Innovative van life and car camping gear we got our hands on in 2018
This year we got out into the field and put some brand-new and older-but-still-innovative gear to the test to find out what actually works and what doesn't. So with the year almost done and dusted, here's a look at the best camping gear we put through the wringer in 2018. After all, spending time outdoors is what gear innovation is all about, right?
No piece of gear on this list is perfect, but most get our full recommendation. We've included pros, cons and ideal user types for each so you can better decide if that recommendation applies to you (or that car camper on your shopping list).
Traeger Ranger portable wood-pellet grill
Background: Traeger has established itself as a leading name in sturdy, smooth-cooking wood-pellet grill/smoker combinations for backyard BBQing. Traeger products have won plenty of acclaim, but the typical large, heavy, expensive Traeger remains tied to the electrical grid and is not at all travel-friendly.
Traeger launched the compact Ranger and Scout portables this year, offering new options for those that want to Traeger on the go. Given that they still plug into a 120V, three-prong electrical socket to fire up the wood pellets, the new models aren't as fully portable as their charcoal or propane counterparts, but if you have shore power, a generator or a capable battery bank, you can plug in and enjoy Traeger wood-fire cooking at camp and on the move.
Our experience: After the recommended grill seasoning process, the Ranger delivered an excellent results/effort ratio, cooking up gently smoked meats more easily than any gas grill we've used. Unlike adding smoke with gas grills (soaking wood chips, preheating them in a smoker box), the smoke is just part of the cooking process with the Ranger. The little grill is as capable for cooking a quick weeknight meal as it is for more laid-back campsite cooking. We preferred using it on the backyard deck versus on the road, owing to its hefty build and electrical requirement, but if you commonly have 120V power at camp, it really isn't hard to pack up and use off-grid.
- Wood-pellet design is super-easy to use and cooks delicious, smoke-infused meals with less effort than using a smoker box on a gas grill or cooking directly on a wood fire
- Electronic interface makes for quick, precise temperature management
- Includes both grill grate and cast iron griddle for extra cooking versatility
- Cooking space is limited by the wood pellet hopper under the lid
- Given the electrical requirements and 60-lb (27-kg) construction, it's not as portable as other portable grills
Ideal users: Traeger enthusiasts who want a portable option and general car campers who have power readily available.
Price: US$399.99 from Traeger
Company home page: Traegergrills.com
Rovr Rollr 60 multifunctional cooler
Background: We very much liked the design of Rovr coolers when we checked them out at Outdoor Retailer 2017. These tough-but-smart rotomolded coolers rise above the bloated market of "luxury coolers" with some simple upgrades that promise real-world functionality. Instead of cheap plastic wheels and flimsy telescoping handles, they use knobby, 9-in all-terrain pneumatic tires and sturdy, drop-down two-person pull handles. They also come with a variety of standard and available accessories like a removable interior dry compartment, attachable cutting board and cupholder, and bike tow bar.
Our experience: We used the mid-size Rollr 60 for camping and for simpler day trips and picnics. We found the construction rock-solid and the air-filled tires quite capable of keeping things moving through conditions that would stymie or swallow the small plastic discs on other coolers. So far no flats, but repairing a flat would take a bite out of the Rollr's ease of use since you would never have to worry about that on virtually any other cooler. But so long as the puncture-resistant tires don't start popping one after the other on the same trip, we think the advantages of the tubed tires will outweigh the disadvantages.
When we saw Rovr's accessories on the show floor, we thought they were a real selling point, but the bamboo cutting board, dual cupholder and collapsible gear bin we had didn't really prove all that useful in the field. As an example, doing slicing and dicing down low on a cutting board hanging off the side of the cooler never proved the best option on hand, and we'll probably remove the cutting board's mounting clips to use it as a regular, lay-flat board — we could always use it on top of the cooler if there's no table available.
The dry bin was nice for separating food items like a fresh-bought, deli paper-wrapped sandwich from the wet, sloppy melting ice pile. It can definitely come in handy, but on longer trips, we often left it behind because we needed the extra space for ice, food and drinks.
Long story short, Rovr's accessories weren't as useful as expected but they also didn't bring down the overall performance of the cooler itself. We just recommend thinking carefully about what accessories you really need in the field and what will be unnecessary or redundant so you don't pay for accessories that end up collecting dust. The dry compartment and collapsible gear bin come standard with the Rollr 60, but the cutting board, cupholder and other accessories are sold separately.
