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Car Camping 101

Car Camping 101

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We have been camping most of the time we have been together, which is officially over 20 years this year.  We started camping by sleeping in a tent fearing bears the entire night and then we finally moved onto or into a van.  Every time we go out and when I share it on IG I get asked for a tour of the van, and for our most successful as well as unsuccessful tips.  I keep putting it off mainly because I want to add pretty photos and the van is usually not clean enough or I find a million reasons not to get to it, such as having fun.  We are getting ready to embark on a camping trip so I figured it was time to share our car camping 101 tips!  I am also going to make some camping tip videos from the road and will post.  

I grew up camping and I remember my family having an old trunk that was filled with all the camping gear.  Food and hanging out at night was one of the best parts of camping.  When we built out our current van that was our main goal, and to be outdoors as much as possible.  While we have a small kitchen that stores our day to day items, cooking outdoors is still a must.  Our stove can literally be used inside to make coffee in the morning and taken outside to cook dinner at night.  

The one thing that was really important when building out our van was that it wasn’t filled with “stuff”.  We didn’t feel the need to spend a lot of money are an expensive buildout for many reasons besides cost, but the number one reason was that it would have been too weighted down.  It was important to keep the van light for better gas mileage and to live a minimalist life in the van like we do at home.  The longest we have camped is two weeks at a time, and we basically stay at an airbnb every 3 to 4 days so we can shower, wash laundry, grocery shop and fill up on water.  It works out perfectly.  

Here is a list of everything that is packed into our van making it ready to go at any time.  I will put together a little video when we head out time week, and will share it on Instagram.  Did you know that we named our van?  Her name is Coq au Van.  Get it?  

Storage Benches – our van has a dining area that coverts to a queen size bed.  We usually only use the dining area when we are winter camping or the weather turns on us.  It consists of two benches that hold all of our camping gear, and it folds out to make the bed.  Storage cubes help keep everything organized in the benches.  The extra firm cushions for seating make a comfortable mattress for sleeping.  

First Aid Kit – we keep a small kit in the van with basics, such as different sizes of band-aids, Neosporin, A&D ointment, hydrocortisone cream, aspirin and Advil.  We also have mosquito repellant as Denise gets eaten alive by them.  This ant spray is great for keeping the van clean too.  

Lightweight Sheets – since we have an actual bed we do not use our sleeping bags any longer.  Lenny left them in Morocco with a family who needed them more than us, when he was biking there in 2019. We use some old Brooklinen linen sheets.   

Pillows – while we keep a couple pillows in the van, for just in case, we always bring our favorite one from our bed.  Helps with starting to fall sleep easier that first night away in the wild.  

Lightweight down comforter as well as two blankets from Caminito.  Not sponsored just saying their blankets are the BEST as they keep us warm as well as cool, we could actually forget the down blanket but it fits in the van so we keep it in there just in case.  Everything is packed away in vacuum storage bags and they fit perfectly in the benches.  

Camping Stove – we have tried them all, and hands down the Camp Chef Everest 2 Burner is the BEST one.  To think we went through so much propane with other brands for all the years in the past.  The Camp Chef heats up water so much faster than the others, and it is light-weight and fits perfectly in the storage benches.  

Foldable Grill – we love cooking over an open fire and this foldable grill is sturdy enough to be placed over an open fire.  The flat griddle side is perfect for pancakes in the morning.  

All In One Cast Iron Cooking – we use this Barebones all-in one mostly in the winter as the dutch oven base is fantastic for stews and soups.  It is super compact so we keep it in the van year round.  

Lighting – the Barebones Forest Lantern was a gift and one of the best we have ever gotten.  It is chargeable via usb, and it lasts a very long time.  We use a Goal Zero Yeti for charging items in the car which makes it easy to keep the lantern going all the time.  We also use these Coleman LED Lantern String lights as they are adorable as well they put off a lot of light.  Or for a festive occasion disco ball lights are fun.  

Towels – we keep two Turkish bath towels as they are lighter weight than traditional bath towels, and they dry faster, in case we camp somewhere there is a shower or for swimming. 

Car Camping 101

Other Items – these are things that we use every trip but they are not kept in the van all year, instead we add them just before leaving. 

Safety First – we have a carbon monoxide detector as well as a small fire extinguisher in the van as you never know.  

Portable Toilet – okay Denise was highly against this item until Covid hit.  We camped a lot during lock-down and it just felt safer to use this instead of public bathrooms.  The only rule is that you can only go number 1, and Lenny has to be the cleaner of it.  We NEVER let it sit in the van more than a couple of days so it does not stink.  That is the number one question we get.  

