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Smoothing It Made Easy

Exploring Camp Comfort, Room by Room: The Kitchen

By Tamia Nelson Cook's Tools

July 15, 2014

We're now in the third week of our tour of Camp Comfort, my somewhat tongue‑in‑cheek name for the backcountry campsite of two canoeists who've decided that comfort in camp trumps speed on the water (and over the portages). But though the paddlers in question — you'll know them as Luci and George — are figments of my imagination, the common‑sense attitudes they embody are true to life. Many canoeists and kayakers are discovering that happiness has more to do with the texture and richness of sensory experience than with the number of miles they cover between dawn and dusk. And creature comforts are an important part of the package. It's hard to lose yourself in the moment if you're cold, hungry, or exhausted.

Which brings us back to Camp Comfort. Now that we've had a look at the bedroom and living room, it's time for us to stroll over to …

The Kitchen

This almost certainly means ducking under a tarp. It's the perfect open‑air kitchen: roomy and well‑ventilated, with plenty of natural light. If there are only a few of you, a single tarp can do double duty as both kitchen‑dinette and living room. but if your party is large, it's best to have a separate cookhouse tarp. And what will you find beneath it? A table or work surface of some sort, almost certainly. A wanigan will serve. There'll be a stove, too — unless you'll be cooking over a wood fire. Think twice before you do this, though. Building a fire under a tarp is asking for trouble. It can be done, but it had better be a small fire, and you'll want a canvas or cotton drill tarp. Sparks will make short work of nylon or polyester.

But I'm getting ahead of my story. Why don't I let Art Denney set the scene? Art has been contributing insights to this column almost as long as Farwell and I have been writing it, and he's a passed master of the art of camping in comfort. In fact, I think it was Art who inspired Luci and George to rethink their approach to paddling getaways. And here's how Art tackles the problem of keeping a convivial group of paddlers well‑fed and, yes, comfortable:

One of the reasons I like canoe camping in either my 18-foot Old Town wood-and-canvas Guide canoe or a friend's 17-foot Grumman aluminum canoe is that I can take my three-burner Coleman stove, my 14-inch Dutch oven, and my Army footlocker converted to a kitchen. All that and a tent, dining fly, sleeping bags... I almost have to obtain a small-barge permit when I go on some of the [US] Army Corps of Engineers waterways. Of course, all that heavy gear limits my paddling to places I don't have to portage more than about 20 feet!

Art lays it on the line. Comfort — real comfort — in camp entails certain sacrifices. You won't be single‑carrying the portages, for one thing. But if your measure of a trip's success is something other than miles inked on a map, or speed made good from waypoint to waypoint, these sacrifices can seem pretty small. And while the descendants of Nessmuk's go‑light brotherhood may quail at the thought of a footlocker‑sized camp kitchen, a lot of cooks will find the idea of such a dedicated workspace-cum-organizer irresistible. If you have any doubts on this score, just survey the offerings of camping outfitters. A Web search for "portable camp kitchen" or "chuck box" will yield a seemingly endless array, each one more fascinating and ingenious than the last. Some even include the proverbial kitchen sink.

Is that too much of a good thing? Are you happy to leave the kitchen sink behind when you paddle? If so, there's a middle way worth exploring. I've mentioned the wanigan already. It's something of a Canoe Country icon, a rigid pack that can double as a kitchen worktable, big enough to hold all the cookhouse gear needed to feed a party of ten or more hearty trenchermen — stove, reflector or Dutch oven, nesting billies, bowls, and utensils, not to mention a restaurant‑sized coffee pot — but still small enough to be humped over the carries by one person. A canoeing couple like Luci and George could dine very well indeed out of such a pack, using the extra space (there are only two of them, after all) for their food bags and even a half‑case of wine. And if their home waters prohibit glass containers? No problem. Good wine can now be had in sturdy plastic bags. These are lighter than glass and less likely to suffer misadventure in transit. They also take up far less space in the wanigan when empty than they did when full. That can't be said of empty bottles.

Do you think you'd like a wanigan of your own? Then you can find detailed instructions for making one in Gil Gilpatrick's The Canoe Guide's Handbook. (He calls it by the more prosaic name "kitchen pack," however.) Or, with a little ingenuity and some odds and ends of hardware, you can easily adapt a large plastic storage box from the local HyperMart to your needs. Either way, you'll gain an organizer and a flat work surface as well as a rigid pack. But what will you put it it? That's the question. And what better way to answer it than with a list? So I've prepared one. It's as complete as I could make it, and to ensure that I'd left nothing out, I asked Art to look it over. Let's call the end product …

The Camp Comfort Kitchen Master Checklist

First, though, a few words about what you won't see here: food. Yes, I know. That's only one word, isn't it? But it's a broad category, and you'll find lists of staple foods and suggested herbs and spices elsewhere, as well as a guide to menu planning. What you'll find here is hardware, pure and simple. Items that aren't usually carried in the wanigan are marked with an asterisk (*). That includes the wanigan, by the way. A thing can't contain itself, can it? And if this starts you thinking about Bertrand Russell's barber… Well, you're not alone.

