Fact: I love to cook. Fact: I love to camp. And after many a camping trip with my family, I’m here to tell you that these two facts are not mutually exclusive. The main thing to do if you want to feast during your outdoor adventure is to plan ahead and pack well, which if you’ve done any camping yourself, you know is par for the course.
But that’s also where the fun comes in. Because, in my humble opinion, there’s something extremely satisfying about wowing your weary, blue-in-the-face-from-blowing-up-sleeping-pads tentmates with a pan-seared steak dinner complete with herb butter and perfectly dressed salad greens. Can you hear me kissing my fingertips, chef-style? Here, some ideas on what food to pack for camping, plus tips that’ll elevate your great-outdoors kitchen to gourmet heights.
1. Meal plan
Map out ahead of time what you’ll be eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day of the trip, so you’ll arrive at your campsite prepared with all of the necessary ingredients and tools for cooking. Also, consider a meal or two that you can cook at home before you go then simply heat up in camp: foods like soups, chili or pasta sauce.
2. Meal prep
In addition to the make-ahead meals mentioned above, once your menus are set, there’s a lot you can do at home to save time and effort in camp. Other before-you-go prep ideas:
- Mix up salad dressings.
- Pre-cook bacon for an easy sandwich or salad topping.
- Make a cheese sauce to stir into pasta.
- Chop veggies.
- Marinate meats in a leak-proof bag.
- Add fresh herbs or chopped shallots to softened butter.
- Make dry mixes (or buy them) for things like pancakes and hot chocolate.
- Grind coffee.
- Pre-mix cocktails.
- Bake camping-inspired cookies or other sweet treats.
3. Stock up on gourmet extras and tools
Include a few simple-yet-impressive ingredients in your portable pantry—plus the tools you’ll need to work your magic—and yours will be the camp stove everyone crowds around.
Foodie favorites: Don’t forget to bring your favorite epicurean must-haves, like butter, fancy mustard, half-and-half or other coffee add-ins, honey, hot sauce, maple syrup, olives, olive oil and vinegar, pre-ground coffee (see tip #2), salt and pepper, spices, tea bags.
Chef-grade tools: To pull off your feasts in style, you’ll want to pack good knives in protective sheaths; a meat thermometer for just-right steaks; a colander for draining pasta (extra points if it’s collapsible); and any other basic kitchen items you’ll want from the packing list below.
4. Make a packing list (and check it twice)
Menus are planned. Food is prepped. Now, save yourself the stigma of being “the one who forgot the ketchup” by making a list of all the food and supplies you’ll need. Here’s a head start; tailor as needed for your specific trip:
Beverages: beer, juice, soda, water, wine.
Condiments: Any favorites from the foodie list above plus anything else you’ll need like: jelly, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, peanut butter.
Cleaning items: Biodegradable dish soap, collapsible sink or plastic bins for washing and rinsing dishes, food scraper or spatula for cleaning food bits off dishes, grill pan brush, trash bags.
Dishware: Don’t forget bowls, drinkware (coffee/tea mugs, cups), plates, utensils. Again, unbreakable materials (plastic, melamine, metal) are best.
Food: Break it down by meals.
- Breakfast: bacon/sausage, bagels, cereals, cream cheese, eggs, fruit, pancake mix.
- Lunch: bread, cheese, deli meats, hummus, pickles, fresh veggies.
- Dinner: meats (hot dogs/chicken/steak), pasta, prepped meals, salad greens, sides, sauces, seafood. Snacks and desserts: chips, crackers, s’mores fixings.
Kitchen tools—last but not least, don’t forget the essential items you’ll need from this list:
- Aluminum foil for roasting (potatoes, foil packets) in campfire coals or wrapping leftovers.
- Can/bottle opener.
- Camping stove and fuel.
- Containers/bags for leftovers.
- Cooking pots. One large (for boiling water, cooking pasta/soup/chili), and one small (for oatmeal, heating hot cocoa).
- Cutting board for prep work and impromptu cheese boards.
- Dish towels, which can double as pot holders.
- Grill tools and utensils like tongs, spoons and turners.
- Lighter and/or matches to light the stove.
- Lightweight skillet. Make eggs, pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, plus it’s easier than cast iron to cart around.
- Mixing bowl, which you can also use for serving salad.
- Paper towels.
- Roasting forks for marshmallows (an upgrade on the trusty stick).
- Scissors for opening packaging.
- Unbreakable stemless wine glasses. A wine glass at a campsite feels delightfully fancy, but glass itself is an unnecessary safety hazard (I learned the hard way). So opt for plastic and other unbreakable materials; stemless versions are less likely to tip over.
5. Store food so it travels safely
How to store food while camping? You’ll want to place your ingredients in airtight, leak-proof or leak-resistant containers that take up minimal space—and keep outdoor critters out. Here are some camping food storage tips to keep in mind:
- Pack oil, vinegar and other sauces or condiments in handy squeeze bottles.
- Store butter, cheese, meats and seafood in leak-proof reusable bags or containers with secure lids.
- Place prepped fruits or veggies, soups, chili, pastas, bread and baked goods in airtight, stackable containers.
- Store pre-mixed cocktails in jars.
- Put ground coffee, cereal, herbs and dry mixes in small airtight containers.
6. Pack smart
Here’s how to pack food for camping so it arrives in perfect shape: First, the day before your trip, put cold packs and items that you won’t need right away—such as butter, cheese, cookies, meats, water—in the freezer. As they defrost in the cooler, they’ll help keep everything else cold. Then follow these cooler-packing guidelines to ensure that food arrives fresh, drinks chilled and cheese sog-free:
- Start with a solid foundation of cold—in the form of reusable cold packs, ice or that frozen steak—on the bottom of the cooler.
- Place most perishable items (raw meats, fish, dairy) on top of the cold foundation, then pack in foods like deli meats, eggs, condiments and fruits and veggies, adding ice in between layers. Sturdy produce is best: apples, pears, bell peppers, carrots.
- Think about toting drink containers in their own cooler so they’re easy to access.
- Pack kitchen gear (see list above) and non-perishable food in easy-to-carry plastic bins with a lid (to keep out animals or dirt).
7. Set a fancy table
Once in camp, dress up that dingy picnic table in five minutes flat with a few from-home items: Pack a pretty tablecloth (I like oilcloth ones that are water-resistant and easy to wipe down). Add lanterns or solar or battery-powered string lights. Serve food on colorful, non-breakable platters or trays.
Got a long drive to your campsite? These family road-trip tips will make the travel time easier.