How to Set Up a Great Camp Kitchen

When you pack the right gear, turning out delicious meals feels effortless.

men cooking in a camp kitchen
Two men cook at a campsite in British Columbia, Canada.

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A successful camping trip is, for me, determined by the quality of its meals. No matter what the weather is like or how bad the bugs are, everything feels more manageable if there is fabulous food to eat. Camp meals, made slowly and lazily, shape the day's activities. In fact, they often become the focal point of the day—an activity in and of themselves.

I'd like to share my advice on setting up a great camp kitchen. Please note that this applies only to car camping, which places fewer limitations on what you can bring. (This differs from canoe tripping or backcountry hiking trips that require minimal packing and lightweight gear.) With the following items, you'll find outdoor cooking becomes easy and convenient, and perhaps the resulting meals will make you love camping as much as I do.


cooking over a camp stove
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Camp Stove

I own an ancient two-burner Coleman camp stove that is at least 30 years old. It looks terrible, but it runs like a dream. Having two burners is enormously helpful because you can have a pot of rice steaming while you stir-fry vegetables, or a pot of coffee percolating as you fry your eggs.

Nesting Pots

I have a set of MSR nesting pots that are lightweight, compact, and wonderfully versatile. The lid, which fits both pot sizes, doubles as a strainer. These pots, however, are only suitable for use on the stove; you cannot put them on a campfire.

Cast Iron Pan

Don't go car camping without a cast iron pan. It is perfect for cooking over a campfire or in hot coals. You can prop it up on rocks over coals. Use cast iron covered in heavy-duty aluminum foil to bake delicious desserts like fruit cobbler or to make quick bread like bannock. Wipe it out after use and store it in a bag to prevent oiliness from getting on other items.


Pack a chef's knife and a paring knife, as well as a small cutting board for use at the campsite. Take a wooden spoon for stirring hot pots from afar, a metal spatula, and a pair of long-handled tongs. You'll need your regular cutlery, as well as a can opener and bottle opener. Throw some matches in for good measure.


Bring lightweight plates and insulated mugs that can double as beverage holders and soup or cereal bowls. I'm still using the same plastic plates that came with my MSR nesting pot set years ago, but when the time comes to replace them, I'll be looking for aluminum or enamelware. 

Coffee Maker

Everyone has their coffee preferences, but I camp with a stainless steel Moka pot or French press. My husband brings a specific variety of Starbucks instant coffee that does not taste terrible, for when we need a quick caffeine hit in the afternoon. There are camp stove percolators that work well and the popular Aeropress. You could also stick with a basic drip filter. Back when I had a battery-powered milk frother, I took that, too, to make morning lattes—the ultimate in camping luxury.

A Quick Note on Food

Make a detailed menu plan and do as much ingredient prep as you can ahead of time. Take pictures of recipes that you plan to make. Never forget to pack basics like oil, salt, pepper, butter, and vinegar (if you're going to eat salad). For longer camping trips, I take a few spices like cumin, chili powder, and oregano. Never underestimate your cravings for snacks and candy, so pack plenty. It's a good idea to have some powdered milk and canned goods on hand, and your life will be easier if your coffee is pre-ground (or instant) and your wine is in a box. 


washing camp dishes
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Wash Basin

Don't rely on communal sinks for cleaning up your camp dishes, as these can be busy, gross, or unavailable. Bring a washbasin and fill it with hot water that you've heated over a fire (or saved from cooking pasta). Be sure to wash dishes in order from least dirty to dirtiest to preserve the water, as it's a hassle to dump and refill. It's OK to let your washing standards slip a bit; you'll rewash everything when you get home. Don't forget a washcloth and tea towel.

Biodegradable Soap

I like to travel with a small bottle of Dr. Bronner's liquid Castile soap that works for dishes, hands, and bodies (when we make it to the public shower). CampSuds is another good brand, with a highly concentrated vegetable-based formula.


This may sound finicky, but I always bring along a wipeable tablecloth. Picnic tables can be really nasty sometimes and this makes eating meals more pleasant. Give it a good scrub after every meal and leave it on the table to dry.


packed cooler
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Hard Storage Bins

I'm a fan of Action Packer boxes, which come in several sizes, have tight-fitting lids, and are stackable. They're so heavy-duty, they can double as seats. Usually, I designate one as the "pantry" (for non-perishable food items like oil, salt, coffee, canned goods, cereal, dried fruit, nuts, and more) and another for kitchen implements (pots, pans, dishes, Moka pot, knives, etc). 


Some people take their coolers very seriously. I tend to think they're overrated and unwieldy, unless I'm staying at one site for several days, I generally travel without one, buying small cartons of milk, eggs, and whatever perishables I'll consume that the same day. At a drive-in campground, however, it's the best way to keep several days' worth of meals cool and safe to eat. 

Refillable Water Supply

The less water-hauling you have to do, the easier your life will be—though that is a good job to assign to kids! I have some water storage (and filtration) bags that can be hung from a tree, but you could also get a large hard plastic jug with a spout to set up on your picnic table.

Food Storage Containers

There will be leftovers occasionally and you'll need a place to put them, so bring along a few sealable containers or reusable bags (Stasher comes highly reviewed). I like to have a couple of mason jars on hand as well, as these are a reliable way to transport liquids, as long as they don't get broken.