It’s one of the best parts of getting to camp: deciding where to set up the river kitchen.
“Let’s see…should we set it up over there by that tree, or maybe there by that rock ledge. No, don’t put it there; that’s where we need to put the fire…”
A lot of consideration goes into a good kitchen setup, for good reason. At parties at home, kitchens are where people tend to hang out. The same thing holds true on the river. People — even those not on cook duty — will congregate there. So be ready.
Following are a few pointers and products to help you set up a riverside camp kitchen Julia Child would be proud of. Just remember, too many cooks spoil the broth. So unless you’re part of the camp chef crew, try not to get underfoot… But with a kitchen this good, it’ll be hard to stay away.
Deciding where to put the tables might be the hardest part of the whole process. After all, that dictates where people are going to sit and watch that day’s kitchen team rifle through the storage to figure out where the heck all the spices wound up. Look for natural features like rock shelves, log barriers, and trees for shade and rain protection. Once you nail down the perfect spot, it’s time to think about orientation. Many kitchen connoisseurs like the ol’ “L” formation with easy-to-reach counter space for stoves, cooking utensils, food prep and serving. Others opt for the “island” effect, like you might have at home. As for an appetizer table and/or bar table (hint: roll tables work well), do everyone a favor and keep those a safe distance away from the cooking tables to keep the riff-raff at bay.
Down River Equipment makes great riverside tables that are sturdy, durable, and portable for ease on the go. Designed to fasten to the bay of any rowing frame, they come in various sizes fit for different rigs and kitchen setups. They use the same 1/2 inch HDPE Poly material as their Poly Decks, making it a perfect cutting board surface that’s a breeze to clean. The frame and legs are constructed from anodized aluminum pipe, allowing the table to support massive amounts of weight (and maybe even body slides into the river).
Another gotta-have option is a tall NRS table, with enough height for you to cook and do dishes after the meal without having to stoop. When it’s time to pack up, simply strap it onto your raft frame for passenger seating or gear loading. The Campsite Counter combines 1/2″ high-density polyethylene with a quick-clean ripple-patterned finish overtop a corrosion-resistant aluminum frame and legs burly enough to withstand outdoor adventures.
Finally, woe be the river trip without a Roll Table or two for apps and the bar. Camp Time has been making these babies since 1980, and there’s no room for improvement. They roll-up into a 5-inch-diameter bundle for storage on the bottom of your raft’s gear compartment, weigh only 10 lbs and support up to 100 lbs — which is a heckuva lot of chips and salsa. It assembles fast with no leg braces to hit your knees and comes in two sizes, each a perfect 28 inches tall — standard at 32″x32″ to serve four adults, and narrow at 32″x22″ for a romantic two (aaah, cuddleville). Optional adjustable legs are available for leveling on uneven terrain.
Tables don’t do much good without chairs to go with them. Helinox camping chairs offer maximal comfort with minimal space and weight. The classic Chair One weighs just two pounds and folds down to the size of a large burrito. The ultralight version, the Chair Zero, shaves off another pound if you’re looking for a seating option that you don’t even have to try and justify bringing along. For a taste of backcountry luxury, spring for the Chair Two with a high back for the ultimate lounge experience. After a long day stuffed in cockpits or sitting on hard benches, you’ll appreciate the chance to relax on something a little more comfortable.
Camp Kitchen Floor Tarp
Just say no to micro trash. That’s easier than ever now with the Kitchen Floor Tarp from Down River made from tightly woven multi-mesh that’s durable and lightweight. Dirt and sand to fall through but food particles stay trapped. Integrated corner pockets allow the floor to be weighted with sand or rocks. These babies are available in small, medium and large sizes to accommodate for various camp kitchen setups. Some river sites even require floor tarps now, so make sure this one’s in your bag.
River stoves come in all shapes and sizes, depending on how many people glommed-on to your coveted permit. While single burner options work fine for small groups, and it’s nice to have a JetBoil along for fast hot drinks when the going gets cold, two burners are the way to go for larger crowds. The Explorer 14 from Camp Chef features two 30,000 BTU burners, removable legs for setting it up on the ground or on a table, and a three-sided wind screen for protection all around. Impress everyone at camp by decking yours out with a few fancy accessories like a BBQ Grill Box, Griddle, or Outdoor Oven. There’s nothing you can’t whip up outside anymore.
If you need to go even bigger, the three-burner Pro 16 can feed the masses. That extra burner goes a long way, especially when everyone’s eager for a feast after a long day on the water. Hell hath no fury like a hungry paddler.
