caramel apple tart foil packets. Heck, you’d just be happy with something other than stale Entenmann’s donuts for breakfast.
And once you’re done with sloppy, half-washed dishes and a bear-enticing trash bag that smells of hotdogs, you now have to clean up… in the dark.
One way to avoid a lot of the mess and cooking headaches is to make meals at home and bring them along with you in a cooler. Check out our post 25 Make-Ahead Camping Meals to Feed a Whole Family to get some ideas.
But cooking at your campsite can also be fun if you’re prepared, organized and have the right gear. In this post, we’ll be talking about what you need and, just as important, what you don’t need. We’ll also give you plenty of tips on how to stay organized, clean, and hassle-free, all while cooking some delicious recipes at your campsite.
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Benefits of a DIY Camp Kitchen
A lot of people will bundle all their groceries and camp cooking staples into their car and not think much more about it until they are scrambling at their campsite. While building a camp kitchen sounds like a lot of work upfront, it is actually surprisingly simple. It will take a lot of the guesswork out of packing and unpacking and will save you a lot of time in the cooking process.
It Will Be Easier to Pack Your Car
You will no longer have ten reusable grocery bags, a heap of plastic storage bins, and more cookware than you need. Instead, you’ll have fewer storage containers and more room for everything. You don’t need to pack the car according to what you will need first or worry about fragile items being crushed.
You’ll Bring a Lot Less
By being organized you avoid having duplicates, which means way less stuff. You’ll also get a chance to sort through what you do have and decide what is really important and what likely won’t get used. So instead of bringing the whole kit-and-caboodle, you can focus on just the essentials.
You’ll Be Able to Find Everything You Need
Where did I put the aluminum foil?!
You know you packed it, but where? Once you have a camp kitchen that you built yourself, everything will have a place it belongs. You’ll be able to locate whatever you need much faster, without having to rifle through bags or feel around under your car seats.
Clean-up Is Much Simpler
Instead of having your tools scattered around and loose items without a home, you’ll have an orderly place for each thing. Just like your kitchen at home. You’ll also spend less time washing and drying because you will have a built-in system that suits your needs.
You Can Use it Over and Over
When you’re camp kitchen is designed in a way that suits your cooking style and camp style, you won’t need to reinvent the wheel everytime you go camping. You’ll only need to set it up once and it will serve you for a long time.
Ready to learn how to build your own camping kitchen? First, let’s take a look at a what our outdoor retail friends are selling.
Commercial Camp Kitchens
If you’re ready to skip the mess and invest in a better camp cooking system, you’ve probably Googled it and found a lot of retailers selling all-in-one camp kitchen kits.
They come in all shapes and sizes. Fold-out, pop-up tables, hooks, ovens, dishwashing sets, utensil holders, storage bins, and pockets. You name it, someone has come up with a way to make camp cooking more convenient.
But when it comes to cooking under the stars, over a fire, and in the great outdoors, one size doesn’t usually fit all. Creating your own system will allow you to bring just what you need and ensures you have all the items that will work best for you personally, without a bunch of extras.
These camp kitchen kits may not be the best all-around solution for your camp cooking needs. But if you have the budget, they can make for a really great jumping off place. So if you’ve taken a look and you’re thinking of investing, keep a few things in mind.
- Make sure any folding table or counter will accommodate the size of the stove or grill you are using.
- A lantern hook can be very useful. Most kitchen kits will include these. It beats trying to cook in the dark.
- Built-in sink faucets aren’t as useful as they seem. While you can use them to rinse your hands from time to time, they aren’t good for cleaning much of anything. The water runs too slow and the basin is too shallow. Better to stick with a separate sink system.
Here are our two favorites for their simple and functional design that you can build off of.
This basic kitchen set up gives you a place to organize your ingredients and do some cutting. It also has a space for your camp stove or grill and includes a lantern holder and utensils rack. It has a little storage net underneath but avoids the bulk of extra shelves. It folds up and tucks away easily too.
Camco’s Kitchen includes a few more bells and whistles than Coleman’s with covered shelves, space to store your cooler and a built-in water basin. While it is not as bare-bones as Coleman’s, this little set folds up and fits in a provided storage bag.
While some people prefer to have a base to start with, others may prefer to build their own kitchen from scratch, right down to a table. Some may even prefer to bypass the table altogether.
So let’s take a look at some of the components you may choose to include in your camp kitchen, from the bare essentials to the luxury items.
