Cooking While Van Dwelling (Stoves and Refrigeration)

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None of my vans have had a built-in kitchen. I’ve used several different methods for cooking and keeping food cold. Today I’ll share what I’ve learned about stoves and refrigeration while van dwelling.

I’ve used three kinds of stoves while van dwelling: one-burner propane, two-burner propane, and one-burner butane.

The one-burner propane was my least favorite. With this kind of stove, the propane bottle sits in a round base. The burner screws into the opening on the propane canister and sits on top of the contraption.

Coleman 2000010642 Single-Burner Propane Stove

The pros of this cooking method include:

#1 The unassembled stove uses minimal storage space.

#2 It’s easy to find stores that sell propane canisters.

The cons of these stoves include:

#1 Even with the propane bottle sitting in the base, the whole setup seems precarious, especially if a strong wind is blowing while a heavy pot of beans is sitting up there.

#2 The cook needs a lighter or matches on hand to light the flame.

#3 The cook has to set up the whole contraption before any actual cooking can occur.

The last time I looked at Wal-Mart, the price on these one-burner stoves was between $15 and $20.

Coleman 2000020951 Butane Camping Stove, 7,650-BTU
During the time I was fighting to heat beans and rice on my one-burner stove, my vendor friend Mr. Phoenix turned me on to a flat, one-burner stove that burned butane. I bought one of those stoves at Wal-Mart for about $20, then sold the propane stove for $5 at a flea market.

I loved the flatness of the butane stove. No longer was my pot of food up in the air, perched precariously on a burner. I also like that the stove was self -igniting. I didn’t have to fumble with a lighter or a match; one turn of the knob, and I had a flame.

What I didn’t like about the stove was finding butane. Not every Wal-Mart carried it. In one desert tourist town I had to run around to five businesses before I found the canisters I needed at the hardware store. While propane canisters tend to run about $3 each at Wal-Mart, the smaller butane bottles tended to run from $3 to $4.50. (The best deal I ever got on butane was packs of four canisters for $6 at one of those stores in a tent in Quartzsite in the winter.)

I also didn’t like the perpetually low flame on this stove. Because the flame didn’t get very high, it seemed to take forever to heat food or bring water to a boil.

I wasn’t longing for a new stove, but one day I saw a Coleman two-burner propane stove in a small-town thrift store.

My Coleman two burner stove with lid closed.

My Coleman two burner stove with lid closed.

The price? $10 I scooped it up. I don’t use both burners very often, but it’s nice to have them both when I need them.

My two-burner Coleman stove ready for cooking action.

My two-burner Coleman stove ready for cooking action.

In addition to the convenience of two burners, this stove also has stability because it’s flat. Although I do need to have a lighter or a match on hand to light it, the flame gets really high, and my food is ready to eat much sooner than with the butane stove.

After I bought the two-burner stove, I sold the butane stove to a vendor friend at the Bridge for $5. The flat stove was an upgrade from the one-burner upright propane stove she had been using.

All of the stoves I’ve mentioned so far were Coleman brand. I tried using two Ozark Trail brand stoves from Wal-Mart several years ago, and was left sorely disappointed. My ex and I were going to a music festival, so we bought the cheapest Ozark Trail double-burner propane stove. When we tried to use it before we left for the festival, it didn’t work. We exchanged it for the more expensive Ozark Trail model. We tried it in the parking lot, and it worked, but when we got to the festival, it didn’t work. We had the displeasure of eating cold soup all weekend. Since then I’ve used Ozark Trail stoves friends had, and the stoves worked fine. However, I would never buy an Ozark Trail stove at a thrift store unless I was absolutely desperate. If I were buying new and I had the extra dollars to go with a Coleman, I certainly would.

Despite the warnings on all of the camp stoves I’ve had, I do cook in my van when I need to. I prefer to cook outside on a table, but that’s not always practical if it’s dark or cold or rainy when I’m ready to cook. If I’m cooking in the van, I make sure a window is open. If it’s not too cold out, I completely open the windows on both side doors. Usually I’m just boiling water or heating beans and rice, so I don’t have the stove on for a long time while cooking a complicated meal.

I’ve never had a refrigerator in my vans either. What I do have now is an ice chest. I’ve tried several methods of storing food in an ice chest until I found something that currently works for me.

The first method I tried was simply dumping the contents of a sack of ice over the food in the cooler. As you can guess, after a couple of days, my food was floating in a sea of melted ice. My cardboard egg carton was a soggy mess and water had leaked into the container of hummus. Gross! The results were just about the same when I left the ice in the bag. The bag was riddled with holes and the water leaked out as the ice melted.

Next I bought a cheap plastic dishpan and put it in the cooler. Then I put a block of ice into the dishpan. The block melted more slowly, but if I didn’t stay on top of dumping the pan of ice melt water (which involved removing all of my food from the cooler), the water ended up out of the dishpan and in the bottom of the cooler. Of course, once water was sloshing around in the cooler, all of my food got wet, and some of it was spoiled by the water.

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Egg suitcase closed (and too much flash in the photo–sorry).

Before I hit on my current cooler method, I did buy a plastic egg suitcase in the Wal-Mart sporting goods department. In this plastic case, the eggs are protected much better than they are in a cardboard carton. In the past I sometimes lost eggs to breakage once the carton got wet and disintegrated. Not anymore! Also, the egg suitcase talks up less space than a carton. I paid under $3 for mine, and I think it was well worth the investment.

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Egg suitcase open and full of eggs.

