First, a disclaimer: we run a camp cooking website. That means we own a ridiculous amount of camp cooking gear. Like, way more than most campers would ever need. We’re not proud of it, but at one point we owned 8 different car camping stoves. Like we said, ridiculous.
But having used all that gear, we have some insight into what are nice extras and what are essentials. In this article, we want to share what we’d consider the essential camp kitchen starter pack.
So if you’re new to camping and just want to know where to start, you’ve come to the right place. With this camp kitchen setup, you’ll be preparing delicious camping meals for years to come!
We buy most of our camp cooking equipment from REI. There are a whole host of great reasons to become an REI member, but the major one is their generous no-hassle 365-day return policy. If a piece of gear is just not working out for you, you can return it. We know that even after doing a ton of research on a product, sometimes there’s no way of knowing if it’s right for you until you try it. We have used this benefit many many times. It’s the main reason why for all of our big car camping purchases, we get it from REI.
Alrighty, let’s go over our car camping kitchen basics!
The one piece of gear that can most dramatically improve your camp cooking experience is a solid cooler. During our year-long road trip in 2016, we tried to go without one, but it meant we could never venture far from town. We had to make frequent grocery store runs (like daily), ingredients we were counting on for a recipe spoiled, and we had to make the ultimate sacrifice – no cold beer. (What were we thinking?!)
If you don’t have a cooler already, we suggest investing in one of the new roto-molded coolers. We own this Yeti 35. This new generation of cooler blows the old ones out of the water. When properly packed, they can keep food frosty cold for 3-4 days. If you want to expand your camp cooking menu, use fresher ingredients, and treat yourself to a cold one at the end of the day, then maybe a new cooler should be in your future?
↠ A good cooler is an investment, so they do come with a larger price tag. This is a great piece of gear to pick up with your 20% off Member Coupon!
After a cooler, the next most important piece of equipment is your stove setup. For novice campers, we suggest picking up a solid two burner stove. They all run on the ubiquitous green propane bottles, they offer decent wind protection, and the double burners allow you to cook like you would at home. We’ve used A LOT of different two-burner stoves over the years, but this one from Eureka! looks like it hits all the marks. It has decent burner size and a finely tuned valve for superior simmer control.
If you’re really committed to the one pot philosophy of camp cooking, you may also consider a single burner stove like this Coleman single burner. These units are pretty cheap and run off even cheaper butane fuel. But due to the specific fuel type, they will struggle to perform in really cold conditions (anything under 32 F).
We’re big proponents on bringing a decent, full-sized kitchen knife on camping trips, and this knife & cutting board set is perfect. The knife is stored inside the folded cutting board, so you don’t have to worry about the blade when you’re rummaging around your gearbox.
This 10” cast iron skillet is our go-to pan when car camping. It’s the perfect size for two people (a 12” skillet is good for four people), it can be used on a camp stove or over a fire, and it’s virtually indestructible. A lot of people get scared off by the cleaning procedure for cast iron, but since we picked up these scrapers by Lodge it’s been a breeze.
A Dutch oven is by far the most versatile piece of camp cooking equipment you can own. Sauté, steam, boil, fry, and bake – if you can imagine it, you can probably make it in a Dutch oven. There is a little bit of a learning curve, but we have a lot of great recipes to get you started.
We love our cast iron skillet, but there is no substitute for a true non-stick pan. Scrambled eggs, pancakes, salmon. You’re setting yourself up for failure if you try cooking these in a cast iron. We have burned through (in some cases, literally) a lot of nonstick pans over the years. But we have been super impressed with the GSI Bugaboo series and carry one 8” skillet and one 10” skillet in our camp kitchen.
You can’t go wrong with enamel camping plates. They’re super durable, easy to clean, and capture that classic camping look. If you’re just getting started REI sells them as part of a complete tableware set.
Whether it’s coffee in the morning or a hot toddy in the evening, a double walled insulated mug is the way to go. We had the speckled enamelware mugs in the beginning, but we got tired of rushing to finish our coffee before it got cold 5 minutes later. Keep your morning routine mellow and pick up an insulated mug.
Unless you’re super thorough about cleaning out your coffee mug, they will always have a sort of vague coffee aroma to them. That pairs nicely with more coffee, but no so nicely with your Old Fashioned, Negroni, or kombucha spritzer. Is wine more your thing? They have insulated glasses for that, too! So if you’re a cocktail or wine drinker, consider a second pair of insulated cups for happy hour.
There are a ton of different ways to make camp coffee but for most car campers we’d recommend this Java Press by GSI. It’s essentially an indestructible French press. It’s also the most intuitive way of brewing coffee in our opinion.
If you’re a big fan of pour-over coffee at home, then this GSI pour-over stand is another good option. It’s best for one or two people, otherwise, the slow reset time means you’ll have a lineup of grumpy campers clamoring for their morning coffee.
Cleaning up is invariably the low point of any self-prepared meal. That’s why you should enlist (conscript?) your fellow campmates to help. With a multi-bucket system and a few helpers, you can bang out the dishes in no time and get back to enjoying your time outdoors. We use these collapsible buckets to set up a three bucket system.
If the three bucket system is just too much, you can reduce it down to a single bucket when paired with the Nemo pressurized shower. This product is designed to be a sun shower, with a foot pump, and spray hose – but it makes a fantastic sink faucet too. Wash, soap, and rinse all in the same bucket.
It’s best to use a biodegradable soap while camping, so we opt for Dr. Bronner’s. Just make sure you don’t use it in a natural water source – it needs contact with the microbes in the soil to biodegrade (but, most campgrounds will have a spot for you to dispose of dishwater!)