The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Camp Cooking
No, you don't have to eat freeze-dried food in the woods
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If you’re a newbie to camping, know this: the food part doesn’t have to be complicated. Sleeping out in the woods is a palate cleanser for your soul, whether you eat a soggy PB&J by the fire or whip up a four-course meal. If figuring out what to eat is your barrier to entry, just pack a can of SpaghettiOs or a takeout salad.
However, this is Outside’s Eat and Drink column, which means we’re always on Team Good Food. And coming up with tasty, creative camp dishes can become a fun part of the experience. “For me, a big part of camping is the company you keep, and the food you’re making is a part of that,” says Linda Ly, author of The New Camp Cookbook: Gourmet Grub for Campers, Road Trippers and Adventurers. “Presumably, you don’t have internet, you’re not online, you’re not watching TV,” she says, adding that without those distractions, you may find yourself itching to put together a real meal.
Of course, unlike home cooking, there’s no emergency frozen pizza lurking in the freezer if things go sideways. So you do need to have a plan. Follow these tips, and we promise you won’t go hungry out there.
Plan Your Days
If you’re summiting a peak on Sunday, that’s the day to eat instant oatmeal for breakfast and dinner from a freeze-dried, heat-and-eat bag. Save your cooking for a time when the main items on the agenda are drinking cocktails and reading in your hammock.
Even if you’re a diehard cook-from-scratch chef at home, this is not the time for your famous beef Wellington. “My secret weapon is Trader Joe’s,” reveals Brian Jump, REI’s director of North American field operations and a longtime hiking, biking, kayaking, and rafting guide. TJ’s is your one-stop shop for car camping, says Jump, because not only are the aisles packed with great snacks, but there are tons of heat-and-eat meal options, too. Grab pre-marinated meats (Korean short ribs are Ly’s favorite), premade salads, and even refrigerated ravioli or frozen dumplings, which cook up well on a camp stove.
Speaking of Camp Stoves, Test Yours Now
If your stove is new to you, fire it up at least once before you leave. For one thing, you want to triple-check that you have the right kind of fuel and you know how to light it. Also, camp stoves are kind of awkwardly sized. The pots you’re planning to bring may not fit well on the burners—definitely check. Finally, camp stoves and cookware heat differently than your stuff at home. (Camp cookware is thinner and therefore cooks more quickly, making scorching an issue.) This is best to find out when you have a stocked pantry at your disposal.
Oh, You’re Going to Cook over the Fire?
That’s a fun option, but it takes some getting used to, says Jump. He generally prepares his main dishes on trusty camp stoves and uses the fire just to warm crusty bread. However, Ly says she prefers cooking over the fire and reserves her camp stove for things like warming water and making pancakes. So this is going to come down to personal preference. Just know that you rarely cook over flames—instead, you cook over hot coals. (Pack your Dutch oven, and check out this guide on how to use it.)
Prep at Home As Much As Possible
Ly cracks eggs into mason jars, which eliminates the possibility of eggs-plosions in your cooler. You can pre-scramble them or not—that’s up to you, just make sure you keep them cold. She also pre-dices any veggie that will retain its shape post-chopping: think peppers, potatoes, carrots, and onions. Leave tomatoes and cucumbers whole, because they tend to get mushy after cutting.
While guiding, Jump quickly realized that the trick to keeping everyone happy is feeding them well. That’s especially true in the evening when you’re done with a hike and teetering on hangry. Before Jump starts any meal prep, he pulls some sort of tidbit out to tide everyone over. His go-to is a wheel of brie topped with a handful of nuts and dried fruit, wrapped tightly in foil, and heated for a few minutes on warm campfire coals. “People’s minds are blown when you have baked brie at the campsite,” he says—and it’s barely any work at all.
Pack Your Cooler Right
Because heat rises, the coldest part of your cooler is the bottom, says Jump. That’s where you should pack the stuff you won’t touch for a few days. (This keeps rifling through it to a minimum, too). Ice will keep your cooler cold, but it also creates a mess as it melts; instead, Jump recommends a product called Techni Ice, which are reusable, freezable sheets. “They’re low volume but really cold, and they don’t sweat,” he says. He distributes a few sheets throughout the cooler, eliminating the need to use any ice at all. Also: pack your drinks in a separate cooler. Opening the lid repeatedly to grab a cold one will vastly reduce how long it stays frigid in there.
Build a Food-Prep Area
Ly brings her own camp table, in case there isn’t a picnic table at the campsite or it’s not conveniently located. (It also helps keep the stove out of reach of her young kids.) Her pick is from TravelChair, because it has adjustable legs that are perfect for use on uneven ground.
Don’t Forget the Dishes
Yes, you still have to do dishes in the backcountry. Keep all of your dishwashing gear together so you’re not searching for it in the dark, and heat a kettle of water on the stove while you eat—warm water makes the process much less loathsome as well as faster, since it helps break down food bits and oil, says Jump. Both Ly and Jump use a three-bucket system: the first contains warm water for rinsing off food, then there’s a soapy water bucket, and, finally, a rinse bucket. You can buy collapsible buckets made for this task, or just bring some plastic bins from home. Ly likes to let her dishes drain in a mesh laundry bag hung from a tree branch.
Follow Leave No Trace ethics when you disperse your dishwater. Pour your dirty water through a mesh strainer and into another bucket before dumping it. Make sure you dispense of the water at least 200 feet from streams or lakes and a good distance from your campsite. Throw the strained-out food bits into a bear-proof trash can, or pack them out—even micro bits of food can cause problems in the backcountry.
Want to go further? Here’s a guide to backcountry dessert baking and bread making. We’ve also got a complete guide to cocktails that pair perfectly with campfires. Just don’t blame us when your friends invite you on every single camping expedition—and then ask you to take charge of the menu.