Camp Kitchen Components
A table is, in our opinion, an essential part of any camp kitchen. Many campgrounds will supply picnic tables at each campsite. But in our experience, it is best to bring a foldable table for cooking and food prep and leave the picnic table for meal times.
Even if your family prefers to eat in camp chairs around the fire, picnic tables can be hard to cook and prep around since you have to lean out over the bench. A small folding table that stores easily and isn’t too heavy is a good place both to put your stove and for laying out foil packs or chopping vegetables.
If you’re concerned that a plain table will leave you cooking in the dark, Coleman has you covered with their telescoping lantern stand. You can move it to where is most convenient and raise or lower it based on whether you are sitting or standing.
Washing dishes at your campsite can be one of the biggest hassles and stress-inducers. The dishes never seem to get quite as clean as at home, it’s hard to rinse off all the soap suds, and they tend to get sticky, dusty and dirty again while they are left to dry.
There are a few options you can explore when it comes to a camp sink. The best fit for you will depend on what you plan to use it for, how long you are camping for, and how much bulk you are willing to carry for convenience.
If you are going on a weekend jaunt in the woods, even with your car, you may not be as inclined to put together or drag along a 10 piece kitchen set up with a pump sink and a drying rack.
In this case, Fresh off the Grid offers a great how-to on washing your dishes right at your campsite. Their setup uses 3 buckets. You can either use collapsible buckets to save storage space or repurpose them to carry some of your smaller items to the campground. They keep it simple, minimize the mess and you don’t have to haul a bunch of extras.
The two most important things that will make cleaning up easier are…
Getting off the ground
Squatting is tough on your knees and hunching is hard on your back. It is much easier to clean dishes just like you do at home — standing up.
The closer to the ground, the harder it is to keep dirt, dust, and mud off your newly cleaned dishes. Water splatter, insects, and blowing debris are likely to mess up your hard work. But if you have them up off the ground on a table, shelf, or even pickup tailgate, the dirt has a little further to travel.
Having a source of “running” water
Unless you have an RV, camper, or have the advantage of modern plumbing at your campsite or cabin, running water is probably not an option. But it certainly helps to have water that isn’t just sitting still in a bucket. Having a source of water that can be dribbled or even splashed over clean dishes or hands to rinse them can make a huge difference.
For a simple camp sink set up that won’t take up a ton of room in your vehicle, try these few items:
Portable Drain Tub combined with this Rubbermaid bucket make an incredibly easy to set up, easy to break down, easy to carry, and easy to clean camp sink setup. The drain tub can sit on top of the bucket. Once the drain tub collects the gray water you can twist the drain and empty it into the bucket below, catching the food particles which you can throw away in the trash.
This Coleman solar shower bag functions as a lightweight and portable sink faucet. Hang it over your dishwashing area and rinse dishes easily with clean water. Use a lantern hook to hold it up over the sink area. The bonus is that this bag will also heat the water. Warm or hot water cleans grease more easily, kills more germs, and won’t leave your hands chilly in fall, winter, and spring.
To go along with your sink set up, you will need your essential cleaning supplies. The most important camp cleaning supplies to remember are:
- Dish soap – biodegradable soap is the best and most responsible option
- Towels – Microfiber, quick-dry towels are the best bet when camping. They are highly absorbent and will dry fast for reuse.
- Paper Towels
Make sure to carry a separate small box or bag to keep these few items in. It might be beneficial if this box has a lid and is waterproof to ensure your paper towels and regular towels remain dry.
Pots and Pans
Some of the bulkiest parts of a camp kitchen are the pots and pans. They are cumbersome, heavy, and they take up a lot of space. Some of the most popular cookware that campers use is made of cast iron.
Upsides of Cast Iron Camping Cookware
Cast iron is extremely durable. You can place your skillet, dutch oven, or pot directly on the coals and won’t have to worry about the bottoms blackening.
It holds heat very well and distributes it evenly. So you outdoor foodies will love the job it does on your next camp meal.
Cast iron is non-stick. Naturally. Without any chemicals, sprays, or oils. This makes it much easier to clean too.
Downsides to Cast Iron Camping Cookware.
There are definitely some cons to cooking with cast iron, the most obvious being that it is extremely heavy. If your car is right at your site it may not be as much of a problem. But if you have to haul your belongings anywhere, you will definitely be cursing the cast iron. Since it is large and heavy, this also makes it more difficult to store.
Even though it is easy to clean, there is some ongoing maintenance if you want to keep your pots and pans from rusting. All cast iron cookware needs to be kept dry and occasionally seasoned.
