Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Camp Cooking Tools

Baked Chicken (top) with fried beans and onions.
Food preparation while camping for a few days can be a challenge.  The goal is to be able to prepare really good food inexpensively.

Also, we cook for more than 10 people at a time. So the tools need to be efficient, capable, and serve multiple purposes when they can.

Camp cooking is different than cooking at home on the grill.

First, you will have limited equipment with you. You can't just run into the house to get a different pan or tool. You can't finish off undercooked meat in the oven. So there will be a period of trial and error in getting up to speed using the tools you take along for food preparation. You may find that some things are not worth taking. And you will quickly learn what you should have taken.

Second, the kinds of food you prepare is a choice of what you can take with and what you can acquire. What you can take with you is determined by how much space you want to dedicate to foods that need refrigeration, water supply, and non-perishables. Foods you can acquire depend upon whether you will buy at local providers or gather your own foods -whether foraging, fishing, or hunting (local laws will apply). This second choice will also affect the kinds of tools you choose to take with you.

I'm going to describe the tools we typically take with us in our family van for food prep. We also take dishes, plates, silverware, cups, etc.

In short, the process for choosing tools over time is this:

  • Plan tools by meals and method of cooking,
  • Do your cooking the way you planned.
  • Take notes on what works and what wasn't so good.
  • Adjust your plans next time.


We acquired an old used Coleman two burner white gas stove for $15 which we use. But as white gas is relatively expensive (especially in tourist areas) we tend to use it as a secondary. Our primary cooking area is the camp fire.

Cooking on a stove like this can be a challenge. I've found two main problems in using this tool. I'm not counting the regular maintanance; cleaning, keeping the valve oiled, pumping, etc.

The first problem is precipitation. Water splashed in the burners reduces the efficiency of the flame and makes the flame hard to regulate.

The second problem is that cookware, pans and pots, need to be heavier and thicker to distribute the heat without burning the food. Thin steel camp cook kits for backpacking, for example, require a lot of attention to prevent scalding and burning over the gas flame because they don't distribute the heat from the flame very evenly.

Sterno Burner

 Our last resort compact cooking surface. Yes, we've had to use it, and we're glad we had it with. But cooking for a family of 12 is not advisable. I think we picked this up at a and army surplus store in Mankato for $2.

Camp fire/pit
Rock Ring. (someone else's photo)
 The style of campfire pit varies from place to place. Truly primitive campsites may require that you gather rocks for a ring and then put them back when you're done.

We've experienced: rock rings; steel rings; steel ring with grate; single sided, double sided, and triple sided fire pits with and without grates; standing grills with and without grates; and prefabricated stone or brick grills.

We've learned to check into what the campsite has available and to assume that the provided grating may not be usable either through disrepair or bad design.

Two sided without grate at our site in
Gold Basin Campground
Granite Falls, Washington 2009
So we carry a couple types of grating.

The biggest issue in expense with using the fire pit is the cost of wood/charcoal. In some places the charge for a small bundle of wood (18" long by 16" diameter) has been as high as $6 per bundle. Most national forest and parks allow you to gather fallen wood.

So two other tools are very useful: a hatchet (for splitting and chopping), and a camp saw (for cutting lengths). You can use the hatchet for both, but the saw is faster for cutting lengths. But then, you might need to keep a kid busy for a while--don't tell him you brought the saw.

Beware of local wildlife (bear, cougar, skunk, brown recluse, rattle snakes) as well as poison ivy, poison sumac, wild parsnip, etc.

Cooking over fire will discolor your cookware. In addition to the carbon blackening the cookware, steel will change color depending on how hot it was and how quickly it cools. The stock pot on the right in the photo above is steel, it's lid is blueish/purple with wavy lines of green and yellow. All this is to do with the reflectivity of steel during the tempering/annealing process. Kinda cool.


 Free standing foldable grating is excellent in almost all the cases mentioned above.

We also carry a couple of sizes of grating from old grills: a small 15" round from an old webber grill, and a 24"x12" oven rack extension.

Pizza Tins

We carry at least three of these cheap steel pizza tins. They do bend and flex in the heat. They work best over coals rather than flame. One is used to keep the flames that may erupt off of what is being fried, the other is placed on top as a cover to keep the oils/food from erupting into flame.

We clean them by placing them in the coals after cooking is done. They are shiny when you buy them, they loose this color right away for the same reason as mentioned above.

