How to Cook While Camping
Want to go camping but not exactly sure how to cook in the woods? Camping & Hiking Expert Kat Smith covers it all in this guide to cooking outdoors.
After a long day of hiking and exploring, the last thing you want when you get back to camp is a mediocre meal, and cooking while camping can be daunting—having an unfamiliar heat source, minimal tools, and limited resources to add flavor pose challenges. But there is plenty of equipment and gadgets that make it easy, fast, and fun to make gourmet meals in the great outdoors! Cooking great meals while camping shouldn’t be stressful, and it doesn’t have to be limited to hot dogs on a stick.
What You Need: The Essentials
While there are many methods for cooking meals outdoors (more on this later), there are two essential items that you’ll need no matter what.
Your heat source is literally how you are going to cook your food. While camping, your heat source can be either your campfire or a gas camping stove. I prefer campfire cooking because of the delicious, smoky flavor it adds to the food, but it is difficult to regulate the temperature. The flames can flare up and burn your food if you add too much wood but if you don’t add enough, the temperature may not be hot enough to cook your food all the way through. If you want to learn how to make the perfect campfire, check out this guide.
A gas camping stove, such as the Coleman Classic Propane Stove or the Camp Chef Explorer 2 Burner Stove, makes cooking outdoors just as easy as cooking at your house, thanks to the temperature adjustment knobs and windscreens! Some camping stoves are bulky and take up valuable space in the car. A backpacking stove such as the MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove is a great option because not only does it take up minimal space, it will boil water quicker than a campfire flame and it can be used as a backup option to cook a full meal, if needed. If your firewood won’t catch, or you roll up to your campsite and it’s too dry and windy to safely have a campfire, a camping stove will save the trip!
A cooler is your refrigerator at your campsite. If you are planning to cook ground beef, chicken, or other meats, bring prepared salads, or use perishable condiments such as sour cream, ketchup, mustard, or BBQ sauce, this is an essential item to keep your food at a safe temperature until it is time to cook and eat. Plus, you don’t want your chocolate bar for s’mores to melt! The Yeti Tundra 75 Cooler will maintain its temperature for multiple days and is perfect for a multi-night car camping trip.
Pro Tip: Freeze a few gallons of water to put in your cooler instead of loose ice. This will keep the temperature cold and your food will stay dry!
All of the other equipment you need to make delicious, easy camping meals will be dependent on your cooking method. Using the two heat sources mentioned above, there are numerous ways to actually cook your food!
This is one of the most basic, easy methods of cooking while camping, especially in the backcountry. All you need is water from any nearby lake or stream, one of the two heat sources mentioned above, and a cook pot, such as the MSR Trail Lite Pot. With this setup, you can easily and quickly boil water to make a cup of coffee or tea, instant oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, pasta, rice, and packaged meals such as ramen noodles, easy mac, and dehydrated meals.
Some cook pots are not meant for use over an open fire; be sure to read the fine print about your pot before setting it over your campfire so you don’t damage it. If you use water from a nearby water source, boil the water for a full minute to kill any bacteria before using it to cook or drink.
This is my favorite method for cooking while camping! All you need is a grill grate, such as the Wolf and Grizzly Grill M1 Edition, and any cooking utensils you would normally use, such as a spatula or tongs. Set your grill grate directly over your campfire or coals and you’ve opened the door to having the ability to cook anything you would cook on your grill at home! Burgers, steaks, marinated chicken, veggie kabobs, corn on the cob, and even potato "fries" are some of my go-to grilled camping food ideas. You will be able to taste the campfire in every bite!
Do the prep work—such as chopping vegetables for skewers or tacos, shaping burger patties, putting chicken breasts or steaks in marinade, and draining and rinsing black beans at home—and then pack the prepared food in your cooler, grill-ready. This makes for easy clean-up and efficient cooking. Pack your usual grill tools to use at your campsite or use foldable, camping-specific cooking utensils, such as the Jetboil Jetset Utensil Set, to save space.
If you have a camp stove such as one of the double-burner stoves mentioned above, the options for cooking at your campsite are endless! Pan-sear meat and fish, stir-fry veggies, scramble eggs with bacon or sausage (and then make breakfast burritos!), whip up some pancakes or french toast, or simmer a pot of chili, stew, or soup—all you need is a stove, some cookware, and your usual cooking utensils. Consider getting a camp cookware set, such as the GSI Outdoors Bugaboo Base Camper Cookset. It includes two pots, a frying pan, two strainer lids, a cutting board, a folding handle, and a stuff sack that doubles as a wash bin, all of which nest into each other to create a compact, light package for easy storing and packing!
Just like with grilling, do the prep work at home before you get to your campsite. My cooler is typically packed with Tupperware and Ziploc bags full of chopped veggies, seasoned meats, shredded cheddar cheese, various sauces and olive oil, and pancake batter. Gadgets like the Coghlans Egg Carrier and Coghlans Salt and Pepper Shakers make transporting and cooking food even easier.
A cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven pot are other great options for cooking a variety of meals. Cast iron is safe to use over an open flame, so all you need is a heat source and cooking utensils. Cast iron is ideal for cooking directly on your campfire, either on top of a grill grate or directly on the coals, and it is known to heat extremely evenly, making it easy to sear meats or cook meals that take up the entire cooking surface. Don’t worry about always following a recipe—get creative with your cast iron camp cooking! I’ve experimented with campfire nachos, pizza, cornbread, and cheesy, bubbly hot bean dip!
Cast-iron cookware is heavy, so while it’s a great, versatile option for car camping, it’s not good for backpacking. If you are cooking with cast iron, be sure to pack an oven mitt—typically the handle is also cast iron, and thanks to the even heating of the material, the handle gets hot!
Cooking with foil packets is possibly the easiest camp cooking method. All you need is—you guessed it—aluminum foil and a heat source! Typically, foil packets, also called “hobo packets,” are prepared entirely at home and then cooked directly in the campfire. This makes for virtually no work when you get to your campsite, as the packets, which can include an entire, balanced meal, will be ready in your cooler. Foil-packet meals can be side dishes, such as cheesy potatoes and roasted veggies, or full meals, such as roasted salmon with veggies or Italian-style sausage with peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes!
On a Stick
Cooking food on a stick over an open fire is the most classic method of cooking while camping! For many people, sitting around a campfire and roasting hot dogs and marshmallows brings a sense of nostalgia. While this cooking method is more limited, it is easy, requires minimal equipment, and is delicious (there’s that smoky campfire flavor again!). Hot dogs, sausages, and marshmallows are the classic roast-on-a-stick foods, but get creative! Bacon, fruits such as bananas, pineapples, peaches, and biscuit dough or even pizza dough are just a few other options. And while finding a stick in the woods will usually work just fine, Camp Chef Extendable Roasting Sticks are a great addition to your camp kitchen.
Pudgy Pie Iron
While this method requires specialty equipment, it is a traditional cooking method for camping that is really fun for kids! If you are unfamiliar with pudgy pies, they are sandwiches traditionally made with white bread, strawberry pie filling, and butter, cooked in a Camp Chef Square Cooking Iron. This method of cooking is easy and fun and allows for plenty of creativity. Breakfast sandwiches or wraps, grilled cheese sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, and dessert sandwiches made with cinnamon bread, Nutella, marshmallows, jelly, and peanut butter are some of my favorite creations!
Just butter both sides of the cast-iron square, place your built sandwich inside and latch it closed. Place the closed square with the food inside directly into the fire while holding the end of the handle. After about five to 10 minutes, check on your food to make sure it is ooey-gooey, crispy, and ready to enjoy!
Enjoy Your Delicious Creations
Regardless of what cooking method you use, once your food is ready, it is time to sit back, relax, and enjoy your meal. When you are camping, you don’t want to bring your everyday china with you—it’s heavy and breakable! Durable, lightweight plates, bowls, and mugs such as the GSI Outdoors Stainless Pioneer Table Set are a great option to keep packed away with your camping gear to bring to your campsite. If you are backpacking or if car space is limited, consider lightweight, collapsible dinnerware, such as the Sea to Summit X-Set Three Piece, or lightweight, nesting dinnerware such as the Sea To Summit Sigma 2.1 Cook Set.
While eating utensils are fairly lightweight, the ounces add up when you are packing multiple spoons, forks, and knives. Consider using a spork to minimize the number of items you have to pack and use your camping pocket knife to cut food into smaller pieces. The GSI Outdoors Folding Spork is a great option for an all-in-one eating utensil that is light, durable, and packs up small.
Some campsites have a picnic table, which makes mealtime comfortable and enjoyable. But the more remote, primitive campsites will not have this luxury. In order to comfortably enjoy your food, bring a camping chair to set up around the campfire so you can sit back and relax while you enjoy your meal!
While cooking outdoors can be easy and fun, not having access to a grocery store or your kitchen can cause roadblocks. To ensure successful camping meals, planning is key.
- Plan out each meal in advance, including what you are cooking and how you are cooking it.
- Make a grocery list of all of the ingredients you will need.
- Do the more time-consuming, labor-intensive prep work at home.
- Pack the prepped ingredients in your cooler, along with all of the other ingredients you need.
- Pack your car (or backpack) with the appropriate camp cooking gear.
- Head out on your adventure!
Lastly, always have a heat source backup plan. If you are planning to use the campfire and grill grate for all of your cooking, pack a small, lightweight backpacking stove and frying pan, just in case. Check and double-check your fuel canister to make sure you have enough to fuel your camp stove for the entire trip. Pack ready-to-eat snacks such as tortilla chips and salsa (or granola bars and trail mix if you are backpacking) in case cooking takes longer than you anticipated.
Now that you know what gear to use to make an epic camping meal, there’s no excuse not to eat like a king (or queen!) on your next camping trip! And don’t forget to be creative — the options for outdoor cooking are endless! If you have any questions or want to find the perfect camp kitchen gear of your own, reach out to a Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.