Planning a Camping Trip: Cooking

While you’re camping at some point you’re going to have to eat. While you might have dreams of roasting steaks over an open fire, reality might be very different. The first time I took my kids camping by myself it was a campsite with no electric or water. I had a camp stove but hadn’t tried it out. I had 3 nights that were a huge learning experience.

The first thing is to learn what type of campsite you will have. Most National Park campsites do not have water or electric at the site. Many private campgrounds have sites that tent-campers and those with trailers and RV’s can use that have water and electric. For the really big rigs, you can find sites that have water, electric, sewer, and even television hook-ups.

After that first time, I usually booked a site with electric. The one thing I really wanted was to be able to have a cup of coffee pretty quickly in the morning, as opposed to the hour it took me to start a fire and get the perculator going with the coffee grounds.

Cooking over an open fire, or even a charcoal fire has its merits. Most campsites include a fire-ring whether a “primitive” site or one with water and electric. I make sure to bring heavy duty aluminum foil with me for the grate. One of the new things I want to try is a reusable grill mat that can be placed on the grate. Your source of heat in the fire-ring can be either wood or charcoal. Charcoal can be brought from home, but any wood needs to be locally sourced. Most states have a prohibition on out-of-state firewood. Matches and lighter fluid or fire-stater sticks might be needed to get it going.

Cooking over the fire or charcoal requires cast iron cookware. You can’t just grab those non-stick pots you have in the kitchen cupboard. I bought a set of cast iron cookware for camp cooking. In particular, I like the dutch oven. I love to put a bunch of ingredients in and open it a couple hours later to a delicious stew. Cast iron cookware needs to be seasoned before use. In general, it should never be cleaned with hot water and soap. That greasy coating helps keep it from rusting. If you do notice rust, you need to scrub all of the rust away and season it again. There are also kits available from Amazon that can help you restore and re-season any old cast iron.

If you’re going to exclusively cook over a camp stove, then you can use the same pots and pans you have at home. I still prefer to keep a set exclusively for camping. I have a few stainless steel pots in our gear, along with cast iron. Camp stoves need a source of propane. You can find one-pound disposable propane cylinders in Wal-Mart or just about any outdoors store. Our pop-up has a propane tank on it for powering a camp stove that we can hang on the outside of the trailer. Keep in mind, if you’re transporting propane, you’re not allowed to take it through any tunnels while traveling.

I cheated many years ago and bought this chuck box from Cabela’s. It can sit on a table and you have everything you need in one spot; all of your cooking pots, mixing bowls, cooking utensils, cups, plates, utensils, dish rack, and even a paper towel holder. I checked Cabela’s and I son’t see it there anymore, but you can craft one similar. It makes setting up your camp location easy and also falls into the category of having everything you need in one place. I used it for tent-camping, but it will work great with the pop-up trailer too. You’ll need all of your usual cooking tools, as well as seasonings, and items for cleaning up afterwards. Don’t forget the dish soap!

When I tent-camped at first I relied on coolers to keep my food cold. I would freeze a bunch of things (such as the meat for cooking) and have one cooler with a block of ice in it just for frozen things. It would only be opened once or twice a day and the block of ice took a lot longer to thaw than the cubes. I could typically get 4 days of food being kept cold out of it. We’d have another cooler for refrigerated things such as milk, eggs, cheese, etc. that wouldn’t be opened all that often. Finally I had a third cooler that had the drinks in it because they would be opened the most frequently.

Eventually I graduated to a small cooler, almost like a mini-fridge that I could plug into the electric when we had a site with electric. This made it a lot easier for refrigerated items and drinks, although I still employed the frozen cooler. Our pop-up has a small refrigerator in it. I’ll probably use one cooler with the ice block and maybe bring one other cooler with us. I’m not sure if we’ll have a close source for ice at Assateague.

Meal-planning is necessary, especially if you’re camping somewhere you can’t get food easily. In these times, you might not want to go into a supermarket in another state as you try to stay socially distant from people. I recommend making a chart for each day what you plan to eat. I like my eggs in the morning, but my son is usually just happy with a bagel. A list for breakfast would be: coffee, creamer, bagels, butter, eggs, sausage.

One thing that’s fun while camping is packet cooking. I put out the raw meat, some cut up potatoes and vegetables, and some sauce. Everyone gets their own foil packet and can put whatever they want in it and cook it over the fire. It’s absolutely delicious and everyone can eat what they like. A friend of mine wrote a book about it:

Another thing to consider while planning your meals is the wildlife in the area. If there are bears around, they can be attracted by the smell coming from the campsite. We’re about to camp at Assateague National Seashore and the wild horses there present the same issue. Keeping food in your vehicle is an option. No food should ever be left out where animals can get it and you should never intentionally feed the wildlife. Check if your campground requires bear-proof containers and adjust accordingly.

For snacks, I recommend steering clear of bags of snacks. A can of Pringles is easier to deal with than a bag of chips. An open bag of chips can also attract animals. In a damp area they’ll also get soggy quickly. If you must use bags of chips, bring along plastic containers to dump any leftovers or store the open bag in. Same with cookies or any item that traditionally comes wrapped in plastic. If you like fresh fruit and/or vegetables, make sure to bring plastic to store it in.

As always, if you’re new to this my advice is to go on a “test run” camping somewhere near home, so you can run out and grab what you need if you forgot something. Don’t forget the s’mores!

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