- Combination of solid pull handle and pneumatic tires works as advertised, keeping the cooler rolling smoothly to camp even when the ground gets sloped and bumpy
- Tough, sturdy design keeps food chilled and is easy to drain
- The bear-tested cooler padlocks shut easily when camping in mandatory lock-up campgrounds (locks sold separately)
- Some of the accessory features look useful on paper but are unnecessary or redundant on the road
- The big tires make the cooler a bit wider and more difficult to store in cramped vehicles compared to other similarly sized coolers
Ideal users: Campers and other outdoor eaters who are tired of lifting and lugging heavy coolers or dragging coolers with inferior plastic wheels.
Company home page: Rovrproducts.com
Camp Chef Yukon two-burner cooking system
Background: More than just freestanding propane stoves, Camp Chef's lineup of Cooking Systems comprises versatile, portable all-in-one outdoor cooking solutions. The two- and three-burner stoves work on their own, but they become full outdoor kitchens with accessories like the grill boxes, griddles and pizza oven. The dual-burner Yukon is one of Camp Chef's 14-in models, compatible with 14-in accessories, and offers 60,000 BTU of propane-fueled cooking power.
Our experience: Ordinarily we focus on the latest gear innovations, but once in a while we see older design innovations that stand the test of time, staying well above the competition years later. We first ran into a Camp Chef multipurpose cooking system at Overland Expo a few years ago, thinking it a super-versatile car camping solution. The modular, multifunctional cooktop maintains its edge over other camp stoves today, so when it came time to replace a small portable stove with a larger, more powerful freestanding model, we opted for the Yukon, adding the Deluxe BBQ Grill Box and Reversible Griddle. Unlike the other products here, which were review samples sent for testing, this one we bought on our own.
In a summer's worth of testing, the Yukon lived up to our expectations. With an integrated carry handle and boxed rectangular design, the stove carries and packs easily. The legs and folding windscreen pack in an accompanying carry case and assemble in minutes, tool-free.
The stove itself offers plenty of cooking power, and the accessories effortlessly crank up its cooking capabilities. Drop the Deluxe BBQ Box over one burner and it repurposes heat toward grilling up meats and veggies, while the other burner remains free to boil and sauté. The box, which includes a latched lid and a handle for easy, secure carry, doesn't perform quite as well as a regular propane grill, but it works well enough to earn its place on the burner and includes an integrated thermometer for easy temperature tracking. In the morning, you can pull the BBQ off and swap in the griddle, quickly filling the morning campsite air with the aroma of crackling bacon.
- Modular design makes it easy to use multiple cooking appliances with a single fuel source and ignition interface
- All three pieces we tested are rectangular and fairly compact, making them easier to pack into a loaded vehicle than many separate stoves, grills, griddles and fuel sources
- Secure components and integrated handles make for easy transport
- Fast, tool-free set-up
- Grill box doesn't work quite as smoothly as a dedicated grill and requires regular cleaning below the removable cooking grate
- One of the leg screws on our model doesn't tighten as smoothly or fully as the other three, seemingly a defective part
Ideal users: Car campers who want to take campsite cooking beyond a basic stove and campfire, without overloading their vehicles.
Price: $199.99 for the Yukon two-burner stove, $109.99 for the 14-in single-burner Deluxe BBQ Grill Box 30, and $46.49 for the Reversible Grill/Griddle from Camp Chef, but Amazon has the Yukon stove for $145.59 as of publishing.
Company home page: Campchef.com
Kogalla Ra multipurpose light
Background: Quite different from the average headlamp or flashlight, the powerful, little Kogalla Ra features a row of five LED lamps that flood the ground ahead with up to 800 lumens of light. This adventure light is billed primarily as a wearable, able to stick to clothing or backpacks via its integrated magnets and mounting accessories, but we found it can also be used as a stationary light around camp, on a van or elsewhere. The lighting unit connects to a series of modular battery packs via USB, providing upgradable power storage and runtime and the ability to run two lighting units from one battery.
When we looked at the Ra during its crowdfunding days in 2016, it was being marketed under the Zyntony corporate brand name, but has since slid under Zyntony's "Kogalla" outdoor product brand. The light has a slightly different look, but the features are much the same.
Our experience: We initially intended to use the Ra as a hands-free wearable for nighttime running, during hot summer months when day runs are unbearable. We don't doubt it would work well for that use, but you need a backpack or at least conveniently positioned pocket to store the separate battery pack, and since we don't run with a backpack or shirt pockets, it didn't work well for that (for us).
