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Back in the 1980s, my parents would pack the car for camping trips with plastic milk crates and cardboard boxes overflowing with kitchen supplies. There’d be something like 207 spoons and one fork, a spatula, and nothing sharper than a butter knife to prep the veggies. My family’s camp kitchen had always been just a collection of the mismatched utensils, old plastic plates, and warped pots and pans. This haphazard kitchen filled 90 percent of the trunk space, making certain that our sleeping gear and recreational equipment were always crammed in around us.
When I started taking my kids on car-camping trips, creating the essential on-the-go kitchen was imperative so that we could pack light, have order at the tent site, and prepare meals without much of a fuss.
Since the day begins with coffee, we should start there, too. Any gear that resembles a Russian nesting doll is ideal, as it takes up much less room in the car. Eureka! sells a pour-over Camp Café with five pieces that tuck inside each other. The system is no joke: It brews 2.5 liters of liquid and is designed with a Flux Ring technology that boils water at twice the speed, allowing you to save fuel—another space stealer in the car. It’s also useful if you’re boiling water for multiple meals and tea later in the day.
Steeping grinds or using a regular pot to heat up water are also fine methods. If that’s your approach, however, get a French press. A number of outdoor-adventure companies offer individual French press cups that are perfect for the family that only has one coffee fiend. You can also skip the fancy stuff and create your own coffee system with a Nalgene or other sturdy canister. Just combine grinds and water and let it sit for 24 hours in a cooler. By morning, you can strain your coffee using a cheese-cloth (or some worn-out fabric that allows liquids to pass through easily) and voila: simple cold brew with no extra gear.
Of course, the bulk of your trunk space will go to food for your camping trip, but you can still cut down items by planning meals out in advance. If your chef game is high and you cook with an assortment of spices, instead of packing individual jars, combine your seasonings into a small container or bag beforehand. On a similar note, it’s less cumbersome to pack sticks of butter over containers of oil. Repackaging condiments and other food products that you won’t finish on your trip is a pro move, too. And while some might consider it a sin to skip the meat on a camping trip, eating vegetarian allows for more efficient packing: You can carry a smaller cooler and less ice. If animal protein is a must, bring a rod to catch fresh fish.
Stove and grill
The Coleman stove my family dragged along on camping trips when I was a kid still works to this day. That decades-long durability makes it a hard product to beat, but if you’re looking to cut the size of your stove, Eureka! has a butane-fueled, single-burner option that comes in a carrying case half the size of most competitors on the market.
Even better than a stove—as far as enjoyment and taste go—is cooking on a campfire. To pull this classic method off, you’ll need a few supplies, like a Dutch oven, a pot holder, and lid lift to grab the metal off the flames. You’ll also want a small shovel to move around coal and a stand to create space when you don’t want the pot to sit directly on the coals. While many campsites have fireplaces with grates, they generally have huge spaces between the metal bars that no burger could straddle, so bring your own. (I always grab the one that came with my outdoor firepit.) It’s easy to lay at the base of your trunk and allows you to cook without losing half a meal in the fire.
For those who want to cook long and slow over hot coals, the choice is between cast iron or adonized aluminum Dutch ovens. As a compromise, GSI Outdoors sells Guidcast Dutch ovens, which are made of cast iron but weigh less than 10 pounds. Note: Don’t bring along your fancy Le Creuset from home—it doesn’t have lipped edges to hold coals and will just get ruined.
If you have the space, it’s also smart to bring a small backpacking stove in case of inclement weather and wet wood.
Cookware and utensils
For years, when I was just a solo hiker, I’d pieced together a kitchen set so that everything was lightweight and one utensil could serve multiple functions. But the car allows you to bring just enough equipment to be comfortable. To save space with cookware and utensils, there’s nothing better than gear like Stanley’s Base Camp cook set. Lift the vented lid to find a frying pan, four plates, four bowls, and four sporks, along with a drying rack, trivet, and cutting board. The set also includes a serving spoon and spatula (both with extending arms) and a stainless steel pot.
Oh, and don’t forget your multi-tool while camping. The king of this category, the Leatherman Signal, fills in all the kitchen items missing from Stanley’s cook set: a can and bottle opener, knife, sharpener, and pliers for grabbing hot, small pots—but not a Dutch oven—off a campfire. For those cooks that demand a little more out of their knives and cutting board, GSI Outdoors has a three-knife set (with wooden handles for aesthetics or rubber ones that work just as well). The chef’s, serrated, and paring blades also come with a sleek bamboo cutting board and a sharpener that packs into a case about the size and weight of a hardcover book.
While it’s usually best to drink beer right out of the can, anyone looking to produce less waste should fill up a stainless steel, vacuum-sealed growler at the brewery before the camping adventure. Wine, on the other hand, presents a different challenge: Heavy, awkwardly shaped glass bottles have no place in nature, and easy-to-pierce bags can make a huge mess. (Also, making and transporting wine bottles contributes to a significant amount of the industry’s carbon footprint.) Instead, try Bandit Wines. It comes in a boxy design that’s mostly crafted with sustainably grown paper and a thin coating of aluminum, and is simple to pack. For a lighter option from the spirits world, Stillhouse has a great selection of bourbon, whiskey, and vodka in stainless steel rectangular cans. Or, if you just want a few sips for the trip, VSSL has a flask-light, which works as a regular flashlight, but stashes two collapsible shot glasses, a bottle opener, and nine ounces of libations in the long battery stem. There’s even a compass on the other end in case you stumble away from the campfire and need help getting back.