My partner and I traveled together in a 1988 Ford Festival (the Peace Love Car) for over 6 years. Living in a micro car for an extended length of time allowed us to learn a thing of two about turning any vehicle into a comfortable and utilitarian camper.
A few years ago, we realized we could use an adapted version of our micro vehicle nomad system to avoid depending on hotels or expensive travel vehicles. Instead of spending tons of money renting a camper, we rent a car and turn it into a temporary camper ourselves.
On this blog series we want to share with you our system to turn any vehicle into a camper. Each article will address the essentials to live and travel as a digital nomad: sleeping, cooking (this post), working and safety. Our hope is that you can use this guide to turn a car rental into a camper or to turn your current vehicle into a weekend warrior’s haven.
A Complete Guide to Car Camping: Kitchen Edition
Nothing says home like the ability to cook and store meals. While we enjoy eating out particularly while traveling, the ability to cook some or all our meals is a time and money saver.
Even though we are advocates for packing heavy. We mean this in the way of packing everything you need. We do make an effort to purchase the lightest and most packable gear we can afford. It helps us to keep our goal in mind: pack the most adventure into the smallest and lightest possible package.
The items listed here are therefore mostly lightweight and portable. You can substitute these with bigger and often more economic variations if you are only using them while car camping and if flying in with all your gear is not a limiting factor.
If we are multi-day hiking or planning to car camp anywhere we pack our Jetboil.
Jetboils are know for their ability to boil water in a lightning-quick 100 seconds. They are formulated for maximum efficiency and minimum fuel consumption.
Think about it as two systems. You have your stove, and your pot.
Use the pot for boiling water. Depending on what you want to eat, the ability to boil water might be enough. You can use hot water to re-hydrate camping meals, make coffee and tea. We have also used the pot to double boil milk and soup.
The stove, your second piece, can be used to cook with different pans and pots. Due to the high and concentrated heat created by the Jetbboil, it make take some time to get used to it, but you can cook with it.
The Jetboil uses an isobutane/propane fuel mixture. In the past this type of fuel was not readable available. And while that may still be the case in remote areas, we have found that most outdoor stores now offer it.
Before we depart we search the internet to find where we can purchase fuel. That’s often our second stop. We usually stop for coffee or a local meal first.
Pots and Pans
Which pot and pan you take will large depend on how much things you can carry. We start listing the lightest to the heaviest items we have traveled with.
If weight is an issue, titanium is the way to go. The one downside – other than their increased price – is that they are so thin that are very sensitive to heat. If you are not used to cooking in them, you can easily burn your food. So start on a low setting, stir constantly and keep an eye on your food at all times.
This set is quite amazing. Portability, usability, packability and lightness. The entire set folds into the space of the flying pan. They are made of aluminum and silicon so not quite a as light as the titanium pots and still similarly sensitive to heat.
They are so versatile and easy to pack that we took these on an international trip that spanned Australia, Thailand, New Caledonia and New Zealand. If you are going to be on the road for a while, these seem like a most.
This pan has been with us since our time on the PeaceLoveCar. It was a bit handle heavy, so Sam ground a bit of it off. Now it balances perfectly over our Jetboil stove.
Is is a bit too heavy for us to want to travel on a plane with it. But in a car, it is perfect. A reminder to pack what you have at home. You don’t always have to buy new stuff.
Coffee and Tea
If your intention is to make instant coffee and tea, then you can skip this section entirely. But for us, coffee is as much as a necessity as a luxury. While there may be days we choose to not cook on the road, we always make one of two cups of joe.
A meditative way to start the day. We recommend hand grinding while drinking your morning water.
If we are on a rush, we may grind our coffee the night before. We almost never ever buy pre-grounded coffee.
We have been traveling with our Aeropress for over 7 years. If we are leaving our vehicle, it comes with us! It allows us to prepare delicious coffee on the go everywhere: camping, airports, hotels, friends and family houses.
The advantage of the aeropress over other coffee makers is that it only needs warm water to be used. You can find that almost anywhere even if you are not traveling with a stove. Bad and expensive coffee airport? No more!
Oh yes, you can also make tea with it.
These reusable filters can be used for coffee or tea. They are actually easier to deal with than the paper version. As – depending on where we are – we are ok with disposing of used coffee grounds outside, but we are not ok with leaving paper behind.
Just like most reusable items, we first thought cleaning was going to be an issue… but no. They are easy to use, and simpler than finding replacements or carrying additional items when traveling.
The filters can be rinsed clean. But often if you wait a few minutes you can simply dump the used coffee grounds and the filter peels off completely clean.
Plates and Utensils
Depending on the length of our trip, we may simply carry a few of our favorite spices in the GSI Spice Rocket. A little bit of cumin, pepper, and salt can turn any meal into a feast.
It has three levels. Each level is divided into two. Meaning you can carry six different spices. If you want to travel even lighter, unscrew just one level and take it with you.
If we are traveling for a long time, we purchase full size items upon arriving to our final destination.
If you enjoy cooking you know that having good knives and a stable cooking surface makes all the difference.
