Cooking great tasting meals is another important key
to having a fun camping trip.
The type of meals you can eat on a camping trip depends upon the amount of kitchen equipment, fuel, and food you can carry to your campsite. Backpackers have a limited range of dehydrated packaged meal choices because they can only carry a small stove and a few kitchen items in their backpack. But families who travel by automobile and camp in developed state and federal campgrounds have a much wider range of meal options. They could leave their kitchen equipment at home and drive to restaurants every day - if they wanted to. Or, they could pack a camp stove, a skillet, several pots, a cooler, and a variety of foods that would allow them to prepare meals for several days. Eva and I fall into the last category (as do many other modern tent camping families) because meals prepared in the campsite cost much less than meals served in restaurants - and taste better. So what kitchen equipment do you need to prepare a wide range of delicious meals in your campsite and what foods can you cook?
When planning a camping trip, you must determine the type of stove(s) you can pack in your car. The type of stove depends upon the size of your car, the number of people in your party, and the number of meals you want to cook for them. Eva and I usually try to cook most of our meals in our campsite and we cook about half of these meals with firewood and the other half with a propane stove. Specific details related to each option are provided below.
Most developed campgrounds provide a fire ring for each campsite, but many of these fire rings are poorly designed as cooking stoves. Although a few have good adjustable height cooking grates, many do not and many of these rings are nothing more than a large metal or rock circle with no cooking grate. Furthermore, most of them are down on the ground and require uncomfortable stooping and squatting to cook a meal. A few campgrounds offer pedestal wood grills that provide the most comfortable and fuel-efficient wood fire cooking platform - but these grills are not available in most campgrounds. Because of these general cooking limitations, many experienced campers now pack their own wood fire cooking stoves. Commercial wood stoves such as the Firebox or Solo are popular but they are either too small to hold two large pots or pans - or - too large to efficiently pack in a car with other camping gear. Because wood fire cooking facilities vary so much from campground to campground, I developed our fuel-efficient WOODY FOLDING CAMP STOVE which folds flat for travel but opens up to make a strong 2-pot cooking stove. More information about this stove can be found on the MODERN TENT CAMPING STORE page of this website.
Propane stoves have been a very popular choice for family campers for many years. They are very simple to use and their fuel cylinders can be found in almost any department or convenience store. Just screw the fuel cylinder onto the stove and turn on the burners. When the cylinder runs out of fuel, just screw it off and screw on a fresh cylinder. The primary limitation of these stoves is the relatively large amount of packing space they and their fuel require. A second limitation is the inconvenience of having to walk or drive to the store to buy replacement fuel cylinders. Several companies make these stoves but the best known is Coleman.
Before propane stoves became popular, gas fueled stoves were popular with camping families. But these stoves had many limitations. Typically campers had to pack a one-gallon can of white gas and a small funnel to fill the stove's gas tank. When the tank ran out of fuel, the camper had to wait until the stove cooled to the touch, find the funnel, pour the fuel through the funnel into the tank, pump air into the tank, and relight the burner. Frequently, these operations resulted in small fuel spills on your hands, clothing, and equipment. And you smelled like gasoline until you could take a bath and change clothes. After the trip, you had to drain the fuel out of the tank and burn it out of the fuel jets. And you had to replace the fuel generator every 3 to 5 years. Today, backpackers who travel to remote areas or camp in high altitudes or in cool weather still prefer small gasoline stoves. A good example is the MSR Whisper Lite stove.
Small Isobutane-Propane (IsoPro) canister stoves such as the MSR Pocket Rocket have been very popular with backpackers because they offer a compact and easy way to boil water to combine with dehydrated foods. Their primary limitations are: their fuel canisters can be difficult to find in remote areas, they do not simmer foods well, they are too small to hold large pots and pans, and they may not work well in high altitudes or cool weather.
One-burner butane stoves such as this Coleman Camp Bistro have emerged as another stove option for camping families. These stoves require less packing space than the two burner propane stoves and offer a neater way to incorporate the fuel bottle into the stove.