Instead, we repurposed the Ra as more of a utility light, and it performed brilliantly. The second we turned it on indoors and it lit up the entire room, we knew it was going to prove a winner on new-moon nights in the outdoors. During camping trips, it stuck to the SUV lift-gate (battery inside the storage pouch on the inside of the gate) when we needed some light for cooking or something and didn't want to worry about draining the vehicle battery. We even used it for that purpose in the house when the range light went out, sticking it to the hood to light the stove while cooking dinner. So we'd venture so far as to say it's a useful indoor/outdoor magnetic utility light.
The Ra puts out a very bright 120-degree field of light, illuminating not only the trail in front of you, but the trees and bushes to both sides ... and any wildlife lurking ominously therein. The off-grid charging capability came in handy when we had multiple backup light sources but no other way of charging up a phone. We used the 6,700-mAh battery pack, but those that want more power (or want to hook up dual Ra lights) can step up to the 13,400- or 20,100-mAh packs with multiple USB ports.
- Provides plenty of diffuse light, very effectively lighting the area directly in front and to the sides
- Built-in magnets make it easy to stick to a lift-gate, vehicle side and elsewhere
- The battery pack doubles as a charger, simply unplug the light from the USB and plug in a device
- The lighting body is billed as flexible but is a bit stiff and doesn't flex all that smoothly
- The two-piece design means you have to store the battery separately when attaching to clothing or elsewhere
Ideal users: Outdoor enthusiasts looking for a wearable, versatile, high-powered light for camp and outdoor activities — just be sure the mounting options work for your purposes
Price: $129.97 for Ra light with 6,700 mAh battery pack, mounting hardware and colored lens covers via Kogalla
Company home page: Kogalla.com
The above products each had pros and cons, but they all earned their place in our kit. We can see them serving campers, travelers and outdoor lovers well. One product we tested this year failed to the point we cannot recommend it at all.
GCI RoadTrip Rocker
Background: GCI Outdoor introduced the RoadTrip Rocker earlier in 2018 as a more portable alternative to its older Freestyle Rocker. The Freestyle merely folds in half, while the RoadTrip folds in two directions, like a regular folding camp chair, packing up into an easy-carry shoulder bag. At camp, it complements après drinks with a little extra motion and comfort.
Our story: Our experience with the GCI RoadTrip Rocker can be summed up as a story of a star that burned brightly but too quickly. Way too quickly. It was one of our favorite van life/camping gear finds during the Winter 2018 outdoor expo season. The most portable rocking chair we'd seen, it looked perfect for camping, tailgating and other vehicle-based leisure.
Shortly after covering it the first time, we got a test model and immediately found it to be the most comfortable camping chair we'd ever used. The strut-action rocking worked smoothly and made for a relaxing sit, whether on the deck or out at camp. It was comfortable enough to use in the house while we waited for the spring thaw and proved the envy of the campfire when group camping. At $60, it's more than basic folding camp chairs but is still cheaper than high-end (non-rocking) camp chairs, seemingly a fair price point for the design.
We were just about to vow never to use a non-rocking camp chair again when we noticed the RoadTrip's materials were aging like they were on 50x fast-forward. The chair did spend some time out on the deck in the sun and weather, but no more so than the older folding camp chairs standing next to it. Difference was, those other chairs still looked and worked like new, while the RoadTrip Rocker looked like it aged 10 years, just three months after we pulled it out of the UPS box. The material faded from dark to light blue, and the binding at the edges started to fray and peel off.
We thought it just superficial aging at first, but on our first extended camping trip in July, the fabric seat ripped cleanly from the frayed front edge back toward the seat back. Two days into the trip, the chair was unusable, a mere four months after we had received it. We were expecting potential problems with wear and tear on the rocking mechanism, but the fabric deteriorating within months was a shock.
- Very comfortable outdoor rocking chair with smooth rocking action
- Folds in two directions for compact packing
- Reasonably priced
- Aged like no piece of outdoor gear we've ever used
- Unusable within four months
Ideal users: We cannot recommend this product for anyone at all based on how quickly it failed. We imagine it would last longer if stored away inside in the carry bag after every use, but the quick failure was simply unacceptable, especially considering that the much cheaper camping chairs we used alongside it are still as good as new.
Price: $50 as of publishing on Amazon
Company home page: gcioutdoor.com