Baked chicken drumsticks
between two Pizza Tins
 I've also used a pair of these as an oven set between the coals and the back of a 2 sided pit to bake meat, fowl and fish.

Aluminum pie tins can be useful in a similar way, but they burn up pretty quickly if the fire is hot.

Fry Griddle
The pizza tins are too thin for even frying over a fire. We were given a thick aluminum griddle by my grandparents. Steel would be better, I think, because of the tendency of the aluminum to warp with use. Also, aluminum will burn if the flames are hot enough. And that can happen when grease from bratwurst or something else gets into the fire.

We use the third pizza tin to cover the griddle. The griddle is cleaned in the same way as the pizza tins: by placing it in the coals to burn off the oils and food.

Like the pizza tins, the griddle can also be used as a cover for other pans. You can see this in the photo on the top of this article.

The cost of these griddles can be high. Watch garage sales and look at places like Goodwill. You can get them really cheap.

Coffee Pot

Camping without coffee? Ugh!!!!

We have two percolators that go over the fire or on the stove. Our older percolater is the aluminum in the picture below. Only ours is pretty well carbonized.
If you use a pot without a filter or percolator you can make "cowboy coffee".

We inhereted both our coffee makers. But they are available used. Just keep your eyes open.

Cooking Pans
Lightweight Steel
Mary bought a set of thin steel cookware from REI (I think) back when she was in college. They've lasted well and are excellent over coals. But because the steel is so thin they can be problematic over flames.

The self-stacking design is great for packing. The largest kettle is 1/2 gallon. We've used it for oat meal/grain cereal, soups, boiling, and even raisin noodle kugel (with rice noodles). But again, they need to be tended carefully or you will get scorching, scalding, and burning.

Heavy Pressed Aluminum
 We inhereted a family sized vintage set of stacking Palco Pressed aluminum camp cookware. Eight aluminum plates, eight green plastic cups, silverware, pots, lids (which are also fry pans) and handles. This belonged to my grandparents who had it since the late 1960s, I think.

Heat distribution is better than in the thin steel. The large pot is just over a gallon. These work well over stove or fire.

Fry Pan
A few years ago I bought the Coleman 9 1/2" steel folding camp frypan at some place like K-Mart.

It's the pan you see in the photo at the top of this article. Works great. We use the lids from the backpack cookware as a lid for the fry pan.

A very useful and long lasting tool.

The handle is, unfortunately, rubber coated. This makes its use over fire a choice. The rubber will burn off. But if you're carefull, you can keep this from happening too quickly. Use glovess. Molten rubber is almost worse than 400 degree steel. You can let go of the steel, the rubber sticks to your skin and keeps burning.

Stock Pot 
One of our stock pots is visible in the photo about campfires above. We use a 2 gallon or more sized second-hand steel stock pot for camping. Primarily it is used for heating water over the fire to be used in cleanup, dishes, etc.

Tongs are used for handling hot food, hot coals, and hot pans.

Get sturdy but cheap steel tongs without any plastic in them.

Some have a locking feature to keep them closed, while nice, this feature can be annoying. And the locks usually don't last too long.

The food handling use is obvious. But, handling pans might not be. Suppose you have a gloved hand (for pans) and a tongs. You're moving the chicken around, but then a log falls and you need to quickly remove the pan. Use the gloved hand and the tongs to move the pan. Don't take the time to put on another glove. Then use the tongs to re-arrange the coals. Move the pan back.

We usually carry 2 or three with. They're good for serving too. And if you're still cooking, the eaters might need one for the hot corn on the cob you just grilled.

OK, there are three different types we've found useful.

 The rubber scraper/spatula is great for getting stuff out of cans and into the frypan, etc.

The stiff/or somewhat flexible putty scraper/spatula is great for cleaning debris off of pans.

The steel/all metal spatula is ideal for the grill. A long handle is very useful. Again, just a little flex, mostly stiff.

Again, there are three kinds, with three purposes: Cooking mitts/gloves, leather gloves, and welders' gloves. If you can only get one kind, get welders' gloves.

Gloves are necessary in handling the hot (400 degrees +) pans as well as handling burning logs.

Cooking mitts tend to be under insulated and have plastic fibers in them. These can melt into your fingers and hands. Get a well insulated mitt with all natural fibers. If you can, find a good grilling mit, not a common oven mitt.

