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Kitchen Tips & Recipes for Car Camping

There’s something awesome about pulling up to a campsite with all of your gear, tons of food, and plenty of cooking supplies packed inside your vehicle. One of car camping’s biggest upsides is leaving the dehydrated food behind that’s better left for survivalists than hungry campers craving a juicy burger, delicious stir-fry, or hearty stew after a long day of exploring.

Seeing how much we love dining in the great outdoors, we’ve compiled a list of camp kitchen essentials for cooking like a pro while car camping, alongside an exhaustive camp kitchen checklist, just so you don’t leave anything behind while packing for your next trip. Additionally, we’ve included three of our favorite recipes for those seeking a delicious meal without hassle, which is key when you’re far from the conveniences of your home kitchen.

Car Camping Kitchen Essentials

Cooking makes all the difference when you’re in the middle of the woods for the weekend or camped alongside a towering crag in the desert. Seeing you’ll be downright ravenous after an active day of hiking, climbing, or riding bikes, it’s imperative you bring all the right gear and supplies for food storage, prepping, and cooking. We’ve compiled the following list of camp kitchen essentials to streamline your packing and preparation process, so you can be better prepared for your next car camp outing.

1. Chuck Box

The chuck box essentially functions as an organizational storage box for your pots and pans, cutlery sets, cooking utensils, cleaning supplies, and random kitchen accessories. Its beauty lies in the ability to quickly pick it up and toss it in your vehicle when an impromptu camping trip presents itself, especially when you don’t have time to pack all your cooking and kitchen supplies. Plus, it streamlines the meal prep and cooking process at camp, making your cooking experience quicker when you’re hungry and want to eat immediately.

2. Camp Stove

Seeing you’ll be car camping, there’s no need to skip on bringing a larger two-burner stove to cook all of your grillables, quickly boil water for meals, and whip up just about anything you’re creative enough to throw together at the campsite. Just remember to prep most of your food ahead of time, then you’ll be able to cook with less hassle, which is especially nice when you’re bombarded by hungry campers immediately looking for their fill.

A good propane-powered camp stove should be powerful enough to rival what you’d use at home by providing 10,000 BTU/hour, per burner. Many models are now pumping out a whopping 30,000 BTU/hour, which is what you’ll need to cook meat and veggies for large groups of people, in a short period of time. You’ll need to ensure you have enough propane to last throughout your entire camping trip. However, many camping stores and gas stations carry propane, so you’re usually alright if you need to pick some up along the way.

We have a number of favorite two-burner camp stoves and the Camp Chef Outdoorsman High Pressure 2-Burner Stove is certainly one of the best we’ve used, thanks to its two-burner design, each providing a massive 60,000 BTU/hour. You get micro-adjust valves for perfecting the heat output, whether you need to grill some steaks or simmer a stew to perfection. Another great option for a two-burner camp stove is the Eureka Spire Stove, which uses JetLink technology to link it to additional Spire Stoves or a Luna Satellite Burner. This way, you can customize your camp kitchen with all of the cooking power needed for larger groups of campers where a two-burner stove simply won’t cut it.

3. Dutch Oven

The Dutch oven impresses campers with its ability to cook a wide variety of bakable delights and connoisseur-quality dishes. Its major strength is that it evenly distributes heat, which is a blessing if you’re the type of camp cook (and we’re thinking of ourselves here) who regularly scorches the outside of their meal, only to leave the inside undercooked. A properly seasoned Dutch oven only gets better with time, leaving your food tasting delicious and making clean-up a breeze afterwards. However, many campers do swear by using the disposable Dutch Oven Liners for easier cleaning. One thing to note, a Dutch oven requires either an open fire or hot coals, so you can only use it when fire restrictions aren’t in place.

We’d recommend taking a good look at GSI Outdoors Hard Anodized Dutch Oven for its non-stick anodized aluminum cooking surface and tight-fitting rim, or check out a number of options from Camp Chef for a classic Dutchie made of high-quality cast iron that’s perfected over time by seasoning it with oil.

4. Coolers

Every bit as essential as a camp grill or Dutch oven, a bombproof, high-quality cooler is one of the first items we’d purchase while assembling a camp kitchen from the ground up. Since you don’t normally have access to a working refrigerator while camping, your cooler functions as your camp fridge for storing prepped meals, grillable meats, leftovers, and icy beverages. We’d recommend looking for something in the range of 35 to 45 liters in size for a weekend trip, all the way up to 55, 65, and 75-liter coolers for multi-day and week-long outings.

