Organizing the chuck box & storing camp kitchen gear

If you’re like me (perpetually messy and disorganized in the physical realm) but you want to go camping, sometimes on the spur of the moment, you could probably benefit from storing your camp kitchen equipment in a dedicated “chuck box.”

“Chuck box” is a synonym for grub box, camp box or patrol box. Any of these terms means “your portable camp kitchen in a container.” These days, many car campers use a large Rubbermaid tote as a chuck box.

Until a couple of years ago, we used a large plastic bin for all of our smaller camping equipment, too. What really prompted my chuck box organization project was realizing how inefficient it was to set up camp with everything coming out of the same large bin in the back of the car simultaneously. We kept getting in each other’s way!

Typically, we pull into a campground, and DH sets up the tent while I keep the kids out of trouble and begin setting up everything else (that doesn’t go into the tent.) On particularly bug-infested camping trips, simply leaving the back hatch of the car open as we dig for one item after another feels like a major mistake. It was obvious I could design a better system than the “one large plastic bin” default that had performed adequately before he had children.

Looking back to my own childhood of once or twice a year, week-long camping trips, I wanted to avoid the over-stuffed van (yay! Volkswagen bus!) and the inevitable late arrival with profanity-laden tent erection in the dark. My parents packed too much stuff!

On the other hand, a strictly minimalist camp simply isn’t comfortable enough, or convenient enough, for me to enjoy camping. Some items make a camping trip significantly more comfortable, like sufficient padding under a sleeping bag (physical comfort), or a set of marshmallow sticks that give every kid a simultaneous s’more after dinner (mental well-being.)

Upon reflection, it was obvious to me that I needed to improve the modularization of our camping equipment. In some ways, our gear was already stored in a modular way. After all, the clothing was in a duffel bag ready to go into the tent, and the sleeping bags were similarly corralled in an oversized canvas sack. We hadn’t yet taken this to the next logical step, however, and separated the other gear into collections by function. DH and I were nudging each other out of the way or tapping feet waiting to dig the next piece of equipment out of the same giant black hole Rubbermaid tote leading to inefficiency and sometimes frayed nerves (mine!)

Step one was to create a master checklist for all of our camping equipment. I started with the one from REI’s website and adjusted it to match our style and gear. I simply listed the Chuck Box and Cooler on the master list, and then created a separate list for everything related to camp kitchen equipment.

Listing all the items you’d like to have with you on a camping trip can be enough for some campers all by itself. Checking off each item as you grab it from your kitchen or garage and load it into the car means you will get where you’re going with the gear you expect. This saves the expense of duplicating household items you already own, but it does take time, and it also exposes what may be expensive or delicate household items to the dirt and rugged conditions of life outdoors.

Many, if not most, campers own at least some dedicated equipment for duplicating household chores in a natural environment. My own mother still has a lovingly constructed camp “pantry” made by her woodworking father for her childhood camping forays. That box probably weighed at least 70 pounds when she loaded it up with canned goods, but it is still sturdy and attractive over fifty years later. It also stirs up good memories for me every time I see it in her garage. While solid wood has largely been replaced by lighter weight materials in modern sporting goods stores’ camping aisles, there’s something to be said for having a piece of kit than can literally qualify as a family heirloom.

Mom isn’t willing to pass along her camping pantry yet, but I recognized my new chuck box almost instantly when I found it by web search. You can jump to Blue Sky Kitchen right now if you want to see it before finishing my soliloquy. My chuck box is the one he doesn’t call a chuck box: the Extended Work-Top Box camp table.

Every other chuck box design that I found online—homemade or commercial, old-fashioned wood or high ticket aluminum—shared one similar characteristic that I knew would not create a relaxing camp environment for me: a high center of gravity.

Suffice it to say that a high center of gravity means something is easier to tip over. I’m not the most graceful person. I have poor eyesight, and I am prone to distraction. I’m a grown up who still sometimes forgets about the tent guylines and trips in broad daylight. I’ve been known to shatter a glass by missing the table while engaging in spirited dinner conversation. The sight of a camp kitchen perched on tall, skinny legs on the uneven dirt ground doesn’t give me peace of mind.

I love my Work-Top Box because I can set up the raised work surface and extension leaves while keeping the bulk of my equipment stored in the box body safely down on the ground. The weight of the box itself keeps the raised area steady, and any equipment inside only adds to the ballast.

While the Work-Top Box is obviously a utilitarian piece of equipment, it is also a wooden box (oak hard ply and redwood) made by a human being, not a roto-molded plastic bin churned out by a factory. It was designed by an American entrepreneur who obviously enjoys camping and likes to share his expertise. He offers plans, kits you can build yourself, and fully built boxes ready to stock and take camping. I get an extra measure of satisfaction every time I see my Work-Top Box stored away in the garage because I feel good about every aspect of this purchase, and it brings back fond memories of camping trips past.