Cooler vs Fridge – we use two Yeti coolers, a soft one for beverages and a hard one for food.  We thought about adding a fridge in the van but the Yeti really does keep ice frozen long enough and the extra space that a fridge would take up is not worth it.  If it will be a longer trip than a weekend, I will freeze any meat we plan on cooking as it helps keep the cooler colder longer.  It is super easy to marinade chicken or pork and freeze it.  To defrost, I either remove from the cooler in the afternoon and set out on the counter or move to the top of the food items in the cooler to defrost – think of it as a rotation of sort.   Bottom of the cooler has heavy items such as frozen meat, then dairy and lastly veggies.  

Entertainment – we keep playing cards as well as a couple games such as ring toss, to pass time during the early evening while getting dinner ready.  We just got a portable projector and cannot wait to try out some late night summer movies by the campfire.  Stay tuned for all the summer fun.  

Van Kitchen – we used a basic Ikea kitchen in the van that has two very deep drawers as well as a cabinet with a sink and a hidden drawer that is great for cooking and eating utensils.  Under the sink we have two water containers, one for every day water use, as well as one for gray water.  We also bring one extra 5 gallon cube of drinking water.  

Cleaning – we use Branch Basics for cleaning the inside of the van as well as washing dishes.  It cleans very well, and is safe for us as well as the environment.  Using clean products means we can use the gray water to put out camp fires.  

We use enamelware dishes as they are lighter in weight, and our favorite ones are these from Food52.  Opinel makes great folding knives that are perfect for the van – super sharp and they do not take up a lot of space.  Our cooking pans are definitely heavier.  We use one 2 qt Le Creuset as it is perfect for boiling water to wash dishes or making a soup, we also have one Barebones flat cast iron pan, one 8″ carbon steel pan as it is lighter than having two cast iron ones and a small Camp Wandawega enamel pan for heating up some things.  

All of our Van Camping Gear can get found here and here.  

Car Camping 101

Tips for Successful and Delicious Camping

When we started camping together in the early days we thought it was really funny that people who joined us would car camp but live as if they were backpacking into the high country with little butane stoves and packages of dried food.  It became a running joke with us, and at times we would make a paella or even cream brulee (have to make the this before leaving, cover well and pack into the cooler then torch the brûlée at camp) while hanging at the camp fire. You are literally driving up to the campground, pitching your tent next to your car and eating a package of freeze dried food?  Funny!  

Menu Plan – this is the only time I really menu plan.  I write out all our meals when on the road as it makes it easier to not over shop.  I keep a small notebook in the van that has all my notes and recipes as well.  

Coffee – our morning ritual of having a cup of hot coffee in bed is one of our favorite things to do in the van.  We use this French press as it keeps the coffee hot.  While a glass one like the ones you see in all the van life photos is cute it is not practical as they break all the time.  We also use this OXO coffee bean grinder and it works fantastic.  

Seasonings – I keep basic spices in the van that I can use for most recipes we love and that are easy for camping, from Middle Eastern to Tex Mex.  I have the following:  cumin, fennel, and coriander seeds, urfa and Aleppo chili, kosher and Maldron salt, black pepper, pequin chilies (they make the best beans) and fiery harissa spice

Protecting food – from ice melting I bag everything except produce in Ziplocs.  I hate the plastic waste but have not found another way to really make things last.  I put all the dairy (butter and cheeses) into a bag, as well as charcuteries or sandwich items in another bag.  I only buy milk, cream or yogurt in glass or thick durable plastic containers as the lighter paper ones tend to fall about if the ice melts which is gross.  We learned from many broken eggs to use these nifty containers – they work like a charm.  

Car Camping 101

Camp Friendly Recipes

Homemade Cornmeal Griddle Pancake Mix

Campfire Roasted Beet Salad

Grilled Corn

Moroccan Chicken Kabobs

Campfire Mushrooms

Rib Eye Steaks with Pistachio Butter and Asparagus

S’more Brownies – have to make before leaving home but worth it

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Friday 6th of October 2023

I absolutely love reading about car camping and your experiences. It seems so amazing and like you have everything under control. Unfortunately with a big family of small kids this isn't something on our radar, but it will be when the kids go off to college. So so so neat, thank you for sharing this with us.

Denise Woodward

Saturday 9th of December 2023

I have a feeling you would be fine with the kids - they may get a little dirty but that is half the fun! I have seen many families even bigger than yours get out there and make it work. I think the key for any successful camp trip either with a van, camper or tent is being organized.