YETI and Orion make some of the strongest, longest lasting coolers on the market, with the ability to keep ice for days on end, even in sweltering-hot conditions. Check out YETI’s Tundra 35 and 45 Coolers, as well as Orion’s 35 and 45 Coolers for weekend camping trips and multi-day outings. Another option for storing beverages and perishable items at camp is a highly insulated cooler bag, which YETI makes in their ever-popular Hopper. The Hopper is available in a number of sizes, ranging from the smaller Hopper Flip 8, all the way up to the massive Hopper Two 30 Cooler.

Backcountry.com 2016 Spring Lifestyle, Moab, UT

5. Cookware Sets

You can assemble a camp cookware set from older pots and pans previously used in your kitchen, but it’s more convenient to purchase a camp cookware system that compactly nests together and contains everything you need for cooking and serving at the campsite. This way, you save on space and don’t forget anything required for cooking a tasty meal in the woods. Our favorite camp cookware systems contain a variety of non-stick pots and pans, a strainer lid for making pasta and stews, as well as mugs, bowls, and plates for serving up meals and drinks to your camp companions.

Some of our go-to choices for camp cookware sets include the GSI Outdoors Bugaboo Camper Cookset, GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Camper Cookset, and MSR Flex 4 Cooking System, due to their myriad of pots, pans, strainer lids, and cups included within a compact design. If you’re seeking something more basic for only one to two campers, the GSI Outdoors Halulite Microdualist Cookset is a great choice, as is the MSR Trail Lite Solo Cook Set.

 

6. Camp Tables

We’re guessing you’re not big on eating and preparing meals on the ground or having to use your vehicle’s tailgate as a makeshift table. That’s why we’d recommend a stable, fold-out camp table as an essential part of any camp kitchen. You’ll reap the benefits of having a clean and stable surface for chopping up veggies (with a cutting board, of course), prepping for meals, and feasting afterwards, especially if you’re at a rustic campsite that lacks a picnic table for cooking and dining.

There’s a number of options out there, but we’d aim for something that’s high quality and easy to pack, such as the Helinox One Hard Top Camp Table, GSI Outdoors Micro Table, or the ALPS Mountaineering Camp Table for this exact purpose. If you’re seeking something a little more substantial with extra organization, tables like the Camp Chef Sherpa Mountain Series Table & Organizer and the Eureka Cook Table offer a plethora of organizational compartments-making them ideal for the camp chef looking to store pots and pans, cutlery, and meal essentials off the ground.

7. Coffee

No one likes to wake up groggy while camping. To combat heavy eyes and excessive yawning, we’d recommend bringing some tasty coffee to fuel up for a long day of outdoor adventures. Instead of going through all of the camp coffee brewing options on the market, we’ve written an entirely different article on Camp Coffee Systems.

8. Lighting

Lighting is usually an afterthought while cooking at camp, but it’s a necessity if you’re making food for hungry campers after dark. We’d recommend setting a high-powered camp lantern alongside your cooking setup to see everything clearly in the dark. You can also bring a string of battery or USB-powered LEDs to hang over your dining area for a bit of ambience while the sun sets behind a brilliant backdrop of mountains and forests.

Camp Kitchen Checklist (download here)

  • Two-burner camp stove w/grill rack
  • Propane fuel for camp stove
  • Dutch Oven (if open fires are permitted)
  • Bag of charcoal (if using a Dutch oven or grill)
  • Firewood and kindling (if open fires are permitted)
  • Long-handled grill lighter or matches
  • 5-gallon water jug or multiple gallon jugs
  • Cooler filled with ice or dry ice chunks
  • Chuck box loaded with pots, pans, cutlery, etc…
  • Fold-out table for meal prep and eating
  • Camp-friendly coffee maker and brewing accessories
  • Pots, pans, and strainers for campsite cooking
  • Cooking utensils (e.g. tongs, spatula, etc…)
  • Cutting boards for veggies and meat (if applicable)
  • Plates, bowls, mugs, and eating utensils
  • Cleaning supplies (e.g. dish soap, scraper, sponge, etc…)
  • Washing bin for dirty cookware and utensils
  • Paper towels for cleanup and aluminum foil
  • Bottle, can, and wine openers (optional)
  • Trash bags, reusable baggies, reusable containers
  • Lanterns or lighting accessories for cooking at night

Three of Our Favorite Meals for Car Camping

Because your ability to cook a piping-hot, delicious meal while car camping far exceeds that of the minimalist cooking you’ve become accustomed to while backpacking, we’ve assembled three of our favorite recipes for car camping trips where you have access to a Dutch oven or a skillet and stove. It’s a good idea to do some meal prep ahead of time by chopping up veggies in reusable containers and packing the right spices, so you spend less time prepping food and more time enjoying a tasty meal after a tiring day of exploring outside.

