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Summer is the season for lots of fun things: pool parties, flip-flops in a rainbow of fun colors, and — of course — eating outside.
But the great outdoors can easily become less enjoyable when you try dining al fresco unprepared. Picnics are generally fairly easy to manage (since you’re just transporting everything pre-cooked), but eating while camping can be a different beast.
Still, it’s not too difficult to cook a great meal in the great wide open as long you follow some general guidelines. Below, we’re sharing the best tips for cooking while camping.
While planning may seem like an obvious first step, it’s important enough to call out — because not planning can land you in the middle of nowhere without some essential ingredient or piece of equipment. (It probably won’t be the end of the world, but will be incredibly frustrating.)
As if you were Santa himself, make a long list of everything you need to buy and/or pack — down to the salt and pepper grinder — and check it twice. Then check off each item as you put it in the car, your backpack, etc. The laws of the universe dictate that you’ll still end up forgetting something, but this way, it’s not likely to be of key importance.
Likewise, you should have a backup plan for what to do if the weather doesn’t cooperate. If you only bring raw meat and it’s too rainy to build a fire, better have a propane stove and perhaps a tarp to shield it, or at least some no-cook snacks so you don’t go hungry.
The New Camp Cookbook by Linda Ly has tons of great tips and general advice on planning, packing, setting up, and using a camp kitchen, plus plenty of recipes to make outdoors. Check it out for more in-depth suggestions on making a camp cooking checklist.
If you’re car camping or just going on a day trip, you’ll probably have the luxury of a cooler. But a cooler might not be quite as capacious as you might wish, especially if you load it up with beverages — which is why, for longer trips, we recommend bringing a separate cooler just for drinks.
Speaking of, the old trick of freezing water bottles to use as ice packs (and later, to drink) is still a good one, although plastic bottles aren’t exactly environmental all-stars.
Keep in mind that you can freeze lots of other things too (including meats and precooked rice) in resealable plastic bags, which will help them last longer and contribute to the cooler’s chill factor.
To pack your cooler, start by removing anything in bulky packaging to more streamlined plastic bags for less wasted space and more efficient cooling.
Try to chill everything that’s going into your cooler beforehand, so it won’t bring the temperature down, and try to pack the ingredients you’ll use last on the bottom, so you won’t have to dig around for the first day’s grub underneath icy layers of other stuff.
Layer a bed of ice on the bottom, then add well-wrapped and sealed food, then another layer of ice, and so on. Pack every available open nook and cranny with more ice so there are no empty spots. Then don’t open the cooler any longer than necessary to retrieve items as needed, and try to keep it in the shade.
If you’re car camping, there’s pretty much no limit to what you can bring, but if you’re backpacking or even just hiking a little ways into your site, you’ll need to streamline your supplies. Here are some equipment tips to consider.
Consider weight and portability
That fancy camping stove might make awesome chops, but are you really gonna want to carry it all the way down the canyon (and back up)? It’s always smart to take weight and portability into account as you plan your meals under the stars.
We’re fans of this extensive camping cookware guide for detailed reviews and recommendations based on your circumstances. (You can look for top picks for car camping or backpacking.)
You’re going camping to get away from it all… so hauling everything but the kitchen sink is probably not the strategy you’re going for. Fortunately, there are plenty of creative ways to minimize your cooking equipment.
If you’d rather not do any cooking that requires a pot or skillet, stick to skewers you can grill, or even pre-made salads, pasta dishes, or sandwiches that don’t need to be heated before serving. You can also cook a lot of great camp food in foil pouches, which lets you pack light and minimizes cleanup.
Acquire camp cooking tools
If you are cool with doing a bit more cooking, a set of heat-proof silicone cooking utensils including a large spoon, spatula, and tongs, is super handy. And don’t forget a cutting board, unless you’re packing all your meats and vegetables already trimmed down to size.
Ceramic knives are both lightweight and sharp, and often come with plastic sheaths to protect the blade (and everything else from it, when not in use), so stash one of those in your camp kit too.
Invest in reusable camp dinnerware
When it comes to serving meals, paper plates and plastic utensils are tempting, but you can save space and help the environment by choosing lightweight, reusable items instead. Check out options like enameled tin or BPA-free melamine plates (which won’t chip), stacking cups, and aluminum utensils.
These products have the added benefit of looking and feeling more chic, which is always nice for glamping. And since you’ll need to clean all this stuff, be sure to pack a couple of nesting (or collapsible) plastic tubs for doing dishes. (More on cleaning up below!)
