Base Camp Cooking

Cooking in the outdoors presents unique challenges. This article is designed to get newbie campers off on the right foot. If you are a seasoned veteran, there just might be an idea or two to help you get going. As always, let us know any ideas you have that we could use to make this content better. There's a contact us button at the bottom of the page.

Camp cooking

Kelty Collapsible Cooler
Two Burner Camp Stove - Bass Pro
Big Agnes Deep Creek Shelter with Bug Screen

Getting off to a great start!

This article is about making great food in a “base camp,” by which I mean a camp that is easy to transport larger camping cookware and food items to the site.  This is opposed to camp cooking when backpacking or any time you have to carry your cooking gear and food on your back, mountaineering or other pursuits.  This article aims to discuss general ideas about what works and what doesn’t.  It is not a recipe page.  That’s an upcoming article.

 

Let’s start off by discussing the basics of what you need for a great experience as far as food preparation goes on a camping trip.

 

Basic Gear

  • COOLER

    • There are tons of options for a cooler.  Considerations should start with size needs and budget.  You can spend hundreds of dollars for these things and that’s probably not necessary.  Two that we use are a wheeled version with a pull handle.  The other one we use frequently is a Kelty collapsible cooler.  It folds down to a very small size, but when expanded, is a very suitable size for 2-4 people.  Both of these two coolers have a drawback that drives me crazy on longer trips...neither have drains.  This means that after some number of days, when lots of ice has become water, I need to take all the items out, dump the remaining water and ice, and start over with new ice.  

  • COOK STOVE

    • I just bought a Bass Pro Propane two burner stove.  It had good reviews and retailed for under $75 (September 2021).  It’ll get used for the first time next week on a 5 day trip to Michigan.  I also have a one burner propane stove.  It’s fine when I am by myself or with another adult.  The drawback is that I am always concerned about its stability as the pot or pan sits on top and could easily topple over.  I do own several backpacking/mountaineering stoves which I will discuss in another article.  I do recommend something similar to the two burner Bass Pro propane stove mentioned above.

  • COOKWARE

    • Minimally, most people will want a frying pan, a medium sized pot, and a kettle for heating water.  We always bring way more items than this, and then only use a few of the excess items. I suggest you start with just very basic gear like the three items I mentioned, and then add as the need arises. Now, if you have a very large family or some other situation, this recommendation might need alteration.  For your pot and frying pan, I suggest NOT getting those really thin camp sets they sell in the camping section at Wal-Mart, etc.  Get cookware that’s nice and thick. It really makes a difference for cooking on a camp stove.  Some people prefer cast iron.

  • FURNITURE

    • Definitely not a requirement, because most sites have a table, but it is nice to have a table that you can dedicate to cooking, cleanup, etc.  We have a nice little table that has legs, but rolls up and goes in a bag.

  • WASH BASIN(S)

    • We bring two simple dish washing basins with us.  One gets hot soapy water and the other is for rinsing.  Keep it simple here.  These things can be had for just a few dollars, but sure are nice for quick easy cleanup after you have eaten.

  • UTENSILS

    • The basics are fine.  For the most part, you don’t really need specialized camping gear for the type of cooking we are describing here. Do remember to match the utensils to the types of cookware you will be using...metal spatula if a cast iron or steel skillet and plastic if it’s coated.  Really, this is all just common sense and it’s just imperative that you make a good list (we have a great camping checklist). I asked my wife what her input was for anything I’d left out after writing this...she mentioned hot/cold cups with lids, and she’s right.  It’s really awesome for everyone to have a cup that will hold a beverage either hot or cold and for it to have a lid.  We have a variety of these...some of the fancy high dollar variety and some Ozark Trail...they all do a good job.

  • WATER JUG/CONTAINER

    • You can roll with just a bunch of gallon water jugs from the store if you want.  But consider purchasing a container that you can fill ahead or at the campground and save all the waste from gallon jugs.  Just make sure to follow proper protocol for sanitation.