Solid fuel stoves and tablets are popular with backpackers because they are very small and lightweight. But they are only designed to boil a small amount to water needed for a cup of tea, hot chocolate, or dehydrated meal. The best known example of solid fuel stove is Esbit Pocket Stove. Their primary limitations are: they require about 8 minutes to boil a cup of water, they are not strong enough to cook large meals, and their fuel tablets are difficult to find in many remote camping destinations.
Alcohol stoves are a second type of small lightweight stove primarily designed for heating water to mix with dehydrated backpacking foods. A good example is the Trangia Spirit Stove. Their primary limitation is that they are too small and fragile to cook large meals. Furthermore, they require large bulky containers of alcohol to operate them, and pouring this alcohol into the stove can be messy.
Tent campers could leave pots and pans at home and cook a wide variety of foods with aluminum foil and disposable aluminum pans, but having two or three cooking pots increases the range of food options that can be easily prepared in the campsite.
If you decide to include pots in your kitchen equipment, you must decide what size, what materials, and how to pack them. Backpackers frequently choose a small aluminum or titanium pot because these materials are lightweight but aluminum does not facilitate simmering foods for long periods of time, warps easily, and may cause health problems. Titanium does not distribute heat well and, thus, does not permit long simmering. Plus, it is expensive. The best options are enamelware, stainless steel, and cast iron. Regardless of the material, campers should find pots with removable or folding handles that allow 2 or 3 pots to nest together to save packing space. For example, we have a 4-quart enamelware pot, a 3-quart enamelware pot, and 2-quart stainless steel bush pot that nest neatly together. Several companies including GSI and Imusa, make good quality enamelware pots. Self Reliance Outfitters sells a good 2 and 4-quart stainless steel Bush Pot. And we routinely pack one or two Dutch ovens that can nest together.
A frying pan allows you to cook a wider range of delicious foods such as bacon, Hamburger Helper meals, chicken, fish, pancakes, fried eggs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. We pack a vintage 9-inch (#6) cast iron skillet that fits perfectly into our milk crate but it requires extra care to keep it seasoned and prevent rust. A similar skillet is made by Lodge. We have found that ultralight aluminum and titanium fry pans used by backpackers are too thin and lightweight to prepare good tasting fried foods. Thicker aluminum pans sold in department stores cook well but warp easily, stain easily, and have possible health risks. If you don't want to carry a cast iron skillet, consider a carbon steel pan (such as Lodge or Matfer Bourgeat) or a stainless steel pan (such as T-fal).
A Dutch Oven is unnecessary but campers that want to cook a full range of meal options will usually pack one. We like the small 2-quart Bayou Classic Camp Oven that has the flat lid with a lip for holding coals and a flat bottom without legs. It nests well with our other pots and can be easily used as a cooking pot and as a baking oven. For more information, visit my CAST IRON COOKWARE TIPS page.
In addition to your pots and pans, you'll need a few utensils to prepare your food. As a general rule, wood or nylon cooking utensils are preferable to metal ones. At the very least, you'll need a pair of tongs, a knife, and a can opener. If you have packing space available, you can add a stirring/serving spoon or two and a spatula. To store these utensils, we use an empty food can. Also include a small vintage metal measuring cup with its handle removed.
Plates & Bowls
Economically-priced plastic dinner plates and salad bowls can be found in many department stores - but we prefer good quality stainless steel 9-inch pie pans such as the NorPro Stainless Steel Pie Pans which can serve as both camp plates and bowls. Wilton's vintage pie pans would also be a good choice. We frequently need more than just two plates/ bowls when our grandchildren or friends join us so we have 4 pie pans and 4 more enamelware plates. Coleman makes very nice enamelware plates. Good-quality, economically-priced vintage enamelware can also be found in many flea markets.
Campers will need few cups to hold their beverages and perhaps cereal and soups. We also use a cup to dip water from a large bucket or stock pot. Enamelware cups look very nice but they frequently have protruding handles that require unnecessary packing space. So we have accumulated a set of 6 stainless steel cups of varying diameters with either folding or no handles so that we can nest them all together.
