How to Cook When Camping
Eating a delicious meal can definitely be one of the highlights of a camping trip. There’s something about being outdoors in the natural environment that gives you a hearty appetite and makes you appreciate the taste of a good chilli so much more.
But, cooking food on a camping trip requires a slightly different approach compared to cooking in your kitchen at home. Things can be a little more awkward without the convenience of your fully equipped home kitchen if you don’t know what to expect.
Not to worry! Cooking camping food can be just as easy and satisfying provided you understand the differences and adjust your expectations.
Types of Camp Cooking
The way you cook your meals when camping will depend on the heat source you’re using. There are different style stoves available for camping that vary in size and fuel source.
For example, small backpacking stoves will typically screw into to a small (eg. 3.5 Oz.) propane/isobutane canister. Larger, free-standing stoves will likely connect to a standard propane gas bottle. Portable camp BBQs can be fuelled with gas or charcoal. And then, of course, there is also the campfire option.
All options can create hot and flavorful food if you know what you’re doing!
The key things you need to consider are:
- The number of people you’re cooking for.
- That your pot and utensils match the type of stove or fire you’re using.
- That the kind of food you’re going to cook matches the type of cooking you’ll be doing.
Cooking Over a Camp Fire
Cooking over a campfire is a little trickier than using a gas stove. You can’t control the temperature of the fire (it will likely be not hot enough and then too hot), you need the right kinds of pots, and you need some way of suspending or standing the pot over the fire.
The best kind of campfire for cooking over is actually when the fire has been going for a little while (up to an hour at least), and consists more of hot coals and embers than orange flames. This means it will take a little planning to get the timing right.
Start with a small fire and get it burning well, then slowly add small pieces of wood until you have a good amount of hot coals and red embers. Ideally, you don’t want really big flames as they will just burn your food. Smaller flames with most of the heat coming from the embers is the best kind of fire to cook over.
It’s best if you can then stoke the flames on one side of the fire and leave the other side as just embers so that you have different temperatures available for different foods. This means you have the option of wrapping some potatoes in foil and tucking them in amongst the embers or placing your Dutch oven directly on the coals while using the open flames for things that require a higher temperature like meat or grilled vegetables.
The best kinds of pots to use on a campfire will be completely different from a gas stove. Anything coated like aluminum with a non-stick coating will not be suitable as campfires are generally too hot for them. You’ll also want thicker, heavier duty materials that will create a more stable cooking temperature for your food, as the temperature that the pot is exposed to over the fire can fluctuate constantly. Cast iron Dutch ovens and pans and stainless steel pots are ideal.
Cooking well over an open fire takes practice and experience and isn’t something that can be mastered in one go. Start simple for the best results. Consider cooking just one kind of food over the fire, like just sausages, or just potatoes. Alternatively, a meal that can be cooked in one pot is a great option for beginners so you don’t have to manage the timings of different things cooking at different speeds and requiring different temperatures. Some great examples of easy campfire meals include casseroles, soups, stews, and chili con carne.
Cooking Over a Gas Stove
Cooking over a camping stove can be a quicker, easier option than cooking over a campfire but is admittedly less romantic!
The size of the gas stove you use will depend on the number of people you’re cooking for (the size of the pots you use should also match this). Lightweight backpacking stoves that heat one pot at a time are ideal for up to 3 people if you’re cooking something simple like pasta. For larger groups of people and for the option of cooking more complicated meals, you’ll want something with more than hob so that you can cook with more than one pot or pan at a time. Most 2-hob camping stoves also come with a lid that doubles as a windshield which is extremely useful when cooking outside.
When cooking over gas, you’re going to want a pot that conducts heat really well so that you don’t use up all of your gas just heating up the pot. Cast iron is definitely not suitable and I would even say really heavy duty stainless steel is also going to waste your gas.
The best pots for cooking over gas camping stoves are lightweight stainless steel, aluminum, titanium. However, the thinner the material, the more closely you need to watch your food. Titanium and thin aluminum are very efficient in their gas usage but they will also burn your food if you’re not careful!
Read our Best Backpacking Cooking Gear article to find exactly what you need!
Cooking with gas on a camping stove is similar to cooking over gas in your home kitchen, except that things will just be a little less convenient. You won’t have any electrical appliances on hand, you won’t have a sink with running water or a hot tap, and you won’t have plenty of clean surfaces to work on.
This means you’ll need to be a little more organized and choose meals that are easy to prepare, only require one or two pots, and can be done by hand without the need for any appliances.
The best way to make camp cooking a breeze is by planning everything really well ahead of time so that you have the right ingredients for each meal and in the right quantities. Measuring things out while you’re still at home can save a lot of time and confusion.
An Extra Note on Dutch Ovens
A Dutch oven is an incredibly versatile and useful piece of cookware that is likely to be highly valued in your kitchen at home as well as on camping holidays. It deserves a special mention here due to its ability to cook nearly anything, even in a camping situation.
Fancy some homemade muffins, or maybe some crusty bread? Not a problem for a Dutch oven. Or what about some roasted vegetables? Or a casserole? Easy!
Whether or not you consider yourself a bit of a foodie, a Dutch oven could quickly become your best friend, allowing you to experiment with all sorts of meals when camping. It can be used over a campfire or on a gas stove. Just be sure to let it heat up slowly and don’t leave the gas on high unless you’re simmering something or boiling vegetables.
Tips for Easier Camp Cooking
- Make meals that don’t require lots of different ingredients, keeping it simple is the key to easy camp cooking. Even if you would usually make your pasta sauce from scratch, it’s ok to buy it in a jar when you’re going camping!
- Pre-mix seasonings, spices and herbs in a jar at home and bring them with you ready to use.
- You can also pre-prepare vegetables if you’re just going for one night. Do the washing, peeling and chopping at home and then transfer the lot to a sealed container for transport.
- Pre-chop and then freeze the meat that you’ll be using later in your trip. It will keep longer, be defrosted by the time you’re ready to eat it, and help keep other food cold while it’s frozen.
- Consider cooking some vegetarian meals to save worrying about food safety where meat is involved if you don’t have access to a camping fridge. Canned beans are precooked, don’t require keeping in a fridge, and can make super tasty meals.
- If you are going to cook everything from scratch at the campsite, having a folding table to provide a clean surface to work from can make a world of a difference.
- Make a checklist for all of the basic utensils and tools you need so that you don’t forget something. You won’t be the first camper to find they have cans but no can opener! And don’t forget the chopping board!
- Adding a large plastic basin to the check list can make washing up a lot easier. It can double as a place for the kids to wash their hands before mealtime and then all of the dirty plates can be dumped into it at the end of the meal. Heat a bit of water on the stove or over the campfire while you eat, and there’s no reason why the kids can’t do the washing up!
All in all, cooking when you’re camping doesn’t need to be a whole lot different from cooking in your kitchen at home. It just takes a little more thought, planning and organization, and maybe some creativity!
Hopefully you’ve found this article interesting and feel armed with some new tips for cooking on your next camping trip!