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Car camping is tied with RVing as America’s favorite way to road trip across the country. You’ve got the freedom of the open road without the expense of hotel rooms and restaurants. It’s our favorite way to travel for a million reasons, but one that tops the list is that we can cook our own food and eat it outside.
Since decking out our portable car camping kitchen, we’ve had the pleasure of impromptu lunches at awesome drive-by picnic spots, afternoon tea on a rocky bluff overlooking the ocean, and amazing candlelight dinners in the shadow of the world’s tallest trees. We wouldn’t change it for the world.
What’s in Our Camping Kitchen? Best Car Camping Cookware
When I use the term car camping, I don’t mean that we’re actually sleeping (or cooking) in the car. I just mean that we’re taking advantage of campsites near our car so that we don’t have to pack as light as we would if we were backpacking. We use this camping kitchen set-up when camping and glamping, but not when we have to hike to our camping spot.
It’s taken us years of practice to create the perfect car camping kitchen, but I think we’ve got it down now. Our “kitchen” is actually a big duffel bag that holds all of our cookware and supplies. We have to pack pretty light in order to cram everything into our tiny car. But we also love good camp food and cooking in general, so it’s always a balance.
We don’t often cook over a campfire unless we’re camping with a large group. Campfires are awesome, but when camping long-term, they can become a hassle, and expensive if you have to buy firewood. During our most recent camping road trip (summer 2021), the entire west was under threat of forest fires, so campfires weren’t even allowed. Most places only allowed gas stoves in outdoor camping kitchens.
The hub of our car camping kitchen is a Coleman 2-burner propane stove that we use for most of our camp meals. This is a workhorse of a stove, and we don’t leave home without it on most trips. If space is tight, like when we’re flying to a destination and renting a car, we pack a small backpacking stove and buy fuel when we get where we’re going.
Here’s what else in our car camping kitchen:
2 Saucepans, a two-quart, and a four-quart – Our all-time favorite set is made by MSR. It’s very light and made for backpacking. The lid has a strainer built-in for pasta, plus a removable pot grabber. We have had other cooking sets over the years, but this one is still our favorite. It is an initial investment, but we’ve had ours for more than 10 years, and we still use it every summer.
A 12-inch fry pan with a removable handle – We use this frying pan from MSR. It’s a new purchase, but we love it so far.
Plates and silverware for everyone in the family – We love these plates from MSR because they can hold soup or solids. They are lightweight, easy to clean, and come in different colors. We use regular stainless steel silverware from our kitchen at home.
Travel mugs – We love our Contigos, which are available at many outdoor/discount stores. We have one for each member of the family in a different color. They’re totally spill-proof, which means I can throw my tea in my backpack when I head out to watch the sunset after dinner.
A small cutting board a chef’s knife – We got this set from Primus. For Christmas last year, my husband bought me I love it that it wraps up into its own little bundle. We bring it with us to the beach, on road trips, and even when we’re staying at hotels.
A serrated, folding picnic knife – We LOVE this knife, which is probably our most coveted item when we’re out camping or picnicking with friends. It’s also our all-time favorite gift for outdoor-loving friends. We take it everywhere and use it for bread and tomatoes. For some reason, it doesn’t get great reviews on Amazon. We bought ours locally and have used it happily for 10+ years.
A whisk, rubber spatula, wooden spoons, big serving spoons, and a bench scraper – We don’t have dedicated camp utensils yet. We simply grab everything we need from our kitchen before we head out the door.
A plastic liquid and dry measuring cup
Fuel for the stove, a lighter, and matches
A roll of tinfoil, plastic Ziploc bags, and grocery bags for the clean up
And speaking of coolers, we finally splurged on a fancy cooler that actually holds us for more than a day. The RovR 60 is a big cooler, but great for family camping and outdoor kitchens for foodies. It’s got high-density foam insulation so ice lasts for a full week, and it also comes with a dry compartment to keep your veggies and meats from becoming waterlogged. Now that we are heading into an empty nest, we have our eye on the RovR 45 for weekend trips.
Our super awesome homemade spice kit is a game-changer. Click the link to read more about our camping spices.
Tips for Enjoying Your Car Camping Kitchen
Now, the fun begins! Here are some first-hand tips for making the most of your car camping kitchen wherever you happen to wander.
- Make sure your cookware serves more than one purpose. We use our plate/bowl hybrids so we can eat pancakes or soup out of them, and we try and buy the lightest cookware we can find so that we can also use it for backpacking.
- Create a special recipe book for your car camping meals. I know the smartphone revolution is long past, but I still prefer real books when we’re camping (nothing to recharge). We paste our camp recipes in a compact little notebook. We have a handful of favorite recipes that are easy to prepare, delicious to eat, and don’t make a lot of dishes. The notebook lives in the side pocket of our kitchen bag.
- Hot beverages are the cat’s meow. Tea, coffee, hot cocoa – whatever makes you happy at home will thrill you when you’re on the road. Generally, we keep things simple, but sometimes we need special hot drinks to pacify the masses.
- Leave the bacon at home. Obviously, you bacon lovers will keep on keepin’ on, but I’m done. Leaving the bacon behind on camping trips was a hard lesson to learn, but I love not scrubbing greasy bacon pans in the woods. They are nearly impossible to clean, and the fat attracts animals and makes everything smell bad.
- Create a spice kit and learn to love it. The spice kit is magic in the woods and a must for all outdoor camping kitchens. It can fix almost every cooking problem, at least the ones that revolve around taste. Our spice kit is a menagerie of plastic bottles filled with our favorite seasonings. This is all packed into a zippered bag that we keep in the pantry (plastic bin).
- Invest in a kitchen tarp. Rainy days are part of the deal, and without a cover for cooking and eating, you’re either snacking on granola bars in the car or heading to the nearest restaurant. This inexpensive tarp has been worth its weight in gold, and we will never go car camping without it.
- Don’t forget the finishing touches. A pretty tablecloth, candles, and cloth napkins make every meal feel special, and there is nothing better in the whole world than watching the sun go down in a beautiful place while eating an awesome camp-cooked meal in luxury.
Read This Next: How to Wash Dishes While Camping
Whether we’re relaxing at home or livin’ it up on the road, eating is still one of our family’s favorite pastimes. With every camping trip, we refine our packing, cooking, and organizing skills. We’d love to hear some of your tips for making the most of your car camping kitchen.
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