One of my favorite parts of camping is cooking. Creating the perfect camp kitchen takes all the stress out of fireside meals. From preparation and seasoning to boiling, grilling, and roasting, having the right equipment makes all the difference.
Here, we’ll talk about how to set up a camp kitchen. Both in terms of supplies and placement. When we set up our campsite meal area, we focus on three things:
Throughout this blog, we’ll discuss basic kitchen setups, the best portable camp stoves, and the best portable camp kitchens.
Basic Camp Kitchen Set Up
There’s no need to get extravagant with a camp kitchen. Simple setups are some of the best. While gathering supplies I always think about the following points:
- Meals being cooked
- Water collection and storage
- Ingredients being used
- Fire safety
- Food storage
- Pest control (keeping animals out of food)
- Trash, recycling, and compost management
- Utensils and dishes
- Heat source
Another thing to consider is placement. Find the answers to questions like:
- Where should heat, water, and supplies go?
- Is the campsite on a slope?
- Is there a water source nearby?
- Does the site use dirt, gravel, or brush as a floor?
All these things help determine the way to set up a camp kitchen.
Cooking is a big part of the camp kitchen. Everyone has their preferences for heating food, including:
- Gas camp stove
- Charcoal grill
- Single gas burner
Campers need the right gear to safely heat food without the risk of fire or injury. This includes the cooking supplies we use to warm food with. The type of pot or pan you bring depends on the type of site you’re heading to.
- Drive-in sites: Cast iron skillets and stainless steel pots make great camp tools. They hold up well to both gas heat and campfires.
- Hike-in sites: Lightweight pots, like aluminum pots/can, are easy to transport and durable against flame.
Whatever pot you choose, avoid plastic handles as plastic will melt over the high heat of a campfire.
There are no refrigerators in the woods (unless you’ve got a cabin with electricity, of course). On average a good quality cooler keeps cold things cold for two to three days. Increase the duration by insulating the cooler and keeping it closed unless necessary.
Some camping websites suggest using dry ice. I don’t recommend dry ice if you have young children on site. Dry ice is toxic to ingest. It also can’t be used in enclosed spaces like your tent, because of CO2 emissions. In short, dry ice will keep your cooler cold, but it comes with additional safety risks.
Tables are beneficial for eating and essential for food preparation. From dicing vegetables to stirring pancake mix, a flat surface in your camp kitchen reduces the workload.
Powder-coated aluminum is one of my favorite choices of tables because it is heat resistant, light to carry, and simple to wash.
Select a table based on:
- Proximity to fire
- Number of people at camp
- Carrying distance
For one person, a small table, similar to a T.V. tray will do the trick. If you’re camping with the family, a larger table is best. Check your campsite to see if a picnic table is provided. Many federal and state parks include a fire area and picnic tables in zoned campsites.
Utensils fall into two categories, utensils for eating and utensils for cooking. Cooking camp utensils should be metal (although I’ve come across some fantastic silicone ones). Plastic spatulas and tongs run the risk of melting while you cook.
There are a few schools of thought on eating utensils, including:
- Multi-tools (sporks, etc.)
- Metal camp utensils
We prefer not to bring disposable utensils to campsites. They’re convenient but bad for the environment.
The best way to stock your camp kitchen with utensils is to take something that you’re about to replace in your kitchen and add it to the kitchen box.
Camp dishes come in all shapes and sizes. I usually opt for something durable and easy to store. After everything is clean and dry, I like my camp dishes to stack neatly for storage.
There are many styles, colors, and materials of camp dishware out there. While top brands like Coleman make chip-free enamelware dishes, stainless steel and glass-reinforced polypropylene offer durability for all ages.
Cleanliness and hygiene are important for camp cooking experiences. When deciding how to set up a camp kitchen, a handwashing station is imperative.
You can double up your dishwashing station for hands, but you can also create a source of “running water” for a quick wash up.
A few options for hand washing include:
- Jug with spout
- Water cooler
- Baby wipes
Soap and water and hand sanitizer are both helpful in the handwashing department. Don’t forget to bring a hand towel to dry.
Dishwashing takes a little longer than hand washing. To conserve water, we find it best to bring along a tub of some sort to soak dishes.
A few options for dishwashing stations include:
- Large tote bin
- Water bucket
- Collapsible sink
If you have any meals that might stick to your dishes, let them soak a few minutes before washing them.
Heat water for dishes by boiling a pot or kettle over the stove or fire. Distribute the hot water evenly, and stir it with a utensil before dipping your hands in. Hot water settles into pockets within the cold water. If you stick your hands straight into the wash basin, it could burn you.
