There’s something inherently pleasing about dining al fresco around a campfire—a tumbler of your favorite beverage in hand, the smell of grilled burgers in the air, s’mores ingredients standing by.
But cooking outdoors fills plenty of folks with anxiety. After all, it’s quite different from cooking in a fully-stocked and well-equipped kitchen. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to make your next meal at the campground less stressful and more satisfying. It just requires more preparation, organization, and the right ingredients.
Plan and pack
Start by making a plan and getting organized. The key to achieving both is to keep it simple, says Steve Corso, founder of Outdoor Eats, a website full of recipes and education for cooking outdoors. It all starts with planning simple one-pot meals like chili or pasta, he says—that way, you don’t have to take a bunch of equipment along.
The classically-trained chef also recommends limiting recipes to those requiring 10 ingredients or less, and cooking times shorter than 30 minutes. After all, when dinnertime rolls around in the outdoors, you’ll probably want to kick back and relax—not slave over the camp stove.
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Make a list of recipes you’ll make while camping. Make sure there are a lot of overlapping elements so you don’t have to pack your whole fridge. Continue by listing the ingredients to prepare your meals. Writing a packing list will ensure you don’t forget anything important. Then, check the directions and jot down a list of the tools you’ll need. Make sure to include often-forgotten utensils, like can and bottle openers.
Once you’ve gathered everything you need, keep it organized, either by meal or by type. For example, you could keep breakfast essentials in one storage tub or tote, and dinner ingredients in another. Alternatively, if overlapping ingredients make it hard to categorize your food, keep spices, oils, and sauces in one box, dry ingredients in another, and snacks in another. This will help you prepare a meal with ease as it’ll prevent you from having to dig through bags trying to find the garlic powder or pasta.
Finally, if you have a reliable way to keep perishable ingredients chilled, like a cooler filled with ice or a portable electric fridge, prep as much as you can before you leave home. This will help cut down cooking time while also streamlining the entire process. Chop vegetables, pre-cook ingredients that take a long time to simmer, like rice (it will also save you stove fuel), and pre-mix ingredient-heavy dressings, marinades, or spice mixes.
As for the food, fresh ingredients can elevate the whole outdoor dining experience, so don’t be afraid to ditch instant and freeze-dried items for the real thing.
“Many veggies last quite a long time without refrigeration,” Corso says. So feel free to pack items like carrots, snap peas, bell peppers, and other fruits and vegetables with long shelf lives.
As for items that you’ll need to keep cold, like meat, dairy, or pre-cooked ingredients, keep your cooler well-stocked with ice. Consider an electric cooler that acts like a fridge for longer trips, or swap those ingredients out for shelf-stable alternatives, like foil pack chicken or packaged or freeze-dried beans and chickpeas.
Corso also recommends bringing spice mixes instead of individual spices. In addition to being easy to pack and use, he explains that “they provide a lot of flavor for not a lot of space or waste.”
And whatever you do, don’t forget the acid. Vinegar, lemon, and lime, even powdered sumac, can really bring a dish together. According to Corso, it introduces a top note of freshness that counteracts rich and fatty flavors to create balance.
Bring the right equipment
Unless you’re planning to cook over your campfire, you’ll need to keep a few things in mind when picking the right stove.
There are plenty of varieties available: from compact backpacking stoves that take up almost no room in your trunk to full-size grills with gas burners. But the most popular option for camping is a two-burner, propane-powered camp stove, which is easy to use and transport, and provides even, consistent heat for everything from boiling to sauteing.
When it’s time to purchase one, Corso recommends looking for a sturdy model, possibly one that folds up like a suitcase for easy transport. If you’re camping with one or two people, you may be tempted to get a smaller stove, but you should take into account that size matters for more than just the dinner headcount. Some camp stoves are so compact you may not be able to fit two large pans or pots next to each other at the same time, making the cooking process a whole lot slower, so make sure to test the fit before you get yours.
Stove in hand, it’s time to select your cookware. Corso’s tools of choice include a cast-iron skillet (in the 19-inch to 12-inch range) and 4-quart pot for car camping. Choose lighter, more compact cookware if you’re backpacking. That will be good for two to four people, but the size will vary depending on the number of campers in your group.
Once you have the basics, you can equip your cooking arsenal with more specialty items, like a griddle if you plan to make pancakes or even a portable pizza oven.
And when dinnertime rolls around at the campground, have fun with it. After all, eating doesn’t have to be just a necessity—it should be a flavorful and enjoyable compliment to every excursion outdoors.