If you’re car camping, there’s pretty much no limit to what you can bring, but if you’re backpacking or even just hiking a little ways into your site, you’ll need to streamline your supplies.
Consider Weight & Portability
This extensive camping cookware guide is really helpful in that it provides not only detailed reviews, but recommendations based on your circumstances, so you can look for top picks for car camping, or for backpacking. If weight and portability is no concern, bring your cast iron, especially if you’ll have a live fire for cooking.
If you’d rather not do any cooking that requires a pot or skillet, stick to skewers you can grill, or even pre-made salads, pasta dishes, or sandwiches that don’t need to be heated before serving (but are still totally gourmet). You can also cook a lot of great camp food in foil pouches, which lets you pack light and minimizes cleanup.
Acquire Camp Cooking Tools
If you are cool with cooking, a set of heat-proof silicone cooking utensils including a large spoon, spatula, and tongs, is handy to have. And don’t forget a cutting board, unless you’re packing all your meats and vegetables already trimmed down to size. Ceramic knives are both lightweight and sharp, and often come with plastic sheaths to protect the blade (and everything else from it, when not in use), so stash one of those in your camp kit too.
Invest in Reusable Camp Dinnerware
When it comes to serving meals, paper plates and plastic forks and spoons are tempting, but you can save space and help the environment by choosing lightweight, reusable items instead, like enamled tin or BPA-free melamine plates (which won’t chip), stacking cups, and aluminum utensils. It also just looks and feels more chic, which is always an added benefit. And since you’ll need to clean all this stuff, be sure to pack a couple of nesting (or collapsible) plastic tubs for doing dishes—more on cleaning up below.
Bring a Water Filtration System (Even if You Don’t Think You’ll Need It)
Even if your campground has a safe water source, it’s always best to bring a few jugs along, just in case—and it’s a fantastic idea to add a filtration system to your camping kit as well. This gravity water filter system from MSR is great for backcountry trips and hikes, but useful in less remote campsites too.
Not just the environment in general, but think about where you’ll be cooking. In the woods? Almost anything goes. At the beach? Blowing sand may make certain dishes tricky. In the snow? Pick something hearty and warming that doesn’t require a ton of chopping or cleaning up (to spare your fingers the cold).
Morning routine (don’t forget the camp coffee), image courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images
Unless you’re backpacking in true wilderness, most camp sites and day-use areas have one picnic table per spot. Instead of just heaping everything you brought along on top of it, take a few moments to organize it, and dedicate at least a small space on it for meal prep and serving. First, put down a tablecloth—it not only adds a little flair, but keeps your food pristine in case you drop it on the no-doubt gnarly table. Oilcloth is strong enough to withstand tears, easy to stash when it’s time to pack up, and a breeze to wipe clean.
One end of your covered picnic table can be reserved for both prepping food and washing dishes, so you’re not trying to squeeze your cutting board in among playing cards, lanterns, and stray books. But utilize what’s around you too—flat rocks or smooth-topped tree stumps can be great places to rest a cutting board, plate, or dish tub. Then again, if it’s feasible, you can pack a small folding table to use for your kitchen area so it’s totally out of the way and remains undisturbed. Get Fresh Off the Grid’s camp kitchen tips for even more pointers.
If you’re going to be cooking, you’ll need some form of fire, which will generally either be from a fire pit, grill, or camp stove (if you’re in an RV with electrical hookups, you already know what to do).
If you’ll be cooking over a live fire and are in doubt about whether you’ll find a source of kindling at your site, don’t forget to pack firewood, and read up on rules governing wood gathering in the place you’re going, as well as any burn restrictions. You should also bring plenty of matches, or a kitchen lighter. If you’ve never built a fire before, be sure to read up on the best way to do it beforehand, and practice if you can (plus, bring a cheat sheet with instructions if you’re less than confident in your skills). In a pinch, you can start a fire with Doritos!
If you’re not sure you’ll have a fire pit with a grill grate, bring metal skewers, grill baskets, foil packs, and/or Dutch ovens that you can hold over or nestle in the flames. Otherwise, you can make pretty much any grilling recipe over a campfire, or if you have the means and space, bring a small portable grill with you.
And don’t forget to make sure your fire is completely doused before you leave it unattended. Your dish washing tub comes in handy for this purpose too!
For backpacking trips and any situations where you may not be able to build a fire, a propane stove is perfect—and good to have even when car camping, since you can quickly boil water for morning coffee, among other things. The MSR WindBurner Stove System is a bit pricier than some similar products, but it performs well even in adverse conditions (high winds, extreme cold), and comes with a nonstick ceramic-coated sauce pot, locking strainer lid, and skillet in addition to the burner itself. They all nest together to maximize packing space.
If you’re car camping, you can also go with a multi-burner camp stove if you prefer. In any case, make sure you bring enough fuel canisters to cook all your meals. Figure out the right amount with MSR’s guide.
You might not want to think about cleaning up, but it’s a necessity, so better be prepared for that too. Pack two dish tubs (one for soaking, one for rinsing), a sponge, scrubber, or dishcloth, and one or more super-absorbent microfiber towels for drying—plus plenty of paper towels and an eco-friendly, biodegradable soap (which goes a long way, so don’t squirt on too much at once).
When it’s time to clean, get as much food and food residue off your cookware and plates as possible before actually washing them; scrape them well and rub with paper towels (which you can burn if the fire’s still going), then put them in a tub of soapy water to soak, give them a good scrub, and move them to a tub of clean water to rinse. Wash any pots and cooking utensils afterward, since they tend to be dirtier than the dishes. You can use a microfiber towel to dry, or just set them out on one to air dry, even use a foldable dish rack if you have one, or hang them over a tree limb in a mesh bag to dry (another great tip from “The New Camp Cookbook”). Fresh Off the Grid also has more tips on washing dishes while camping.
It’s also imperative to properly contain and dispose of all your food waste; minimize it in the first place by packing things in reusable containers wherever possible. But throw whatever trash you do generate in designated bins (and recycle what you can), or if you’re truly in the wilderness, pack it up and bring it back out with you. Seal up garbage bags, hang food and garbage in bear bags if you’re in an area where they live, and dispose of dish water away from camp to avoid attracting hungry critters.