Cooking Meals while Camping
Eating while away from home often means expensive dinners out. But eating well, usually means cooking it yourself. If budget travel is key, then you will need at bare minimum – a cooler, otherwise known as an “ice chest” for perishable food.
A heat source for cooking food is another item to consider; unless you plan to eat sandwiches, wraps, bars and snacks all weekend. Juice fast anyone?
If you want to do any amount of physical activity outside, then you may want a decent meal or two to nourish your tired body afterwards. This is where the ‘free heat source’ (campfire) comes in handy.
This page covers an overview of eating and cooking outdoors, more suited to tent campers or car campers traveling. No camp cooking recipes; sorry, the web is full of them.
Campfires require only free firewood (for heat) and the groceries (to cook), so they are the cheapest choice for meals; Free campfire permits are needed, along with water buckets and a shovel, and of course, campfire restrictions should always be followed.
Coleman camp stoves or smaller units are ideal for car campers, tent campers and van-lifers. Butane or propane fuel can get expensive if this is your only cooking method, so take that into consideration.
Motorhome campers have it easy – with full kitchens and appliances, but propane fuel could be costly depending on how many meals you prepare. Propane fridges are most common. RV refrigerators are often one of the first things to fail, so keep that in mind when purchasing an older camper on wheels.
Everything – and the kitchen sink. RVs, camper trailers and some camper vans have it made for cooking. They literally have a mini kitchen to do most of their food prep and cooking (indoors, away from wind, dust, bugs). Or they can easily bounce back and forth between the campfire grilling and the indoor kitchen.
Cabin rentals w/ wood burning stoves, some specially designed for cooking are a rare find on vacation. These beauties are unique, antique and some still fully functional as a cooking appliance. It’s a slower longer process to cook, but it is entertaining and rewarding. Wood-burning stoves use small hardwood pieces, known as ‘stove wood’. Bring some, or ask about it when reserving the cabin.
Otherwise, car campers and picnickers must rely on make-shift kitchen setups:
- first, flat ground helps immensely.
- second, a heat source may be needed, so plan ahead.
- developed parks and campgrounds usually provide picnic tables. pavement, cement flat areas for people to congregate and dine.
- boulder coves near rock outcroppings usually make good picnic spots and camp kitchens
- at bare minimum, a ground cloth or tarp for meal prep is best
- tarps can also come in handy, when raining. bring rope.
camp stoves, BBQ grill or campfire
ground tarp, table or tailgate
@ camp – Step 1
define kitchen area, light up work area & clean prep surfaces; wash basin areas get sloppy, so keep it off the table top
@ camp – Step 2
cover table top and seating surfaces; carry extra blankets for bench seats, and bedding. Camp stove needs FLAT surfaces to be most effective – the end of the picnic table, a flat boulder, a truck tailgate, a stove stand, or a portable camp table.
@ camp – Step 3
clean out the campfire pit; only idiots dispose of their trash in the fire ring. always leave the camp site, cleaner than you found it. bring extra black trash bags; respect the land and teach others. do not to litter.
Wild Winds of California
When nights are chilly and dining by the campfire is preferred, line a folding camp chair with a thick blanket. This will keep the cold wind off your back.
If the wind is harsh (20+ mph), you can park your vehicle to block most of the wind toward the campfire and/or camp kitchen.
Do not burn ANY FLAMES or FIRE when weather conditions are severe. HOT, DRY, WINDY = red flag warnings; all fire permits and burn permits are suspended.
Know current fire restrictions before you light up!
NON-FOOD ITEMS vs. FOOD
When packing your kitchen box in advance, do not load food items that have a scent – NO SPICES, no tea bags, nor hot chocolate mix. No coffee, no snacks and small smelly items. Bears, raccoons and wildlife would love to find your food (even if you only stepped away from the camp for 2 minutes). Crafty types will even attempt opening the cooler or getting inside the hatchback.
Store all food related / scented products inside the ice chest or the easy to manage, grocery bag – aka the FOOD BAG.
This Food Bag concept and style of storage is best for packing up at night after meals. The EASY and fastest way to get to bed early and avoid sorting food items in the dark. When the dishes are done, laying out drying, all grocery bags and food related items go in the car or in the steel bear box (provided at camp ground).
Remember these scented items also includes – toothpaste, cough drops, deodorant, creams, candy, medications. We’ve seen a tube of Ben-Gay chewed open by critters. Yuk. Save the animals from eating your foot cream. Store your creams and meds in a zip pouch with the food bag. Problem solved.
Prep @ home before the trip:
Freeze large juice bottles for cooler ice. BLOCK ice last much longer than small ice cubes. Freeze smaller water bottles for smaller coolers. Prevent bottle bursting, (water expands when ice swells) by pouring an inch off the top and screwing cap down loosely.
