Setting Up A Basic Car Camping Kitchen

I always make sure my car camping kitchen is ready to go before I head out on any adventure.

In fact, I’ve sort of become an expert on setting up my car camping kitchen.

In this article, I’ll cover how to prepare and set up a car camping kitchen.

Just as your car needs fuel to continue on your journey, your body is no different. Car camping can and usually is a lot of fun, but without a basic car camping kitchen, it can be a real hassle as well.

Having to pack up and run to McDonalds after a long day of hiking or a relaxing day by the lake can be a real buzzkill.

Let’s look at the basic car camping kitchen set up so that you can sit back and relax while eating healthy and nutritious food each day.

Heat Source

During my years in the Army, nothing brought morale to an all-time high like a hot meal and some rest. For any car camping kitchen, you’ll want a solid heat source.

There are a plethora of camp stoves to choose from, but personally, I prefer to cook on a propane stove.  I typically use a double burner portable propane stove, but will bring a single burner when space is at a premium.

camping stove
Double-burner camping stove. – $40 on Amazon

You can choose different models from Coleman or any other trusted company and they will come with as many bells and whistles as you desire.

For the basic car camping kitchen, you do not need to break the bank on a stove. You can find a stove that will get the job done for less than fifty dollars.

There is, of course, another route you could take which is one of my favorites but requires a camp site that will let you build a fire. That is simply to take some wood with you and cook over an open fire.

In this case, you will want something like the Camp Chef Over-The- Fire from Cabela’s or the Adjust-A-Grill. These will allow you to cook the perfect meal over an open fire.

There are numerous ways to cook food when car camping.  Questions to ask are: how much room do I have to carry items, can I build a fire, or can I find propane?

Over the years, camp cooking options have become almost limitless, from rocket stoves and alcohol burners, to even bringing small charcoal grills.

Each of these options provides its own unique heat source and application, but for this specific article, we’ll cover the propane set up and the traditional open fire set up.

car camping kitchen
Camp Chef Over The Fire

Cold Storage

A good heat source is important for food preparation and sanitation purposes but what about getting your food to your campsite without it going bad?

It really is important to choose the right cold storage while setting up a car camping kitchen. Most people will go with the easiest option, which is to buy a cooler and pack it with ice.

camping cooler
Orca coolers can keep ice for over a week.

With an extreme cooler, like a Yeti or Orca, your food will remain cold for an entire week before you need to get ice again.

Another option is to go with a portable refrigerator. This will save you from having to get ice, but you’ll need to go someplace that has a power source, or bring one with you.  For a simple trip, it’s usually easiest to go with a cooler with ice.

As with any tool or piece of equipment always get the best that you can afford and it will always pay off in the long run.

It is easy to go to your local Walmart and buy a sixteen dollar cooler but it may not seal as good or keep the food as cold as say something like an RTIC cooler.

A good cooler keeps me from having to make extra ice runs and ensures that my family and I aren’t eating food that has gone bad.  Nothing ruins a car camping trip quicker than food poisoning.

This is why when I can afford to spend a little extra I will always opt for higher quality equipment.

camping refrigerator

Cooking utensils

It would do us no good to have a great cooler and a portable heat source if we had nothing to cook with.

When it comes to car camping cooking accessories, the options are almost endless. For the principle of sticking to the basics of car camping, I will only cover a few.

cast iron cookwareThe standard cooking utensils that have made their way into all of my car camping kitchen set ups are standard cast iron pans. Nothing is better in my personal opinion as a well-seasoned cast iron skillet and a Dutch oven.

No matter what heat source you use cast iron will work. The pro’s of cast iron are easy to point out.  Cast iron cookware is durable for all weather, can be easily cleaned and cured, and even adds it’s own unique flavor to the food!

The downside to cast iron is that it is extremely heavy and bulky. If this is a concern, just stick to a nice stainless steel set of cookware.

Another must-have for your car camping kitchen is a good set of plates and eating utensils. You can choose paper plates if you have a place to dispose of them, or you can pick up a set specifically made for camping.

Just remember, if you pack it in, you have to pack it out. Do not leave trash or paper products laying around for others to have to clean up.

Accessories and Cleanup

I love accessories when camping! I have never grown out of this from my military years.

When I was in the service nothing meant more to me than my morning coffee, even if it was instant and from a metal canteen cup over a pot belly stove. The same rule applies when I go car camping.  I simply can’t go on a car camping trip without my morning cup of coffee.

With all of that out of the way, my must have accessory is a coffee pot.  There are many great options for making coffee while on a camping trip.  My go-to is the Melitta Ready Set Joe Single Cup Coffee Brewer, but you can take anything from a French press, to a packet of instant coffee.


There are so many accessories out there like toasters, coffee pots, etc… you can cater your camping adventure to whatever you wish.

As we get all of this gear set up and used we must clean it up so be sure you have access to a good source of water. You can pack all of your water or you can source it locally.  This boils down to preference and location.

Filtering local water sources has worked very well for my family and I.  This being said, on some occasions, we find it much easier to just bring a few gallons of water for drinking, cooking, and washing dishes.

When washing dishes a simple plastic tub with some boiling water in it will usually do the trick.

Set Up

We’ve covered the basics needed for a car camping kitchen, now let’s put it all together.

When I arrive at my camping location I like to keep my eating area away from my sleeping area. This helps to prevent any unwanted critters from sneaking into my camp site.

If I do not have picnic tables where I go then I will bring a folding camp table to set up on. I will assemble my camp stove or set up my fire pit for cooking making sure that I have brought enough propane or fuel for the entire trip.

Next, I’ll make sure I have either my refrigerator set up or my cooler filled with ice and all my food cooled down. I usually have a cooler packed with food and ice before my trip so it is just a matter of placing the cooler in a safe place away from my tent.

Once I have all of my bases covered I fire up my heat source, get some food going and enjoy and I hope you’ll do the same!

car camping kitchen setup
Car camp kitchen by Coleman.


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