Car Camping Essentials: How to Create the Ultimate Kitchen for Camping
By: Travel and Adventure Writer Breanna Wilson
From portable coffee and espresso makers to your food essentials packing list, here’s how to create the ultimate kitchen for car camping and overlanding, no matter where you are in the world.
Car camping. It’s long been one of my favorite ways to travel. And one of my favorite ways to explore my own backyard.
Even if I’m only a few hours or even a few minutes away from home, it feels like an instant adventure. Getting away from city lights, away from a computer screen, away from cell phone service, putting my feet on the ground, and cooking a meal for myself and my travel companions, it truly is my happy place.
Not to mention, my happy place also happens to mean that my backyard is the steppes of Mongolia, the place I call home every summer. And a place where I’ve learned the importance of creating the ultimate outdoor kitchen for camping and which car camping gear is essential and which should be left at home.
Recently, my car camping adventures have taken me to places like the Gobi Desert and the Mini Gobi by way of a thoughtfully kitted-out overland camper 4x4 packed with everything I needed to survive a few days on my own. There are no grocery stores out here, barely any water sources, and no Uber Eats.
And while I’m no stranger to camping and overlanding, this is overlanding to the extreme. Mongolia isn’t a place to make a mistake out on the road (and I use the word “road” loosely) because you’re often so far back from a soum (town) and away from people that one mistake could be costly.
From what to pack for the ultimate camp kitchen to the do-not-leave-home-without-these car camping essentials, here’s what I’ve learned about creating the best camp kitchen and overlanding setup, no matter where you are in the world.
Creating the Perfect Kitchen for Camping: The Car Camping Essentials Checklist
Let’s start with the basics. Here’s what every mobile kitchen needs for car camping. Whether you’re not far from home or you’re in a remote and desolate foreign country (like Mongolia), these are the car camping essentials that will not only make your life easier. They’ll make your trip that much more delicious (and caffeinated).
Don’t leave home without:
- Small Stove to Boil Water
- Large Stove for Cooking
- Pots and Pans
- Portable Coffee Maker and Espresso Maker
- Knife and Cutting Board
- Can, Wine, and Bottle Opener
- Dishes and Utensils
- Cleaning Supplies
- Table and Chairs
Now, let’s talk about each and why you shouldn’t leave home without these pieces of car camping kitchen equipment, at a minimum.
Small Portable Stove to Boil Water: I like to have a small, easy setup stove that I can use solely for boiling water while I’m on the road. I use this in addition to a larger, more heavy-duty stove that I use for cooking. So, one stove for boiling water, one stove for cooking. Got it?
Lightweight stoves such as the Jetboil or MSR WindBurner Personal Stove are excellent because they come with a lid that doubles as a strainer (noodles, anyone?) and a built-in bottom that doubles as a bowl. You can boil water in approximately 100 seconds, which means it’s excellent for roadside espresso breaks and quick and easy lunches when you don’t want to pull out your whole camp kitchen setup.
Keep it handy behind your passenger side seat or in another readily accessible spot (you’ll figure out what works for you). The MSR PocketRocket Stove is another excellent option at a lower price point, but without the built-in mug and strainer.
Recommended Small Portable Stove to Boil Water: Jetboil Flash Cooking System
Large Stove for Cooking: Now, onto the cooking portion of our car camping program. I prefer a stove with two burners and universal gas canisters to power that. You can always cook over the fire, but if it’s wet, or if you can’t find wood (good luck with that on the steppe), or if you’re too cold/lazy/hungry to take the time to build a fire, it’s a quick and easy way to get a meal going. Especially since you never want anyone to get hangry on a trip. Trust me. It’s not good for anyone involved.
Recommended Large Stove for Cooking: Primus Kinjia Camping Stove
Pots and Pans: When it comes to the perfect pot and pan assortment for your camp kitchen setup, this will depend on the size of the group you’re overlanding with and your personal cooking preferences.
At a minimum, a skillet and large pot, both with lids, are essential. (Lids are your best friend in the wind and rain.)
Titanium cook wear is usually the lightest, but that won’t be a concern for you since you're traveling by car. Cast iron sets are always a nice touch but can be a bit more challenging to cook with, especially if you’re in a hurry. Choosing a set of pots and pans that are either ceramic or non-stick aluminum is typically the best and easiest to use during a car camping trip.