We touched on the topic of your cooking setup a little earlier. Here’s where we’ll break things down and talk about campsite preferences.
Stove vs. Campfire
Both a stove and a campfire get the job done. The difference is in the evenness of the cook and the predictability of the heat source.
- Campfires: Campfires are fun to cook on. They give you that adventurous feeling of survival in the great outdoors. They’re also smoky and subject to temperature changes based on wind and fuel.
- Stoves: Stoves are a little more glampy than campy, but they offer added safety, consistency, and convenience. Heat remains even with a camp stove, and there’s a flat surface to cook on.
Our family does it all. If we’re hiking deep into the woods and we don’t want to be weighed down by a camp stove, we rely on a campfire. We also love trying out new camp “toys” including the latest and greatest in camp stoves.
One thing I recommend if you go the campfire route is to have a plan. Anything you can stick on a skewer or roasting stick is a great campfire choice. If you want to boil or grill consider investing in a tripod grill. The grill hangs above the fire, supported by a metal tripod.
Metal Table for Cooking
Metal tables are beneficial because they’re fireproof and durable. We use them for chopping and prepping food, resting hot pots and pans or eating on. In some instances, you can even use a metal table for the actual cooking.
A metal table is safest for resting a small camp stove or burner on. There’s no risk it will catch fire, or that the stove will damage the table beyond repair by melting it.
Be careful when you set up your metal table that it’s stable. Give it a good nudge to make sure it’s steady before setting anything flammable on top.
Prep Food at Home
Stay ahead of mess and frustration by prepping food before your camping trip. Everything from chopping and storing veggies to scrambling eggs can be done ahead of time if properly stored.
Some of the best foods to prep at home to cook later include:
- Fireside stew/chili
- Baked potatoes
- Mac and Cheese bake
- Foil packet meals
Some foods are better to prep in steps. Sandwiches are a great example. We love sandwiches at camp. They’re easily customizable and provide plenty of energy. The problem? If you premake sandwiches (unless you’re eating them on the first day of camp), the bread goes soggy.
Prep sandwiches ahead of time by bringing veggies (lettuce, tomato, avocado, etc), bread, meat, peanut butter, and jelly in separate containers.
Creating an eating space makes a campsite feel homey and cozy. If there’s a picnic table on your site, it’s probably the best area to designate for this. If not, make your own by gathering camp chairs in a space around or near a folding table.
Separate the Dining Table From the Stove
An important feature of a camp dining area is that it’s separate from the cooking area. This keeps campers safe from getting too close to the camp stove or fire. In the case of a campfire, it also lets you eat in peace without smoke blowing into your face every two minutes (we’ve all been there).
This was our “kitchen” area on on of our backpacking adventures. We only had small tables or logs to eat at, so we kept the stove and cooking well away from our eating area.
Chairs Around the Fire
If you’re cooking something like s’mores, kabobs, or fireside hot dogs, chairs around the fire make a suitable dining area. This is one exception to the separate kitchen and dining area rules. Of course, this means being extra careful, especially with little ones, that everyone is a safe distance from the fire.
A washing station should be near enough to the fire to use the water as an emergency extinguishing system. It’s a good idea to keep the washing area a ways from the tent.
If someone gets a little too splashy with the water, you wind up with puddles on your campsite. If those puddles run under and around the tent you could be in for some damp belongings.
For a dish and hand washing combination, we recommend the following.
3 Gallon Water Jug
For drinking water, you should bring along one gallon of water per person per day. For rinsing up, a 3-gallon water jug should keep a family of four with clean hands and dishes for 2 or 3 days. Of course, this depends on how much you use to wash with.
I recommend a jug with a spout, so you aren’t trying to lift the jug every time you use it. A spout lets you wash your hands much the same as you would at a tap. Or, fill a container to do dishes.
Foldable or collapsable sinks are a magical camp tool. They store flat and pop up into a silicone sink you can use as a wash basin.
Keep in mind that silicone isn’t easy to lift when full of water. Place the sink in an area you’re comfortable draining it. When you’re done with the water simply press the sides down and the water will pour out into the grass.
Best Camp Stoves
Not sure which camp stove is best for your family? Here are a few of our favorites:
The Coleman Cascade 2 burner stove is Coleman’s classic camp stove that most of us grew up using. It runs on propane and has a push button igniter so you don’t have to worry about wet matches.
It’s not exactly the one we used when I started camping in 4th grade, but it’s the current version of that stove. I’m pretty sure my parents still have it and it still works.
Pros: Wind guards, folds flat.
