Car Camping Cooking

Car Camping Cooking: How To Eat Well Outdoors

Everything tastes better outdoors. And that’s especially true when you have a cooler and a complete cook system, and a campfire that lets you make special campground fare. Whether your car camping or boating, use this guide to strategize the menu when you really can take everything but the kitchen sink.  

Stoves

The right stove for you will depend on your group size, cooking ambitions, and budget. Here are the main options and some niche products for camp chefs who want to step it up.

Propane stoves

Suitcase-style propane stoves are the most popular models for car camping because they fold up fast for packing, they’re easy to set up (on a table or on the ground), and can accommodate a variety of pots and pans (big and small). They usually have two burners but some have more. They run on propane; for extended trips look for a model that has an adapter for large tanks. Heat output is measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units); something in the 10,000 to 15,000 range is generally good for car camping.  

  • Pros: Easy setup; good for groups; good for complex meals; wind screens improve fuel efficiency; durable 
  • Cons: Can be heavy and bulky (single-burner models exist if you want something more compact); can be tough to clean

Biofuel stoves

This design uses natural materials (think twigs and pinecones). Tip: Start with smaller pieces of organic matter and slowly ramp up from there, but don’t overcrowd the burn chamber (which will cut off oxygen and thus reduce the power of the flames). 

  • Pros: No need to buy or carry fuel
  • Cons: If natural materials aren’t available, you’ll need to pack wood pellets; must check local regulations to make sure gathering wood and other natural resources is allowed; may be prohibited when fires are banned; hard to adjust heat output

Grills

Like grilling? You’ll love having your own portable grill for campsites that don’t have BBQs or grates. These come in many styles, from inexpensive grills you just set atop your campfire to all-in-one units that integrate both fire and grilling grate (these have the added benefit of allowing low-impact fires where no fire pits exist). Some models use compressed gas, which can help keep grill temperatures more precise and speed up the cooking process, since you don’t have to wait for coals to be ready. 

  • Pros: Can be cheap (portable grates); easy to set up; delivers the smokey essence of classic camp food
  • Cons: Can be pricey (self-contained systems); takes more time to cook (getting fire started, waiting for coals) 

Pizza ovens

Want to impress friends and family? Camp-ready pizza ovens have arrived. Some can be set up on a picnic table while others sit directly on the ground. They’re fueled by everything from propane to wood to coal to wood pellets. Don’t forget your “pizza peel,” the paddle (typically wood) used to insert and retrieve pies. 

  • Pros: Restaurant-quality pizza (enough said)
  • Cons: Bulky; a niche item; can be pricey
Camper with headlamp on a hammock

Campfire Cooking

Nineteenth century explorers used to just throw a hunk of meat on to coals, let it cook, then brush off the ash and dig in. We’ve come a long way since then, but there’s still something satisfyingly primal about cooking over an open fire. Whether you’re baking potatoes wrapped in foil or grilling steak, here’s how to master campfire cooking.  

Prepare the fire

Start your fire at least 30 to 45 minutes before you plan to cook (you want a bed of hot coals). Cooking over coals instead of flames provides more even heat and protects cookware from scorching. To maintain heat for extended periods, keep the fire going on the side or back of the pit and, using a stick or tongs, pull hot coals under the grill where you’re cooking. 

Using charcoal

If you’re using charcoal instead of wood, it takes about 10 minutes to reach high heat (around 700 degrees, good for red meats) and 25 minutes for medium heat (about 400 degrees, good for vegetables and white meats). 

Skewers

Stack everything from marshmallows to marinated veggies or meats on a metal skewer. Hold your skewer over the flames and rotate. If you’ve got a grill, place your kebabs directly on the grill and simply turn occasionally.

Aluminum foil

For root vegetables and other foods that do best with slow roasting, wrap them in foil and cook on the edge of your fire. Wrap potatoes, garlic, and onions with salt and spices in two layers of foil. Make sure all the edges are crimped shut, then using tongs or a stick, nestle the foil-wrapped package in the coals. Check every 20 minutes or so and flip at least once—cooking times will vary based on the temperature of your fire and what’s in the wrap. 

Rock stand

Want to go back to basics? If you don’t have a grill or stove, use rocks to make an elevated platform for your pot. Create a triangle with three rocks in your fire pit; test that it holds your pot stably. Then build a fire, creating a bed of coals in the middle of your triangle. Once the fire is hot, put the pot on the rocks. Use a pot holder to retrieve it—the metal will be hot. 

Dutch Oven

When it comes to camp cooking, there’s nothing more versatile than a Dutch oven. Made of cast iron, with a heavy lid, a Dutch oven sits directly on coals and you can pile more embers on top. You can sauté, simmer, braise, sear, fry, and bake with a Dutch oven. Here’s how: 

Boil, simmer, steam

On its most basic level, a Dutch oven is a heavy-duty pot with a lid. That means any cooking method you’d do in a typical pot can be replicated in a Dutch oven: simmer sauces, steam quinoa, boil water, and more.

Sear, pan-fry, sauté

Any cooking you’d do in a cast-iron skillet can be also done in a Dutch oven. Sear your favorite steaks, sauté  vegetables for your fajitas, and more. Bonus: The high sides help prevent grease splatter.

Baking

With hot coals underneath and on top of the lid, you get the oven-like effect it’s named for. 

Braising 

Like baking, braising involves heating from the top and bottom. Add a small amount of liquid, and the evaporating moisture will get trapped by the Dutch oven’s lid, creating a moist, slow-cooking environment.

Clean Up 

Follow Leave No Trace guidelines to minimize your impact.  

Pack it out

Pick up and pack out all your trash—this includes food scraps. You can burn cardboard packaging in the campfire, but avoid burning food waste. It likely won’t burn completely. Tip: Tie garbage and recycling bags to the side of a picnic table or your car, and stow them at night so they don’t attract animals. 

Stay clear of water

Set up your camp kitchen at least 200 feet from lakes and streams. You don’t want to interfere with wildlife access to water, or contaminate it with food waste. 

Use biodegradable soap

Wash dishes at least 200 feet from natural water sources and use biodegradable soap. 

Put fires out

Use water to make sure your campfire is dead out and cool to the touch before you leave it unattended.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

MORE STORIES