1. Sweet Potato Quinoa Chili

A great meal for feeding masses of hungry campers after a long day of adventures, this meal is best cooked in a Dutch oven and is relatively quick to make. Plus, it’s a great choice for vegans, as it doesn’t use any animal-based ingredients. The recipe below serves 4 to 6 hungry campers.

  • 1 sweet potato, cubed (with or without skin)
  • 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup of dry quinoa
  • 1 can of black beans
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 32oz vegetable broth
  • Chili powder, cumin, oregano, and salt (to taste)

Directions:

Toss all of the ingredients into an oiled Dutch oven, cover it up, toss it on a fire or surrounded by hot coals, then stir every once in a while to keep the ingredients evenly distributed. It’ll be ready to go in an hour or so, which is pretty quick considering how filling and delicious the dish is. You can even throw some avocado or sour cream on top if you’d like to dress it up.

Dutch Oven Jumbalaya with Corn Bread. Camping in Moab, Utah.

2. Spicy Maple-Glazed Pork Chops with Dirty Rice

One of our all-time favorites, this dish is best left for those with medium to large dinner parties. It’s both easy to throw together and downright delectable, even for the most discerning of palates. Like the previous dish, you’ll only need a Dutch oven and spatula, which is a bonus if you’re car camping without a sophisticated kitchen set-up. The recipe below serves four, but you can easily chop the pork chops in half (especially if they’re bigger) to feed eight campers.

  • 4 healthy-sized pork chops
  • 1 bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  • Garlic (to taste), chopped
  • Cajun seasoning of choice
  • Maple syrup (as much as you’d put on pancakes)
  • 2 boxes of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice
  • 4 cups of water
  • 2 tbsp. butter or oil

Directions:

Grease down the Dutch oven with oil, put it on the fire or surrounded by hot coals, then toss in the chops, garlic, bell pepper, and onion. Next, drizzle maple syrup over it and sprinkle in Cajun seasoning. If you’re using a grill grate over a fire or putting the pot directly on some coals, make sure to keep an eye on temperature. You don’t want too high of heat, just enough to brown both sides of the pork chops and cook the veggies nicely.

Once the chops have browned sufficiently, throw in the rice and the included seasoning packets with water and butter. Give the Dutchie a stir and cover it up, so the water can come to a boil. Let it simmer for as long as you can stand, until the rice is cooked and the water has absorbed into the dish, which is usually around 30 minutes. You might want to crack the lid to allow some of the steam to escape during the last few minutes. Dig in and enjoy.

3. Breakfast Burritos

We’re pretty sure everyone loves breakfast burritos. In fact, we’ve rarely met a hungry camper who’s denied one, so this pretty much confirms our belief that breakfast burritos are some of the tastiest things you can serve in the morning. The following recipe feeds 6 or so hungry campers. If you’re a vegetarian, you can skip on the sausage to enjoy this easy and delicious breakfast.

  • 1 pound of sausage
  • 1 bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 purple onion, finely chopped
  • A few cloves of garlic
  • One dozen eggs, scrambled
  • Package of burrito-sized torillas
  • Toppings to taste: cheese, salsa, hot sauce, parsley, cilantro, avocado

Directions:

Chop up the bell pepper, onion, and garlic. Then, throw these ingredients into a cast iron skillet with the sausage. Let it cook over medium heat, stirring and chopping up the sausage while it cooks. If you’re looking for a little sweet taste, drizzle some maple syrup over the skillet and let that cook with the veggies and sausage.

Once the sausage is cooked through and the veggies are sautéed, go ahead and throw the eggs in the skillet. It’s better to beat the eggs prior to adding them to the skillet, but if you have an assistant, they can crack eggs in the skillet as you beat them. Make sure to keep a good stir going and scrape the bottom of the skillet to keep the eggs from sticking. Remove from heat and start assembling the burrito. You can get as creative as you want by customizing the toppings above to your exact tastes.