The idea of cooking without a full kitchen can be daunting.
This is probably why when some of us camp, we get as lazy as possible. But cold protein bars after a long hike is incredibly depressing. Still, you don’t have to go into town for a good bite. And, you can do much better than s’mores, hot dogs or oatmeal. A true campfire cook can hand-pick wild blueberries and make scones out of them with dough that’s been rising in his backpack.
It’s so worth it. After a few days on the trail, food becomes about ten thousand times more delicious.
Plus, you’ve burned so many calories that for once, you can eat whatever you want!
We’ll start off here with some basic tips and recipes to give you everything you need to get cooking around the fire!
Food is, obviously, one of the most important things to consider when you’re entering the wilderness. You can always pick up some burritos for the drive up, but once you hop out of the car you need a plan.
While it’s more romantic to throw your freshly-caught fish on a roaring fire, check the fire regulations where you’ll be camping. Due to droughts and wildfires, it may be a big no-no (or extremely illegal).
A camping stove with a little propane burner is quite efficient and starts much faster than you can get a fire going.
It’s also more precise, letting you simmer or boil like you would at home. Even if you’re planning on cooking on a fire you might want a little stove for coffee in the morning. They make rapid-heating stoves for that specific purpose as well.
As far as camping stoves go, there are two general types: ultralight backpacking stoves and big heavier multi-burners. You’ll want a big stove if you’re cooking for multiple friends or family, if only so you can cook two things at once: a steak and veggies, for instance, or coffee and scrambled eggs. Be sure to bring a backup propane canister.
If you’re cooking over a campfire, you will want to build a proper fire and wait until you have real embers as they’re more consistent temperature-wise than a roaring bonfire. Try experimenting with the type of wood you use, too. Wood will affect taste! Alder wood is especially aromatic.
If your campsite has a fire pit with a grate, it’s much easier than balancing a pan on wood. Combine that with charcoal and you have an easy cooking surface that’s definitely more fun than a propane stove. Depending on how many briquettes you use, you can adjust the temperature quite precisely.
Planning comes around to a few key questions. Are you car-camping or backpacking? How long are you going out? How many people are coming? As a car-camper you can bring half your kitchen. Take that beefy cast-iron! Get a big plastic bin full of dry goods and stack up that cooler with ice, beer and goodies.
If you’re backpacking, this changes everything. Because you need to carry everything you bring, a few extra pounds makes a huge difference.
To save weight, you might want to pick up lightweight pots, pans and utensils, along with the aforementioned stove.
As you might imagine, there’s quite a gradient of price here. You don’t necessarily need to get super expensive versions of everything. A heavy-duty plastic tupperware container can be both a bowl and preserving item. But you do need to think light. Plastic utensils, lightweight food — either freeze-dried or dry goods — are key over a very long hike.
If you’re backpacking, plan to bring extra food. You’ll want three square meals with snacks in between. You’re going to want carbs, fats and sugars. Going to bed hungry while camping is a quick way to make sure everyone is unhappy.
Finally: water. If your site doesn’t have water, bring more of that than you think. You’ll need it for cooking, cleaning, and, of course, drinking.
The lightest weight cooking option is simply aluminum foil. You would be surprised at how much you can cook with just that. That said, real cooks will want a pot, at least. A big cast iron or dutch oven with a lid can cook just about anything. You can even bake with these. Just make sure you clean and season it correctly.
You’ll also want a spoon or spatula, tongs and grill gloves (or rags). Just keep in mind, it’s harder to clean outside without a proper sink. Also, only bring gear you don’t mind getting a little dinged up.
If you’re backpacking, lightweight pots and pans sometimes don’t have a heatproof handle, so you’ll likely want a multitool or cooking rags to help you pick it up instead of your nice warm gloves.
No matter what, get a good knife. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on this but a good, sharp knife is invaluable at a campsite.
It’s the worst time to have a dull knife, which can bounce off an onion and cut you more easily than a sharp one.
Finally, don’t skimp on your seasonings! Buy or make a little pack of mini bottles that have hot sauce, soy sauce, salt, pepper and the like. This will make an enormous difference in your food quality. You’ll also want a separate kit for your cleaning gear, firestarters and possibly even a little cutting board. The more organized this all is, the better. You may be cooking exhausted and in the dark. To that end, consider doing your prep work at hope. Chop up onions and other veggies and bring them in storage containers to avoid late-night dicing.
As for recipes, we’ll give you a few basics to get you thinking. At the beginning, avoid meals that are too complex or require too many steps, pans or mixing bowls.
Is there anything more classic around a morning fire than bacon and eggs? It just takes one pan, and it’s much more satisfying than oatmeal. Fry up the bacon first, then remove, drop eggs in the greasy pan, scramble, add seasonings and slow-cook to fluffy perfection.
Pasta is an obvious choice because it’s all cooked in one pot. Just keep in mind it takes much longer to boil water at altitude in the cold.
And make sure you have a good way to hold the pot, because you’ll have to strain the pasta using the lid. Not that we’ve dropped a pound of fully cooked pasta into the dirt or anything. Fry up some sausages, onions and garlic for an absurdly satisfying post-hiking meal. Or, bring a risotto with a bouillon cube!
Pizza is also surprisingly doable. Bring a pizza dough with you (or let it rise in your pack if you’re fancy), and stretch it over the bottom of your pan. Toast it on both sides, cover with your toppings, then top the lid over it and let it bake. You’ll probably want to bring your toppings in separate containers.
Steak is a classic for a reason. Rub some salt on it then make sure you get that pan really hot and sear for about 4-5 minutes a side (depending on heat and thickness). Then let it sit for another five minutes — or until the bears start sniffing around. That last point also applies to trout.
Chicken is great in a kebab but a whole bird is harder to perfectly roast on a pan. Heck, that is hard enough at home. With a big enough dutch oven a full roasted chicken with veggies is delicious, but get some practice first or opt for precut chicken.
Tin foil meals are easy. Anything you can roast in foil in a BBQ is just as doable on the trail. Fish, butter, garlic, salt, pepper and rosemary creates an easy all-in-one meal. A baked potato is as simple as it gets. Once you can put a fork in it easy, it’s done. If you wanna get fancy, try a stuffed bell pepper!
We hope this gave you some ideas of how to keep things tasty out on the trail. Once you’ve mastered this, it’s time to try baking out there. Just make sure to invite us, once you get your tasty treats down!