I am by no means the most experienced backpacker you’ve ever met, but I’ve built my fair share of campfires. Since my very first camping trip with my family when I ate canned tamales (yes, they exist, and I definitely do not recommend them), I’ve learned a little bit more about the intricacies of packing and preparing food while camping. And thank goodness for that, because I’m camping in Big Bend for a few days this week, and I now feel pretty confident that I won’t starve out there.
When you’re packing food for a camping trip, the first thing you need to know is whether you’re car camping (pulling right up to the campsite and setting up a tent) or backpacking (hiking all your gear and food in from the car to a potentially undeveloped campsite). You need to know this because it will determine how much weight in food you can afford to bring—if you’re car camping you can bring as much food as you want, especially more perishable food (which you’ll keep in a cooler, naturally). If you’re backpacking it means that all your food is going to be on your back on your way to setting up camp, and every day after, if you plan on moving the campsite each day. If that’s the case, keeping it light and mostly non-perishable is the name of the game.
The next thing you need to know is that you should always bring at least one extra day’s worth of food on every camping trip. You never know what’s gonna happen out there in the wilderness, and you certainly won’t regret the extra ounces of weight if you end up needing it. Besides, you may find that the extra portions come in handy after a particularly strenuous day of hiking.
An additional guideline: Don’t skimp on the calories in your camp food pantry. You exert so much energy hiking, being in the sun, setting up and tearing down camp and all the other activities inherent to being in the wilderness that you will likely be hungry all of the time—at least, all the times that you’re not too tired to be hungry. Save the diet for your city life, friend.
Whether you’re car camping or backpacking, there’s three different kinds of food you should bring on your trip: food for cooking over a campfire, food for cooking on a camp stove and food that’s ready-to-eat. You probably won’t want to build a campfire for every meal you eat (it’s time-consuming and can be really hot in the middle of the day), so I recommend planning on most of your lunches, breakfasts and snacks being either camp stove or ready-to-eat situations. And while we’re talking about planning—yeah, you should absolutely be writing out a plan for each meal of your trip before you leave. It’ll ensure you don’t starve and it saves you from having to think about it later.
For eating on the trail, it’s good to bring foods that are nutrient-dense and easily packable like granola, trail mix, meal replacement bars, packets of peanut or almond butter, jerky or some of those weird energy gel chews that actual athletes eat. I really like bringing packets of Moon Cheese ($6 at REI), because they’re full of protein and salt, two things I always crave after I’ve been sweating out in the woods for a while. Rice cakes are another good snack since they’re light and also a perfect vehicle for nut butter or hummus or whatever other thing you normally put on a rice cake.
Ideally camp stove meals mostly involve boiling some water and then adding that boiling water to something. The most obvious choice is pre-packaged backpacker meals, like the kind made by Backpacker’s Pantry. You add your boiling water to a resealable envelope of, say, chicken pad Thai or vegetable curry, wait a few minutes, and have a whole satisfying meal. These cost anywhere from $5 to $15, and are generally pretty tasty. They’re a little bulky, so I typically only bring one or two on each camping trip, and save it for the night that I’m craving something resembling a real hot meal.
Other kinds of camp stove meals that I love usually involve visiting the bulk aisle at either a Whole Foods or a La Montañita Co-op. Here you’ll find plenty of just-add-water things like instant oatmeal (and other cereals), dehydrated soup mixes and dry hummus powder. To complement all these things, I bring little containers of salt, olive oil and hot sauce: seasonings guaranteed to make any otherwise plain meal palatable. Nutritional yeast is another good one, as it’s super flavorful and packs a big nutritional punch of protein and B vitamins. One easy camp stove meal is mixing some instant mashed potatoes with nutritional yeast and some dehydrated veggies. Also, nobody’s going to judge you for eating some instant ramen out in the woods. In fact, the “ramen bomb” is a beloved thru hiker recipe that sounds a little nauseating upon first encounter, but which tastes really, really good on the trail. Mix together some instant mashed potatoes, a single-serving packet of Spam or tuna, then cook a package of instant ramen and throw all of it (including the water you cooked the ramen in) together in a freezer Ziploc bag. Trust me, after a few days of granola this thing will taste like a five-star meal.
If you’re car camping, you can pack more cooking equipment than you can on a backpacking trip, since you can stash it all in your car at the end of the day. Bring your percolator, your grandmother’s old cast iron skillet, a knife, a cutting board and plenty of tinfoil. Tinfoil is perhaps the best tool in your campfire cooking arsenal—you can wrap potatoes and other raw veggies in it then throw them into the coals for 20 minutes or so for an easy “one-pot” meal. You can keep leftovers in it. You can make an impromptu lid for a pot when you realize that you left that lid at home. There are plenty of uses for this stuff, suffice to say. Bring it.
There are tons of text and video recipes online for tried-and-true backpacker meals that sound gross until you’re hungry enough to eat anything. Don’t pass them up—you’ll be surprised what you start craving after summiting a peak or two. Of course, you could also say “screw the weight” and go the Bon Appétit route by making a huge multi-zone campfire to cook steaks on with your cast iron griddle. It’s certainly a good way to make yourself everybody’s favorite camping buddy.