Seasoning is a fairly easy process of rubbing some oil on the piece and placing it in a 350-degree oven for about an hour. While that’s not the end of the world, it does add one more thing you need to worry about.
If you do decide to go the cast-iron route, less is more.
We recommend getting this two-in-one cast iron dutch oven. The lid converts to a skillet, so you get both essential pieces of camping cookware in one item.
Looking for something on the lighter, more portable side?
Check out this Texsport Camping Cookware Set. The pieces nest together and fit easily into a mesh bag. They are great if you are looking for a larger set of pans without the bulk. But don’t use them over an open flame. These are best matched with a camp stove or single burner.
Camping Stoves and Grills
Depending on what you are cooking you may choose to use a grill, an open fire, or a camp stove. While it wouldn’t make much sense to try and roast a foil packet over a burner, camp stoves are an indispensable piece of camping gear.
Even if you plan to do most of your cooking over an open fire (here’s a great article on how to set up your fire for optimal cooking), a camp stove can come in handy if you need a quick meal or hot water, if it is raining, or if open fires are banned or you have no wood available.
But there are so many to choose from. So what will you most likely need?
The traditional 2 burner Coleman camp stove is what most campers gravitate to immediately. After all, you can fry eggs and bacon simultaneously. They are great little stoves that aren’t too heavy or bulky for the convenience they add. They have windscreens that will keep that flame going. And you can find the propane tanks anywhere. Plus it is all contained in one easy to carry metal case.
But if you only really need one burner and you’re looking to cut down on weight and bulk, a single burner may be your best bet.
This single burner from Gas One can use both propane and butane. And it doesn’t get more compact than this. The butane fuel fits neatly inside the stove casing.
If you want that grilled flavor or have some grilling recipes you want to try while camping, you have two options.
First, you could use a grill grate and an open fire. The campground may provide a charcoal grill or a grill grate, but make sure to ask as many of them don’t.
There are several grates you could choose from, but we like this one. It is made of durable cast iron and sits on 4 detachable sturdy legs as opposed to the foldable (finger-pincher) grates that can collapse.
If you want to avoid spending the time getting a good bed of coals going, your second option is a portable grill. Look for something that packs up easily and is easy to use.
The Coleman Road Trip portable propane grill is just as easy to use and compact as their stove. You can fold it up, wheel it around and it stands on its own rather than taking up precious table space.
Utensils and Dishware
When it comes to what you eat off, a lot of people opt for the ease of paper plates and plastic utensils. But if you’re looking for an opportunity to be a bit more ecologically friendly, and cut down on the amount of stuff you’re bringing with you, you can try some good old-fashioned plates and utensils. Hey, you have a great camp sink now so why not?
You’ll need utensils to go along with it. This 4-person all-in-one spoon-fork-knife set is stainless steel and comes with its own carrying case.
Garbage and Recycling
Garbage disposal can be tricky when you’re in the woods or at a campsite.
The biggest things to consider when disposing of waste are animals, insects, and the environment.
The Leave No Trace principles still apply even if you are at a campground with your vehicle. This means being careful anytime you are near water sources. Certain foods, chemicals, and even urine can contaminate water sources for human consumption as well as for animals.
And as we all know, leaving trash around a campsite destroys the area for the next group coming through. Since the point of camping is to be out enjoying nature, we have to work hard to keep nature looking and feeling good.
The next big issue will be insects. While you may not be able to control a few ants getting into the garbage can, keeping a mess of sugar, grease, and other juices will attract flies and biting and stinging insects as well. Yellowjackets and wasps are known picnic invaders and can pack a good sting. Keep stuff tidy and clean and you’ll be less likely to attract these bugs.
Finally, you will need to prepare for the likely scenario that your food and trash could attract local wildlife. You may be trying to chase off crows and squirrels or you might have to deal with bigger critters like bears, coyotes, and raccoons. The best way to keep these animals away from your site is by keeping a clean area and practicing proper waste disposal.
If the campground has a dumpster, make sure that you bring the majority of your trash and recycling to the receptacles before you turn in for the night. If you accumulate a bit more trash before bedtime, you can always tie the bag tightly and leave it in your car until morning.
If there are no offered receptacles and the campground or park has a carry-in, carry-out policy, you will have to bundle your trash and find a way to keep it safe from animals. Some campgrounds offer bear boxes or bear-safe garbage cans. If it is all up to you, you can choose to keep your trash inside your car at night or whenever you leave the campsite.
