Eating well in the outdoors is one of camping's most rewarding pleasures, so having a kick-ass camp kitchen is as important as having a good tent and sleeping bag. You need some keystone gear like a stove and cookset, but you also need a fair amount of items that are small, cheap, and quite ordinary yet can be make-or-break when it comes to preparing a good meal; that gorgeous steak you pull out of the cooler will be a bummer if you forget the salt.
Assembling all this stuff every time you head out to camp is a hassle, and I always forget something. I'm convinced most people buy RVs not for mobility, but so they don't have to pack and unpack every weekend. My solution is to put together a camp kitchen box that holds everything I need to be a pretty good camp chef. The idea is that the setup is self-contained and always ready to go. Grab it, and at the most, some fresh food and a larger accessory or two (table, chair), and you're out the door. At the minimum, even if you brought nothing but this box, you'd be able to get by.
Some of what is in here is specialized camping gear, but much of it is likely lying around your house (and some is available, free for the taking, any mediocre hotel's crappy "continental breakfast"). It took years of mistakes and mediocre meals to refine this system, and it's still a work in progress. What I pack might not be right for your tastes, cooking style, or camping crew, but it's easy to adapt, tweak, and evolve, depending on the season and destination.
The Container and Camping Stoves
Plastic storage tote with lid. You can find these in any hardware or home store. It needs to be big enough to hold your kit-mine is 38 gallons-and the lid should snap on securely. (It doesn't need to latch; I wrap it with a ratchet strap or zip ties if I'm afraid it will pop off). Get one with a flat top, so it can double as a table where you can set the stove, prep meals, or have another spot to sit.
Two burner camp stove. This type of stove is personified by the classic green Coleman (which is still a good choice). It runs on the small propane canisters that you pick up nearly everywhere. Two burners are critical, so you can boil the water and fry the onions simultaneously. I use a Camp Chef Everest Two Burner, which is compact enough to fit in my box, cranks out 20,000 btu, and dials way down for a nice low simmer.
Integrated stove/pot system. While several companies make a version of these, most folks know them by the company that pioneered them, Jetboil. Their unique design makes them crazy efficient, bringing water to a ripping boil as quickly as three minutes. If you only depend on a stove to purify water and make coffee, oatmeal, instant ramen, or backpacker meals, this type of stove might be all you need. Since the stove and fuel canister (a propane/isobutane mix) nest in the pot, it takes up little space. Mine lives in my kitchen box, alongside the larger stove. Before I leave camp, I'll throw it into my pack along with a package or two of ramen and hot chocolate, and I'll know I'm good for the day. Most mornings, I reach for it to make a steaming mini-pot of coffee before I'm even out of my sleeping bag.
Fuel. If you think you need one bottle, bring two. If you need two, bring three.
Pots, Pans, Utensils & Tools
Pots and Pans. You can make this as complicated or simple as you want. All kinds of pot and pan sets are made especially for camping, with lightweight, efficient designs and camping-specific features. But we aren't backpacking here, so much of that isn't necessary. Look in your kitchen cupboards deep in the back, and you'll most likely find a medium-size pot and fry pan that you seldom use. Throw them in the box-you won't miss them. Done.
I take a hybrid approach. I use an old dinged-up pot (lid is a must), but I bought a cast-iron skillet for camping. Although heavy, cast iron can't be beaten for its blend of excellent heat retention, nonstick surface, and simple care. Critically, I can use my cast iron on my two-burner or set it on a rack over open flames or directly on the glowing coals. I won't damage it, and the intense heat that might scorch with another pan will be dispersed evenly. I think my 7-inch from Camp Chef is the perfect size and shape for camping, but if you're cooking for a crowd, go larger.
Optional: Cast Iron Dutch Oven. This'll add a lot of weight and bulk to your box, but there's no question a cast-iron dutch oven is the most versatile. It can be used as a pan, a pot, or an oven. You can hang it over the fire for a slowly simmered soup or bury it in the coals for a bubbly crisp fruit cobbler. You can do anything with it. Braise meats. Bake biscuits. Just a warning: People who get into dutch oven cooking tend to get REALLY into dutch oven cooking.
Basic cooking utensils. You need one big spoon, one spatula, and a set of tongs. Don't overthink this. Grab extras from around the house, or go to a department store and buy cheap ones. Why you're at it, throw in a vegetable peeler, can opener, corkscrew, and bottle opener.