Bring a water filtration system (even if you don’t think you’ll need it)
Even if your campground has a safe water source, it’s always best to bring a few jugs along, just in case — and it’s a fantastic idea to add a filtration system to your camping kit as well. This gravity water filter system from MSR is great for backcountry trips and hikes, but useful in less remote campsites too.
Not just the environment in general, but think about where you’ll be cooking. In the woods? Almost anything goes. At the beach? Blowing sand may make certain dishes tricky. In the snow? Pick something hearty and warming that doesn’t require a ton of chopping or cleaning up (to spare your fingers the cold).
Unless you’re backpacking in true wilderness, most camp sites and day-use areas have one picnic table per spot. Instead of just heaping everything you brought along atop the table, take a few moments to organize it, and dedicate at least a small space on it for meal prep and serving.
First, put down a tablecloth — it not only adds a little flair, but keeps your food safe in case you drop it on the no-doubt gnarly table. Oilcloth is strong enough to withstand tears, easy to stash when it’s time to pack up, and a breeze to wipe clean.
One end of your covered picnic table can be reserved for both prepping food and washing dishes, so you’re not trying to squeeze your cutting board in among playing cards, lanterns, and stray books. But utilize what’s around you too. Flat rocks or smooth-topped tree stumps can be great places to rest a cutting board, plate, or dish tub.
Then again, if it’s feasible, you can pack a small folding table to use for your kitchen area so it’s totally out of the way and remains undisturbed.
If you’re going to be cooking, you’ll need some form of fire, which will generally either be from a fire pit, grill, or camp stove (if you’re in an RV with electrical hookups, you already know what to do).
Live fire or grill
If you’ll be cooking over a live fire and aren’t sure whether you’ll find a source of kindling at your site, don’t forget to pack firewood. Check rules governing wood gathering in the place you’re going, as well as any burn restrictions.
You should also bring plenty of matches or a kitchen lighter. If you’ve never built a fire before, be sure to read up on the best way to do it beforehand (or watch YouTube videos if you’re a visual learner). Then practice if you can and bring a cheat sheet with instructions.
If you’re not sure you’ll have a fire pit with a grill grate, bring metal skewers, grill baskets, foil packs, and/or Dutch ovens that you can hold over or nestle in the flames. Otherwise, you can make pretty much any grilling recipe over a campfire. And, of course, if you have the means and space, feel free to bring a small portable grill with you.
And don’t forget to make sure your fire is completely doused before you leave it unattended. Your dish washing tub comes in handy for this purpose too!
For backpacking trips and any situations where you may not be able to build a fire, a propane stove is perfect. Plus, it’s good to have even when car camping, since you can quickly boil water for morning coffee, among other things.
The MSR WindBurner Stove System is a bit pricier than some similar products, but it performs well even in adverse conditions (high winds, extreme cold), and comes with a nonstick ceramic-coated sauce pot, locking strainer lid, and skillet in addition to the burner itself. All the components nest together to maximize packing space.
If you’re car camping, you can also go with a multi-burner camp stove if you prefer. In any case, make sure you bring enough fuel canisters to cook all your meals. Figure out the right amount with REI’s handy guide.
Nobody (well, almost nobody) likes cleaning up, but it’s a necessity, so better be prepared for that too.
Pack two dish tubs (one for soaking, one for rinsing), a sponge, scrubber, or dishcloth, and one or more super-absorbent microfiber towels for drying — plus plenty of paper towels and an eco-friendly, biodegradable soap (which goes a long way, so don’t squirt on too much at once).
When it’s time to clean, follow these steps:
- Get as much food and food residue off your cookware and plates as possible
- Scrape them well and rub with paper towels (which you can burn if the fire’s still going)
- Put the dishes in a tub of soapy water to soak
- Give them a good scrub
- Move them to a tub of clean water to rinse
- Wash any pots and cooking utensils afterward, since they tend to be dirtier than the dishes
- Use a microfiber towel to dry, or just set them out to air dry (use a foldable dish rack if you have one, or hang them over a tree limb in a mesh bag)
It’s also imperative to properly contain and dispose of all your food waste. Minimize it in the first place by packing things in reusable containers wherever possible.
Whatever trash you do generate should be tossed into designated bins at your campsite (recycle what you can!), or if you’re truly in the wilderness, pack it up and bring it back out with you.
Seal up garbage bags, hang food and garbage in bear bags if you’re in an area where they live, and dispose of dish water away from camp to avoid attracting hungry critters.
Camp cooking doesn’t have to make you want to run right back to civilization. In fact, it can actually be pretty fun! With a bit of planning and the right tools, you’ll be singing kumbaya as you cook up a campfire feast.