Just because you’re camping, it doesn’t mean your only option for food is spreading Spam on white bread or scooping spoonfuls of beans from the can. On the contrary, camp food can actually be quite delicious. Whether you’re cooking big group meals or taking advantage of single-sized backcountry packets, the best camping food comes in many forms.
From fruity snack bars and freeze-dried soups to tried-and-true home-cooked recipes, there exist a wide variety of tasty options capable of making dining on the trail a scrumptious experience. To help, we’ve rounded up the best of the bunch for every meal — including snacks, dessert, and a special bonus section — so you can take to the great outdoors and actually look forward to your rations.
Things to consider
Nutrition and energy exertion
It’s important to keep in mind how hard you’ll be physically working. Will you be relaxing by the lake on patio chairs or spending long days hiking up grueling hills? The type of proteins and nutrients you want, as well as the volume of food you’ll need, depends on your daily energy expenditures.
Will you be driving your car to the campsite, or hiking your food and gear in? If you’re hiking, it’s important to consider how much other weight you’ll be carrying, as well as how much space there is in your backpack. For car campers, keep in mind you’ll likely still have to schlep coolers down to recreation areas. The amount of food you have to carry and where you carry it to are key factors in making your meal choices.
Equipment and gear
Another important aspect of choosing the right trail food comes down to the kind of stove you plan on using. Perhaps you’ll opt for a full-sized chuck wagon, or maybe a smaller tabletop two-burner will do the trick — even using a single burner for boiling water is a convenient choice. We also recommend taking note of whether you’ll be cooking out of large bowls (or collapsible cookware) and how much water you’ll have readily available. If there isn’t an easy way to refill your water reservoir, then that greatly changes your options for preparing food.
Understanding how much cleanup is required for each meal is one of the most important points on this list. If a recipe calls for a large number of dishes for preparation or multiple trays and utensils to serve, it’s likely not the best choice for roughing it. Perhaps there are steps to some of the meals you can complete at home (to help avoid dishes) but it’s always important to think hard about the cleanup effort that’s involved when selecting your meals.
Number of ingredients and cooler space
Similar to the tip about cleanup, if a recipe calls for twelve different items for preparation, it’s likely not the best to whip up on the trail. Meals which require three or fewer items are much more ideal, not only making them easier to make but they greatly reduce the amount of space they take up in your pack.
Furthermore, perishables such as meats and dairy, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, (obviously) require a method for keeping them cold until you’re ready to dig in. Even seasoned car campers can attest that free cooler space is often times at a premium, so, when possible, packing dry food and non-perishable goods are preferred.
Group size and meal breakdown
Whether you plan on being the only chef making meals or if have some assistance, the number of people who plan on eating during the outing greatly influences the type of food you might bring along. For feeding larger groups, meals which are easier to prepare in large batches are recommended — think macaroni and cheese or spaghetti (for car campers, that is) — but if it’s just a buddy and you in the backcountry, smaller volume meals are the best way to go.
Don’t forget to think about the specific meals you plan on eating and exactly where you’ll be eating them. You may be able to get away with simply packing snacks to eat on the trail during the day, saving full-on meals for breakfast and dinner. Some people prefer coffee in the morning, so know this adds a bit of weight — an added weight coffee enthusiasts will gladly take on. Knowing exactly which meals you want to serve and what their purpose will be will help your planning effort.
Do you or any members of your group have any dietary restrictions to consider? When planning your meals, be sure to consider options for people who have allergies or are gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, or on other special diets.