Guide to Building Your Overland Kitchen
The Kitchen You Bring on the Trail Depends on What You Need
There is no difference between the kitchen in your house and that of one on an overland journey. The center of the social circle in the middle of the wilderness is around the campfire, the stove, the JetBoil on the hood of your Jeep, or the full kitchen slide out in your trailer. The overland kitchen is as important as good tires, a trusty suspension, and a full tank of gasoline. Without it, you’re just out for a hungry drive instead of a well-fed adventure. Remember, an army runs on its stomach; prepare accordingly.
There is something very primal about a campfire. Leftover from a time when our brains were a fraction of their size, to when fear, hunger, and pain guided us to our most essential needs, a campfire possessed magnetic powers. Its flames evoke haunting stories, deep discussions, and jocular camaraderie of the folks that gather around them. Around a campfire, there are no cubicles, no neckties, and no briefcases, just people—not long from the trail or far from the trek—harkening back to a time when their ancestors traversed the same wilderness. This allure of the campfire is why people congregate in the kitchen during gatherings: It’s where the food is, where the stove is, and where the social center of the house is.
An Efficient Kitchen
…whether you are planning light meals for a small group of rigs or lavish banquets befitting kings and queens, you’ll want to keep it simple and efficient.
Since the kitchen will be the center of your camp, a well thought-out one will need to provide for a number of functions, such as cooking and cleaning, as well as a source for cold drinks, light snacks, and a bevy of frosted beverages. It differs from other kinds of camping-related kitchens in that it exists for your convenience. You don’t have to lug it on your back, so the elements of the kitchen can be as lavish as you need or want it to be.
However, whether you are planning light meals for a small group of rigs or lavish banquets befitting kings and queens, you’ll want to keep it simple and efficient. Cooking bacon smells just as good on a small camp stove as it does on a six-burner full-size barbecue. Plus, the gear you have to unpack tonight will be the same gear you’ll have to pack up tomorrow.
Many times, the location of your overland kitchen will be dictated for you. Often, it’s a pre-arranged rock fire ring or a installed barbecue at a defined campground. Maybe there will only be a slender spit of real estate perched on the ledge of a narrow canyon path. However, if the wide open space of a desert oasis or a pine tree-crested meadow is your destination for the night, you have a variety of options.
…always maintain a good distance between where you plan to cook and eat and where you plan to sleep.
For starters, always maintain a good distance between where you plan to cook and eat and where you plan to sleep. Some suggest 200 feet, but that can be more or less depending on what kind of animals lurk in that neck of the woods. The bigger the animal, the bigger the distance. For the same reason, it isn’t recommended that you sleep in the same clothes as you cook in. Animals are attracted to the smells of food, naturally, and they’ll aim for the source: your stove/cook area and your clothes that still smell like dinner.
Bears and coyotes are literally the biggest reason to properly store your food before and after dinner, but they’re not the only concern. Racoons, brave squirrels and chipmunks, and a host of wild fauna will quickly tear through any food packaging if not in a sealed storage container. If you’re trekking through bear country, keep your food in a food locker (if one is provided at the camp) or in your rig in a bear-proof cooler, like a Yeti or an RTIC.
The same goes for trash. A plastic bag tied to the spare tire might be fine in certain circumstances, but don’t be surprised to find a hole ripped in the bottom of it and the ground littered with raccoon footprints.
Outfitting a convenient and efficient overland kitchen is a matter of planning. Like everything, camp kitchens can range from minimalistic to elaborate, from a single butane hiking stove to a flattop griddle in a slide-out galley mounted to your vehicle. There are a thousand gray areas in between and you have to find what works best for your outing and budget. One thing is paramount as you pack up your rig: bring a table. A versatile camp table, like Lifetime’s Four-Foot Folding Table, has countless uses, from food prep and cleaning to eating or playing games around it; anything is better than balancing a plate of food on your knees while holding a drink.
Regardless of the circumstances, it is smart to compartmentalize all of your gear. Cooking pots, pans, and utensils get a box or tote, for example. Then, dry foods and any foods that don’t go in the fridge or cooler get another. Cleaning products, bug spray, first aid, and other chemical-related gear goes in another. Keep them labeled so you quickly know what’s where.
The most important element of camping is water. Without it, you’ll have a pretty short trip, as you can’t cook, clean, bathe, or rehydrate if your water jugs are empty.
The most important element of an overland kitchen is water. Without it, you’ll have a pretty short trip, as you can’t cook, clean, bathe, or rehydrate if your water jugs are empty. Going easy, you can pick up a few gallon jugs at the store, or you can install a purpose-built water storage system. Either way, make sure your containers are food grade and only ever used for water.
There’s nothing nicer than eating a prime cut of beef on a real plate with a real steak knife and fork. That might be too lavish, so a bowl and a spoon will do. Or paper plates and your hands. Remember, if you are operating on a limited water supply, you might want to avoid anything that needs cleaning between meals besides the pots and pans. Being civilized is nice, but going without water is barbaric.
Don’t forget dishwashing supplies, especially if you are planning a multi-day outing and are using plates and utensils instead of disposable flatware. They’re a critical part of any overland kitchen. Soap, scrub brush, disinfectant spray, bleach, sponge, and some paper towels will keep your camp area clean and sanitized from grime and food-borne contaminants. As well, consider a camp sink.
Folding and collapsible camp sinks, such as UST’s simple FlexWare Collapsible Sink or Coleman’s elaborate Pack-Away Deluxe Portable Kitchen, are easy to pack and use. Having a station to clean dishes and allow them to dry makes mealtime that much more convenient.