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Camp Cooking Fails and How to Do It Right

Learn to cook like a pro and avoid common mistakes when you’re cooking at a campsite.

The idea of cooking outside while camping is lovely; sizzling bacon, potatoes wrapped in tin foil and tucked in the coals, the perfectly golden marshmallow. In practice, however, it always seems to be much more complicated than imagined.

One weekend when I was in college, my now husband and I threw some camping gear and my dog in his ancient Nissan Pathfinder and drove six hours away on a whim to a Ten Sleep Canyon, Wyo., a climbing area we’d heard of in passing. It was one of our first camping trips together.

At the grocery store the day before, I’d congratulated myself on the clever idea of packing a bunch of canned food. I bought cans of soup, cans of baked beans and black beans to make into tacos. Every meal of the three-day trip was anchored by a can that didn’t need refrigeration and could be easily recycled when we got back to civilization.

There was just one problem. I went through our camping gear three times and the can-opener never materialized. I’d forgotten to pack it and we were two hours from the nearest store.

My husband got creative and managed to get a can of soup open with a hatchet and a rock, but it took almost an hour. We spent the rest of the weekend eating pretzels and hummus, and I learned my first lesson about camp cooking: never skip a packing list.

Over the last decade, we’ve had our fair share of other camp cooking mistakes. There was the backpacking trip where we cooked pesto pasta the first night and couldn’t scrub the garlicky taste out of our one pot. Even the coffee tasted like garlic. There was the road trip where we bought dry ice instead of regular ice, thinking it would last longer and ended up with a cooler full of carbonated fruit.

I grew up camping with my family and my dad is an incredible camp cook. But just like you can’t make your grandma’s recipes without a ton of practice, camp cooking isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally.

Hopefully this guide to camp cooking will help you avoid some of my mistakes. Whether you’re a first-time camper, or a veteran, there’s always room for improvement over the camp stove.

What is the Best Food to Bring Camping?

Cooler-hardy foods
Cooler-hardy foods (Photo: Getty Images)

The best kinds of camp meals are both simple and delicious. The key to having a good experience when it comes to mealtime is planning ahead. Make a list of every meal and snack you’ll need to pack for and plan exactly what you’ll serve. Think through the activities you have planned for your trip and decide when you’ll have time to cook and when it’s better to opt for something quick and easy. If you want to get an early start to beat the heat, stick to a no-cook breakfast. If you’re taking a guided tour that will finish mid-afternoon, you’ll have more time to cook a big dinner.

Opt for meals that don’t require a ton of prep (or can be prepped ahead of time at home) and don’t require tons of pots and pans. Doing dishes while camping is much more tedious than at home, so consider that when you’re planning your meals. I usually avoid anything that’s going to leave my dishes too sticky, greasy or, of course, garlicky.

Cook time is another thing to consider. While something that needs to simmer for 30 minutes at home might not be a big deal, 30 minutes on a camp stove is a long time when you’re using fuel, trying to keep mosquitoes out of your sauce and losing light. Avoid draining all your fuel on one meal by cooking meals that don’t require intensive stove time.

Lastly, consider how your ingredients will hold up. Soft or wilt-prone produce like bananas and lettuce aren’t going to fare well in your cooler. Sturdy produce like apples, bell peppers, onions, kale and cabbage are a great choice to get fresh veggies in. A loaf of sandwich bread is going to get squashed, no matter how careful you are with it, but tortillas and pitas will hold up better.

Keep in mind that raw meat must be kept under 40-degrees F to safely consume it and even then, ground meat should be cooked within a day or two and other meats shouldn’t hang out for more than 3-5 days without being cooked. If you’re not sure if your cooler is up to the task, opt for pre-cooked meat like shredded pork, taco-seasoned ground beef or hot dogs that you can reheat at camp. You can also pack frozen meat in your cooler, which will stay colder, longer.

Best Breakfasts to Cook While Car Camping

While a big breakfast of bacon and eggs seems quintessential to camping, I find that I want to hit the trails early in the morning and cooking and cleaning up that kind of breakfast is a hassle. If I’m planning an early activity, I usually opt for something quick, filling and easy for breakfast. Yogurt and granola is an easy no-cook option and instant oatmeal can be made at the same time you’re boiling water for coffee. I like Kodiak Cakes protein oatmeal to keep me fueled on long adventures. When I can’t shake the idea of a big breakfast, I move it to dinner time and make bacon and egg filled breakfast burritos for dinner when I have more time to cook and clean up.

Best Lunches to Eat When Camping

If you’ll be on the trail over lunch time, assembling sandwiches or heating up soup isn’t going to be an option. I opt for snack items for lunch so that it’s easy to eat on the go whether we’re hiking, canoeing or seeing the sights. Trail mix, granola or protein bars, apple slices, cubed cheese, salami and jerky are all lunch favorites. If I know I’m going to have a cooler with me, hummus is still on the menu, although I make my own hummus at at home now and pack it in a reusable container. I love this hummus recipe from Bon Appetit: (www.bonappetit.com/recipe/israeli-style-hummus).