Having settled on the ideal storage box for my camp kitchen, I loaded it up and took it camping a few times. Once deployed, it met my needs and expectations, but I realized a few things about set up that could obviously be improved.

Chuck box no interior organizationS

Chuck box, haphazardly stuffed with camping equipment

First of all, the fully loaded Work-Top Box is something I can slide a few feet to get it out of my way, but not something I can safely lift, let alone carry. I can split the load with someone, but it isn’t ideal for our camp set up scenario for me to require assistance with one of the first tasks I need to accomplish. I want the chuck box up and out of the way in case DH finishes setting up the tent before I’m done and wants to access more gear from the car.

I don’t want the box to be lighter for any scenario except moving it, so I’m not looking for permanent changes to the box. Once again, modularization can solve my problem.

Upon arriving at camp (or returning home), I can take the lid off the chuck box and remove a few interior bins—one at a time!—to keep the weight of each load from being too much for my arthritic hands. Choosing lightweight bins made of washable materials means I can set them down on the picnic table, the ground, or whatever surface is convenient. I can also enlist the help of even my younger child to carry a dish pan sized load. With the heavy cookware thus shifted, I can lift the empty—or nearly empty—Work-Top Box and carry it to the desired location before setting up camp (or cleaning up the soiled equipment in the dishwasher back at home.)

Chuck box steam pans empty stackedS

Food-safe, dishwasher-safe, lightweight, commercial quality steam pans

Checking the interior dimensions of the Work-Top Box, I discovered that readily available commercial cooking equipment called “steam pans” were a very good fit inside the box. You’ve probably seen food served from these at buffets in metal chafing dishes. One full size steam pan almost completely fills the box from side to side, but leaves room to store a full-sized cutting board between its lip and the long side of the box. (A standard, full size steam pan measures 20-¾ inches long by 12-¾ inch wide.) These pans come in different depths, but 2-½ inch, 4 inch, and 6 inch deep pans are common. A four inch deep full size steam pan will hold all of my long, skinny BBQ sized cooking utensils, the pot holders, and a host of other kitchen equipment. I will keep this at the top of my Work-Top Box when it is fully packed.

Chuck box ready to re load with organizationS

Chuck box ready to pack with steam pan organizers; oversized yellow cutting board and silver heat-resistant mat fit along side and bottom

One full size pan is the equivalent size to two “half” pans, 4 “quarter” pans, and so on, available in several other common fractional sizes. (A half size steam pan measures 12-¾ inch by 10-½ inch.) For my purposes, I was also looking to replace my standard plastic dish pan with a smaller size that would fit more efficiently in my new box. Two six inch deep “half” steam pans, one made of stainless steel and the other in less expensive, lighter-weight polypropylene plastic, stack neatly next to each other beneath the full size pan. These two pans are big enough to wash my camping dishes.

The stainless steel pan, being a cooking implement, could actually be used directly on the stove or by the fire to heat water, though I’ll probably continue to heat water in a kettle on the stove during dinner as I have in the past.

Lids are available for these, but I didn’t buy any since the rims of the half pans provide sufficient support the full pan. The extra depth of the 6-inch half pans allows me to pack taller items, including a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup, inside each one. If I decide that I want to store the two half pans above the full size pan once we’ve field tested this system, a flat, full-size pan lid should allow for the pans stack in this configuration.

Chuck box half pans not ideal on top of full panS

Full pan underneath would require a lid to support half pans above

Colander inserts are available that perfectly line any given size steam pan. Since I was looking to add a space-efficient colander to my chuck box, I opted for a half sized one that nests beautifully in one of my dish pans. Big round objects are always hard to pack efficiently, so I was pretty excited to find these.

The Work-Top Box is about 12 inches deep with the extension leaves stored inside, so stacking the six-inch and four-inch deep pans will leave plenty of room for last minute additions or somewhat oversized items at the top. Loading up the box this way isn’t fiddly or time-consuming. It also makes it much easier to find and remove any given utensil compared to the jumble inside when I first loaded the box. Kitchen tools also stay organized while the Work Top Box is deployed in camp.

Chuck box deployed state with equipmentS

Blame my photography, not my Work Top Box, for looking crooked

Chuck box deployed state with equipment close up full panS

The full size steam pan goes back in the box once the Work Top Box is set up, adding weight to keep that center of gravity low

Buying a bunch of specialty equipment isn’t necessary to enjoy camping, but it certainly can make packing and unpacking more convenient. How do you organize your camp kitchen equipment?

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