Many campers and hikers lose a pound or three during adventures, thanks to the abundance of calories burned while on the trail. The substandard food most campers and hikers learn to stomach doesn’t hurt matters, either.
But this is a shame.
You’re on vacation — if you don’t gain a few pounds, you’re doing something wrong.
Don’t worry, whipping up gourmet-caliber meals on the trail is pretty easy. You just need to prepare properly, which means bringing along the best cooking gear for camping. We’ll help you do that below.
Cooking While Camping: The Basics
We’ll dive into some of the specifics of cooking on the trail momentarily, but let’s start by breaking down the basics. This includes understanding some of the differences between cooking at a campsite vs your kitchen, the general types of food you’ll want to prepare and some the equipment and camping cooking gear you’ll need.
Cooking at Camp vs Cooking in Your Kitchen: Key Differences
If you’re car camping and don’t mind filling a couple of coolers with ice, you can pretty much bring whatever food you like on your next trip.
You’ll have to make a few minor adjustments, but cooking while car camping is not that much different than cooking in your kitchen.
You can bring your cast iron, a big ‘ol ribeye and fresh fingerling potatoes if you like. You can pick up a campsite stove that’ll outperform some kitchen units, and you can even buy a portable campsite sink if you like.
Knock yourself out, chef.
But things are different for backpackers. A few of the most notable differences include:
- You’ll have to carry everything. The very nature of backpacking means you’ll have to haul everything you need up the mountain. This will affect your gear choices as well as your menu, which means opting for lightweight gear and foods that don’t have a lot of water content.
- You won’t have a great way to preserve perishable foods. Foods that require refrigeration are tough to bring camping. Yes, there are a few workarounds we’ll discuss later, but you’ll primarily need to stick to foods that are “shelf stable” (in other words, lots of stuff from the middle aisles of the grocery store).
- You’ll likely need to use relatively few pots and pans. Because weight and space are at a premium, you’ll need to leave anything that’s not strictly necessary at home. Ideally, you’ll bring only one pot, a campfire-safe mug, and a spatula or pancake turner. But a (lightweight) frying pan and perhaps some campsite mess kits are OK if you have the space and weight capacity to spare.
- Prepping is trickier on the trail. At home, you can take your time chopping veggies, spread them out across your counter, and use all those single-purpose tools you keep in your kitchen drawer. But you’ll rarely have a great deal of “counter space” on the trail, and you certainly won’t be bringing many single-use tools with you. Translation: You may have to just chop garlic instead of putting it through a press.
- You may need to forego fancy cooking steps and techniques. We’re firm believers in the notion that camping food should be delicious, but because of the logistics involved, you’ll often need to make small sacrifices on the trail. Do you really need to add a tablespoon of chopped shallots to your rice? Do you really need to bring stock or will water suffice? Can you go without the heavy cream and just add a bit more butter?
- Cleanup is more complicated on the trail. Lots of first-time campers get a rude awakening when it is time to clean up after their first campsite dinner, as it is pretty laborious to clean everything without access to a sink with warm water. Bringing a portable water basin will help immensely, but the best way to make things easy on yourself is to reduce the amount of dishes you use in the first place.
- Hygiene is trickier on the trail. We all have varying comfort levels with food safety and kitchen cooties. I’m pretty germ-conscious in the kitchen, and I’m used to washing my hands and disinfecting surfaces repeatedly while cooking at home. But on the trail, this isn’t especially easy, so I try to avoid as much raw-protein contact as possible, use tools I can just rest in the fire for a minute and use a ton of hand sanitizer as I go.
Your Trailside Menu: Foods That Work Well for Camping
Having familiarized yourself with a few of the most notable differences between cooking at home and cooking on the trail, we can move on to the good stuff — the food you’ll cook.
We’ve shared some of our favorite campsite meals elsewhere, so we won’t reinvent the wheel here. Instead, we’ll share a few of the general principles, tips and tricks you’ll want to employ when crafting your camping menu.
- Dehydrated foods are light; fresh foods are heavy. Fresh meats, poultry, fish and produce are all full of water, and water is the primary thing that adds weight to food. So, you’re going to look for every possible way to keep water out of your pack when picking ingredients and recipes.
- Grains (and grain-like things) are your friend. Grains, quinoa, and similar ingredients are typically full of calories and relatively bereft of water. Wholegrain varieties are typically the best choice, as they’re usually full of fiber which will help keep you feeling full.
- Nuts and seeds should always be in your pack. Not only are nuts and seeds tasty, but they’re full of calories, fat, protein, salt and fiber — all things you’ll want to consume on the trail. Plus, you don’t even have to cook them (though you can incorporate them into just about any recipe you like).
- Cooking is cooking; it’s all about salt, acid, fat and heat. No matter where you’re cooking, the principles will remain the same, which means that producing a good meal is about balancing these four key components. Heat and salt are both super easy — your stove or campfire and a little container of coarse salt will check these boxes with ease. Fat and acid are a little more complicated, but a small container of olive oil and another of red wine vinegar or lemon juice will suffice.
