If you are new to car camping or wish to up your campsite cuisine, you might be tempted to run out and buy an expensive, cumbersome set-up that has everything including the kitchen sink. Do not buy expensive gear only to discover that it is not for you. Consider all of your car camping cooking options first.
8 Car Camping Cooking Options
- The Ring of Fire: cooking on an open flame
- Tiny Titans: cooking with small stoves
- Having Gas in the Woods: ye’ old propane cook-top
- Sun-burn: reflections on solar ovens
- Glamp-mode: go big and feel like you went home
- Going Cold Turkey: no cooking allowed
- Electric Warrior: Can you cook with electricity without a hook-up?
- Briquette Etiquette: charcoal grilling gone wild
I like to experiment with car camping cooking options. However, I generally end up cooking a grand dinner on the campfire, cooking a simple breakfast on a tiny stove, and eating a cold lunch.
Car Camping Cooking Option 1: The Ring of Fire
This is by far my favorite car camping cooking option. It is fun and cheap (just like me). You can really find the romance of its ancient simplicity. I enjoy the challenges and generally have great results. You can cook (or even bake) just about anything.
It is labor-intensive (collecting wood, building the fire, cleaning soot-covered gear, etc.) If you do not enjoy the process or do not want to spend the time, this is not for you. You also need to make sure that the weather and fire conditions will allow for this car camping cooking option.
Know if your camp site will have a fire ring for cooking. If it does not, you can rig up a stone tripod within the pit or invest in a cooking grill or tripod.
Check the price of a folding grill on amazon.
Check the price of a cooking tripod on amazon.
Check fire conditions and weather reports before setting your heart on this car camping cooking option.
Do not try to cook in a blazing inferno. Create a blazing inferno, let it die down, and spread it out before cooking. The remaining coals will have less flame, less smoke, and a long-lasting, even heat.
Know how you will adjust the temperature. I usually use a portable, folding grill, so I can have hot side and a cooler side. Once you have set up, it is difficult and dangerous to adjust your cooking platform.
Use aluminum foil so that you do not have charred, uncooked food. There are lots of great aluminum foil packet recipes to try.
Use cookware that heats evenly. Since we are car camping here, we can afford to lug some nice cast iron stuff.
Check the price of a cast iron Dutch oven on amazon.
Check the price of a cast iron cooking set on amazon.
Collapsible oven accessory on amazon
Don’t use this method for breakfast. By the time you are finished putting out the fire so that it is safe to leave, you have missed too much recreation time.
Car Camping Cooking Option 2: Tiny Titans
You do not need to be a gung-ho through-hiker to benefit from a tiny stove. They heat up fast, take minimal space, and are perfect for preparing a quick, hearty breakfast. They can also save the day when the weather takes a turn.
This cooking method has some obvious limitations. The fuel tanks are expensive, wasteful, and perennially empty. If you are going to include a tiny stove in you car camping cooking options, consider using a stove that uses biomass (twigs, pine-cones, etc.) The other problem with tiny stoves is that they provide only a small, precarious cooking space.
Do not use a tiny stove that requires store-bought fuel. It is simply not worth the money and and effort. It is easy enough to find some dry twigs (even in a wet environment).
I love my BioLite CookStove. The integrated fan makes random twigs and wood chips burn hot and clean. The thermo-electric generator allows it to charge itself! You can even steal some of the electricity to charge a phone. (Do not plan on producing much electricity for DC lights etc.)
Check the price for a BioLite CookStove on amazon.
A lower-tech car camping cooking option is a rocket stove. Rather than using a fan to accelerate the fire, it uses its shape to increase the air flow. If you are so inclined, you can even make your own.
Check the price of a portable rocket stove on amazon.
Plan for one-pot meals. Do not frustrate yourself by trying to cook an elaborate meal over a tiny titan unless you are looking for a challenge.
Practice with your small stove. Make sure that you can get it burning properly before your camping trip. Test the placement of your stove and cookware to make sure it will be stable and safe.
Car Camping Cooking Option 3: Having Gas in the Woods
Propane gas cook-tops are reliable, easy, safe, maintenance free, and perform almost as well as the burners on your home range. You can even get a collapsible oven accessory. The one that my friend gave me over a decade ago still works beautifully; it has lasted through years of service (even when we used it for months during a kitchen renovation.). I like the propane tank version, but there are also refillable liquid gas versions.
