(AKA The Dirtbag's Guide to Fine Dining)
I invited my now wife to dinner at my place, via text, for our first date. She checked around with her friends, confirmed that I lived in my truck, and declined. What she didn't know about the dirtbag raft guide she had just rain checked is that I had honed my skills at preparing and serving a romantic dinner out of the back of that truck with nearly no money.
The equation is really pretty simple. You scout a spot with a nice view beforehand, pay attention to a few key details, and cook a halfway decent meal. The following is a recreation of the spread she missed out on and the pieces of inexpensive gear—as well as some soft touches—that make a meal feel special on the cheap when car camping.
You can ditch the stems, but stick with glass here. In my opinion, wine tastes and feels cheaper out of a plastic cup. I went with Ball jelly jars because they were 31 cents a piece at Goodwill, they sub out as great whiskey glasses, and I hear Ball jars are hip.
While it wasn't necessary for the screw-top wine I served at this meal, I added the opener to this photo shoot because it is a necessity. I can open a bottle of wine by shoving a cork in with a stick—I have done it dozens of times in fact. But you don't want to be smashing a dirty stick into a bottle of wine when trying to impress a date.
Want to step it up a notch? Look up YouTube videos of how sommeliers open wine in fine dining restaurants. Trust me, the time invested will pay off in how slick you will look.
At $78 the Camp Time Roll-a-Table seems expensive for a table, but not when you spread that out over the number of times you will use it. I watched two Roll-a-Tables survive 10-years of hard use as lunch tables every day of the summer while I worked as a raft guide. I have taken poor care of the one in this picture—which I have owned for three years—and it is barely worse for the wear.
I purchased this table cloth (it could very well be a sheet) from Goodwill for $1.99. It hides the utilitarian look of the Roll-a-Table.
This is a big one. You can ignore other elements, but the table cloth is a huge aesthetic improvement to your setup.
Here is another potential thrift-store buy. I bought name brand because it is fall and this one smelled like apple something or other—ambience. If you are in a savagely buggy area, you can go citronella and have multi-use car camping. If you serve spaghetti-os with a candle and a decent bottle of wine, you can pull off cute and romantic.
Empty Beer Can With Flower
Even if it is an empty PBR, it is going to look good. Drink the beer while prepping your meal, fill the bottom with small rocks or pebbles, pick a pretty flower, and blow your date's mind.
While I am not an amazing cook, I can comfortably say I can cook anything outdoors with my $130 Camp Chef Rainier and a dutch oven. The grill gets hot enough to sear a four-pound tri-tip (tested), and the single burner puts out impressive heat as well. There are cheaper stoves out there, but I have used this for three years—half of that time as my primary cooking source—and haven't had a single problem.
If you time it right, you can have a cobbler or cake perfectly moist and ready to eat as soon as you finish your main meal. That makes you look damned fancy. I have a theory that dutch-oven cooking is the sexiest method of cooking food because you mix the subtleties of baking in an oven with scary, red hot, coals—you get to cook with a shovel.
I am getting a Yeti Cooler for multi-day raft trips. For car camping, I stick with my old faithful Coleman that I got on sale for $16. I don't care about durability when it is living in my trunk, and if it doesn't thermo-regulate the best that is no big deal, when I am car camping I can usually get emergency ice. While it doesn't need to be fancy, it is still a necessity here; if you serve white wine or beer warm, you have failed your meal—period.
I found my bin in a raft company's dumpster. After thoroughly cleaning it, I have found it absolutely key in staying organized. Fill it up once with everything you need for your car-camping kitchen. Have those kitchen supplies live in there permanently. It will make getting ready for a weekend camping trip considerably less overwhelming on a Friday night.
Super lightweight bowl, fork, and knife options are key when you have to pack them in and out of the backcountry, but here you have your car—use it. Use aforementioned bin to store the plates, bowls, forks, spoons and knives you want to throw away from your kitchen. The more mixed and matched the better—I think designers call it boho (short for bohemian).
A cooler will cut it on a multi-day raft trip, but you need back support for a romantic dinner. You don't have to go fancy, I saved these two from a buddy's garage cleanse three years ago—again, it's boho, or something.
For more gear (and dating) tips check out the Gear Guy.