Food is often an afterthought for many campers. They spend all of their time picking out gear, selecting a destination and practicing with their camp stove; but when it is time to decide on a menu for the trip, they just grab whatever is handy or convenient.
But this is a big mistake. Any activity is more enjoyable when there’s good food to be had, and camping is no exception. And while camping places a few limitations on your food selections, there are plenty of great meals you can make and enjoy while sitting around the campfire and soaking up the scenery.
So, give the following five ideas consideration when preparing for your next trip. We’re not putting them in recipe form, as you’ll need to tweak the quantities and ingredients based on the size of your group and your own preferences. But this should help give you a few ideas.
Just be sure to bring along all of the things you’ll need to make and prepare the meal, and don’t be afraid to tweak these ideas to suit your tastes. It can also be helpful to prepare some things in advance (such as seasoning meat or chopping vegetables) to make things easier in camp.
What Makes a Good Camp Meal?
Before we get to the actual recommendations, it is important to understand the things that help make a camp meal especially appealing. This will help you understand why some of the ideas below work well and what makes them so appetizing after a long day on the trail.
Some of the most important characteristics of a good camp meal include:
High in Calories
Even if you are just lounging around at camp all day, you’ll usually need a few more calories during a typical camping trip to keep your belly full. Besides, you’re on vacation and you’re trying to enjoy yourself; start counting calories again once you get home.
The easiest way to increase the caloric value of a food is to add a bit of delicious fat to it. If you’re cooking at home, you can use decadent ingredients like duck fat or truffle oil, but you’ll primarily be limited to salted butter or some type of plant oil (olive oil, sunflower oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, etc.). Peanut butter and similar items (sunflower butter, almond butter, etc.) are also helpful in this regard, although they aren’t great additions to many recipes.
Just don’t go crazy with the fat, or you’ll end up with a greasy meal and an aching belly – particularly if you aren’t accustomed to fatty foods.
Proteins are also helpful for increasing the caloric value of your foods. Making pasta? Add a can of drained shrimp. Making grilled cheese sandwiches? Consider throwing a few pieces of deli meat on before toasting it. Nuts are also great for providing extra calories, but you may get sick of them, considering that your trail mixes are probably full of nuts.
The entire point of making real food when you’re camping instead of just using dehydrated bags of gruel is that it tastes better. Accordingly, you’ll want to make sure your food is packed with flavor.
Fortunately, this is pretty easy to do whether you are cooking in your kitchen or at a campsite. You can bring just about any dried herbs or spices you like, as most are light, are only required in small quantities, and they last for ages, so you won’t have to worry about them spoiling.
A bit of dried basil, oregano, cumin, paprika or lemon pepper can make any meal a bit more flavorful, and don’t forget good old-fashioned salt and pepper. You can use fresh herbs if you prefer, but they won’t last very long. So, be sure to use them early in your trip.
You can also marinate meats and vegetables by cutting them into the necessary size and tossing them in a sealed Ziploc bag (double bag it to protect against leaks) with a marinade that does not require refrigeration. By the time you reach camp the first night, they should have absorbed the liquid and be bursting with flavor.
If you lack the culinary skills to season meats and vegetables well, you can cheat and use the spice and flavor packets that come with heat-and-serve noodles or similar foods.
Easy to Make with Limited Tools
You won’t have access to a kitchen full of cutlery and tools when camping, so you’ll want to keep things somewhat simple. At best, most campers will bring a chef’s knife and a pancake turner or spatula. If you’re a real foodie, you may bring a mixing bowl or cutting board, but that’s going to be about all you have the room to bring.
One good way to sidestep this problem is by cutting and preparing the food as much as is possible before hitting the trail. For example, you can dice vegetables, season and butcher meat or assemble kabobs before leaving the house. This will allow you to enjoy fresh-cooked food, without most of the hassle.
Unlikely to Spoil
You won’t have access to a refrigerator at your campsite, so you’ll have to stick to foods that won’t spoil at room temperatures. This can create pretty significant challenges, as most raw meats will spoil within a matter of hours, and fresh fruits and vegetables rarely last more than a few days (obviously, there are exceptions).
But there are a few ways to work around this problem.
You can, for example, rely on canned meats, which won’t spoil in your pack. This includes things like canned fish, shellfish, pork or chicken, and cured meats that are specifically labeled as safe for storage at room temperature. No, canned mussels (for example) aren’t as delicious as fresh-from-the-ocean mussels, but they’re still a welcome ingredient around most campsites.
Cured meats are occasionally – though not universally – resistant to spoiling. Some bacons and sausages, for example, are safe to store at room temperature.
You can also pack things in ice or frozen food (such as bags of frozen peas or carrots). Just be sure that they are still cold when you get to camp. Ice obviously weighs a ton and it doesn’t last very long, so this is only good for keeping things cool for your first night at camp.
Some campers may choose to freeze chicken, beef or pork, and then allow it to thaw as you hike. However, most food-safety authorities discourage this approach, as it can allow the outside of the meat to spoil before the inside has thawed. Regardless of the approach you use, be sure to toss any questionable foods out instead of eating them.
You’re always better off being a tiny bit hungry than spending your trip expelling spoiled food.
Five Great Ideas
Now that you understand the things that make a good camp meal, it is time to explore a few good ideas. Again, don’t hesitate to tweak these recipes to suit yourself, just be sure to keep food safety in mind while doing so.
