Here are the basics you need to turn out great campsite meals with minimum hassle and maximum satisfaction.
Campsite cooking might require more forethought, adaptability and patience, but when done even moderately well, it is oh-so-satisfying. The key to camp cooking success is preparation. That is, preparation for the kind of camping you’ll be doing and having the right equipment on hand.
Regardless of whether you’re a minimalist hiking into remote backcountry or an automobile camper with room to pack just about anything including a camp kitchen sink, the basic requirements of cooking remain the same: Food and Heat. Good cooking requires really just one additional “ingredient”: skill, which is based on knowledge and experience.
A typical weekend to several day-long camping trip doesn’t require a chuckwagon full of equipment, but you will want to pack the necessary gear to cover the five basic areas of the cooking and dining experience. These five areas are the same from restaurant to home kitchen to wilderness eating:
- Food/ingredient storage
- Food prep
The following items are what I consider to be the bare necessities in each category. Other items can make certain jobs easier, but may not be absolutely necessary. You’ll have to figure out what other items, beyond these basics, you’ll want to pack and carry with you.
Food storage needs can be met with nothing more than one or more coolers and one or more plastic lidded storage tubs. The cooler, of course, is for perishable foods, and the storage tub for dry ingredients. There’s some room to play concerning both the cooler and the dry storage container.
For example, a simple, inexpensive plastic or metal Coleman chest cooler and a bag or two of ice has served campers well for generations. But if you’re planning a longer than few-days excursion there are “extreme” ice chest such as those made by Igloo and Yeti that offer greater security and longterm cool storage. You’ll have to figure out your cooler needs based on the kind and the quantity of foods you’ll be storing.
Dry food storage is more flexible. In addition to or instead of boxy plastic storage containers, you can rely quite effectively on lidded 5-gallon food-grade pails or even dry bags or backpacks for storage.
- Cooler(s) or ice chest(s) for perishables.
- Dry storage containers dry foods/ingredients.
A lot of the most elaborate food prep can be accomplished with a good 8-inch chef’s knife and a cutting board. During my years in the restaurant business we did probably 90% of all food prep with those two tools alone. Other tools made certain jobs easier (mandolins, peelers, ballers, cleavers, etc.) but could have been accomplished nonetheless by nothing more than a good knife in the hands of an experienced cook.
So, get two or three good knives: chef’s knife, fillet knife, and possibly a paring knife, and learn how to use them efficiently and safely. You’ll need a knife sharpener as well. A small stone or pocket sized sharpener will be fine.
Get a good cutting board or flexible plastic cutting mat too. Trying to julienne carrots or slice potatoes on log or even a dirty picnic table is both a pain and unsanitary.
You’ll want some small containers to keep your prepped food in until you’re ready to begin cooking. Bowls that you also eat from or small plastic Tupperware-like containers will do the trick.
Finally, have a clean towel or two on hand at all time, for wiping things down and drying your hands.
Everything and anything else you might need or want will be contingent upon what food you bring (e.g., a can opener for canned goods).
- Knives, at least two: one or two 8-inch chef’s knives and a fish filleting knife.
- Cutting board or cutting mat.
- Knife sharpener.
- Containers for prepped food (can come from dinnerware).
Cooking requires heat, and unless you’re cooking directly over fire (which you most certainly can, and to great effect) you’ll also need something to hold food as it cooks over heat and something to move it around while it’s cooking.
If you don’t intend to cook everything over an open campfire, then you’ll need a stove of some sort. Small backpacker’s stoves work well, if you are hiking into a remote area. Larger Coleman double burner liquid fuel stoves are great if you don’t have far to carry equipment in to a site. Your pots and/or pans will need to conform to your heat source (a large wok, for example, won’t work if you’ll be cooking everything on a small backpackers butane stove).
If you are, in fact, intending to cook everything over an open fire a light metal grill grate is worth packing in, in my opinion.
Pots and pans. You’ll need, at bare minimum, one kettle-style pot that will hold liquid over the heat source and one frying pan. Of course if you can pack one or two more of each, so much the better. Nesting pots and pans are great for saving space and for giving you more options in cooking several foods at a time.
You can effectively move food around in a pan with a knife or whittled stick, and doing so is for some reason really more satisfying than you might think. But I usually take along a good assortment of cooking utensils, a half dozen at least. There are three, however, that I never go without unless I’m planning on fashioning them from wood on site: metal tongs, spatula and a ladle or large deep spoon. You can do everything with those three utensils.
- Heat source: open fire or stove of some kind, and a means to light it.
- Pots and pans to fit with your heat source and cooking style.
- Utensils: metal tongs, spatula, ladle or deep spoon.
What you need to eat and drink from should be a no-brainer: plates, bowls, cups and flatware. The question is rather what type of tableware should you get. Lightweight metal plates, bowls, cups and utensils are the sensible rule of the day here.
Coleman offers a nice, basic 24-piece set of plates, bowls, cups and flatware. It’s inexpensive and durable.
Note: I read something somewhere by a remote backcountry backpacker who recommended taking chopsticks instead of the usual eating utensils. He preferred chopsticks because they are lighter in weight, more compact and add an air of refinement to campsite cooking. I think that is a brilliant and fun idea.
- Plates, bowls, cups, eating utensils.
Cleaning and sanitizing everything is the final and very important step in any cooking project. Do the dishes!
- Rubber dish bin, at least one, preferably two.
- Eco-friendly, biodegradable dish soap.
- Sponge and/or dish scrub brush,
- Clean towels.
You also need a container to store and dispense clean water from.
These are the cooking and eating equipment basics for most camping trips. You can get by with even less, if you want to go the minimalist route, and you can certainly add more items to your cooking gear. Most of us do, in fact, and are the happier for it. But it is around this core foundation that a solid cooking kit and routine is built.
But again, the most fundamental things you need to have for cooking good food and enjoying a positive experience in the outdoors, are patience, creativity and adaptability. Learn to be a better cook at home and that will translate to good cooking at a campsite as well.