Leather gloves can serve very well, but they get destroyed by handling the coals. I have a pair of Wells Lamont work gloves made of split grain cowhide that have lasted quite a good while. These don't insulate as well as the others, but they are a good camping tool for other reasons as well. So they can serve this dual purpose

My favorite campfire cooking glove is the leather welding glove. Just the right amount of dexterity with good protection.

Gloves will get grease on them. Cleaning leather gloves is not complex. Generally scrubbing/brushing with soaply water, drying and re-oiling with mink or neat's foot oil.

Cutting Board

Wood breaks too easily, but you can set a really hot pan on it. Plastic works really well, but melts if you set a hot pan on it. We bring one of each.

There's a good article about this topic at wikipedia

The types we find most useful are:

Paring Knives 
We get several of the cheapest possible paring knives, but we do also carry one Chicago Cutlery in our kit. The cheap knives have very flexible blades. The Chicago Cutlery blade is nice and stiff with a bit of spring to it.

General Use Knife
For general use we have a few Coleman fixed blade knives we've picked up over the years. They're good for gutting, skinning, and even cutting steak and veggies at the table.

Fillet or Boning Knife

Fillet/Boning knives are useful especially if you are acquiring meat or fish in the wild.

Chef's Knife
A Chef's Knife with a nice wide long blade can make cutting up veggies a simple task. It's also a lot easier to use this on a melon than a paring knife.


 Cleavers are great in so many ways: from controlled thin slices of veggies to beheading a bird.

We have this Faberware soft handled cleaver. The end cap fell off just after the first use, but otherwise it's been great and very well used for the past year.

A good Steel and Stone
Keep the knives sharp and their edges straight.

Other tools
Of course, you may need some forks for helping to prepare meats and veggies, spoons for stirring and such. Possibly even skewers if you want to do shishkabobs.

A couple ways to start a fire: Lighters, long lighters, waterproof matches, magnesium and steel, and a candle. Most places will have sticks to rub together, but that takes considerable practice to do quickly. Maybe bring some charcoal starter fluid, it helps a lot on rainy days.

Two special tools:
A Can Opener - if your are taking canned foods, a knife can work, but it's dangerous

A Bottle Opener- If you plan to take corked bottled bevereages.


  • Plan tools by meals and method of cooking,
  • Do your cooking the way you planned.
  • Take notes on what works and what wasn't so good.
  • Adjust your plans next time.


Joe Abrahamson said...

By the way, dress in a way that shows respect for the fire, if you are cooking over fire and coals. Polyester/Nylon shirts and pants melt. Cotton may burn a bit, but long sleeved shirts and pants can protect your limbs from flames and the occasional shooting coal.

I think sandals are a bad idea, even with socks. Shooting coals land in them and stay in them.

Just, FYI.

Joe Abrahamson said...

Comment via Email:


I just finished reading you blog on cooking over a campfire.

Have you ever used cast iron cookware? It works great!


Joe Abrahamson said...

We use cast iron at home all the time. It does work great. But I have been reluctant to add that considerable weight to our already overly packed load. There are a few essentials I do not own to make cast iron camp cooking easier than the methods I've worked out now. But as the kids grow up, who knows!

We use a 15" frypan, large dutch oven, 9", 5", and 3" fry pans at home. The 3" is not used very much, just when I want an egg for a sandwich--though usually I'm cooking a lot LOT more than just for me.

But I agree whole heartedly with the use of cast iron over the campfire, heat distribution and retention is awesome. Cleanup is simple. Just too many things that need to be packed to feed such a large group as our family means cutting down on space and weight wherever we can.

Thanks for reading the blog!

Joe Abrahamson said...

Of course! That makes complete sense. That's why we don't bring cast iron camping, either.

I am just learning to appreciate cast iron. We have always had a 10" pan but I never got comfortable using it. Well, I've started using it and bought a 12" pan, too, and just love them! We have the big, rectangular skillet for cooking pancakes and frying sandwiches, too. Now I'm having 15" pan envy.....

Your vacation looked so nice! Thanks for sharing your adventure.


Joe Abrahamson said...

Thanks, Kristi,
Don't envy the 15" pan too much. It is heavy, hurts the wrists, bends oven shelves, and threatens to break the glass stove top every time we use it. But it still is quicker and better than other pans we have, including a 20" teflon griddle.

I hope we can have more adventures to share!