How to Pack a Camp Kitchen
Camping season is right around the corner! In my anticipation of our next trip I’ve been organizing my gear and inventorying my supplies. I find that knowing exactly what I have and what I need makes preparing for an adventure that much easier and more enjoyable. The gear that’s needed for backpacking is very different than what you’ll take car camping but there are some multipurpose items that cross over. Because I love both types of adventures almost equally, I want to share what I pack in my camping kitchen for both situations!
Basics for Backpacking
When off in the wilderness with nothing but the contents of your backpack, every item counts. It’s important to consider the weight, necessity and usefulness of every object you plan to carry and make good use of each, or suffer the pain of a heavy pack filled with junk that won’t be used. Thus the backpacking kitchen is usually simpler than its car camping counterpart, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s any less delicious! Here’s what I usually pack:
1. WATER It’s very important to carry 1 gallon of water per person per day to stay fully hydrated. If I’m in an area that I’m confident has a good, clean spring water source, I’ll pack more than enough water to get to the water source plus chlorine tablets to purify the new water. I recently discovered lightweight, collapsable water bottles that fold flat when empty and hold up to a gallon of water which are perfect for backpacking. Additionally, I keep a three-litre Camelback in my back to keep me watered on the go.
2. FOOD The best part! When backpacking it’s important to pack 3 solid meals per day plus snacks to fuel you on the trail. There’s a range of pre-packaged, freeze-dried and lightweight meals available for backpackers but they can get pretty expensive and time consuming to prepare for every meal. I like to pack a freeze-dried entree for each dinner, eat fruit, granola and coffee for breakfast, then have cheese, crackers, cured meats, trail mix and granola for lunch and snacks.
3. Things to Drink There’s nothing like waking up to a hot bowl of instant black coffee or green tea after a night under the stars, or warming up with super hot tea before settling into the sack. I like to pack the Starbucks Via single instant coffees and individually wrapped teas from Tazo. Emergen-C is also a pack staple because it’s packed with vitamins and minerals that help the body recover after a long day. Beer and wine are too heavy and bulky to carry backpacking. So I pack a flask of my current favorite whiskey or bourbon and call it a day. Jameson or Bulleit but sometimes Makers Mark. You know, for medical purposes.
4. Bear Bags & Rope Bears and raccoons and mountain lions and other nocturnal beasts have sensitive senses of smell and may come creeping for food scraps that are left around a camping area. Bear Bags are made of sealable plastic that blocks odors and prevents scent transmission. All food and scented items should be packed in bear bags and stored a minimum of 50 yards from the campsite, high up in a tree if possible. Rope is a necessary item for all camp kitchens, to hang the bear bags, to hang clothes, to use in emergencies. I carry at least 100 feet of nylon rope – not cotton, it degrades quickly and is not as strong – with me on all trips.
5. Bandana and or Towel Keep a bandana on hand to use as a handkerchief and to wipe away sweat. It’s also great for a napkin and can be used to dry dishes. Adding a pack towel can be handy on longer trips for cleaning oneself and one’s dishes.
6. Light While backpacking I pack a small battery powered Black Diamond lantern for light while cooking and eating. It’s very important to check and charge the batteries before a trip and have a backup light source in case the batteries die. I also cary a Petzl headlamp for task-oriented light. Each camper should carry their own light and be able to access it at all times. I sometimes also pack a third light source such as a small LED flashlight or candle lantern for extra or emergency light.
7. Bowls & Utensils I prefer to use my titanium spork for all camping adventures. It’s lightweight and you can eat anything with it! As far as tableware, reusable is better than disposable and bowls are better than plates because they hold everything well, and warm your hands in the process. Keep it simple with one bowl per person: eat dishes as they are cooked and rinse the bowl for dessert or tea after dinner.
8. Pots I got an excellent set of titanium cookware for christmas that I’ve been dying to use! But before these excellent tools I used a combination of simple nesting aluminum pots and bowls: 2 pots and 1 bowl for each camper. It’s essential to carry a potholder if your pots don’t have external, heat-proof handles. Camping pot holders are aluminum-handle-gadgets that work like the handles of a pliers but fit securely on your pots and allow you to pick up and pour the hot pots without risk of being burned.
9. First Aid Kit Necessary for all camping, I like to keep my kit with the kitchen gear because it ensures it will always be packed. My first aid kit is simple and made up of my favorite items drawn from other kits. I build my own so I know exactly what’s in it and because a store-bought kit never contains everything you need. But that’s another post altogether!
