Some people go camping and they bring their crock pot, grill, stove, and toaster oven—and still make a campfire. Those people usually have an RV.
For those of us equipped with a backpack and the trunk of a car if we’re lucky, things are a little different. Sometimes even a stove top is a luxury. There’s no doubt that the assorted cooking amenities are helpful, but they’re certainly not necessary to make delicious food on trail.
A packing list begins with the consideration of space, or the lack of it in some cases. If you’re planning a backpacking trip, a small stove might not always be the first priority, depending on the temperature and how long the trip is going to be. Having a car certainly helps, and putting a small cooler in said car is even better, but often not a possibility. There are delicious options for all situations, though.
Another aspect of packing food is weight. Again, backpacking limits this. Instead of a can of beans, a hiker might opt for uncooked beans that weigh less but take much longer to cook and create less waste. Potatoes are easy to cook and filling, but shoving more than one into a bag can really start to pack on the weight.
The last consideration before creating a packing list is how well an ingredient will keep. Bringing salad is usually a disaster, even with a cooler. A loaf of bread is almost always a bad idea, and tomatoes are just a recipe for disaster. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to a music festival, hiking for 10 days through the Smoky Mountains, or spending a weekend at a campground. If it’s squishable, it will be squashed.
There are a few essentials from each food group that are good to have on a camping trip, and end up being versatile. Starting at the bottom, with grains. If you can’t stand being without bread and you have the space, english muffins hold their shape much better than a loaf of bread, and the cardboard they come encompassed in makes for a good fire starter. Tortillas are a staple for any camping trip, as they hold their shape and are good with peanut butter in the morning and beans at night. They take up almost no space and don’t weigh much.
In terms of grains, quinoa and couscous are the way to go. Quinoa is actually a seed, and a complete protein, which means it’s comparable to meat and dairy products in terms of protein. It also just sounds impressive. Couscous is lightweight, expands like crazy, and takes about five minutes to cook. If your local co-op is bought out of quinoa, couscous is the next way to go. Both require a stove to cook, but are delicious stir-fried with whatever veggies you choose.
When it comes to choosing veggies, go for anything with a thick skin that is either edible raw or cooked in a pan. Looking past the fact that garlic isn’t exactly a vegetable, it’s still necessary. It keeps well, if it gets wet it’s still usable, it’s lightweight, it’s extremely good for you, and it doesn’t need a stove to be edible. Wrap a head of garlic in tinfoil and throw it in a campfire to roast it, garlic breath is permissible in the wilderness anyways. Other veggies that keep well and are versatile include peppers of all colors and tastes, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, and beans.
Most firm fruits work well for camping, and dried fruits can be even better because of their light weight. Cherries maintain their shape well enough and can make for entertaining pit-spitting contests, and pineapple is refreshing after a long day of hiking, but definitely isn’t light. Mangos—when ripe enough—are edible with a spoon and make their own bowl, and apples are a staple. If you’re ambitious enough for a morning campfire, apples sprinkled with cinnamon and wrapped in tin foil make a wonderful warm breakfast on a cold morning.
When it comes to dairy and meat, you have to have a cooler, bottom line. Backpacking for a few days means probably no meat, and no cheese. Beef jerky is always an option, but leave the cheese and milk at home. If you’re brave and you keep up on buying ice, cheese and meat can be an option. Feta is a good one—it doesn’t melt very easily and is delicious in a variety of dishes. A bag of shredded cheese can go a long way as well. Lunch meat for sandwiches and raw meat if you plan on cooking it that night. Canned (or bagged) tuna is good in any stir fry or on a piece of bread—and has enough salt to last you for days.
When it comes to fats, trail mix is the way to go. Make your own to save a bit of money and get whatever you want in it. Every camp should be equipped with a little bit of oil for cooking as well. Coconut oil and olive oil taste good with just about everything. Coconut oil can be used as sunscreen, lotion, and turns almost solid in colder temperatures, which can mean less of a mess. Another absolute necessity is seasonings. Adding a little spice to some veggies can completely change a meal. Stick to the basics like basil or italian seasoning, cayenne pepper, or red pepper flakes. If you have more meals to cook or you just like to change it up, curry powder, blackening spice, thai spice, and cumin can turn a bland dinner into a delicious camp meal. Bringing eight glass bottles of spices can get heavy though, so put smaller portions into the smallest plastic bags you can find and label them.
Now that you have a solid grocery list, these are a few suggestions of what to make.
Tin Foil Hobo Dinner
This takes no time, can be done on a grill or in a fire, and requires very little attention.
You need: potatoes, veggies, oil, spices, tin foil, and a grill or fire.
Cut up your veggies and potatoes and put them in some tin foil, sprinkle whatever spices you want and drizzle olive oil, wrap it up with excess tin foil and put on the grill or in a camp fire. When the potatoes are soft, your dinner is done.
Seems fancy, but it’s simple and easy.
You need: bell peppers, couscous/quinoa, onion/veggies of choice, spices, oil, tin foil, fire, stove.
Cook your grain, and stir in some veggies that are not your peppers. Onion, beans, and zucchini are good. Add spice. Cut peppers in half and hollow out the inside. Once the vegetable stir fry is done, put it in the peppers and wrap them in tin foil. Put over or in a fire until the peppers are soft. Enjoy your masterpiece.
Nothing fancy here, but a filling and satisfying dinner that doesn’t require plates.
You need: veggies, tortillas, stove, oil, spices.
Cook up those veggies in spices and stuff the shells. If you have a mango on hand, add a few slices. Anything is good on a tortilla, really.
Beans and Mash
If you want to go for the bangers, that’s cool too.
You need: potatoes, beans of any color, oil, spices. Cheese is optional.
Slice the potato into small parts so it doesn’t take too long to cook. If you have patience, slice them however you want. Add whatever spices you want and when the potatoes are almost done, add the (cooked) beans. Add some cheese if you can/want. Commence food coma.
If you can pick up one head of romaine, this is a good option. This is a great lunch that can be made on the road or at the beach.
You need: romaine lettuce, hummus, feta, cucumber.
Break off a leaf and slap some hummus on it, add cucumber slices and feta. Eat about five of them.
Images by Chelsea Hohn