Camping 101: Food Prep & Cooking`

I used to always pack a cooler that was stuffed to the brim with hamburgers, hot dogs, soda, and plenty of ice. In fact, I used to bring two coolers on most trips. One dedicated to drinks and the other dedicated to food. After taking several trips in the field with this setup, it became obvious that I had the wrong idea. I quickly began exploring nonperishable foods. Eliminating the cooler(s) from my equipment list made my experience much more enjoyable. I quit worrying about the amount of ice I had left and whether or not my food was starting to go off. I was able to focus on working with fewer ingredients, yet making more enjoyable meals.

A weekend camping trip menu can be delicious, yet take so little space in your gear. For example, a can of white chicken breast dumped in with flavored boxed rice and provide a tasty and satisfying meal for a few people. A breakfast featuring bannock made from powdered milk, powdered eggs, and other dry ingredients is fantastic. Cooked with a bit of freeze-dried bacon and bannock you have yourself a wonderful breakfast feast.

On camping trips now, I tend to focus upon canned meat, dry ingredients, and yet I always whip up tasty dishes. I will include some of my favorite recipes in a later selection.

Most state campsites will come with a fire ring. You can do your cooking in the fire ring or you can bring your own portable grill. Sometimes I will bring my own grill along depending upon the type of fire ring. Some of the rings are nice and low and have nice grates that you can just flip over and use to cook on. Other sites have extremely deep fire rings that are not very convenient for cooking in. In those cases, my small charcoal grill does the trick nicely. I also have a nice portable tripod that I often use. This is a lot more versatile than the standard grill as you can adjust the height and actual grilling surface is quite large. The only thing to get used to is the sort of balancing act you sometimes must do in order to keep the items being cooked in place and not swinging around. You can also build your own tripod easily from things found around the campsite!

For heating water, I often times just use fire, but cooking food I prefer to use charcoal. There are many types of charcoal available. My favorite is the Cowboy brand hardwood charcoal. It burns hot and for a long time. It also makes a neat sound that is sure to get the attention of everyone nearby.

Your cooking pots and pans need not be elaborate. I generally carry two main cooking vessels. I have a pot that I can boil water, cook stews, and so on. This pot does have a lid. I have a coffee percolator that I use mainly for heating water for coffee. I am not a huge fan of brewing my coffee in it, but it works just fine for getting your water hot. For a pan, I have a decent sized cast iron skillet. It heats evenly and has plenty of cooking surface. This skillet was pre-seasoned and ready use right out of the box. If you get one that is not seasoned, you need to be sure that you take the time to season it prior to use. Cast iron cookware must be taken care of properly.

Another item I sometimes take along is the mountain pie maker. With the right ingredients you can put together some incredible meals with these. Of course, some of the ingredients will require a cooler to stay fresh such as the pizza recipe I will share later.

It is also recommended that you take along some aluminum foil and high temp grilling spray. This can help make for easy grilling surface cleanup if you are cooking hamburgers or hotdogs and it can serve as an impromptu lid for your skillet. Remember not to leave or place any foil inside of the fire ring as it will not burn. It annoys me to no end to find other peoples trash and foil remnants inside of a fire ring.

Spices are good to have on hand as well. You can take the staples such as salt and pepper, but it is nice to have a variety of other types as well. This can help to add life to an otherwise bland dish.

Cooking utensils can be store bought or you can make them yourself. I’ve been creating my own set of cooking utensils by carving them from pieces of wood. A good spatula, pair of tongs, and a large spoon should work nicely.

Dinnerware can be quite simple and easy to pack. Rather carrying along a mess of disposable plates and silverware, I prefer a studier approach. I like to use standard mess kits. This provides you with a plate, a bowl (which often has a handle and can be used for heating water, cooking beans, etc.), sometimes a cup, a small frying pan, and best of all, it packs quite nicely. Each camper in my trips will have their own mess kit. There are no plates to throw away. Just give them a good wash and you are done. For silverware, I have what are called hobo-tools. This is sort of like a Swiss-army knife for eating. It folds up like a knife, but contains a fork, a spoon, knife, can opener, and a corkscrew. Very nice item to have as you are then not taking along excessive amounts of plastic forks, spoons, etc. which can often times get misplaced or supply exhausted too quickly.

For drinking, it is nice to have a cup that you reuse, place over a fire, and has a handle. I have nice cups with folding handles that can contain around 2 cups of water each. Again, a splendid replacement for your standard throw-away cups and an excellent alternative to Styrofoam or plastics. They pack light and there are only a few of them to worry about.

I am also a fan of MRE’s. These can be rather expensive and even difficult to come by at times. You cannot buy the government branded MRE’s, but with some luck, you can score excess MRE’s that were made for the government. Say company A and company B were bidding for a government contract to provide MRE’s. Company A got the contract, while company B did not. Company B was hopeful to get the contract and made tons of MRE’s ready to ship. Company B can now sell the MRE’s to the general public. You may find that MRE’s can be pricey. A case of them can run about $80 or more. However, when you stop and think about that price, it isn’t so bad considering the amount of meals provided.

Mountain Home brand makes very tasty meals-in-a-bag that can be cooked by adding some boiled water. They may not provide you with as much energy as an actual MRE, but they will fill you up. There are other MRE-style meals available on the market as well. These contain self-heating main courses, a side dish, and sometimes a desert. These can run $5-$6 per meal.

The thing I like about MRE style meals is that they pack light and provide you calories to burn. The amount of food isn’t too much or too little, but just right.

Drinks are easy to provide. If your campground has running water, you can fill canteens or water jugs for drinking and cooking. More primitive sites may not have running water and you may need to bring your own. If you run out or simply forget your own water supply, it is good to have a backup plan. In that case I like to always have water purification tablets and a water purifier or filtration system. Most of all, remember to stay hydrated.

Snacks are great to have on hand while camping. Whether you have a child who has rumbling belly or perhaps you need something to hold you over until chow time, snacks can give you energy and a feeling of satiation. I enjoy free-dried ice cream, chocolate bars, and even some potato chips or pretzels. Snacks can give you a quick boost of energy when you need it.

When packing your foodstuffs, try to think and pack lightly. Remember, organization is the key. Coolers are not 100% required to have a good meal in the field. You can get on just fine without them and save a ton of space in the process. Some folks may have to take a cooler for whatever reason. Be sure to test the cooler before going into the field. A lot of advertising will claim great ice-life times, but often these are exaggerations to get you to buy it. Know what to expect from your cooler before you actually need it.

Keep ALL Dishes Clean!

If you have dirty dishes laying around with pieces of food stuck on them, a couple of things can happen.  First, it could provide enough curiosity for an animal to come check out (especially if left sitting out all night).  Second, it can promote the growth of bacteria if the items are not thoroughly and properly cleaned.  The last thing you need to deal with in the middle of the wilderness is a bout of stomach issues including the onset of diarrhea.  Keep your food prep, serving, and storage items clean!  I always have a basin on site that is used for washing directly after completion of a meal or cooking.

IMPORTANT TIP: Choose the right dish soap. Make sure you check for soap that will have minimal impacts upon the environment.  Also, do not use a stream or other body of water as your kitchen sink. Think about the animals that use that water source for survival.  Dump out dirty and soapy water at least 100 yards from any water source to help prevent unnecessary contamination.
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