The hearth is the center of the home – something that becomes even more evident on an overland adventure. When far from the conveniences of civilization, the warmth and light of a campfire or the sizzle and smell of food cooking over a portable stove can turn a desolate patch of wilderness into a cozy campsite.
Beyond the creature comforts, establishing your overland kitchen setup is an essential step to making sure you and your fellow explorers are well fed during your adventures. A well-thought-out mobile camp kitchen will serve a number of functions, providing equipment for storing, preparing, cooking, eating, and cleaning up after meals and snacks.
Like everything in overlanding, camp kitchens can range from minimalist to elaborate. You can use the same light-weight gear you’d use for backpacking or go all-in with a slide-out galley kitchen and portable water heater mounted into your vehicle.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics as well as point you to some of the more exotic vehicle-mounted kitchens, in case you are so inclined. If you are just getting started overlanding, we’d recommend using kitchen gear you’ve already got at home, where possible. You can refine your camp kitchen over time, adding or subtracting gear as suits your style of overlanding and the needs of specific trips.
Every camp kitchen serves four basic functions, each of which we’ll consider in detail in this article:
Storage and Refrigeration
You’ll need some way to carry your cooking equipment and food and water supplies. Food storage options typically fall into two categories: things that need refrigeration and things that don’t. So, overlanders will usually bring some type of refrigeration (either a cooler or a small refrigerator) and separate storage space for non-perishable foods. If you plan to power an overland refrigerator, a portable solar system is a great investment.
Smaller storage containers, such as tupperware, baggies, and bottles, store individual food items within the refrigerated and dry pantry spaces. If you are headed into bear country, you’ll need a bear-roof container of some sort.
Another major consideration is how you will carry water — and how much you’ll need. Depending on your plans and budget, you could use plastic jugs from the grocery store or, at the other end of the cost spectrum, install a purpose-built water storage system mounted to your vehicle. Whatever container you are using for water should be made of food-grade material. Our guide to overland water storage goes into more detail on how much water to bring and how to store it.
Besides your consumables, you’ll need containers to store your stove, cookware, dishes, cutlery, and cleaning supplies. You’ll want a larger container to separate these items from the rest of your gear, as well as bags and boxes to further subdivide your kitchen gear by function. For instance, your dishes and cutlery can be stored in a separate container from your cleaning supplies.
Food Preparation and Cooking
You did pack your chef’s hat, right? Your camp cooking can really elevate your overlanding game from surviving to thriving in the wilderness. It’s possible to go very minimalist with food prep, for instance, using premade dehydrated food pouches that only require the addition of hot water. At the other end of the spectrum, you can prepare haute cuisine made from scratch with fresh ingredients. In either case, it’s useful to break your equipment needs down into items need for prepping food and items for cooking it.
Prepping can involve chopping and mixing ingredients, so a cutting board, a chef’s knife, bowls, and stirring spoons come in handy. At a minimum, you’ll probably want a pot and a pan for cooking food and boiling water. Spits, griddles, and grills allow you to employ additional cooking techniques.
The center of your food prep will be your overland stove. Cooking typically involves a stove that uses some kind of gas, whether in liquid or gaseous form. Propane stoves are very popular, though refills may be difficult to acquire in many countries. A good alternative to propane for international travel is a stove that burns liquid fuels, such as gasoline, which can be readily acquired in most countries. These are sometimes called dual-fuel stoves.
While not limited to food prep, having a table or other solid surface for making food makes the process much easier. A good camp table can serve multiple surfaces, including serving as your kitchen space.
Plates, Cups and Utensils
Order’s up! At mealtime, you’ll need to serve the food and your hungry crew will need a way to eat it. At its most simple, a trail meal can be eaten with a bowl and a spoon. Those looking for a more civilized dining experience might bring a full set of plastic or metal plates, bowls, cups and silverware.
One consideration, which we’ll get into more below, is how you’ll clean up. If you are operating on limited water supplies – which is the case more often than not – washing up a bunch of dishes depletes a vital resource. When cooking and eating, it’s worth thinking about how you can accomplish the task with the least amount of clean up needed. This can mean being efficient with how many pans and dishes you use. It can also mean using disposable plates and bowls if packing out the trash helps reduce your water needs.
Some of the easiest items to forget when you’re packing for an overlanding trip are dishwashing supplies. Even if you bring disposable plants and silverware, you need to clean up your pots and pans. Some dish soap and a sponge or dishcloth will make this much easier. We like to bring a separate dishcloth for drying dishes, as this lets you pack them sooner.
A camp sink will come in very handy. There are a number of space-saving options nowadays, including folding and collapsable sinks. One advantage to bringing a camp sink is that you can conserver your water by using the same soapy water to clean multiple dishes, as opposed to using a constant stream of fresh water for each dish. To really step up your game, consider investing in portable water heater that can be used both for cleaning dishes and showering.
You’ll need some way to collect and transport trash created during cooking and eating. We like Trasharoos that attached to spare tires or other places outside the vehicle and can hold bags of garbage and recycling created during the trip. Alternatively, you can use a bin of some kind to store garbage, ideally outside of your vehicle.