09 June, 2021

Reply to 9 Hacks to Avoid Camp Kitchen Setup Disasters.

 My wife sent me an article posted on Outsideonline.com with a date of June 6 2021. 9 Hacks to Avoid Camp Kitchen Setup Disasters. https://www.outsideonline.com/2423927/camp-cooking-fails-hacks 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article with a chuckle.  Most of it is good advice from a very specific perspective. 

The writer, Joe Jackson interviews Lars Alvarez-Ross co owner of Bio Bio Expeditions with 35 years guide and camp cook experience. And while I admit I have not been a professional camper / guide for nearly that time, I have been camping for over 40 years, including living in a VW Bus for about a year which was effectively long term camping, working as a river guide in Oregon in my late teens, and working in the restaurant industry with an in depth knowledge of proper kitchen procedure and sanitation.

While Joe's article is well written, and Lars’ suggestions are good and can be beneficial, I find additional information will be very helpful. Instead of addressing each item in the list, I wanted to go over Camp Kitchen setup, and procedures to ensure everyone is well fed, and has an enjoyable trip!

The first few problems Lars talks about in the article revolve around proper packaging of food, and preparation and usage of a cooler. And while there is a lot of science behind what seems such a simple thing like a cooler, let’s look at what we are trying to accomplish. 

Heat, being energy, wants to move from a space with a lot of that energy (hot) into and fill a space with less of that energy (cold). And by using the cooler we are trying to interrupt that process. We do this by having the coolers built with insulating material that slows the process down, pre-cooling the materials and contents as much as we can, and keeping it as well out of heats way as possible while in use. We also place items in the cooler that act as places for heat to go instead of our food. I.E. ice.  As heat goes into the ice, this causes water (ice) to transition from solid to liquid states.

It is the liquid state of our heat sink as it were, that we start to see a problem. The liquid, water, tents to intrude on our contents we are trying to protect. Meat, cheese, butter, lettuce etc… and mix the contents therein together, along with water, contaminating the whole lot.

Lars solution of multiple coolers is only partially effective. We need a complete solution. And short of electrical refrigeration, we need to address the issue using ice. 

For starters, we are going to keep our infrequently accessed items, such as food for meals in one cooler, and frequently accessed items such as drinks, and snacks in a separate cooler. All items need to be stored in properly sized, watertight plastic containers. Zipper bags are contrary to their advertising campaigns and marketing materials, NOT truly waterproof / leakproof. Years of sad experience show me that the claims are false. I use Rubbermaid food storage containers and am happy with the results. 

Now the food is packed, we need the heat sink / ice. Cubed, bagged ice will melt faster than larger solid pieces of ice, and in a bag will leak water all over the inside of your cooler. FAR less than ideal. Now Lars recommends ⅓ cooler capacity to be taken up by ice. I am telling you in my experience, with pre-freezing foods like ground beef, chicken etc.. that can be frozen and then packaged, you should account for at least ¼ of your cooler capacity for ice. If you can get more in, fine. Now my recommendation is to collect SQUARE quart size water bottles, fill them most of the way, squeeze out any remaining air so that the sides are sucked in and then freeze them. So say you have a 55 quart cooler, you want 14 of these quarts for these ice blocks.Load your cooler mixing food containers, with ice blocks close in and fill any remaining open space in the cooler with regular 16 oz frozen water bottles. The idea again is the get as much heat sink in there, and as little space for hot air to exist in the cooler.

Your drink cooler will not last cold as long as your food cooler, and that is okay. This is where you will use bagged ice. 

Both coolers should be brought into an air conditioned space several days prior to the trip to cool off completely. 24 hours prior, fill them entirely with ice. And at load up / in time, discard the ice from both coolers, load the pre-cooled food and drinks into the appropriate cooler, as well as the ice blocks in the food cooler. Grab a fresh bag of ice on the way out for the beverage cooler.

Another issue talked about in the article was forgetting important cooking items, of note were cooking oil and butter. Lars' recommendation was to have a dedicated camping bottle of cooking oil. Unless you camp weekly, this seems to me to be a sure fire way to eventually end up with Rancid cooking oil. Instead of that, just make a checklist of everything you are going to need for the trip, including a full grocery checklist. If you check off items as they are packed and loaded up, you aren’t forgetting them are you?

Other problems mentioned included cutting board hygiene, and improper washing / sanitation of dishes and cookware. Common sense would tell you don’t chop veggies on a cutting board that you just cut chicken on without washing. Change your prep order to chop the veggies first, wipe clean with a bleach wipe and then a quick rinse, THEN cut up / prep the meat. And do we REALLY need to talk about the need to make sure you are washing your dishes and making sure food bits get off of the forks and spoons after eating? I mean seriously, if you think you can lick your fork clean you are probably too young to be handling a camp kitchen safely. Use biodegradable soaps to avoid fouling the environment, especially if you have no means of gray water collection, collect and burn or any food waste you can. Any you can’t pack it out.

