Pots and Pans for Car Camping: Which Type is Best?


I like to keep things simple. It’s easy to get hung up on the best gear to do x or y, and we worry too much about something instead of getting out there and experiencing it. I hope to simplify the cooking while camping landscape because there are lots of posts about pots and pans for camping in general. This post, however, will focus on what pots and pans make the most sense for car camping, in particular, also, at a high level, what types of pots and pans there are out there and their advantages and disadvantages.

So, which pots and pans make the most sense for car camping? The type of cookware you want largely depends on your weight needs, and what type of cooking surface you will use.

  • For durability, longevity, nonstick potential and style: Cast Iron
  • For durability, and low maintenance: Stainless Steel
  • For lighter weight, nonstick potential, and inexpensive: Nonstick Coated
  • For lighter weight, inexpensive, and portability: Plain Aluminum
  • For aesthetics, and nonstick potential: Ceramic

There are so many options! Which one makes the most sense? You don’t have to be an expert in culinary arts to go car camping, but there are some pros and cons to each type of pan. We’ll take a more in-depth look at all pan types to give you a better look at which pan type you will use.

Pots and Pan Breakdown

Pot
Type
Cast
Iron
Stainless
Steel
Nonstick
Coated

Plain
Aluminum
Ceramic
DurabilitySuper HighHighLow –
Medium
LowLow –
Medium
PriceMedium –
High
HighLow –
High
Very LowMedium
WeightHighMediumLow –
Medium
LowMedium –
High
NonstickLow –
High
(depends)
LowHighLowMedium –
High
Warp
Risk
LowMediumMedium – HighHighLow
Maintenance /
Cleaning
HighMediumLowMediumLow
Car
Camping
Score
HighMediumMedium – HighMediumMedium – Low
Backpacking
Camping
Score
LowMediumHighHighLow
Cooking
Evenly
HighMedium – HighMediumLowMedium

Cast Iron

Pros and Cons

Cast Iron is SUPER durable, and will last you potentially forever if you get high-quality cast iron. They can withstand direct contact with flame (so they are good for cooking over an open fire), and cook food evenly.

Cast Iron is more expensive than cheaper aluminum pots, but they are either less expensive, or comparable to the same quality-level of stainless steel.

Cast Iron is heavy, making it completely inappropriate for backpacking camping, but not so much a drawback for car camping.

Cast Iron, however, requires more maintenance than any other type of pan. Cast Iron cannot have water standing in it to dry–the water must be wiped completely (cooked off is better), and although it isn’t a total crime to use a little soap if you “season” the pot properly afterwards, it’s recommended to avoid it to not affect the surface of the pan. That being said, cast-iron is very durable and can be recovered from almost any bad state it is in (even a rusty cast-iron pot or pan) by proper re-seasoning.

Lastly, cast-iron earns you serious style points.

Seasoning

To season a cast iron pot means to heat up the pot and apply cooking oil to the surface of the pan to absorb into the pores of the cast iron. This is what gives the cast iron that beautiful black and glazed look.

Why season? Seasoning is what makes the cast-iron nonstick. If done improperly, your food will stick and burn, and can be a hassle to work with. Additionally, cast-iron lovers claim that your cast-iron cookware absorbs the flavors of the food cooked on it, and will make your food taste better.

Often, when a cast-iron pot or pan is new, a deep seasoning is required, which involves heating up the pan several times with new coats of cooking oil, typically in an oven. It’s worth it so you can have a nonstick cast-iron pan, but if you didn’t care about non-stick, then it’s almost worth it just for the beautiful black sheen it gets when you season your pan.

After the initial deep-seasoning, it’s recommended to swish some cooking oil around your pan with oil after every use. This isn’t a big deal at all if you add oil to your food, anyway.

Sometimes cast-iron cookware comes “pre-seasoned,” but cast-iron lovers prefer to season their cookware themselves, anyway.

Stainless Steel

Stainless Steel is durable, and works well for car camping if you are attentive to making sure your food does not stick. Make sure and coat the inside the oil and stir your food when cooking to avoid sticking. Stainless Steel, depending on the quality and thickness of the metal, can be used over an open flame, but be prepared for cleaning up any discoloration from soot. Additionally, your stainless steel pot is at risk for warping due to extreme temperatures.

Stainless Steel is not a non-stick surface, so depending on how carefully you prepared your food, you may have some work cleaning up. Stainless steel is also not very good with abrasives, so you have to be careful to not damage the surface of your pan by avoiding cleaning pads like steel wool. The most effective cleaning method for most pots and pans with very stuck food is to heat your pan with water in it to almost boiling.

There are varying quality-levels of stainless steel, and so you can expect a varying range of prices. In general, I would stick stainless steel somewhere to the mid-high range.

Stainless steel can be lightweight or fairly heavy depending on the thickness of the metal, and therefore can be okay for backpacking and not bad at all for car camping.

Nonstick Coated

nstick Coated pans can take many forms, but typically you will see Teflon coating as the coating of choice for aluminum or steel pans–although they can be titanium coated, which apparently is more durable.

Nonstick coated pans are extremely common, and thus are cheap, depending on the type of metal. Aluminum will generally be cheaper than the more solid pan options, although not always. You can spend a lot, or very little depending on these factors.