If you absolutely must have ice cubes for your drinks, take a smaller zip-lock bag. If it melts fast, buy another one in route.
Pre-chop vegetables; package fruit chunks. Think of hike-able meals, proteins, fast snacks and fruit. Fresh veggies w/ the meat grilling @ the deluxe campfire dinner.
Select a sturdy reusable bag with wide bottom. This can be your designated FOOD bag. Groceries, spices, coffee and teas, anything with a scent. Garlic, apples, raisins, oatmeal pouches.
The FOOD BAG (see orange notes above) is also a great place to store small items when traveling and camping. Items like lighters, matches, pocket knives, candles, pen and paper, headlamps, batteries, bandana, napkins, half roll o TP.
Solo travelers may even want to pack a ‘place setting’ (plate, bowl, utensils) inside the food bag for on the go meals and easy access.
Pack & pre-cook:
precooking certain foods
(that would normally take lots of time and fuel, or mess)
rice, pasta noodles, steel cut oatmeal, homemade chili, cakes, bread, sausages, bacon
2 coolers may be needed. depending on the situation, eating habits and amount of travelers
One large ice chest for storage, located in the back w/ a blanket on top to block it from the direct sunlight.
Smaller, portable ice chest up front, near the driving compartment for easy access to snacks, trail mix, sandwiches, beverages. Picnics will be easy with a small cooler. Freezing plastic water bottles days ahead, for block ice without the soggy mess.
JUST HEAT UP
If you want to do more exploring and less cooking, then plan your meals dining out (at home, online), well in advance. Fast food drive-thrus should always be avoided. Budget at least $10 per meal and expect to pay more in smaller towns. Pack lots of snack bars, beverages and easy to fix meals. Sandwiches are great for day time, cuz you’ll be out sightseeing. Night time you can have a camp fire to cook on, or break out the camp stove or grill.
Left overs are super quick to heat and serve. Pancakes, bacon, quiche, casseroles, enchiladas, stir fried rice, pre-chop salads. Save the salad dressing and top salad just before eating. Other easy prep meals include: scrambled eggs, hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, soups, tacos, or if all else fails, the dreaded MRE. Pre-packaged backpackers meals in foil pouches have come a long way, but are often expensive and always look so unappealing, like mush.
We’ve seen the city-boy bachelors show up to camp (after midnight) w/ a cooler packed full of beer and Subway sandwiches. Chips and nuts were their only side dishes. Needless to say, but the second day they we’re done w/ their food and wanting ours. BBQ ribs?
EASY COOK MEALS
one burner stove
one steel pot / one pan
2 burner camp stove w/ fuel
skillet & lid
medium size pots and pans
dutch oven cooking
foil & ziplock bags
fireproof oven mit / gloves
extra long tongs
Campfire Cooking Advice:
Start the campfire before sunset, so it has time to burn down the wood to make adequate coals.
Cook over glowing hot coals rather than the flames of burning wood. Use flat rocks and/or metal grills for positioning cast iron cookware.
Wait until the campfire becomes hot coals to do the cooking. Rearrange the glowing coals and rocks for optimal cooking spots.
You’ll need plenty of small wood – to keep feeding the fire and pushing the coals in place. Direct flames on cookware means black soot and often burnt chicken. Flames are okay for some food – like roasting wieners or shish kabobs, but generally it is the coals that offer the most even heat source.
Dutch oven (pictured above) is often the first cast iron campers purchase. Positioned over the campfire, it becomes a mini oven for heating up left over food dishes. You can heat them w/ a camp stove as well. Start with a smaller size and buy larger ones as needed.
Cast iron skillets are very handy for cooking up meat or fish dishes. Re-heating left overs, cooking eggs, pancakes and bacon. Books abound on dutch oven cooking show baking breads, desserts, making chili, and lots of recipes.
Aluminum foil and a roll of paper towels will come in handy. Ziplock bags help with leftovers. Metal spatula and tongs are ideal when cooking over campfires. Choose a can opener w/ a bottle opener built into it. Bring a corkscrew if you are packing a bottle of wine.
Washing up all dishes and pots immediately after a meal is best practice; Before bedtime is mandatory. No food or beverage smells should be found overnight around camp. Tie and pack garbage away (inside a vehicle), or dispose of in trash cans – before retiring for the night.
Remember: No toothpaste or snacks allowed inside the tent. Keep a clean camp to prevent unwanted visitors (wild animals).
Do not Wash Dishes
in the Creek or Lake
Use the metal bear boxes, when provided. These may be required for proper food storage in bear country.
Bears are after your food (not you).