- If you’re going to splurge, do so the first night. Want to make fresh bruschetta? Absolutely need to incorporate an entire block of cheese in your pasta? Do these things the first night so you can shed those pounds at the beginning of your trip.
- Don’t forget the spices. Because of the issues surrounding perishability, campsite cooking often entails a lot of basic staples — things like rice and noodles. But dried spices can liven up just about anything. And for bonus points, they weigh very little and don’t take up much space. Just do your best to think carefully and bring ones that’ll work with different meals. After all, the containers you use to carry the spices will often weigh more than the spices themselves.
- You’ll need to embrace canned, smoked and dehydrated proteins. Carbs and fat are both pretty easy to consume while camping, as both come in myriad shelf-stable forms. But protein is trickier. Various jerkies are great for keeping your protein consumption high, though they don’t always incorporate well into proper meals. Just about any canned meat will work though. I’ve always been partial to canned mussels or shrimp, but just go peruse the aisle and get creative.
Your Campsite Kitchen: Cooking Gear for Camping
If you want to rough it, you can consider almost all cooking equipment optional.
You could just build a fire and use cleverly carved sticks to heat up a can of beans or boil water for some soup. But most campers are interested in enjoying themselves on the trail, and this means bringing at least a few pots, pans, and utensils to make things easier.
A typical collection of cooking tools includes the following:
- Camping stove and the proper fuel
- Bottle opener, can opener, corkscrew
- Pot scrubber
- Mug or cup
- Eating utensils
- Spatula or pancake turner
- Large pot
- Second pot or frying pan
- Plate or bowl
- Dish towel
The abovementioned items will keep you covered in most circumstances and allow you to make a nutritious and delicious dinner at camp.
However, if you want to enjoy the cooking process and make things easier, you may also want to bring a few of the following items:
- Grill rack
- Portable coffee maker
- Cutting board
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Heavy-duty aluminum foil
- Mixing bowl
- Paper towels or napkins
- Dishwashing basin
- Potholders or oven mitts
Keep in mind that you’ll only need one of some kitchen items, while you’ll need in one-per-camper quantities of other things.
You only need one camping stove, for example, but every camper will likely prefer his or her own mug, plate and silverware set.
The Best Cooking Gear for Camping: Our Favorite Products
Now that you know the basic items you’ll need, we can start helping you fill out that campsite cook kit with the right items. We’ve tried to include budget-priced stuff for those who’re just getting started as well as some top-notch items for those interested in upgrading.
The Best Camping Stoves
An all-in-one camp cooking system, the Jetboil MiniMo boils 1/2 liter of water in 135 seconds, features a push-button ignition and comes with everything you need except the fuel.
- All components nest in the included pot
- Weighs only 14.6 ounces
- Proprietary regulator technology allows simmering
- Includes stabilizers, cover, stove, lid, pot support & pot
- Uses isobutane/propane fuel mix
- Works with a litany of Jetboil pots, pans & accessories
- Packs away neatly
- Very lightweight
- Boils water extremely quickly
- Allows simmering
- Works with other Jetboil accessories
- Pricey system
- Jetboil fuel can be pricey
The Best Camping Pots & Pans
The Best Camping Mess Kits (Plates, Mugs & Silverware)
The Best Camping Cooking Utensils
Miscellaneous Camping Cooking Gear to Consider
Storing Your Cookware and Food for Camping
Now that you’ve assembled all the cookware and food you need for your trip, you’ll need to figure out how to store it.
Typically, you’ll want to keep your cooking gear in one small stuff sack, while sticking your food in another bag. This will help keep everything organized, and it’ll also make it easier to hang your food up at night to protect it from local critters.
You can find purpose-built bags to store your cooking stuff in, but a regular ‘ol stuff sack will work just fine. Just be sure to select a size large enough to contain your gear. You may also want to pick up a small mesh bag, which will make it easy to hang up your gear and let it dry after washing all the dishes.
As far as placement within your backpack, we tend to think that you should keep your food in the top portion of your backpack, so you can easily access it when you need a trailside snack. You usually won’t need your cooking gear until you get to camp, so these items are better stored in the bottom portion of your pack.
A Basic Food Pack List: How Much Food Do You Need to Bring?
But an easier option is to purchase ready-to-make, dehydrated meals specifically designed for outdoor cooking. And because they’re dehydrated, you don’t have to worry about things like spoilage and water weight. And don’t worry, the good ones are actually pretty tasty. They’re not going to be confused with Michelin-star restaurant food, but they’re not bad.
- 1 to 2 dehydrated meals per day
- 1 to 2 large snack bags per day (trail mix, nuts, chocolate, etc.)
- Small container cooking oil
- Salt, pepper, and any other spices want
- Coffee, tea or hot chocolate
- Sugar, creamer, honey or other warm-drink additives
- Drink mixes
You certainly don’t have to bring along all of this cooking gear and make food the central focus of your camping trip. You can subsist on peanut butter and canned beans if you like.
But again, camping trips are vacations! So, we think that it just makes sense to think carefully about the food you’ll be bringing and take the time to cook up some delicious dinners while on the trail.
Have you found any great camping recipes you’d like to share? Are there any nifty tips or tricks you think others would benefit from? Let us know in the comments below!