Cooking outdoors can be as basic as setting up your Primus Lite+ and boiling a few freeze dried meals, especially if backpacking. But for a short hike, car camping, or glamping, it’s possible to set up a full outdoor cooking station with just a few elements and some foresight.
The secret is in having mini-stations for each task, and in setting up the outdoor cooking station in a separate area from the campfire, which should serve as your camping dining room.
The General Setup of Your Outdoor Cooking Station
Outdoor cooking stations do best under a canopy, at the back of a car where there is wind protection or in another type of protected area. Wind and rain are no friend of the outdoor chef. In addition, having at least one completely level surface is recommended. Ideally, the outdoor cooking should be in a U-shape, to maximize the small space, and should include three basic elements: prep table, cooking table, and clean-up.
The only area that absolutely needs a wind-free zone is the cooking table. By placing your prep area and dishwashing stations nearby, you won’t need to transport food or dishes any distance, which can be a hassle in the darkness or dim early morning hours.
Along with prep area (a flat surface for cutting and placing cookware) and dishwashing (a bin or two filled with water or, if you are lucky enough, a hand pump at a campground), you will want to set up a separate seating area, at least a dozen feet away from the cooking station.
The actual cooking area should be in the middle of the U. Choose cookware that is high quality (cast iron or stainless steel) but just as importantly--compact. Many cook sets come in bags for easy storage, and include a portable windscreen and handles. Removable stainless steel handless on pots and pans can be added or subtracted interchangeably, save space, and become “second hands” when cooking. But don’t skimp on hot pads…those steel handles heat up!
The key to a great camp set up is having a couple of small, portable tables, so you can bring your outdoor cooking station up off the ground, and provide level surfaces for prep, cooking and dishwashing. If you plan to use the open hatch of the back of your car as a level surface, you can get away with one or two tables on either side to create your “U.”
Maintaining (and Cleaning) Your Outdoor Cooking Station
Another secrete of efficient outdoor cooking stations is bins and storage. By keeping each component (prepping, cooking, dishwashing and drying) in a separate, stackable bin the whole system is easy to set up and break down.
Prep next to the cooking area, with a large cutting board (or series of small, portable ones) on a flat surface. Your space is smaller and your table may be portable but if you are under a canopy and out of wind and rain, outdoor prepping isn’t a far cry from the indoor version.
The last component is dishwashing and drying. A couple of small plastic bins work well for soapy and rinse water and we recommend a mesh bag for hanging wet dishes to dry. Specialized outdoor drying sets—basically, high tech versions of a mesh bag—also work well.
Remember to think through each outdoor cooking station element and the whole process will become easier as you use it. This system is far superior to “winging it” on the ground as you search for your lost frying pan lid in the dark.