Cooking Off the Grid with The Free Dwellers

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“Cooking Off the Grid” is a new series that  explores how people cook while traveling. From backpackers to car campers, we’re interviewing people about their off the grid kitchens and what it’s like preparing meals without the conveniences of a traditional kitchen. We hope this series will be a resource and inspiration for everyone interested in cooking in the outdoors. 

and Kyle, the artists & ecologists behind The Free Dwellers, set out on a cross country road trip this past summer.

Along the way, they connected with people pursuing simpler lifestyles. From permaculture farmers, to a Vermonter living off the grid in a hand-built 96-square foot home in the woods, their stories examine the diversity of alternative living in the United States.

Find out how Madeleine & Kyle cook in their 1986 Toyota camper in the interview below!

Tell us a little about your trip and how you came to live on the road.

We met last fall while conducting social and ecological research on a farm in upstate New York. Both itching to travel, we started planning the trip within a few weeks of meeting.

Our backgrounds are environmental studies/sciences, but we’ve become disillusioned with mainstream environmental teachings. We decided to use the road trip to delve into these issues, giving birth to our project The Free Dwellers. Along the way, we’re interviewing folks who are living alternative and autonomous lifestyles, often outside American norms. How might these serve as examples for others? When we’re finished, we plan to publish a book that will include interviews, our findings, and our art and photographs.

Describe your off the grid kitchen set up.

Our kitchen has most of the comforts of home. It’s equipped with a four-burner stove, oven, fridge, and sink. There’s sufficient counter space above the fridge, plus the additional sink cover. There’s no running water in the camper, but the gray-water holding tank makes washing dishes a breeze. We have a small propane tank that fuels the stove and the fridge.

Has your cooking style changed at all since hitting the road? How?

Since space and tools are limited, we’ve learned to simplify. We’ve become more creative in utilizing what we have. We’re also forced to be more efficient and tidy while cooking.

What do you find to be most gratifying about cooking off the grid?

We can make a meal anywhere! We’ve enjoyed banana and almond butter crepes for breakfast while overlooking craggy peaks; we’ve savored brown rice and avocado burritos at gas station in the middle of Kansas. It’s so satisfying making yummy, nutritious food wherever we are.

What’s the biggest challenge you encounter cooking in your RV kitchen, and how do you overcome that challenge?

The small space has taken some getting used to. Kyle, 6’3”, can’t even stand up inside. It’s usually best to have one cook in the kitchen at a time. If we’re camped somewhere with a picnic table (or stump, or large rock), we’ll use the outdoor space for slicing and dicing.

What are your five essential kitchen items?

Snow Peak Titanium Multi Compact Cookset: lightweight, durable, and awesome for backpacking, too.

Large Pyrex bowl: for salads, mostly.

Nemo Helio pressure shower: super handy for washing dishes.

Chopsticks: oh so versatile.

Bamboo cutting boards: lightweight, durable, easy to clean, and not plastic!

What is one item in your kitchen that might be excessive but you know you can’t live without?

Our Pyrex bowl might be a little over-the-top, but we love it. If we’re driving on a bumpy road we’ll often hear it clanging around in the back cupboard. But it’s essential for salads. We’ve gotten into the habit of eating from one big shared bowl rather than splitting into two. And we usually eat it with chopsticks. We know, it’s weird.

If you could add one more item to your kitchen, what would it be?

Madeleine: Blender.

Kyle: Toaster.

What meal do you keep coming back to?

Big salads. Oftentimes they’re super basic: whatever greens we can get our hands on +  Gomasio + olive oil and vinegar. Madeleine is no culinary master, but she has a knack for off-the-cuff dressings. And nothing tastes better than fresh greens in the middle of the desert.

What is your one trick that makes cooking easier for you?

Keeping it “light enough to travel” is key, both our possessions and our attitudes. Oftentimes when cooking we’re already hungry (or hangry), so it’s important to stay playful. From spilling all the coffee at 7 am to stinking up the camper with burning elk meat, we try not to take anything too seriously.

The Free Dwellers share stories about radical simplicity in American lifestyles on their blog. You can also find them on Instagram.

All photos courtesy of The Free Dwellers.

  • Aunt Donna says:

    So very interesting! Sounds like an experience we would all love to try, but life gets in the way.
    I admire your taking a risk and pursuing this adventure!

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