To avoid leaks and the garbage smell permeating the inside of your vehicle, put the trash in a container like this pop-up garbage can. This is not animal-proof, so make sure to store the whole can in your car overnight. It also makes a great daytime receptacle as it holds the bag open so you can avoid leaks and spills. Don’t forget to get a second if you need to separate your trash and recycling.
The cooler can be the single most important item when it comes to car camping. Most backcountry campers will avoid foods that spoil, but front country, we can treat ourselves to fresh milk in our coffee, bacon, and ice cold beer.
Here’s what you should consider when you start looking into cooler options.
Will you camp with your car or is it a carry-in site? – If you are camping with your car you can bring a larger, heavier cooler that can keep ice frozen for days. If you are carrying-in, you might want a cooler with wheels and a handle so you can pull it easily to your site.
How many cold items do you usually bring camping? – If you tend to eat the same way at camp as you do at home, you will likely need a larger cooler to accommodate the number of cold items you need to pack. If you stick to peanut butter and jelly, pasta, trail mix, and drink your coffee black, you can get away with a smaller cooler.
How long will you be camping for and is there a store nearby? – If you are only going for a weekend, you won’t need as large a cooler as if you were going to be gone for a week. Similarly, you won’t need as efficient a cooler if you are only staying for a few days. And if the campground has a store, or if there is a store nearby, you can bring only what you need for a day or two and restock part way through your trip.
What types of items are you packing in your cooler? – If you have beverages, fruits and vegetables and meats, you may want to consider bringing two coolers. You will avoid the soft fruits and vegetables being squished. You will also be able to maintain the temperature inside both coolers as they will not be opened as often.
Here is a great breakdown by Outdoor Gear Lab on the best coolers on the market.
Having a cooler is one thing, but it is just as important that you know how to pack it efficiently so you are always able to reach what you need. Here is a great guide from Fresh Off the Grid on how to select and pack your camping cooler.
Spices and Dry Goods
Everything from boxes of pasta and bags of chips to canisters of salt and rice. How do you keep it all organized and how do you keep it from taking over the car?
You will want to create 1-2 dry goods storage containers. You can choose a see-through box so you can easily see all of the items and where they are without having to remove everything or rummage.
The first container will be specifically for non-crushable items and the second will be for crushable items like chips, bread or fresh fruit. Always pack the lightest of the items on the top. Always pack cans on the bottom with labels facing toward the outside of the container.
Before packing any of the dry items, minimize the containers. Spices can be carried in old Tic-Tac containers, in stackable makeup containers, or in weekly medicine organizers. Rice, dry beans, or nuts can be put in ziplock bags.
Don’t leave any small things like tea bags, candies, or garlic bulbs loose. Always put them in a bag or other container to keep them from scattering inside the box.
If you are an avid coffee drinker who requires all the accouterment, don’t add your coffee supplies to this container. We’ll talk more about this in the beverage section further down.
Food Prep and Cooking Miscellany
Another container will be needed for all of the cooking and food preparation materials. This container does not need to be see-through. You can use a large plastic tub in any size that will fit the gear listed below and any extras you plan to bring.
You will want to make sure that any sharp items, like knives, are covered. You can use a roll like this or make your own PCV knife holders. It is also important to keep items like matches dry. Matches can be put in an old screw-top medicine container.
Here is a list of camp cooking essentials that you should bring:
- Cutting Board
- Can Opener
- Table Cloth
- Cooking Spray
- Aluminum Foil
- Plastic storage bags
- Spoon, spatula, ladle
Beverage Camping Essentials
Unless you plan to only drink water while camping, you’ll want a crate that is specific to beverages. This will include all of your coffee or tea brewing essentials, bottle openers, insulators, and beverage containers.
If you drink hot beverages like tea and coffee you will want to bring along a mug. The typical ceramic mugs you use at home are heavy and breakable, so keep them in the cabinet.
This collapsible mug is made of silicone and super lightweight so it won’t add any bulk or weight to your box. And while it works great for hot beverages, you can still enjoy juice, soda or lemonade in it as well.
Check out our article How to Make Camp Coffee to find the easiest and best methods and gear for your morning joe. Bring your pre-ground coffee in a plastic bag. Do the same for your powdered milk, sugar, or tea bags to avoid taking up extra space with larger containers.
Here is a list of some more beverage camping essentials to add to your list:
- Coffee maker/kettle
- Bottle opener
- Powdered Milk
5 Rules to Keep Your Camp Kitchen Organized
Plan Your Camping Meals Ahead
If you know what you will be making you can bring only the food and cooking items you need. By planning a menu, you can pack in the order in which you will need each food item.