Best Dinners for Car Camping

Tin foil packets filled with veggies
Tin foil packets filled with veggies (Photo: Getty Images)

While I prioritize quick, no-cook foods for breakfast and lunch while camping, dinner is a different story. Dinner is a great excuse to gather around with your friends and family and enjoy a delicious meal in the great outdoors. The first step in planning your camp dinners is to decide how you’ll cook. If you’re dreaming of cooking over the campfire, be sure to check for fire bans in the area before planning your menu. Cooking over the fire can be fun, but it’s also tricky. If you don’t have experience cooking with fire, opt for hard-to-ruin foods like hot dogs on a stick or tin foil packets filled with veggies like potatoes and squash.

I prefer to cook on the camp stove since it’s easier to manage the heat and the cooking style is more similar to my stove at home. While a pot of beans and franks might seem like a quintessential camping food, my perspective is that if you wouldn’t be stoked on eating something at home, you’re probably not going to enjoy it anymore in the woods. Think about the things you enjoy making at home and look for ways you can simplify those same meals for camping. At home, I cook a lot of vegetable-heavy meals which can be tricky while camping. I’ve found that a simple stir fry is easy to manage on the camp stove if I pre-cut the veggies ahead of time and make up a sauce in a resealable container. While instant rice will never match the real stuff, it definitely works in a pinch. To make fajitas, I sub a pre-cooked sausage like kielbasa for strips of chicken or beef and sear it in a pan with peppers and onions and serve with tortillas. A pre-made sauce (just not pesto, of course) and a box of pasta are also a no-fail option.

Can’t-Miss Foods for Car Camping

I know that not everything is going to go as planned when I’m cooking outside, so I’ve perfected a few staples that I know will work even if everything else doesn’t go quite right. I invested in the Stanley French Press (www.stanley1913.com/products/classic-stay-hot-french-press-48-oz?variant=39681649836091) and always bring my favorite coffee grounds and an insulated mug to ensure I have good, hot and plentiful coffee each morning. I firmly believe that pretty much anything becomes edible when you cover it in hot sauce so there’s always a bottle of Crystal’s in my cooler. I pack plentiful snacks, like chips and salsa and there are always supplies for s’mores, even if we can’t have a campfire and have to cook them over the stove.

S'mores is always a hit
S’mores is always a hit (Photo: Getty Images)

How Do You Pack Your Cooler for a Camping Trip?

When you make your camping menu, write out every ingredient and utensil that each dish will require down to salt, oil for cooking and, of course, a can opener. That way you won’t start dinner and realize you forgot to pack cumin or a cutting board.

Research food storage regulations in the area you’ll be camping in before you start to pack. In a desert national park like Grand Canyon, storing your food items in the car will be enough. But in grizzly bear country like Yellowstone, you’ll need to hang your food at night, store it in a bear cannister or a bear box if the campground has one.

I try to limit the amount of plastic and cardboard packaging I’m buying from the store in the first place, but I try to re-package any unavoidable single-use items in reusable containers (like these: ziptop.com) at home to limit the amount of trash I have to pack out while camping. This is especially important for items going in the cooler. As your ice melts, it will make single-use items like milk containers soggy. Be sure that any raw meat is packed in totally impermeable materials so that you don’t cross-contaminate the rest of the cooler with raw meat juices.

Make any sauces or spice mixes ahead of time so you don’t have to bring your entire pantry with you and pre-cut veggies and pre-cook meat for short trips. If your recipe calls for specific measurements, portion them out to avoid having to measure in camp.

When it’s time to pack your cooler, opt for a block of ice rather than cubes as it will stay frozen longer. A few reusable ice packs are also a great idea to tuck on top after you finish packing to keep everything nice and cold. You should aim for a 2:1 ice to food/drinks ratio for the best results and a well-rated cooler like a Yeti or an RTIC is going to be better at insulating than a flimsy one.

It’s a good idea to pack drinks like soda or beer in a separate cooler to keep your food cooler from being opened constantly and warming faster. If you do put drinks in your main cooler, make sure they are refrigerated first.

Pack things most likely to go bad nearest to the ice like dairy and meat and put veggies and condiments closer to the top. Fill in any gaps with cubed ice to keep everything airtight. At camp, make sure your cooler stays in the shade as much as possible. Remember, easily meltable items that you normally might not refrigerate like chocolate and marshmallows are better off in the cooler too.

A hard-sided storage bin with a lid that closes is a great way to store non-refrigerated items. This keeps things from getting crushed and ensures your food is safe from small critters and insects.

How Do You Cook While Camping?