The main drawback of these cook-tops is the fuel. If you are buying the little green propane tanks, they can be very difficult to recycle. In the past it was next to impossible, but now Coleman does sell these tanks with a “green key” to render the tank safe for recycling with other steel.
I have the standard Coleman propane cook-top, and it is threatening to outlive us all. Even when I used it daily for months, it gave me no problems.
Check the price of the Coleman classic camp stove on amazon.
Check the price on the Coleman Dual-Fuel version (CLF or unleaded gasoline) on amazon.
Have plenty of fuel before you leave. You can weigh the tanks if you are unsure about your supply: full canister = 31 ounces; empty canister = 14.75 ounces
Be aware of the wind and orient the cook-top accordingly. Make sure that open side is downwind.
The cook-top will smell like food (even after cleaning). Be aware that it might attract wildlife after you go to bed.
Car Camping Cooking Option 4: Sun-burn
I have yet to experiment with option, but many people love it. Some models claim that they can reach temps of 400 degrees and cook in any natural light that casts a shadow. You can cook/bake almost anything. If you are handy, you might enjoy building your own solar oven.
Sun ovens have several drawbacks. The well-made ones are pretty pricey. Many owners complain that they never get anywhere close to the temperatures claimed by the manufacturer. You may need to stay put with the oven to change the position of the reflectors or defend your goodies from nature’s cookie monsters.
Test your solar oven before you go camping. Make sure that everything will fit and see what kind of temperatures you can achieve.
Do not rely on a solar oven. If the weather changes, or your site is shadier than you thought, you might be out of luck.
Don’t be cheap. (I can’t believe I wrote that.) The reviews for the cheap models are pretty bad.
Check the price of the oven shown on amazon.
Car Camping Cooking Option 5: Glamp-mode
If your idea of roughing it is using frozen rather than live lobster, perhaps you had better stick to glamping. Having every convenience and luxury at your disposal will be costly. Furthermore, there is the added effort of moving, setting up, and maintaining all the gear.
Glamping kitchen stuff:
Car Camping Cooking Option 6: Going Cold Turkey
Refusing to cook at all is an option. Maybe you are willing to trade hot meals for more time by the lake or on the trail.
I do not recommend this approach as I truly enjoy the fun and challenge of campsite cooking. For me, camping is about slowing down and enjoying the simple tasks of living. Besides, food prepared and consumed outdoors magically tastes better.
Car Camping Cooking Option 7: Electric Warrior
I put together the solar generator shown. I wanted to be able to charge all of lights and stuff and the campsite. I only bought the small DC kettle on a whim to see what it could do. The truth is that I almost never use it. It is fine if you are making coffee and instant oatmeal for one.
Don’t bother. It is not a practical solution in the long run.
If you already have a portable power source, you might want to invest in a hotplate or kettle.
Check the price of a DC electric kettle on amazon.
Car Camping Cooking Option 8: Briquette Etiquette
I am not a fan of this car camping cooking option. Firstly, the little grills seem to rust out the moment they leave the store. Secondly, the price of the charcoal adds up. Lastly, I always seem to create a sooty mess on myself and my surroundings when dealing with charcoal.
On the other hand, charcoal grilling is convenient and adds some great flavor. If you cannot bear the thought of a weekend without your charcoal grill, why not take it along?
Extra Car Camping Cooking Tips:
A plastic toolbox can make for a great washing sink and provides storage as a bonus.
If you use cookware that does not require soap, you can make things easier. You can scrub cast iron or stainless steel with some water and creek sand, wipe them down, and call it a day. (Note: The smell of the cooking oil etc. will remain.)
Plan at least one extravagant meal. Car camping is supposed to be fun.
Buy the cold groceries when you get there. There is no need to cool your groceries for hours on the highway. Unless you are headed far from civilization, they will have milk and hamburger when you get there. Make a meal list, pack up the dry goods, and hit the road.
Finding the car camping cooking options that work best for you is part of the fun. Since camping is such an affordable getaway, you can afford to experiment with some different gear. I generally end up cooking a grand dinner on the campfire, cooking a simple breakfast on a tiny stove, and eating a cold lunch.
Please share your camp cooking tips in the comments section.