While car camping, two knives are more than enough. Our favorite combo is a santoku and paring knife. In a pinch, we travel with just the paring knife. And if we are truly space limited we carry a tiny pocket Swiss Army knife. It fits perfectly inside the GSI bag.
At the beginning we thought a hard cutting board was not necessary. But often we find ourselves cooking in spaces with limited flat surfaces. Having a sturdy board means we can safely chop veggies on our lap and it has the added benefit of serving as an additional flat plate.
We have traveled with these plate set for years and still use them as our daily set of plates in our van.
We take them with us while traveling even if we are not going to be car camping to reduce single use items.
They come with a handy mesh bag that if stacked carefully holds two of their large plates, two bowls and a cup.
While you can use the large plate as a cutting board, we found the hard way, that you have to be very careful not to cut the edges of your plate off.
Even if we are not planning on cooking, we always plan on left overs! Traveling with reusable containers help us reduce our single use items and keeps our car and bags clean. We have heavily tested these Onyx airtight containers. They do not leak, are easy to clean, and stack inside each other to reduce their packing space.
We use both Mecete and Onyx brand stainless steel food containers. Onyx products are more durable and the airtight seal is superior to Mecete’s. We have stored hot soup in Onyx products inside our computer bags without fearing a spill.
Mecete’s are lighter – so even though we may need to be more careful while transporting liquid meals – we gravitate to them while traveling by air or hiking.
Our Snow Peak Titanium Mugs are one of our most precious possessions. While they don’t come cheap, they are a great companion for your warm or cold needs wherever you are.
It took us 2 years – even while having a discount code – to purchase them. And now we cannot image life without them.
We’ll we can… it just weights more.
You can’t go wrong with these water reservoirs while packing for car camping, air travel or camping. Empty, they pack small. Full, they are strong, safe and durable.
Formerly known as Geigerrig, these waterbladers are our all time favorite. We use them for their main intended purpose: to drink water from. But we also use them clean dishes, store water in our vehicle and even to take showers.
Their valve system is amazing, even while only using gravity you can easily spray out of the bladder. No sucking necessary. If you want even more pressure, a few pumps to their air compression system are more than enough to spray water a few feet way.
We often carry three reservoirs. One for each of us and one additional one to use in the car. We take with us a few small Nite Ize s-biners to hang them from the head rest connection in the seat to the car. That way we can reach and drink without thinking about it to much. It helps us stay hydrated.
To stop the mouth piece from touching the ground, we attach the mouth piece to a self retracting cord.
This handy and compact scraper goes with us every where we go. In a pinch this may be the only tool used to pre-clean plates, pots and pans. For a full clean, we use it first and then rinse with soap and water. It comes with the GSI kit. But we love it so much that we decided to add it here, in case you skip the kit.
We often joke that we carry everything AND the kitchen sink. Because it is true! Sea to Summit makes a tiny – yet durable and reliable – kitchen sink. We take it pretty much everywhere we go.
We use it to carry water, clean dishes and even to wash some clothing.
I fought myself so hard to not add cooling to the top of the list. Because while certainly you can live and make do without it. Having cooling makes life so much easier.
Imagine saving your left overs. Buying a full gallon of milk without worrying about it getting damaged. Butter, veggies, juice, a cold drink in a hot summer day. You name it, refrigeration is wonderful.
We have purchased a simple cooler while traveling abroad. While they are not our number one choice, they are easily available pretty much anywhere.
You can purchase them new or if you have the time, you can probably find them in a local thrift store.
Please… do avoid the temptation of purchasing a single use foam cooler. They are a waste of money and an environmental insult. If you wonder what to do with your cooler afterwards, find a thrift store or gift it to someone. They and the environment will thank you.
If you have the space and weight to travel with an electric cooler, know it is worth it! There is no need to deal with melting ice and floating cheese. You can use reusable ice packs to keep them cool while they are turned off.
At the time it allowed us to refrigerate or freeze while living in a tiny vehicle. It is one big open space, meaning you would need to decide between ice cream or drinks and food.
In Puerto Rico, my place of origin, we have a bigger version that we use while grocery shopping and while exploring the island.
Honestly, we think all vehicles – nomad or not – should come with one of these. We have even thought about taking it with us while traveling abroad… but we can’t never justify the weight.
We enjoy packing our gear using the Eagle Creek Packing Systems. It allows us to keep our bags organized, and modular. That way we can quickly grab the coffee bag – as an example – and add it to our carry on bag or take it to the picnic table.
We use an medium Pack-It Compression set to carry our coffee. In it we fit our Aeropress, reusable filters, grinder, the Aeropress stirer (we leave all other items at home) and a small bag of coffee.
We also add a few packages of brown sugar and honey. Usually those that were given to use while visiting coffee shops.
Almost everywhere we go, we pack a Cargo Hauler Duffel Bag. They are super light and packable. When planning on a car camping kitchen, we take one of these to pack all our packing items and food. That way we can pull over into a picnic area, take our one bag and start cooking.
It two side pockets, in addition to one large compartment. We keep spices on one pocket with any small sensitive food. On the 2nd small pocket we keep our plates, cups and anything we may want quick access to. On the large compartment we keep everything else: food, pots, pans, stove and fuel.
Let us know in the comments: what is in your list of car camping essential items?