Knives. I'm pretty picky about knives because I love them, but that's my hangup. You're set with one sharp, good-quality chef's knife and one wide, dull knife made more for scooping and spreading. Just know that if your knife isn't as good or sharp as the one you regularly use at home, you will be annoyed (and maybe cut yourself) so don't cheap out here. They need sheaths so their edges aren't dulled in the box (and you don't lose a finger reaching for the tabasco). If they don't have them, a piece of cardboard folded around the blade and wrapped in duct tape will do.
Cutting board. I've chopped mushrooms on a tailgate, filleted fish on river stones, and minced onions on the lid of my camp box, but a cutting board protects your blade and makes it easier to keep dirt and pine needles out of your food. I like this foldable one from GSI outdoors.
Colander. Makes draining noodles and washing vegetables so much easier. Get a smallish one with a long handle to hold it one-handed.
Oven mitt/hot pad. You can use a hoody you're not wearing, but toss one in to avoid getting burned and dropping that pot of chili. I use Heat Guard Gloves from Camp Chef. Think they're overkill? Try using a hot pad to pluck a burning log from the fire and repositioning it wherever you want. Trust me, these things are awesome.
Water filter and water bladder. An empty water bag takes up no space and holds a lot of water when you need it, and you always have to filter your drinking water if you want to avoid the beaver fever. This Trail Base Water Filter Kit from MSR combines the two, making camp life much easier.
Roll of aluminum foil. Make a packet to steam fresh-caught fish. Wrap a potato and put it in the coals. Cover pots and pans. Essential.
Small grill rack and wooden skewers. I try to cook directly over the fire as much as possible, and the compact rack is perfect for grilling. I also always bring a pack of those disposable wooden skewers.
Thin, compact blanket. Spread it on that nasty picnic table for a makeshift table cloth. Lay it on the ground for a picnic. Wrap it around yourself by the fire for those extra cold nights. For years I used an in-flight blanket I took from the airlines, and it worked fine. I've since upgraded to the Yeti Lowland Blanket, which has a waterproof bottom layer, letting you spread it on wet grass without getting a damp butt. It packs up into a compact pouch.
French press coffee maker. To me, this method is the quickest and easiest way to make quality coffee while camping. Buy a durable one made for camping.
Insulated beverage cup with lid. I use the same one for everything-coffee, water, beer, whiskey (and sometimes I even wash it in between), but I bring two because invariably, whomever I'm camping with forgets their cup. I use a Yeti Rambler, but pack whatever you like.
Kitchen basics. Zip-seal bags, a few in both quart and gallon size. Garbage bags (you are packing out your garbage, aren't you?) include a few big ones that can do double duty, such as emergency tarps, sleeping bag protectors, etc. Roll of paper towels, cleaning sponge, biodegradable soap, and a package of alcohol wipes.
Spices, Condiments, and Staples. This is really up to what you like. I'll just say that having an arsenal of bold seasonings can save a camp meal that goes off the rails. Must-haves include salt and pepper, your favorite multi-purpose spice blend, and a bit of sugar. I bring hot sauce and a quart zip-seal bag stuffed with disposable ketchup packs, miniature pouches of lemon juice, small containers of jam or peanut butter, and whatever else I pick up at hotel breakfasts, takeout places, and convenience stores.
Non-perishable food. While most of the food I bring on a camping trip I buy fresh, and it goes in the cooler, I always include some staples that I know I'm going to use and won't go bad. A ziplock stuffed with tea bags, hot chocolate pouches, and powdered drinks. I always have several packs of instant ramen and instant oatmeal. A few cans of tuna and sardines. Box of crackers. Energy bars. Stuff for smores.
Odds and ends. You have to have a few ways to start a fire, including a box of kitchen matches and at least three lighters. Pack extra batteries, a small roll of duct tape, pliers and some wire, zip ties, and super glue. Is this cooking gear? No, but I bet you have this same stuff jammed in a junk drawer in your kitchen, and if it's handy at home, it's doubly handy here.
Outside the box options. Of course, a few things that won't fit here are beneficial for a camp kitchen, particularly a portable camp table, a chair, and a lantern. And you might have other must-take items that I don't include, but all that is easier to add when you know that this one box is packed with most everything you need and ready to go.
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