If you will not be making any grilled recipes, you will not need to bring your portable grill. If you won’t be making any recipes that require your dutch oven, you can leave the cast iron at home.
You will also have the opportunity to bring some pre-made meals and plan to eat them first so you can free up room in your cooler.
Put Things Back Where They Came From
You took the time to design, organize, and pack your camp kitchen. Don’t let it fall apart. You created a place for each item that you brought along on the trip. When you use something, make sure it goes back into the same container you took it out of. This will help you to stay organized, to know where to find things throughout your trip, and to keep the table clean so you have a place for meals.
Keep Things Simple
How many times have you gone camping and realized you only used about half of what you brought. You don’t need four different types of paper plates. You likely don’t need three different coffee brewers or a whole box of utensils. The less you bring, the less you will have to keep organized.
Keep Other Items Out of Your Kitchen Storage
Have a little extra room in your kitchen storage boxes? You might be tempted to throw in the bungee cords, duct tape, cards, fire starters, etc. Keep your kitchen items separate from the rest of your camping gear.
If you start accumulating non-kitchen things your boxes will soon become disorganized and you’ll have trouble finding that aluminum foil again. And it is just as likely that you will forget where you put those items when you need them most since they did not have their own designated storage area.
If you have a lot of small, loose camping items and gear, get a separate box, crate or bag to keep them in.
Keep a List of Things You Need to Restock
As we mentioned before, you should restock as soon as you get home from your trip. Don’t wait until you are getting ready for your next one. If you wait, you might forget that you were out of an important item like paper towels or that the coffee press cracked and you need to replace it.
Another good practice is to keep a running list of items that you run out, need to be replaced, or you could have used but didn’t have. It will make you that much more prepared for the next trip. If possible, keep this list digitally so you won’t worry about losing it.
How to Keep Animals Away from Your Food
Keep your campsite clean and clear of any food debris, drips, or leftovers. Your grill grate, your pots and pans, even your clothes will continue to hold the smell of food.
If possible, cook away from the sleeping area and away from where you are storing your food at night or when you are away from the campsite.
If you are truly in bear country, learn to hang a bear bag. This should include all of your food items as well as any scented items like toothpaste or shampoo. Here is a great video on how to easily hang a bear bag. If you don’t want to hang a bag, you can purchase a bear canister like this one where you can keep all your scented items away from the critters.
NEVER bring food items, or scented items, into your tent. Animals, especially bears, may try to climb in with you.
How to Keep Things Clean
- Clean spills immediately. As soon as something begins to dry, it becomes more difficult to clean. If you spill something on the ground make sure to pick it up and put it in the trash. If it is a liquid, pour water over it to dilute it and then cover it with natural debris like dirt, sand or dried leaves.
- Wipe down your stove and grill after each use (unless you are only boiling water) to keep grease build up and other food particles from collecting. Make sure to thoroughly clean your cookware once you return home so it is ready to go for your next trip.
- Use a tablecloth that can be easily wiped clean
- Bring a pack of disinfectant wipes to clean up meat juices or drippings
- Never reuse gray water to clean dishes or other items that you will be eating or drinking from
- Wrap your fire grate in a canvas tarp to keep grease and char from getting on the interior of your vehicle. The tarp can double as a rain roof or a tent footprint.
How to Maintain Your Camp Kitchen
Now that you have created and organized your camp kitchen the hard part is done. But you still need to maintain it. The two things to keep in mind when keeping a camp kitchen in working order are:
- Keep a list of depleted items and stock them when you return home. NOT before your next trip. If you wait until your next trip, you will likely lose the list or simply forget to restock. It takes the stress out of preparing for the next camping trip knowing that all your essentials are ready to go.
- Keep everything clean and dry. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, keeping your cookware clean at the campsite is difficult. So give it an extra scrub in your sink or under the hose when you get home. Similarly, make sure your pieces are all perfectly dry before storing them away to avoid mold and mildew. If you still sense there is some dampness in a coffee press or a container, stuff a piece of paper towel in the item. The towel will absorb the water and condensation over time, allowing it to dry.
You’re ready to go out and create your own DIY camping kitchen. The time you put into designing and organizing your camp kitchen set up now will pay off a lot once you are at your campsite.
Also check out our article, The Complete Camping Food List for Planning, Packing, and Cooking, for recipe ideas and a full printable list of what to bring on your next camping trip.