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This photo shows my plastic Coleman ice chest and (to the right) my closed up Coleman stove. The stove does not take up much space when it’s closed.

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Here’s my current food cooling system: a Styrofoam cooler inside my plastic Coleman cooler, with ice between the two. (Coleman has not paid me to endorse its products.)

My current cooler system consists of a Styrofoam cooler in my plastic ice chest. The food goes into the Styrofoam cooler and the ice goes between the Styrofoam and the plastic. Yes, this system leaves less space for food, but I’m willing to make that trade-off in order to keep my food out of the melt water.

Food in the Styrofoam cooler.

Food in the Styrofoam cooler.

At some point, the Styrofoam starts floating in the water from the melted ice, and I can’t get the plastic cover to close. When that happens, I drain the water through the spout underneath. Sometimes ice gets under the Styrofoam cooler, pushing it up too high for the plastic cover to close, and I have to take out the Styrofoam cooler, dump the ice into a container, and reassemble. It’s a pain in the ass, but (to me) not as big of a pain as losing a container of hummus that’s now full of water.

Please feel free to post comments about what kind of stove and refrigeration system you use in your vanhome.

Coleman Triton Series 2-Burner Stove, 22,000 BTUs
Coghlan's 511A Egg Carriers -

About Blaize Sun

I live in my van, which makes me a rubber tramp. I like to see places I’ve never seen before, and I like to visit the places I love again and again.

I like to play with color. I make collages and hemp jewelry and cheerful winter hats. I take photographs and (sometimes, not in a long time) write poetry. All of those things make me an artist.

Although I like to spread joy and to make people laugh, my wit can be sharp. I try to stay positives in all situations, to find the goodness in all people. But I often feel compelled to point out bullshit when I smell it.

I like to have fun, to dance, to eat yummy food, to sit by a fire and share stories. I want to know what people hold dear and important, not just make surface small talk.

This blog is a way for me to share stories. This blog is made up of my stories, rants, and observations, as well as my photographs.

10 Responses »

  1. Why styrofoam ? What about a “Rubbermaid ” container. I’m afraid the styrofoam limits how much cool gets to your food. A draining schedule? Could you use that water? Does it get dirty? Have you looked at dry ice? Grocery stores have it but it is kept in obscure places. Maybe it’s toxic. Can you use cast iron? I’m sure there’s a just the right pan, knife, dishpan, dish follow up…….

    • Thanks for your many questions, Jennifer.

      #1 Styrofoam because it’s what I had at the moment. But now Styrofoam because it helps insulate the food and keep it cooler longer. Rubbermaid and other plastic containers would not help keep the food cool. Most food I put into the cooler is already cool, so the Styrofoam helps keep it that way.

      #2 Draining schedule? I wish I could do anything on a schedule.

      #3 The water in the ice chest does get kind of dirty. I’m not exactly sure how, but the inside of the cooler gets kind of icky. I figure dumping the water on the ground gets it back into the water cycle.

      #4 I think dry ice is going to be difficult to find and probably more expensive. Perhaps lasting longer would offset higher cost. However, I think there is something dangerous about dry ice. Maybe bare skin isn’t supposed to touch it?

      #5 I do use cast iron.

      • I like the two burner coleman stove with liquid gas it is in a can, also you do need to drain your ice chsst everyday

        • Thanks for reading and commenting, Chasmackinnon. By “liquid gas” do you mean propane or is there another Coleman stove I haven’t tried? I don’t really need to drain the ice chest every day. Every couple of days seems to work fine with my current cooling method.

  2. We use two plastic containers (they were marked as cereal containers) filled with ice and they go on each side of the cooler. The ice stays solid longer and when it melts, it’s inside container. You then have the whole center of the cooler for food. Measure the side and height of your cooler and you can usually find a plastic jug/bottle/cereal container that fits.

    • Thanks for the suggestion Maddie. Do you make the ice yourself in a home freezer, or do you buy cubed ice to fill the containers? I personally have nowhere to make ice, and when I’ve tried to use bagged ice to fill containers (Nalgene bottles), I ended up #1 making a mess and #2 having a lot of ice left over. I suppose the wider opening and larger size of a plastic container intended for cereal might help.

  3. Yes, the larger opening of the cereal containers makes it easy to pour the smallest bag of ice available at convenience stores without a mess and there isn’t that much left over.

    Last time camping, actual temp was about 98 degrees and the ice lasted 2.5 days while the cooler was outside in the shade. Previous camping trips just pouring the ice in the cooler and temps in the 90’s — ice didn’t even last all night.

    • Thanks for your tip, Maddie. I will keep my eyes out for some sort of containers I could use to try out your method. Sometimes ice cream ((Blue Bunny brand) comes in plastic containers. A couple of those might work in my ice chest. As a bonus, I’d get to eat the ice cream in the containers! If I try this method, I will definitely share the results.

  4. We bought two 1-gallon, wide-mouth plastic jars at Walmart: clear plastic, white screw-on lids. Two of them will hold one 10-lb. bag of ice, with enough left over to go into your insulated water bottle.

    It kept the food cold in our non-working RV fridge (although in summer we had to buy ice every single day, which got expensive), and as the ice melted, we had plenty of icy cold drinking water.

    Best of all, the food stayed dry and fresh.

    • Thanks for sharing your method, An Graham. Ice doesn’t seem so expensive until you have to buy it every day!

      Your method sounds great for an RV refrigerator or larger ice chest.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comment too.

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