Few things taste better than bacon cooked in the great outdoors — partly because you aren’t stinking up your house. However, one can’t live on bacon alone. Or on franks and beans, for that matter. Whether you camp by car, by RV or a travel trailer in between, you don’t have to fully embrace “glamping” to kick your camping cuisine up a notch, creatively and nutritionally.
As you plan your next camping trip, consider where you prefer to spend more food-prep time. I know people who take a day off before a camping trip to prep most of their food. This is especially useful if you have a lot of day hikes or excursions planned, and will arrive back at the campsite hungry. A few ideas:
- Marinate meat, poultry and fish, then freeze.
- Parbake or parboil potatoes so you can finish them off in the skillet or in foil-packet dinners.
- Make pancake mix then pack in resealable bags.
- Cook, chill and pack whole grains to reheat and serve with grilled vegetables and protein.
- Make chili and freeze in meal-size portions.
- Have a trailer with an oven? Make and freeze a lasagna to enjoy al fresco.
A well-stocked pantry is as important at home as it is at the campsite, especially if you have neither the time nor desire to do much advance prep. Start with a sturdy plastic storage bin and stock it with essential ingredients — salt, pepper, sugar, your favorite oils and vinegars, and a selection of dried herbs, spices and blends. Throw in some canned staples like diced tomatoes, beans and broth (or you could use bouillon cubes). Couscous (a tiny pasta) and bulgur (parcooked cracked whole wheat) are super easy to prepare. Include a few in-a-pinch items, such as canned chili and canned or pouched tuna. Don’t forget the can opener!
No matter your prep or cooking style, don’t forget to weave vegetables into your fireside meals. For example:
- Kebabs: Alternate jumbo shrimp or chunks of chicken, beef or tofu with veggies, then grill. Try button mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and chunks of summer squash and bell peppers.
- Slaws: Cabbage is much sturdier, and packable, than delicate salad greens.
- Salads in a bag: If there was ever a good time to use those bagged salads that come with pouches of dressing, this is it.
- Grilled vegetables: Summer squash, peppers, eggplant, scallions, asparagus, halved heads of romaine or frisee, corn on the cob … they all taste better when they come from the grill.
- Purchase a veggie tray and hummus to set out while dinner’s grilling.
No matter what’s on the menu, keeping cold things cold is the name of the game. If your cooler has been sitting in a warm garage, bring it inside the day before. If possible, cool it with ice for a few hours before packing it with food. Then, lay a foundation of large reusable ice packs or bricks, and put any frozen — and well-wrapped — frozen meat and fish on the bottom. Frozen butter, cheese and milk (yes, really) comes next, followed by frozen lunch meat, then eggs, condiments and frozen bread, then fragile fresh fruit and vegetables. In between the layers, use cubed ice, which will get into all the nooks and crannies between your cooler contents.
Keep beverages in a separate cooler, since it will be opened frequently once you get to camp. Freeze your bottled water first. Planning s’mores? Keep the chocolate bars, well-wrapped, in the cooler to prevent melting. And keep your coolers in the shade if at all possible.
Double-bag raw meat or seafood to prevent juices getting out, and cooler water getting in. If you have leftover marinade, throw it away or boil it for 10 minutes if you want to use it as a glaze on your cooked meat. If hand-washing is a challenge where you’re camping, bring disposable gloves to use when dealing with raw meat or other messy jobs.
Tools of the trade
Other than remembering to pack dishes, utensils and drinkware, here are some other essentials to add to your list. If you are using a camp stove that’s powered by butane canisters, pack more than you think you’ll need. It’s no fun to run out of fuel when your meal is half-cooked. If you like to cook over the campfire, a camping grate, or grill rack, is handy if your campground doesn’t include them with the fire rings. They have folding legs so you can use them over an open flame, and most of them have mesh grids that prevent smaller foods falling through. You can also get a legless cooking grid if you plan to lay it over a built-in cooking grate.
If you need new camp cookware, make it cast iron. Yes, cast iron is heavy, but it’s versatile, giving you the option of cooking over a camp stove or your fire pit. A large skillet and a Dutch oven have a multitude of uses. While you’re at it, invest in a pair or two of fire-resistant gloves. Don’t rely on kitchen hot pads!
Heavy-duty aluminum foil lets you have fun with foil-packet cooking — on the grill or in the coals — minimizing dirty dishes. Small rimmed baking sheets — quarter-sheet size — have a multitude of uses, including ferrying foods to and from the grill. A few nesting metal mixing bowls work whether you’re tossing a salad or whisking pancake batter.
For a wealth of tips and tricks plus camp recipes that are even worthy of a home kitchen, two recent books I like are “The Campout Cookbook” by Portland food writers Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson, and “The New Camp Cookbook” by Bend, Oregon-based Linda Ly and Will Taylor.