 

How is Cooking at a Campsite Different?

Honestly, it’s mostly just harder.  Not the answer you expected?  Well, truthfully, everything associated with camping is more challenging, and in my opinion, more rewarding than that done at home.  So, some forethought is quite helpful before you head out for that perfect trip.

 

We will describe some basic ideas to consider incorporating into your planning.  They are very generic, because we know the specifics of what you want to eat are unique to you and your family. Really, these ideas are more about keeping things pretty simple so that food prep and clean-up don’t have to be the focus of the trip.

 

Now, if you're a foodie and you really want to make a production out of the process, knock yourself out.  The ideas presented here won’t hurt you, and if this is new for you, please consider starting simple, with the idea you can get tricky later on in time.

 

Pre-Cook and Freeze

This doesn’t work for everything, but for things like stews or chili, making up a batch ahead and freezing it is awesome.  The frozen pouch actually helps the ice in your cooler last longer and over time you’ll get a sense for which day your pouches will be thawed enough to throw in a pot and warm up.  

 

Use Flatbreads or Pitas

Regular bread is really tough to keep from getting smashed.  Pitas or flatbread can be nice for a quick lunch and you can be really creative with what you put in them.

 

Sandwich Toppings

Lunch Meats are fine, and PBJ is great too. But here are some other thoughts for easy sandwich creations. Bring an assortment of foil pouches with chicken, salmon, tuna, etc.  Bring mayo or mustard packets, or just  a mustard bottle if you are good with that.  Mayo in the cooler is fine, but be really careful with any sandwiches where you have used mayo and it sits for any length of time.

 

Use Liquid Eggs or Egg Whites and Pre-Mixed Pancake Batters

The hassle of trying to keep eggs from being broken when you need them is pretty significant. We have plastic containers to do the job and they work pretty well. But, most of the time when we put eggs in them, they are ones we have boiled ahead of time for the trip, which is really nice to have.  Mostly, for eggs, it’s so easy to just pour out the liquid eggs in a pan and again, keep things simple.

 

With pancake mix, you can buy it in cartons, but you can also make it yourself.  It looks kind of gross after sitting for a few days in the cooler, but it’s totally fine once you stir it up again.  Bring some berries or nuts or whatever additions you like to throw in to have a great breakfast!

 

Sort of along the same lines are items like pre-cooked bacon.  I know some readers probably will turn their nose up at that one, but it’s all just personal preference anyway...just an idea.

 

Snacks

Definitely not going to get too specific with this one other than to mention two ideas and to tell sort of a funny story about myself. For years, when I’d take my boys on trips, because I wanted 100% of the focus to be on the trip and the wilderness, we’d bring nothing but trailmix and jerky...of course water too. These would just be Friday through Sunday trips, and I cannot believe they enjoyed the trips on the whole.  But, I know they hated trail mix and jerky for quite some time.

 

Having said that, having some snacks that are good and quick sources for protein and high energy carbs are a good idea.  In an emergency you CAN get by on these...what would you do should you encounter a broken stove or some other unforeseen catastrophe. Even if its just a night where its raining like crazy, having something like this is nice. 

 

Storage

If you’ve never had a camp raided by a bear, raccoons, or other critters, I suggest you try to avoid it.  If you leave your cooler or other food storage containers out, you will have these critters causing mayhem.  Further, you are training them to scavenge human food and eventually, this will cost them their life, more than likely.  Store your food securely in your vehicle at night, or some campgrounds have lockers if bears are frequent visitors.  

 

Even mice, rodents, and bugs will be problematic if you are sloppy in your camp hygiene.  These are all skills that really just come down to making a good effort and learning them early on.

Shelter

I almost forgot to include this lifesaver (probably hyperbole).  We always bring a canopy to go over our cooking/eating area.  We love the Big Agnes brand (no affiliation or compensation), and we use a canopy and bug net we got from them.  It’s awesome to get out of the sun or a torrential rainstorm.  The bug netting can be a gamechanger as well!