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Cooking While 4-Wheeling - Good Food in the Boonies

4x4 Chuck Wagon

Fred WilliamsPhotographerVerne SimonsPhotographer, Writer

Food is deeply tied to how humans identify themselves and has been since recorded history began. Cultures from around the world are inseparable from their style of cuisine. Evidence of this is easy to find in that food generally takes the name of a given culture. Some foods are fairly complex or exotic—Italian, Greek, Chinese, Thai, all the way down to Memphis-style BBQ. Food is tied to its geography and culture. Add to this the fact that for some strange reason, food tastes 10 times better when eaten after a long day out in the dirt.

We, like many dirt heads, take cooking very seriously, both at home and on the trail. After all, in one lifetime we all only get three (or four) chances a day to eat something delicious. We’ve been cooking all kinds of food while out in the dirt for several years with pretty good success, and while having a well-equipped chuck wagon helps, making good grub does not require a truckload of special equipment, just a little knowhow.

For as long as we can remember we have been cooking on an old Coleman stove with a cast iron pan. The stove is older than we are and is stupid-simple to use. Add fuel (Coleman fuel), pump, and light. If something doesn’t work it takes about 5 minutes to rebuild the pumping mechanism, which makes up the only moving parts in the stove. It is the same pump that has worked on Colman’s lanterns forever, and rebuild kits are available at any good camping store or Walmart. You can also convert these stoves to run off compressed propane.

Our buddy Randy Ellis (Randy Ellis Design) has a well-outfitted 3/4-ton Suburban ready for a trip to northern Mexico or anywhere in the Southwest. The rear barn doors are set up for cooking with fold-down shelves and KC HiLites Cyclone LED lights on removable wands. One door holds a propane powered Colman stove while the other is a great place for chopping ingredients.

Here is a detail shot of those LED lights from KC Hilites. The arm fits on a stub to illuminate the cooking area and can be removed when not in use or while driving. The hose to the right is connected to a water tank on one end and a showerhead on the other. On top of the Suburban the water gets passively heated by the sun (during the day) and can be used to wash dishes or take a shower in the desert.

The Solavore cooks food without charcoal or other consumable fuel (like gas). It is a crockpot for camping that uses sunlight to reach temperatures of just under 300 degrees F (on a clear, sunny, warm day), cooking anything you put in it. Of course, as with a crockpot, it can take several hours to cook food, but that’s perfect if you leave camp in the morning to go 4-wheeling and come home in the late afternoon. The Solavore Sport is made from durable plastic and comes packed with features to please any off-roader, overlander, or backcountry gourmand. You can also use it to pasteurize water. The oven comes with several recipes and hints to help you modify your own recipes and cook using the sun.

With grilled hotdogs and hamburgers planned for dinner, we used our Solavore oven to heat up premade chili. Knowing which way was south, we aimed the Solavore, added the chili, secured the lid, and left the whole shebang to sit in the sun all day. After about 20 minutes in the sun on a 70-degree Arizona spring day the Solavore Sport was already up over 150 degrees. After an hour the oven was over 250 degrees. The oven’s base is made of fiber-reinforced, injection-molded plastic, a 1-inch layer of foam insulation , and a powdercoated black aluminum liner to soak up the sun’s rays and store heat. The lid is a clear formed and insulated piece of polycarbonate that acts as a lens to heat two 9-inch covered black enameled cooking pots.

The chili was piping hot when we got home from a day of wheeling and a perfect topping our hotdogs. The Solavore Sport also comes with a reflector for overcast days, high elevation, or in fall and winter. Also included with the oven is a WAPI wax indicator that can be used with a clear plastic water bottle to pasteurize water and make it safe to drink.

As grilling purists we like using charcoal to caramelize the outside of our meats (and occasionally some vegetables). A cheap charcoal grill is better than no charcoal grill and way better than a gas grill. Weber grills are hard to beat. Even this cheaper version made for great steaks when we got it nice and hot. A quick way to ensure a damned good steak in the boonies is to salt the meat and then marinate for (at least) a few hours in a vinaigrette salad dressing. The spices season the steak and the vinegar tenderizes it while the oil in the dressing adds flavor and helps ensure the perfect exterior color.

With charcoal you get what you pay for. In our experience the cheaper charcoal can be harder to get lit and might smell funny burning. One of these charcoal chimneys is the best way to get your coals ready and ensures no weird fuel flavors get imparted to your food. Once you’ve got a charcoal chimney, use newspaper to light the charcoal because it is way cheaper than lighter fluid.

Fred Williams is a real and true coffee addict. He might not admit it, but we’d hate to see him in the morning without a cup o’ joe in hand. We suppose a person could have worse vices (like an ever-expanding vehicle collection and smallish income), but we’ve somehow dodged the need for a.m. coffee. Either way, Fred swears by his Jet Boil stove to feed his morning addiction. The design is compact and easy to use. We’ve seen him brew up a cup or two despite the headaches and shakes of coffee withdrawal.

The engine burrito is a thing of off-road folklore. Whether you’re cooking a manifold burrito or just warming up premade food, this is a great way to have a hot meal on the trail. We’ve seen people go so far as to build special stainless steel burrito boxes, but we just place our burritos (or pizza pockets) on the intake and try to tether them in place with a few hoses and wires. Then drive for an hour. As with many backcountry dinners, prep work before the trip has a lot to do with how good the resulting meal is. A lot can be said about aluminum foil and tortillas too. Fill with traditional burrito ingredients or whatever your imagination comes up with, wrap it in aluminum, and heat it on your engine.

When it comes right down to it, you don’t need too much to eat like a king in the boonies (provided you can afford good ingredients and don’t forget to gather them). Here we cooked one hell of a good steak over our campfire using a borrowed steel grate and some coals. Pop the top off a can of beans and corn and set them near the fire, and you got heated sides. Don’t have a plate? Use cardboard from a beer box. We bet you have that; if not, use part of a root beer box. In a pinch you can also grill meats on a rock that has been heated in a fire, or rig up a spit to roast your grub. Face it—your genes have been feeding you and your ancestors pretty well for eons.

Trail dogs make for excellent companions during off-road exploration. Bring enough kibble to keep Fido happy. We’ve kept dog food in Tupperware and big zip-lock bags, but our friend Randy Ellis keeps his dog’s food in an ammo can. The ammo can seals to keep the food dry and fresh, and the ammo can stacks well with other camping gear in his overlander Suburban.

Getting all your cooking gear out to the boonies in one piece can be tough. We love using Action Packer–style boxes for our stove, pots, pans, plates, and so on. These boxes fit well in the back of a truck or SUV, and a few companies manufacture metal mounting systems (like Swag Off Road) for these boxes. Worst case scenario: You can strap a few down in the back to keep them from jumping around while on the trail