What to Eat When CampingBy Fred Decker; Updated June 08, 2017
Easy, memorable meals to cook at your campsite
Ideally the meals you eat at your campsite should be just like those you eat at home: Things you enjoy that are reasonably good for you. Preparing them in the outdoors can be more of a challenge, though. You'll be working with limited utensils, no refrigerator, and sometimes not even a fire. That doesn't mean you can't whip up enjoyable meals – it just means you have to think about them carefully ahead of time. Car or boat camping is easier but with planning, you can enjoy good meals even during a week of backpacking.
You can still have fresh stuff ...
If you're camping with a car or boat, and therefore a cooler, you have lots of options. Meats, poultry and prepared foods are all highly perishable but a well-packed cooler can keep them food safe for your first couple of days out at the campsite. Use lots of ice – block ice lasts longer than loose ice – especially if you don't have the option of running to the store for more. Frozen meats or prepared meals usually make it to the second or even third day, though you must cook them once they're thawed. Firm cheeses such as Parmesan and cheddar hold up well, and need to be only cool rather than cold. Sturdy vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery and bell peppers will last through even a week-long trip, and they're not too heavy or bulky to pack along. They add plenty of flavor to your non-perishable ingredients, so they're worth having.
... But dried foods are staples
Water equals weight, an important consideration for any camper but especially for backpackers. That's why dried foods are such a campsite staple. Jerky, dry-cured sausages, dried fruit and dry vegetable flakes are all compact, lightweight and nutritious, perfect fuel for your outdoor exertions. Their only limitation is the availability of water, because you can either carry water in the food itself or add it later. If you'll be camping in an area where potable water is readily available, dried foods can form the bulk of your diet. If you have to tote the water yourself, you might opt for fewer dried or dehydrated foods and more fresh and ready-to-eat items.
Non-perishables are your friend
Foods that aren't necessarily dried but are naturally non-perishable also play an important role in camp cookery. These include staples such as pasta, rice and other grains, nuts and energy bars, and even limited quantities of canned goods. They don't rely on low temperature to remain food safe, so a cooler isn't an issue. Planning your meals around these means you can reserve cooler space – if you have one – for the perishables that lend color and flavor to your meal. Energy-dense items such as nuts, energy bars and even candy play an important role as snacks, too. When you're active and outdoors, you'll burn a lot more calories than you would at home, and they'll provide the fuel you need to stay active and not be ravenous by mealtime.
Pro tip: Bring a handful of your favorite spices, seasonings and condiments in small bags or containers. They take up little space and weigh next to nothing, but they'll add lots of welcome zip to your meals.
Chillin' at the campsite
Keeping your foods cooled during your trip is a major consideration, especially with prepared meals and perishable proteins. Packing the cooler is an art form in itself: Block ice lasts longer, loose ice needs replacing and draining more frequently, and a well-wrapped chunk of dry ice can last for days but will keep everything frozen. Try to pack in layers, with long-lasting block or dry ice at the bottom under your frozen items and non-frozen items nearer the top. If you have room for two coolers, use one for beverages and less-perishable items, and one as a "meats" cooler for perishables to open as seldom as possible. Backpackers have less opportunity to haul cold foods, but even an insulated, soft-sided lunch bag with a gel pack can keep a few things fresh and food safe until the next morning.
More Travel Content
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: Food Safety While Hiking, Camping & Boating
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: 5 Food Tips for Camping and Hiking
- REI Backpacking Coop: Backpacking Food -- Meal Planning Tips
- Serious Eats: How to Pack For the Most Delicious Camping Trip Ever