Recommended Pots and Pans: Snow Peak Aluminum Non-stick Cooker 1000 Cooking Set
Portable Coffee Maker and Espresso Maker (Very Important!): This is very, very important. Listen closely for the sake of your sanity and the sanity of your car camping group. The best portable coffee makers for camp kitchens are the Wacaco Cuppamoka and Pipamoka, and the best portable espresso maker is the Wacaco Nanopresso.
All three devices require hot water (they don’t heat water themselves), which is where your Jetboil comes in handy. All three are also make-and-drink ready, meaning they have built-in mugs and cups that also double nicely when the day turns from coffee time into adult beverage time.
Recommended Portable Coffee Makers: Cuppamoka, Pipamoka
Recommended Portable Espresso Maker: Nanopresso
Knife and Cutting Board: Never underestimate the power of a sharp knife. And an adequately sized cutting board. Forget them, or go the cheap/lazy route, and you’ll curse yourself the entire trip. Read that again.
Recommended Knife and Cutting Board: Rakau Knife Set
Can, Wine, and Bottle Opener: There is almost nothing as frustrating as being at a campsite and not being able to open that can of beans or tinned fruit you were looking forward to. Almost as much as it will pain you to sit and stare at that bottle of wine, you won’t be able to open it because you forgot a wine opener. Plus, any excuse to bring or buy a new Swiss Army knife is always good in my book.
Recommended can, wine, and bottle opener: Victorinox Swiss Army Camper Knife
Dishes and Utensils: When it comes to eating a delicious meal around the campsite, I can’t help but want a real plate, a real bowl, and real utensils. And that doesn’t mean anything fancy – or raiding your home kitchen before you go. It can be as simple as purchasing an enamelware set of plates and bowls before your trip and packing them with you. They’re light, easy to clean and wipe off, and they will make you feel like a real human after a full day of probably feeling like less than one.
Recommended Plates and Bowls: Stoic 4-person Enamelware Set
Recommended Eating Utensils: Toaks Titanium 3-Pieces Cutlery Set
Cleaning Supplies: You’re going to want a sponge, biodegradable dish soap (because you love Mother Nature), a quick-drying towel, and last but certainly not least – and the most underrated camp kitchen accessory on the planet – a collapsible washing bin. Trust me on this last one.
Recommended biodegradable dish soap: Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash
Recommended quick-drying towel: Matador Ultralight Travel Towel
Recommended collapsible washing bin: Sea to Summit 10-Liter Kitchen Sink
Table and Chairs: There are several different ways to go for a foldable table and campsite chairs. My recommendation is to invest in what you like from the beginning and get something that will last. A little investment goes a long way.
My preference for a camp chair is something higher off the ground, and something big enough to wrap a blanket around me and still sit comfortably because blankets are the best, and so is being outside in the crisp night air.
Again, I prefer a higher table and something large enough to sit around as far as tables go. This means large enough to put snacks, dinner, and drinks on.
Recommended Chairs: Big Agnes Mica Basin Armchair
Recommended Table: Helinox Table One
Camping Kitchen Cooler: Here’s where I get particular. Because do you know how good a cold beverage tastes at the end of a long day of driving and exploring? Dang good. That’s how good.
Finding the perfect cooler takes a bit of trial and error. Too large and you’re wasting space and too small and you’ll be hungry in the middle of the night. I prefer a traditional cooler that does not plug into your car but that you can add ice to at the beginning of the trip and trust that it will do its job. With minimal opening and digging around, a large cooler should be enough for both food and drinks. Throw your beers in the cold stream once you get to the campsite to avoid putting them in the cooler in the first place and to avoid opening and closing the cooler too many times. Try to limit yourself to only open your cooler once or twice per meal. It will make all the difference.
Recommended Cooler: Yeti Tundra 45 Hard Cooler
Cooking While Car Camping: The Basics
You have your car camping kitchen essentials, now what? Well, now comes the fun part – cooking and eating.
