Use at any time in the hinterland or even at the campsite at your local state park and you will quickly realize the importance of a good meal outdoors. Not only do you need the calories for hiking, but a good meal can also help soothe the pain of the long day and make the calculated trip an at least-we-ate-good-trip.
Bringing the kitchen out into the open is not always as simple as it sounds. I have been a professional chef and have also guided a number of groups through the wilderness, and in that time I discovered what any professional guide knows: Food makes or destroys the trip. Here I have put together a mix of ideas, from the equipment you will need to advice on meal planning. Here is something for everyone, whether you are new to camping or an experienced tent slinger. Be sure to check out our outdoor guides for more tips, including the best camping gear and the best tents.
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The basics: A good stove
For car camping, I recommend a stove with two burners. The size of the oven really depends on the size of your group. For a group of five or less, the best choice is this Coleman Classic 2-burner propane camp stove. It creates a good balance between cost, cooking power and size. If you are going out with a larger group, you will either use a couple of stoves or go with something like Camp Chef Pro 60X Deluxe ($ 320). If none of them feel right for you, our Best Camp Stoves guide provides more recommendations.
It is harder to find a good backpack oven because the weight means a lot more. In fact, ultralight hikers will claim that you do not even need a stove, just bring ready-made food. But for the rest of us, a good, hot meal can really mark the difference between survival and actually having fun. I have used and enjoyed Primus Firestick ($ 90), which is perfect for two-person meals.
If you’re heading out solo, Jetboil MiniMo ($ 155) is a perennial favorite. If your group is larger, my suggestion is to split the food into pairs, one stove for every two people. It is certainly possible to cook for more on a single backpacking stove, but I think it is more hassle than just bringing an extra light stove.
A good cooler
The best cooler is Yeti Tundra series. I wish the most expensive option was not the best, but it is, and it is that impressive. I have been testing a Yeti Tundra 45 for a few months and regularly get a solid week of cooling out of a single block of ice. Even bags of dice usually last three to four days in temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it gets hotter than that, performance drops (moisture will also cause it to melt faster), but it’s still better than anything you get from other coolers. Yetis are not cheap, but they are almost indestructible and surpass anything else we have tested.
If you are not camping enough to justify the price of a Yeti, I suggest you bring what is available at your local store. Most other coolers are about equal when it comes to performance. Make sure you get something with plenty of space for your food and ice. Most refrigeration manufacturers suggest a 2-for-1 relationship between ice cream and goods, but I have to admit that I rarely manage it with a family of five camping for a week. In my test, a 1-on-1 ratio is more realistic and still seems to keep my food very cold.
Whatever cooler you get, store it properly. If you are in bear country, it usually means in an included metal storage box. Wherever you are, keep your cooler away from direct sunlight whenever possible and make sure the lid stays tightly sealed. Open your food cooler as little as possible so that it retains the cold air inside it. One way to minimize airflow and make ice last longer is to bring a separate cooler for drinks so you do not constantly open and close your main cooler just to get another drink. I also suggest making your own block ice cream if you have the freezer.
A camp table
If you’re on your way to a campground, you probably have access to a picnic table that you can use to cook at, but it takes up dining space. If you have a larger group or do not have access to a picnic table, a good camp table is indispensable. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, I have not used a camp table that I really love and that can still be purchased. The best I’ve used lately is this table from Alps Mountaineering, which is reasonably stable and can be stored fine and small, even though it feels quite cheaply made.
Another option is the more affordable plastic folding table you find in most major checkout stores like Walmart. I’ve used this 4-foot headrest model ($ 40) while camping, and it did the job, even though it got skewed over time; metal stoves will also slide around on it, so be careful when cooking.
You’ve got your food safely stored on lots of ice, your stove is set up on a table, and now it’s time for the actual cooking. What do you cook with? To get started, just bring some pans and utensils from home. I happen to cook almost exclusively food on cast iron, which is well suited for car camping because it is very durable and retains heat well. But it is very heavy.
If you do not want to take your nice pans with you from home, another option is to take over to your local thrift store and grab a few cheap frying pans that you do not mind beating around the camp. But if you want to take your camp cooking to the next level, consider a Dutch oven. Dutch oven cooking requires a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, there is very little you can not do with one of these. I own and recommend the Lodge 6-quart model with flat lid. The lid can act as a baking tray.
Cooking on the campsite or in the hinterland can be as simple or as fancy as you want. Whether you are into hot dogs on skewers or alder-smoked trout with radishes and herbal aioli, there are a few things to keep in mind when planning your camping meals.