This is a source of pride for most raft owners: the sticker-adorned kitchen box that’s such a pain-in-the-ass to drag along that you might want to invite a gang go young teenage boys along on your trip just do they can do the work for you. The Yoke Chuck Box takes this sentimental tool a couple steps further. There’s a place for everything in the Chuck Box: silverware, dishes, pots and pans, spices, pantry items, cleaning supplies, and whatever else you need to whip up a meal so good you’d never know it wasn’t made in a real kitchen. You can even turn the lid into a sink for washing up. All the organization options mean you won’t leave anything behind, like that special .
Yes, you want to keep germs at bay — and in the groover — on a river trip. For that, set up a hand-washing station near the kitchen (and especially close to that bowl of chips and guac). This setup from Down River Equipment is one of the best ones on the market. It’s portable, easy to use, and durable. Designed for easy storage, easy setup, and easy breakdown, there’s no excuse for neglecting cleanliness. Simply step on the button to up the pressure and get the water flowing. The adjustable spout attaches to a square bucket (or two, so you barely even have to bend over). Store the spout and tube in the mesh bag, then throw it all in the bucket for protection in your boat.
If you need more space than one rack can handle, go for the organized-chaos method with a dish drying bag. It attaches to your table so it doesn’t take up any more room in your camp kitchen. Cam straps make it adjustable to fit any size table at any height off the ground. The mesh is durable enough to hold piles of dishes after even the biggest camp dinner parties or buffet breakfasts. Separate out dishes into different pockets as you go for easier clean-up on your way out of camp.
As for the dishes themselves, the Delta Camp Set from Sea to Summit includes everything you need for any type of meal: bowl, plate, cup, and utensils all together. Get a few in different colors so that each member of your crew can have their very own set. No more losing all your spoons to that one member of your group that seems to grab a new one every meal rather than rummage through their tent for the last one.
Sea to Summit has the chef of the camp kitchen covered too. The aluminum Alpha Pot and Pan are cookware essentials, so light that you’ll barely notice them in your boat but durable enough to withstand a bumpy ride on your way to camp. The stainless steel handles (with tacky silicone for grip) rotate to stay out of the way for more compact packing. The lid on the Alpha Pot even attaches to the rim, so you don’t have to search for a clean surface to set it down on when you’re busy stirring up a hot pot of pasta. The lid also doubles as a strainer when the water starts to boil over.
And don’t forget the most important part of any high-octane adventure: jet fuel. The collapsible X-Brew Coffee Dripper takes the coffee shop to go. The reusable mesh filter offers an eco-friendly way to whip up a fresh cup every morning. It attaches to the rim of most standard mugs to drip right into your cup for instant caffeination gratification. When you’re energized and ready for the day, it packs down so small it could fit in your pocket (for when that afternoon slump hits).
Take a peek up at the clouds anytime you’re setting up the camp kitchen. If it looks like rain, be prepared to set up a tarp as fast as you can so you don’t have to muck through a wet camp. For that, it doesn’t get much better than the the NRS River Wing. It goes up in a snap, but isn’t going anywhere after that. Ripstop nylon is built to handle years of outdoor adventures, and the tarp creates the perfect amount of shade in the sun and protection in the rain so you can put it to good use in almost any kind of weather. 190 square feet of coverage, aluminum poles that adjust up to 10-feet high, and heavy-gauge tie-down cords, the River Wing is designed to pitch quick and stay put.
For an option that has your back both day and night to save space in your boat, look to the Telos TR 2 from Sea to Summit. This tent transforms into four different versions depending on what you need: classic tent, partial fly, just the inner, and just the fly. Set up just the fly in “hangout mode” as an open awning to cover the kitchen while cooking’s in full swing, then set up the inner when it’s time to hit the hay.
Of course, the best thing for busy cooks is a distraction for the rest of the crew to keep them from getting underfoot. Enter the BioLite FirePit+, the easy way to hold the hungry riffraff at bay until dinner’s ready. No more excuses that the ground is too wet or the smoke is too suffocating. With the flick of a switch, this baby springs into action for all-around warmth minus the smoke. It gives off enough warmth to comfort a whole crowd of cold paddlers and distributes heat evenly on all sides. The legs fold down to make it more compact, and it can run off of either charcoal for fireside cooking or wood for general heat. You can even control the intensity from your phone via Bluetooth. The BioLite lasts much longer than traditional fires, and uses fuel more efficiently for up to 30 hours of continuous burn on a single charge. This pit might add some extra bulk to your boat, but the satisfaction it adds to the end of a long day on the water is well worth the load if you can spare the space.