Food: When it comes time to think about your meals, think easy one pot/pan, well-balanced nutritional meals. It’s tempting to overdo it but don’t. You’re there to enjoy yourself and not stress about chopping, cooking, and cleaning. Plus, you don’t want to over-pack on ingredients. And while instant ramen is excellent if you’re in a hurry, it gets old after a while. Not to mention meals like instant ramen don’t fuel me the way I need a meal like this during a big trip. For me, that’s super important. If I don’t feel my best, I will not enjoy my journey as much as I should. And that’s a shame.
Here are the car camping food essentials that always make my pre-trip shopping list:
- Granola bars/granola and Oatmeal
- Fresh and dried fruits that don’t smoosh easily
- Eggs (hard boil some before you leave)
- Crackers/bread to make sandwiches
- Dried pastas
- Pre-washed (and cut) veggies
- Canned Tuna/Fish
- Canned sauces and pestos
- Chocolate bars
- Peanut Butter
Remember: don’t shop for your trip hungry. The same rules as everyday shopping apply. To avoid unnecessary spending and overpacking, write a list and plan your meals (and who is cooking them and cleaning up after them) ahead of time.
Coffee (pre-grind, or don’t forget a portable grinder): This is a big one for me. I prefer to grind my coffee fresh each morning, which means I need a portable grinder to do that with, especially since I like to switch between making espresso and coffee, which requires two different grind sizes.
When I pack my coffee beans, I use small reusable containers that limit air exposure to ensure my beans stay as fresh as possible throughout my trip. I try to keep them stored in a cool, shaded part of the car (if possible), and I keep everything packed together for easy access – beans, portable grinder, Cuppamoka, Pipamoka, Nanopresso, and my small stove so that I can quickly boil water, brew, and have my caffeine fix within minutes.
Spices and Seasonings: These might be more important than anything else. Never forget to pack salt, pepper, oil for cooking, and never underestimate the power of a bottle of hot sauce or ranch dressing for campsite morale. It’s the small things that make the most significant difference when creating your campsite kitchen.
Other important things to keep in mind when cooking outdoors…
Wind. Always prepare for wind. And rain. Whether stand-alone or as part of your adventure rig or rooftop tent, tarps and awnings are essential to being prepared to cook in any and every element. Because, at some point or another, you will.
Plan on having no electricity. That’s why Wacaco’s portable coffee and espresso makers are perfect. No power means no problems.
Matches, matches, and more waterproof matches. Never forget a fire source.
Most importantly – have fun. Don’t stress. If you forgot something, improvise. If you have to open your wine with a blow torch, do it. If you forgot forks, use tree branches as chopsticks. If you don’t have a shiny new stove or other fancy equipment – it doesn’t matter. Make do with what you do have. And most of all, remember that creating the ultimate kitchen for camping is fun.
The Last of the Car Camping Essentials: How to be as Self-Sufficient on the Road as Possible
Fill Up on Water: While I do always travel with a portable water filtration device, I’ll also pack gallons of water just in case. To save plastic, I try to reuse and refill gallon jugs as much as possible. It also never hurts to invest in a military-style 5-gallon water jug to use as well. (I like to make sure my water jug is a different color than the jerrycans I use for fuel, so there’s no room for error.) If your overlanding vehicle has a water tank, even better, make sure you fill the tank before you leave and every chance you get after that.
Fuel and Route Planning: In Mongolia, we have a rule, no matter how full your gas tank is, always stop for gas. Otherwise, you never know when you’ll have the next opportunity or what the quality of the gas will be, especially if you’re driving a car that takes diesel, which is not as readily available.
While that’s a little extreme, and something that simple route planning in a place that isn’t so desolate will ensure never becomes an issue, it’s always good to be aware of fuel consumption and where gas stations are on your route.
Tow Ropes and Shovel: They say to never overland alone. It would help if you always headed out in a group so that you can pull each other out in tricky situations. But let’s face it, that’s not always possible. Your overlanding vehicle should have a winch (I like winches that use straps, not wire), tow ropes, a shovel, a high-lift jack, and Maxtrax. An emergency GPS device such as the SPOT Satellite Messenger is also a good idea if you’ll be crossing rugged and dangerous terrain. Always be prepared for the worst.
Well, there you have it. Those are some car camping basics. I could keep going for hours… probably even days on the subject, but this will get you – and your ultimate kitchen for camping – started.