Aluminum pans are more lightweight, due to the nature of aluminum. However, because of this, aluminum can warp easily under temperature contrast (for example, pouring cold water on a hot pan), or extreme temperatures. Additionally, the Teflon coating is generally not designed for exposure to an open flame. For these reasons, aluminum nonstick pans are not suited for cooking over a fire without a grate or some other protection. That’s only if they do not have a plastic handle, as it is likely to be damaged.

Steel pans with Teflon coating don’t share some of the same warp concerns, but the Teflon coating still has the same fragile-ness.

Nonstick coated pots and pans require perhaps the least maintenance of all. Generally food doesn’t stick to them which makes cleaning them up easy, and they don’t require special maintenance (unless you actually read the owners manual… I’m sure there’s something in there about maintenance). However, Nonstick coated also doesn’t do well with abrasive cleaning pads. Care is needed to not damage the Teflon or other nonstick coating.

Due to their weight, they are good for backpacking.

Plain Aluminum

Plain aluminum pots are the cheapest option for new pots and pans, and they are ideal for backpackers because of their weight.

Plain aluminum does stick, which means they require extra care to not allow food to burn. Plain Aluminum can sometimes not heat as evenly as the other pans listed here.

Because of it being lightweight, plain aluminum pans are not very ideal for cooking on an open fire. You can do it, of course, but warping is a potential issue, and your pans will have a scorched look to them. You’re at risk to burning your food, but you should be fine if you are boiling water. I’d recommend a protective grate so as to not scorch your pans.

These are the cheapest option, and I would say are great for boiling water.

Ceramic

Ceramic looks really nice. It looks so nice I want to buy a ceramic pan every time I see one. They however have some care notes, one being is to make sure you do not expose ceramic pans to high heat, as it can damage the pot. This means that cooking over an open flame is not a good idea. I imagine they would work fine if you use them for camp stove cooking if you try to not cook them on the highest heats.

Ceramic has a nonstick surface, which doesn’t respond well to abrasives (like most nonstick surfaces).

Ceramic ranges from cheap to pricey.

And the Winner Is…

1.Cast Iron

Cast Iron is super durable, and makes it ideal for varying car camping scenarios. If you want to cook over very high heat such as over an open flame, then cast-iron far and away takes the lead.

Admittingly, I have a slight bias since have been using our Lodge cast iron pan for years and we love it. I wrote about it in more detail here.

2. Nonstick Coated pans

Lightweight can make car camping more convenient, and not having to perform hardly any maintenance on your pot or pan is a great plus. You also don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a lightweight nonstick coated pan.

Less is More: What Does a Beginner Need?

Now, I know I mentioned that I recommend cast-iron overall, but for a beginner? I recommend going to your local thrift store and finding a mid-sized Teflon-coated saucepan. I only recommend cast-iron to a beginner if you already use cast-iron at home. It’s difficult to get into cast-iron because of the extra care steps just for camping if you aren’t car camping all the time. (which, once you use it regularly, it’s not a bother at all to care for)

In fact, we have flown by plane to a couple destinations and then rented a car to go car camping. We brought a few camping things with us on the plane, but we bought the rest of our cooking supplies (pots and pans, a cutting board, etc) for less than $30 at a thrift store, and then went on our merry way. This is a GREAT way to get started since you don’t have to worry about damaging your pan.

You don’t need a fancy cooking set if you want to go car camping for the first time. Often the camping cooking sets are very compact, which is convenient for storage, but not so much for cooking. They are also trying to appeal to backpackers with lightweight materials. Since you’re car camping, you can afford some more weight in favor of it being easier to cook with a bigger pan.

Identify Your Needs

If you are cooking for tons of friends, then a cast-iron griddle may be a good option because of the bigger surface area.

If you are cooking bigger meals, then using a cast-iron dutch oven is a great way to make stews and amazing desserts, such as apple crumbles, peach cobblers, etc.

If you are cooking over a fire, cast-iron is ideal. There are tools such as grates that make cooking over a fire less messy and easier to manage. Additionally make sure you don’t put anything that has a plastic handle over the fire.

If you plan to do a lot of car camping with a single-burner camp stove, and you don’t care about cooking over a fire, then perhaps stainless steel is a good way to go, or a nonstick pan.

Related Questions

Do I need pots and pans with detachable handles? These look super cool, but from experience, it is kind of a pain to manage attaching and reattaching. The mechanisms never seem to work as well as they should, especially after prolonged used. If you prefer to not use a hot pot holder or gloves to handle your pots, though, these could be a good option for you.

How can I get pots and pans inexpensively? Go to your local thrift store! This is a fantastic way to get camping gear because you do not have to invest as much. You generally won’t find cast-iron lying around here, but you have a chance of finding everything else. I really recommend this route if you are going car camping away after flying somewhere, or if you are just starting. Try to find a pot or pan with as little damage as you can that is also sturdy. This is generally what everyone wants in a used pot or pan, though, so you may have to do a bit of searching.

Walmart is also a good option, but I would rate the longevity of pots and pans from Walmart as lower than what you find at the thrift store. At the thrift store you have a chance of finding higher quality used goods than you would at Walmart with cheap pans.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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