10. Cleaning Supplies A tiny container of Dr. Bronner’s Soap is all that’s needed to wash hands, faces and dishes. It’s organic, naturally derived, biodegradable and okay to use in small quantities. I also pack wet-naps, sandwich bags and an extra trash bag. Pack in-pack out!
11. Fire Making Materials This is my favorite part of packing! I love making safe fires and being able to choose the best tool to light said fire. So I carry a weatherproof and waterproof torch lighter that I’ve filled with butane and tested before the trip. I also pack waterproof container with weatherproof matches. And for fun and a backup-backup I pack a Flint and Steel, with which I can make sparks to start a fire manually. Choose your fire making materials carefully. Consider all types of weather you may encounter in your journeys, the possibility of wet matches and leaking fuel, and know that the ability to make a fire for warmth and signaling can save your life in a pickle.
12. Knives Every camper should carry their own knife for eating but also to use around camp or in an emergency. Knives should be sharp, easily accessible, and the camper should be familiar with the safety features and operation of their tool of choice. I carry a Leatherman with me and also pack an Opinel carbon folding knife in my kitchen kit for easy access during meal prep.
13. Seasonings & Spices When backpacking I keep it super simple and pack an old aluminum film canister with a 2:1 mix of ground pepper and kosher salt.
14. Stove & Fuel I carry a small single-burner stove. It is efficient, lightweight, and even though it only cooks one pot at a time it’s all that’s really needed in the bush. Pack enough for the estimated amount of cooking time for the duration of the trip plus 25-50% more just in case there’s heavy wind, wet or cold conditions, or emergencies that would require increased cooking times. Make sure the fuel type is compatible with the stove type. I use isopro because it’s clean, compact, and works with my stove. Also pack the wind guard that comes with the stove. Get to know your stove and fuel, and test them, before going on a multi-day backpacking extravaganza.
Car Camping Commodities
Let me say now that not all car camping is created equal. My style, which I inherited from my camping-crazy parents, is definitely that of a purist – just because there is a car involved does not mean I feel free to pack glassware, tablecloths, plates, silver, or any other excessive “supplies”. In car camping the car functions simply as a tool to enable an experience, not as a huge container waiting to be stuffed with all the conveniences of the home kitchen. Car camping can be harder to pack for than backpacking simply because you have the ability to carry more. Don’t. Take only what you’ll need and you’ll be happier with what you have. A good guide is to keep it to one egg crate of supplies and one small cooler, but if you insist, you could also bring a picnic basket. Here’s how I pack my car camping kitchen:
Stove A Coleman two burner stove is the perfect stove for car camping. Efficient and powerful, it helps make breakfast and dinner a snap. When available I take advantage of the grills present in most established camp grounds to grill up sausages and veggies.
Cooler When you’re camping with the car it’s easier to bring a few foods that need refrigeration. What exactly I pack depends on the meals I plan to make but I’ll usually bring cheese, yogurt for breakfast, butter, beer and vegetables. Don’t forget ice to keep everything cold, and pack leak-able containers in bags so they don’t muck up the cooler if they fall over.
Food, Seasonings & Spices When car camping I prepare the cooked meals ahead of time. My favorite thing to eat is chicken sausage and marinated vegetable kabobs! Preparing and seasoning everything at home before the trip ensures a quicker prep time at camp and fewer things to pack. But when I’m feeling very adventurous I’ll cut and prep the meal at camp, which usually requires the addition of a bowl, cutting board, olive oil, and a few choice spices. I’d pack dried garlic, smoked paprika, and fresh rosemary to name a few.
Lantern The best lanterns are gas-burning Coleman double-mantle lanterns. Bright or dim, the classic lantern choice. I need to get myself one stat.
Other great stuff you could use while car camping without going overboard include, simply, plates and mugs, napkins and card games. The car is not just a bigger backpack or an extension of all the conveniences of a home kitchen. Camping is about being in nature, keep it simple!
Having an organized camp kitchen is essential to having a good camp cooking experience. Consider: by the time camp is reached it’s likely dark, possibly very cold, and it’s probable that everyone in the party is hungry and exhausted. The cook has the challenge – and the skill – to make even the roughest evening in camp a delicious, warming, conversation-filled end to the day! This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything to pack for a camping trip but it should cover the kitchen. I want to write more about the rest of the ingredients in a well-planned pack. Let’s go camping soon!