Food never tastes better than when you’re camping. But who wants to spend all day tending to dinner when the great outdoors is beckoning? Luckily, there are several ways to make camp cooking and clean-up easier — so you can spend more time hiking, exploring, stargazing, and hammock-napping.
Instead of bringing bags of food, use this simple sorting system: Pack all your perishable food items into one dedicated cooler (Outdoor Gear ranks the standard Coleman cooler as the best buy); use a second cooler for drinks, so you won’t open the food cooler as often. Prep ingredients for each meal ahead of time and pack in labeled plastic bags. Freeze all meats ahead of time; they stay fresher longer, and help cool other food.
Put non-perishable food items into one plastic bin, and your cookware, stove, fuel canisters, and utensils into another. This way, when it’s time to make dinner, everything you need will be in one place and easy to access. If you’re on a short trip, you can pile your dirty dishes back into the empty bin and take it home, where you’ll have a real kitchen sink and dishwasher at your disposal.
Your favorite campsite cook may have a dirty little secret: pre-cooking at home. Thursday’s Spaghetti? Wednesday’s Paella? Instead of chucking your leftovers, freeze them in plastic bags. When it’s time to load up for the weekend camping trip, place your frozen dinner items strategically in your cooler so they can keep neighboring foods and drinks cool as they slowly defrost. You can also use the same technique with frozen juice concentrate cans and anything else in your freezer that you can eat or drink in camp.
If eating leftovers isn’t your idea of a great meal for camp cooking, at least save yourself some trouble and prep your ingredients at home before the trip. Chop all the veggies, skewer your kebabs, make your salad dressing, and even pre-cook rice, sauces, and soups at home. Marinate any meats you’ll want to eat at your campsite before you leave as well. Veteran camper tip: If you have to chop anything at the campsite, a clean Frisbee makes an excellent cutting board.
If you’re lucky enough to be camping in an area where fires are allowed, bone up on your campfire building and cooking skills. If you need to make your own fire pit, scout out a flat dry spot devoid of vegetation. Or, even better, use a big rock slab or beach below the high tide line. Lay a ring of rocks around your spot. To class it up, place a bigger, flatter rock at the back of your ring to create a chimney effect. It will help draw smoke up and away.
Once you have your pit set up, lay some crumpled paper or tinder down in a few overlapping layers in the middle of your ring. Then overlay with kindling, such as thin splits of wood or small dead branches. Light the paper (your matches are in a dry bag or plastic baggie, right?). Once the kindling has caught, start laying on evenly sized pieces of dry firewood. (If you didn’t bring your own firewood, buy bundles on the drive in, or check with the campground host when you get there.) Spread the firewood evenly over the kindling; let it catch. Then, sit back and wait for about 10 minutes for the flames to die down and your firewood to turn into white-hot coals. Use your camping shovel or tools (or find a stick) and build your new coals higher in the back and lower in the front so you have an equivalent of high, medium, and low heat settings, or just level them across for even heating throughout.
Now that you’ve got your campfire coals just right, it’s time to start cooking. You can’t go wrong or hungry with a classic hobo dinner. Wrap up a hamburger patty with some carrot sticks, sliced potato, and a few chunks of onion (or red pepper or whatever else you’ve got) into a double layer of heavy-duty foil (or a heavy-duty foil bag), slap on a slab of butter or drizzle with a little olive oil, then place the whole shebang directly on the hot campfire coals. Cook it for 15-20 minutes, then pull it out with some tongs or a couple of long sticks and voila! Dinner is served.
Once you’ve mastered the classic version, try your own variations. Switch in some pre-cooked rice instead of potato and some chicken instead of hamburger–all seasoned to your liking–and you’ve got hobo’s paella. And when morning comes around, do it all over again with a Lumberjack Breakfast. Crack a couple of eggs over some sausage, veggies, and cheese in a tin foil packet and put it on the coals for another 15-20 minutes. And the best part? All you have to do for clean-up is throw away your used tinfoil when you next encounter a garbage can.