Another problem mentioned in the article is something I guess folks run into and don’t prep for. I don’t know if I have ever experienced a stove blow out but I can see how it can happen. I tend to set up my camp kitchen to not allow this…. Mostly because I end up in windy conditions being more concerned about contaminants being blown into my food, than the stove going out.

Are you using an EZ Up for a kitchen cover? Get shade wall accessories to protect from sun, rain, and more importantly wind. I set up using 2 Sun Walls with pockets. A third wall is me pitching my main tent close to the kitchen tent as a wind blocker, and the privy tent on the remaining wall covering 7 of the 10 feet, allowing a nice 3 foot easy walkway into the dining hall as it were. Using a screen room? Attach silver tarps to the sides to act as sun walls that will block the wind. Wind in the kitchen strong enough to douse a stove, is also strong enough to blow all sorts of dirt, and contaminants into your food.  Are you using a tarp rig? Set up your pitch differently to act not just as a sun shade / rain block, but to block with wind as well. 

Even when I was VERY young, and VERY poorly equipped, we would set up with a spare sheet from home tied to sticks jammed into the ground to make a wind block at a picnic table to keep the wind off of my old single burner bottle top stove… 

With proper kitchen setup, even the cheapest camp stoves can easily and reliably work on all but the windiest days.

I am not sure how this is considered a problem. But Lars mentions cooking and cleaning in the dark. I have yet to see anyone camping without some sort of light source. Liquid fuel, propane, or LED lantern, Mag light set to lantern mode, or whatever gear you’ve got that makes light. Use it. One thing I should mention is I have seen many campers try to wash dishes with cold water. Don’t do that. You will not sanitize your dishes. Use a basin, and a big pot on the stove to heat up water, and wash your dishes in hot water like you would at home. Rinse in cold is fine, but wash in hot.

Lars mentioned people burning themselves. I have not experienced that in camp cooking, but just like at home, I use hot pads, long tongs for cooking on the campfire, etc… Basically bring and use proper PPE for what you are doing…

And lastly, Lars talks about people not helping out in the kitchen. Now unless you are hiring an outfitter / guide to do the cooking, and cleaning for you, not helping out in the camp kitchen is a complete jerk move. Make the arrangements before heading out. You want to eat? You help make the food and clean up afterwards. Most of my friends and family are Christian, and to them I quote 2 Thessalonians 3. “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.”. I’m open to encouragement I can give to those that are not Christian in this regard!   Cut up the veggies, tend the fire, wash the dishes, something. 

Now something Lars does NOT talk about, but I want to bring up here. As much prep work that you can do PRIOR to the trip, means you have that much less prep work and cleanup to do in camp. I’ve recently done several videos covering at home prep of staple supplies / foods we use in our camp cooking. Due to family history, and us being Texans we tend heavily toward Tex Mex style cooking. It is far easier to prepare, and pack a big batch of Pico De Gallo at home than it is to do that in camp with the veggies right there. And I am NOT going to do an all day slow cook of pintos for refried beans when I can do an instant pot refried beans at home and just reheat in camp!

Lastly, and something Lars didn’t mention, food protection from pests. I am travelling and live in Texas where the only bears are in zoos, so my primary concern is protecting from bugs, squirrels, raccoons, and the occasional coyote. For food storage, I highly recommend the 5 gallon buckets with the Gamma seal lids approach. I have 2 of them, and honestly that is overkill. One of them is perfect for a trip up to around a week in duration. For food waiting to be eaten and presented on the table, use some food nets like what Coleman and Coghlans, and I am sure others sell. Nobody wants roasted corn on the cob campground flies have been all over… Now back to the issue of bears. I am not now claiming to be an expert in protecting yourself, or your foodstuffs from bears. I am aware that there are products on the market intended to be if not bear proof, at least strongly bear resistant. My Lifetime 55 quart high performance cooler is just such a device. Many campgrounds in bear country such as the Mazama Campground on the way to Crater Lake in Oregon are outfitted with Bear boxes that campers are required to store their food in. HOWEVER, if you are in bear territory and no bear box is available, you need a container that is incredibly hard for a bear to get into. For backpackers the bear canister is a usable idea, but for family campers they just aren’t large enough. The gamma seal lids on 5 gallon buckets are certainly a good option as far as the bear not understanding how to unscrew the lid, however a couple of big bear bounces off of the bucket sides may be enough force to pop the lid smooth off of the bucket. In such cases, it might be beneficial, although not super space efficient, to bring along a dedicated extra bear resistant cooler to store things like bread and other refrigeration not required foods. I wouldn’t think you’d have to worry about canned goods, but anything in a plastic bag, box etc…. Like bread, cereals, oatmeal etc… could be at risk, and putting you at risk.