Cons: The knobs don’t have a marking to indicate how high the heat is.
Cooktop material: Aluminized steel
Surface size: Fits 10 to 12-inch pans
Coleman Fold n Go
The Fold n Go is a propane camp stove with two burners and pressure control technology. This is a compact stove, perfect for minimalists hoping to cut back on supplies. It also uses “PerfectFlow” technology to reduce fuel wastage. It runs for up to an hour on a 16.4 oz propane tank.
We own this stove and I love how compact it gets while still being a 2 burner stove. Do you need to see a wacky picture of me using our Coleman Fold n Go stove? Fine, here it is:
Pros: Folds for easy storage. Push start lighter.
Cons: It does not have wind guards, the flames are just open.
Cooktop material: Aluminized steel
Surface size: Fits 10-inch pans
The Jetboil Flash is a backpacker’s dream. This little guy is great for hike-in sites where you don’t want a big awkward camp stove. It boils water in a minute and forty seconds flat and includes a color-change temperature indicator.
We love ours and this is the best choice for backpacking or for when we just want hot water in a hurry. We don’t bust out the larger Coleman stove to heat water for tea or dishes.
Pros: Has a fuel canister stabilizer to stay upright. Compatible with other Jetboil accessories like skillet and coffee pot.
Cons: Easily tipped over, keep kids well away from it.
Cooktop material: hard-anodized aluminum
Surface size: Fits 10-inch pans
Best Portable Camp Kitchens
Portable kitchens are simple to setup and provide a place for everything. From your camp stove to your wash basin, and even a space for garbage, portable camp kitchens are the height of convenience. Here are some we often recommend.
The Coleman Pack-Away has hooks for utensils, a table for prep, and a space to insert your camp stove. There’s also a mesh shelf which is useful for odds and ends you don’t have a permanent home for.
Pros: Includes compact carry case. Compatible with most Coleman coolers and stoves.
Cons: A bit of a confusing assembly the first time you put it together.
Size: 31.5” by 21.3” prep area and 27.8” by 20.5” side table
GCI Outdoor Master Cook Station
The best thing about the GCI kitchen is all the storage. There are plenty of shelves and an extendable countertop. Perhaps the best feature is the sink, made with a soft shell design. It’s easy to fill, wash up, and drain again.
Pros: Simple setup. Includes a convenient lantern pole.
Cons: No carry bag. The sink is easy to clog.
Material: Powder-coated steel and aluminum
Size: 22.2” by 70.1” by 68.3″
Cabelas Deluxe Camp Kitchen
This camp kitchen includes a variety of neat additions apart from the main cook and prep surface. A zippered side pantry with two shelves, a lantern hanger, a spice rack, and a paper towel holder makes this one of my favorite kitchen setups.
Pros: Adjustable feet for multiple terrain compatibility. Includes removable wash basin and flip-up backsplash.
Cons: 36 lbs makes it more of a drive-in campsite tool.
Size: 39.4” by 19.7” main table, 27.6” by 17.3” right wire table, and 21.9” by 15.4” left side table
Something I always remind myself of when shopping for coolers is, you get what you pay for. This is one area I don’t like to skimp. Although, I’ve seen some bare-bones styrofoam coolers last as long as 30 hours in a pinch.
As you select the cooler for your campsite consider:
- Insulation level
- Materials used
- Latching system
Select a cooler that can be locked, or latched shut if you plan to keep it outside. Curious animals may knock over or open an unattended cooler.
Kitchen Chuck Box
A kitchen chuck box is like a store all for pots, pans, dishware, utensils, and all things cooking-related. Some chuck boxes even have space for camp stoves and wash stations.
Plastic Tub vs. Wood
There are pros and cons to both plastic and wooden chuck boxes. Overall, I recommend wood, but I understand plastic options are often cheaper, lighter to carry, and waterproof.
On the other hand, when properly treated, wood is also waterproof and plastic is not normally as durable. Plastic also can’t be modified if you choose to extend the chuck box or add features to it later.
A chuck box is a great place to store kitchen supplies until you’re needed and after using them. Don’t bother unpacking it when you arrive at the campsite. Instead, keep it nearby and use the chuck box on an as-needed basis.
We hope this guide on how to set up a camp kitchen as been insightful. As always, have fun out there, and be safe!
I’m Molly Foss, aka Momma Critter. I’ve been camping since I was 9 years old and I always wanted to be Robin Hood and live in the forest when I grew up. I’m excited to share my love of camping with my son as he grows up. My favorite thing to do while camping is roast marshmallows over the fire.