In addition to cups, campers will need a few large water containers plus at least one small water bottle for each person. We use 1-liter Ocean Spray juice bottles as our large water bottles because they are easy to pack and carry when full. We also pack small stainless steel and recycled plastic drink bottles for personal use and carry these bottles with us when driving, hiking, visiting tourist attractions, and sleeping in the tent. If you choose plastic, be sure to get a BPA-free bottles.
Campers will also need a few spoons and forks to eat their food. We have discovered that two people may need as many as 6 spoons and forks. Dinner knives are unnecessary since you can use a pocket knife or kitchen knife as necessary. Currently we are using vintage steel utensils that we bought in a flea market but you can find lighter nylon and Titanium utensils in camping outfitter stores.
Here are a few of our favorite camp meals. You can freeze some foods before leaving home so they will stay fresh a few days and buy additional items in nearby stores as needed. Please notice that a few of these meals have been featured on my YouTube Channel, Modern Tent Camping and these featured meals have hot links to their respective videos. More meal videos will be added soon.
Eggs (fried or scrambled), grits, meat (bacon, sausage, country ham), dutch oven biscuits or pan fried buttered toast, jelly or honey, fresh fruit (oranges)
Bisquick pancakes with syrup, meat, whipped cream & fruit (blue berries, strawberries)
Oatmeal with fruit (blue berries, strawberries, or raisins)
Cold cereal with fruit (blue berries, strawberries, bannanas, raisins)
Breakfast burritos (flour tortillas, scrambled eggs, sausage, tomatoes, grated cheese, salsa, sour cream, onions) & juice
Dutch oven Bisquick biscuits, Pioneer pepper gravy, sausage, fruit (stewed prunes)
Grilled cheese sandwiches, Claussen dill pickles & fruit (apples)
Hard boiled egg (or egg salad sandwich), fruit (cantaloupe)
Pastries, bagels, muffins, cream cheese & fruit (grapes)
Deli-style sandwiches with meat (ham, bacon, turkey, chicken salad, tuna salad, cheese & vegetables (tomato, lettuce, onions)
Fresh raw vegetables (carrots, celery, radishes, broccoli, cucumbers) with dip
Fruit (apples, banana, raisins), crackers, & cheese
Peanut butter & jelly sandwiches with fruit (bananas)
Chips & dip
Summer sausage, cheese & crackers
Canned tuna or chicken with bread or crackers
Grilled steak or pork chops with Rice-A-Roni rice Pilaf, cabbage slaw & desert
Grilled pork chops, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, McCormick pork gravy, canned black-eyed peas & desert
Fried or blackened fish (grouper, tilapia, orange roughy), corn on the cob, boiled red potatoes, salad & desert
McCormick's beef stew (beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, bell pepper), garlic toast & desert
Spaghetti with McCormick's spaghetti sauce, ground beef, onions, garlic toast, salad & desert
Carne Assada or fried chicken strip tacos, pinto beans, rice & desert
Chicken stew with carrots, celery, onions, lima beans, corn, cilantro & rice, tortillias & desert
McCormick Chili (with ground chuck, pinto beans, sour cream, grated cheese, onions, & Fritos) & desert
Hamburger or Tuna Helper meal with salad or canned vegetable & desert
Grilled hamburgers or bratwurst, canned pork & beans, foil packet potatoes & desert
Picadillo (ground beef stew with potatoes, carrots, bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, tomato, onion, canned corn & canned lima beans) & desert
Zatarains red beans & rice (with Polish kielbasa, onions & green pepper), canned green peas & desert
Baked lasagna & salad
Fresh fruit (grapes, apples, pineapple, water melon, cantaloupe, kiwi)
Canned fruit (apple sauce, peaches, fruit cocktail)
Foil packet cinnamon apples
Dutch oven cobbler (peach, cherry, apple, blackberry)
Dutch oven brownies
Fruit juice (lemonade, orange, tomato, cranberry, apple)
Crystal light mixed drinks