Making sure you have the right gear to cook while camping is essential. The main item you’ll need is a camping stove. There are two main types of camping stoves: two-burner propane stoves and canister backpacking stoves. When car camping, I prefer the classic two-burner stoves. Two burners give me more room to cook and the larger surface area is better for bigger pots and fry pans. Propane canisters can be found at most grocery stores, which makes it easy to stock-up in small towns as I’m road tripping. Two burner stoves do require a large, flat surface area. Most designated campgrounds have picnic tables that will work well, but if you’re dispersed camping, I’d suggest bringing a foldable table.

Using a two-burner camp stove in Redwood National Park
Using a two-burner camp stove in Redwood National Park (Photo: Getty Images)

Backpacking stoves are small, single burner devices that sit on top of a can of fuel. They are very lightweight and don’t take up much space, but they do give you less room for cooking and the fuel can be hard to find outside of outdoor stores. They also are a little less stable than larger two-burner stoves, so use some care as you move your pots around on top of them.

Make sure to pack plenty of whatever kind of fuel your stove takes. Most fuels will give an estimated number of cooking hours, which can vary depending on how hot you’re cooking. Boiling water takes more fuel than simmering a sauce. When in doubt, grab an extra can. Check to see whether your stove has an ignition button or whether you’ll need to pack a lighter or matches to get the stove started.

You can buy lightweight, camping-specific cookware, or you can just bring along some of your pots and pans (with their lids) from home. I try to minimize the number of items I’m bringing and stick with a saucepan and a deep skillet. You can bring other items you might need from your kitchen as well such as cutting boards, a knife for chopping vegetables, silverware and cooking utensils. The only items that I find are really worth it to buy special for camping are hard plastic (or metal) plates and bowls and an insulated coffee mug. Bringing breakable dishes or coffee mugs from home is a recipe for disaster.

When you’re at camp and ready to cook, do all your prep before turning on the stove to minimize the amount of fuel you’re using. Find all your ingredients and cooking utensils, make sure you have water and a towel or paper towels handy and do any chopping or mixing. Be sure you have a headlamp handy if it’s getting close to sunset so that you don’t have to go digging for one in the dark to finish dinner.

Once you turn on the stove and start cooking, keep your pots and pans covered as much as possible to prevent heat from escaping and bugs from ending up in your final dish.

You’ll be shocked at how quickly hot food cools off on chilly mountain evenings, so make sure your whole crew is ready to eat as soon as the stove turns off.

How Do You Wash Dishes While Camping?

Doing your dishes properly while camping is important to minimize harm to the environment and make sure you’re not attracting animals to your campsite.

While it might be tempting, never wash your dishes in a natural water source like a stream or a lake. Human food and soaps can easily contaminate water sources. Instead, use the designated dish washing station at your campground if it has one, or set one up at your campsite.

You’ll need a dish bin (a metal or plastic container or a bucket works well for this), a sponge or scraper, biodegradable soap, a strainer and a towel.

Washing dishes is more complicated while camping
Washing dishes is more complicated while camping (Photo: Getty Images)

Always use filtered water, or boil your water before doing dishes to make sure you don’t contaminate them for future meals.

Start by scraping any leftover food scraps off plates, pots and pans into a trash bag. It might be tempting to burn food scraps and paper towels in the campfire, but this can attract animals to your site. Instead, pack out all food materials in a trash bag and make sure to properly store it at night in the same way you do your food.

Fill your dish bin with warm water and use a small amount of soap and your sponge to clean your dishes. You may need to rinse them with a little bit of warm water to get the soap residue off afterwards. Do this over the dish bin and then dry all your dishes with your towel.

After all your dishes are done, strain your dish water to remove any food scraps and dispose of those in your trash bag. Now, it’s time to dispose of your dish water.

Head at least 200 feet from camp and any water sources and fling your dish water across the landscape in a broad, sweeping motion called “broadcasting” to widely disperse the water and keep it from attracting critters. This is the same method you should use to dispose of pasta water as well.

Need more camp cooking inspiration? My favorite places to get recipes are @kenapeay on Instagram and www.freshoffthegrid.com.

Packing List for Cooking While Camping

Start with this thorough list of everything but the food you’ll need to cook while camping and customize it to fit your meals.

  • Foldable camp table
  • Cooler
  • Ice/reusable ice packs
  • Hard-sided storage bin
  • Bear canister or rope to hang food (if needed)
  • Headlamp
  • Stove
  • Fuel
  • Lighter or matches
  • Deep skillet (with lid)
  • Saucepan (with lid)
  • Plates
  • Bowls
  • Silverware
  • Spatula
  • Cooking spoon
  • Kitchen knife (with protective case)
  • Cutting board
  • Can opener (if you have cans)
  • Bottle opener and corkscrew (if needed)
  • Measuring spoons/cup
  • Hand sanitizer
  • French press or coffee percolator
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil or butter
  • Insulated mugs
  • Tablecloth (this can be nice if the picnic table is super dirty)
  • Extra reusable zip top bags for storage
  • Trash bags
  • Paper towels
  • Kitchen towel
  • Sponge
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Strainer
  • Dish bin