Get the most out of your next car camping trip by upgrading your backcountry kitchen. The right tools will broaden your culinary possibilities, and you will dine in style even on the road. Ditch the dehydrated meals. Don’t rely on your hunger to add the flavor. Camp smarter and eat better with the ultimate car camping kitchen.
Setting Up Your Kitchen
A sturdy surface to cook on is the key in a successful kitchen at camp. There are four main components of a camp-worthy table: stability, packability, being level and heat safe. A camp table can be stand-alone or built into your vehicle frame or on the bed of your truck. Tables help keep your kitchen in one place for easier clean-up and can keep your cooking separate from your sleep system and gear. There are a bunch of great options out there when it comes to tables, but our go-to is the Camp Time Roll-a-Table.
Two burner stoves are the perfect camp stoves, as they provide more surface area to cook complex meals in a timely manner. When picking out a two-burner stove, you want to consider time-to-boil, wind resistance, simmering ability, ease of care, and portability. You also want a stove that is easy to clean. When space and weight are not limited, a two-burner stove offers convenience for longer camping trips.. A few of our favorite two-burner stoves are by Camp Chef, Primus, Eureka, and Coleman.
Single-burner stoves are lower profile and more compact than a two-burner stove. You lose surface area but gain space when packing up camp. A single-burner stove is a great option for one-person meals and simple, one-pot recipes. Our favorite single-burner stoves are by Eureka, Coleman, and Jetboil.
Backpacking canister stoves are the most compact of the stove options. You will be limited in what you can cook and how quickly you can prepare a meal, but if you want to go light and fast, then this is the best option for you. Some of our favorites are made by GSI, SnowPeak, JetBoil and MSR.
If you really want to treat yourself, cooking in a dutch oven is an absolute culinary delight. Cooking in a dutch oven requires hot coals, so pay attention to fire regulations and bans before relying on this method to prepare food. You can change the baking temperature by adding more or less coals on top of and below the dutch oven. There is an art to cooking in an dutch oven, but boy oh boy, is it worth it.
Cookware & Utensils:
Choosing Cookware will depend on how light you want to travel. Cast iron falls on the heavier end of the spectrum, while “all-in-one” kits like the GSI Bugaboo BaseCamp cookset will be on the lighter side. Here are a few things that you will not want to leave at home:
- A pot
- Knife (for preparing food)
- Cutting Board
- Can opener
- Meal prep utensils (such as spatula or spoon)
- Compact scraper (GSI)
- Tea Kettle or Coffee Pot
- Plates (GSI Enamelware or GSI Cascadian Set)
- Sporks or basic eating utensils
- Coffee mugs or cups
Storing Your Dry Goods
Dry goods and snacks store nicely in bins which can then be stacked efficiently. Storing your food in a designated food box or bin can also help you keep tabs on how much you have left and what to resupply when you swing back into town. You want to avoid taking up cooler space for items that do not need to be kept cool, and keeping your food in one place comes in handy when maintaining a clean camp.
Prepare Food Ahead of Time
Pre-cut your ingredients to grant yourself more time to relax when camping. Pre-cut and store your ingredients in reusable to-go containers, which will stack nicely in your cooler and help you achieve sustainable camper status. Crack your eggs at home and keep them in a mason jar or tightly sealing container. Surprisingly, your eggs will stay intact and can be easily poured out of the jar when needed without breaking the yolk. And, if you want them scrambled, just shake the jar. Pre-mix sauces and collect little versions of your favorite condiments for some space saving fun. Beeswax wrappers are a sustainable way to save leftovers and prepare PB&J’s for the next day.
Ice Packs vs. Ice Blocks
For one night trips, a couple ice packs will cool just fine. You won't have to worry about grabbing a bag of ice on your way out of town, and you can reuse your packs time and time again. For longer trips and in warmer temperatures, a bag of ice would be the way to go. If you go the ice route, make sure to continually drain the water so that your ice stays solid for longer. For trips where replenishing the ice is not an option, pre-cool your cooler the night before you set off with a sacrificial bag of ice. Most of this bag will likely melt, but it will help keep the next bag of ice cold for far longer.
When camping in bear country, it is important to keep a clean camp and practice safe food storage. Your car is a good storage tool, but it may not always be enough. If you plan to store your food in your car, make sure to keep it contained and out of sight. Remember to roll your windows up before leaving your car unattended and lock your doors. If a bear box is available, use it to store any big items like your stove, pots, and cookware when not in use. In more remote areas, you can also set up a bear hang for your food or stow away a bear canister. These can be limited due to carrying capacity, but are great worry-free solutions. Learn more about bear safety, head to our article on car camping in bear country.
Less Is More
Easy clean-up starts when you first pack for your trip. Get rid of extra packaging before you leave the front country so you don't have to worry about extra trash when cleaning up your campsite.
Most clean-up jobs can be handled with a scraper, a rag, or paper towels if needed. A small bucket can serve multiple purposes while camping, from putting out fires to cleaning up your dishes. Make sure to pack out the food scraps with the rest of your trash, and don't just throw it into the bushes. If you want to earn some extra brownie points, a sand-free mat is a great way to collect food scraps that have fallen on the ground. When you are packing up, just shake the crumbs to the middle of the mat and pour them into your trash bag. Leave no trace, not even for a mouse.
Avoid Using Soap, If Possible
The majority of the cleaning can be done with just water and a good wipe down. When it comes to tough greasy messes, longer trips, or if you're extra worried about germs, a biodegradable soap, like Dr. Bronner’s, can be used. Only a small amount is needed, dilute it, and keep it minimal.
Pack It In, Pack It Out
If you packed it in, make sure you pack it out. Bring a trash bag or two when you head out to car camp. Not only will you be able to carry all your trash out, you can also pick up any litter that you run into along the way. It is a win-win. Pack all of your trash out with you which includes food scraps and the water used to clean (gray water). You can use a jar or old bottle to pack out your gray water. If you have to dump it, make sure to dispose of your grey water at least 200 feet from a water source, preferably in a high traffic area, such as a road, or dig a small 6" hole to bury it. Try to dilute your gray water as much as possible and strain the food particles out.
Leave It Better Than You Found It
Stick to sites that have clearly been camped in. Pick up any stray trash, even micro trash. We love Sea to Summit’s Trash Dry Sack. Keep your fires in the existing fire ring, no need to build an additional one. Burn and transport only endemic firewood. Always leave your campsite better than you found it.