The Cook's Workplace

□ Tarp
□ Table*
□ Wanigan top*
□ Lantern

The Dining Room

□ Table(s)*
□ Chairs*
□ Mosquito bar*
□ Tablecloth (posh!)

A Source of Heat

□ Stove(s)
□ Brazier*
□ Hibachi*
□ Wire grill

Fuel, Fire Tools,
and Accessories

□ Fuel can(s)* or …
□ LPG cylinder(s)*
□ Briquettes*

□ Stove repair kit
□ Igniter
□ Lighter
Fire starters

Parang or machete
Axe* or hatchet
□ Shovel* and …
□ Fire tongs*

The Cook's Tools

Knife (or knives)
Cutting board(s)
□ Spatula
□ Tongs
□ Large spoon
□ Large fork
□ Ladle
□ Whisk
□ Grater

□ Mixing bowl(s)
□ Rolling pin

□ Measuring cup(s)
□ Measuring spoon(s)

□ Can opener
□ Bottle opener
□ Corkscrew

□ Tool roll

□ Blender
Ice cream maker

A Pot to Cook In

□ Nesting billies
□ Lids
□ Pot‑grip
□ Skillet(s)
□ Wok
□ Paella pan
□ Griddle
□ Strainer
□ Colander

□ Skewers
□ Toaster
□ Wire broilers
Pie iron
□ Waffle iron
□ Sandwich iron
□ Toasting forks
Corn popper

□ Oven mitts
□ Pot holders
□ Fire gloves


□ Dutch oven
□ Reflector oven
□ Stove‑top oven

□ Baking pan
□ Cookie sheet
□ Pizza pan
□ Muffin pan
□ Pie dish


□ Plates
□ Bowls
□ Cups
□ Plastic glasses

□ Knifes
□ Forks
□ Spoons
□ Sporks
□ Chopsticks
□ Utensil roll

□ Napkins
□ Coasters
□ Finger bowls

I Need a Drink!

Purification tablets
□ Filter or lightsaber
Water bag(s)
□ Spare bladder(s) for bag

□ Cooler (e.g., Igloo)*
□ Bottles
□ Flasks

Tea or Coffee, Ma'am?

Coffee boiler or …
French press
□ Moka pot (espresso)
□ Coffee filters
□ Coffee mill
□ Coffee scoop

□ Tea kettle
Tea pot
□ Strainer

Washing Up

□ Dishpan
□ Water bucket
□ Detergent
□ Dishcloth(s)
□ Pot scrubber
□ Towel
□ Mesh bag
□ Trash bag(s)
□ Trash can*


□ Bear can(s)*
Bear bag
Vacuum flask(s)
□ Food storage boxes*
□ Food storage bags*
□ Soft cooler(s)*
□ Rigid cooler(s)*
□ Ice or freezer blocks*


□ Wanigan(s) or …
□ Chuck box(s)
□ Pack basket(s)
Duluth pack(s)
Freighter packframe
□ Barrel packs
□ Dry bag(s)
□ Dry box(s)

□ Barge

Whew! I doubt that any paddling party since Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery has hauled all this into the backcountry, but the list does give you some idea of what you might find in the Camp Comfort kitchen. (Is anything missing? Then please give me a shout. And don't blame Art Denney. The buck stops at my desk.)

And finally, since the kitchen hearth is often said to be the heart of a home, and since Camp Comfort will be your home from home for as long as you're on the water, I'd better say something about stoves. Most camp cooks will find it wonderfully convenient to have more than one burner. Go‑light couples can manage with single‑burner stoves, of course, and most do. At least they do most of the time. But if comfort is paramount, then a two‑ or three‑burner stove will be much appreciated by everyone. Or you can bring two or more single‑burner stoves. This alternative is often chosen by expeditions journeying to remote places, and it offers all the advantages of a multi‑burner stove, as well as flexibility and redundancy. You'll want to make sure that all the stoves use the same fuel, however. To do otherwise is to court disaster. 'Nuff said?

Let's see now… We've inspected the bedroom, gotten together for a chat in the living room, and watched the cook at work in the kitchen (I hope you offered to do the dishes). What's left? How about a visit to "the smallest room in the house"? It's the last stop on the line for all those delicious meals you've enjoyed, after all, and it's where we're headed next week, too. Hope to see you then!

Soup's On!


A paddler travels on her stomach. That won't be news to any canoeist or kayaker. And it's true even if you're not racing the clock (or the calendar) from camp to camp. In fact, a slow pace and modest goals make it possible to prepare and enjoy really good backcountry meals. But only if the cook has the right tools to work with. Now that you've seen what Camp Comfort's kitchen has to offer, though, you've got a good start on outfitting your own Michelin‑starred alfresco eatery. Bon appétit!

It would be remiss of me not to offer a heartfelt thank‑you to Art Denney for his help in preparing the Master List. With his example before me, I'll be taking my firepan and reflector oven down from the shelf for the first time in years. Farwell can't wait.


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