Freshly baked pizza almost always draws a crowd, and while you’ll need to be a bit creative to cook a pizza at camp, it is relatively easy food to prepare on the trail. All you need is a pre-made and sealed pizza crust that does not require refrigeration (such crusts are usually stored by the pepperonis at your local grocery store), a can of tomato sauce and some type of hard cheese. Parmesan or Romano are good choices, but mozzarella will spoil if left at room temperature for more than an hour or two. For toppings, consider bacon bits, pepperonis, canned olives or freshly chopped onions.
Making the pizza is pretty straightforward: Add sauce, add cheese, add toppings. But to cook the pizza, you’ll need to create some type of oven to cook the pizza from the top and the bottom at the same time.
The bottom of the pizza isn’t a problem. You can just put it on a grill or cleverly arranged sticks over hot coals. But the top is trickier.
One way to do so is by covering the pizza with a cast iron pan and placing hot coals on the pan, or by excavating a hole large enough for the pizza, suspending the pizza over some coals in the bottom of the “oven” and placing hot coals on the ground over the cavity.
Cutting a pizza in camp isn’t especially easy, so consider making personal-sized pizzas, rather than a big 14-inch pie.
2. Grilled Sausage and Baked Potatoes
Sometimes, you’ll want a real meat-and-potatoes meal, but this can be hard to cook safely on the trail. However, there are a number of “shelf stable” sausages available, which require no refrigeration. Just serve one of these up with a freshly baked potato, and you’ll surely please your companions.
Preparing the sausage will generally be easy – most are completely cooked and ready to eat, but you may want to heat them by tossing them on the grill or in a pan for a minute or two before serving them. However, you’ll want to start with the potatoes, as they’ll take much longer to cook.
Start by puncturing the potatoes numerous times with a fork, and then wrap them in some foil and toss them in the coals. Check on them frequently but be patient – they may take 30 minutes or more to cook. Once they’re fairly soft, they’ll be ready. Be sure to bring along plenty of butter, salt, pepper and bacon bits to top them. You could even bring fresh chives (or forage for wild onions, if you know how to find and identify them) if you want to be really fancy.
Dried pasta may not be quite as delicious as that which is freshly made in your kitchen, but it’ll keep well in your pack. Pick any variety you like, but you may prefer selecting bow-ties, penne or rotini, rather than spaghetti or fettuccine, as it’s easier to eat with limited utensils. You’ll also want a can of tomato sauce, and a bit of shredded cheese (once again, you’ll want to choose a hard cheese, such as parmesan or Romano).
Making pasta is super easy: Boil some water and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is al dente. Drain the water, add the sauce and let the sauce warm up a bit. Serve, sprinkle with cheese and slurp it up with gusto. Don’t be afraid to add some herbs or spices (garlic salt, crushed red pepper or basil are all great choices) to take things to another level.
Jambalaya – and similar rice-based dishes – is an excellent meal for camping. And it is not only easy to make, but it can be made entirely with ingredients that will last the entire length of your trip. This means you can make a delicious meal on your very last night at camp to end the trip on a high note.
Every chef in the world has his or her own jambalaya recipe, but they all contain the same basic ingredients: Some meats (with shrimp and sausage being the most common choices), some vegetables (peppers, onions and celery are the go-to choices for most), some rice and your choice of seasonings.
Basically, you’ll want to make the rice, and toss the various ingredients in early in the cooking process. Stir frequently and simmer for a long time to help reduce the mixture and increase the flavor. That’s about it. Fancy camp-cooks may wish to sear the meats first or add a bit of wine or vinegar to help increase the flavor, but the basic concept is really simple.
Canned shrimp (or any shellfish, really) is the best choice for a protein, and you’ll want to chop up the vegetables before leaving home if they’ll keep well once cut. Serve with a bit of toasted bread to complete the meal.
5. Grilled Trout
Many campers like to sneak in a bit of fishing while they’re enjoying the great outdoors. And while it is generally preferable to throw back most of the fish you catch, there’s usually nothing wrong with keeping one or two for the dinner table (or tree stump, as the case may be). Just be sure to exercise restraint and always follow all applicable laws and regulations when doing so.
But once you’ve caught the fish, you have to figure out how to cook them. There are a million ways to cook a freshly caught fish (you can even eat them raw if you are a sushi fan), but the best way to honor the fish, tempt your taste buds and fill your belly is to keep things simple. This means grilling the fish over hot coals.
If you bring a grate with you, grilling is a snap. Just clean and gut the fish, sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper and toss it on the grill, skin side down. Squeeze some lemon juice on them if you like and pull them off once the meat flakes easily. If you don’t have a grate, you’ll need to improvise by using sticks to suspend the fish over the coals.
If you’d like to prepare the trout in a little more elaborate manner, you can place some cooked rice and a few vegetables in the belly cavity before placing them on the grate. It’ll take a little care to prevent everything from spilling out, but it can be accomplished with a bit of practice. You could also make trout in a pan over hot coals, just add a bit of olive oil to the pan first to prevent sticking.
Trout are often the primary fish most campers pursue, but they aren’t found in all areas (particularly the southern United States). But you can cook just about any freshwater gamefish in a similar manner, including bluegill, catfish or bass.
You’ll clearly have to make adjustments when cooking on the trail, but as you can see, there are plenty of delicious foods you can make without much trouble. Just be sure that any foods you bring are safe to store at room temperature (the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service is a great resource) so you don’t get anyone sick.