Whether you're roughing it for a week in Yosemite Valley or in the Great Smokey Mountains, hiking in Zion National Park or climbing at Joshua Tree, car camping allows for you to eat, sleep, and live like a king or queen. Because you have minimal weight restraints and are not typically carrying your food, sleeping arrangements, or any other necessary gear for long distances, car camping allows you to pack whatever is wanted or needed in an effort to remain as comfortable as possible.
Being able to generously pack your supplies definitely has its pros; not only are you able to rest your tired bod on something camping mattress sent from the heavens, but you're able to bring enough cooking gadgets to make cooking at your site similar to that of cooking in your very own kitchen. Or, if you're a light packer, regardless of weight constraints (or the lack there of), we have something for you! A kid's section? Check. A gourmet cooking section? Check. Are you a vegetarian? Check.
We think it's important to keep in mind that car camping doesn't mean that you have to sacrifice quality or taste for convenience (or spend the entire night cooking); however, we know that spending time with your friends and/or family is important and we've got you covered! With that being said, many first time and occasional campers may be surprised at how much time, equipment, and money can be spent on tent-side food. See "Is Camping Food Worth It?" at the bottom of this article.
Cooking While Camping
Here at OutdoorGearLab, we think that cooking at your campsite can be quick, easy, and painless - not to mention delicious. Recipes bring an endless variety of possibilities, dependent upon what your palate is craving that day. Spices and herbs can intensify a meal and can easily be packed the night before; check out the The Ultimate Camp Kitchen for a ready-made check list to ensure that you don't leave anything noteworthy behind!
Pro Tip: if you have a smartphone, use the screenshot feature so that you're able to access your recipe sans internet.
Top 10 Breakfast Meals
Who doesn't enjoy waking up and making the first meal of the day? Below you'll find a mix of our Top 10 breakfast ideas, ranging from pre-made to requiring a bit more effort.
- Biscuits and Gravy: you can pick up a can of pre-made biscuits from a nearby store or you can make homemade biscuits before (or during) your trip - your call. Check out a recipe for Biscuits and Sausage Gravy, as well as Biscuits and Vegetarian Sausage Gravy.
- Fresh Fruit, Granola, and Milk or Yogurt: this one is self-explanatory and requires minimal effort. You can also pack a box of cereal for the little ones.
- Omelets in a Bag and Toast: bring along a loaf of bread and some fresh jam for this delightful breakfast! If you like to plan ahead, use a gallon size ziplock bag and pour in two eggs or so for each person per day (adjust accordingly). Add in any meats, tofu, or veggies! When you're ready to fire up the stove in the morning, boil a suitable size pot of water, drop the bag in, and boil for 12-13 minutes, or you can cook on your backcountry stove. While your eggs are cooking, toast your bread and slather on any butter or jam! You can also make eggs in a paper bag! Read more here.
- Pre-made Breakfast Sandwiches: if you're psyched on saving time while in the outdoors, then this one is for you! You can easily make these sandwiches from the comfort of your kitchen the night before you take off and stash them in your cooler. Ideas include: sausage, bacon, or ham alongside egg and cheese, or for the vegetarians, veggies and cheese. If you prefer to make biscuits from scratch, you can either do so from home or over your compact stove. Wrap these babies up in aluminum foil and freeze until needed.
- Pancakes: an obvious breakfast choice, but also one of the most delicious! One of our favorite mixes is the Sprouted Grain, by Arrowhead Mills. Add a few eggs, oil, milk, and honey and you're in for a real treat. You can also pick up a package of pancake mix that only requires adding water!
- Oatmeal or Breakfast Grains: another easy choice for a great breakfast! Individual packets of oatmeal are easy to bring along and almonds or walnuts pack quite the punch to get you going through a long day! Fresh fruit on the side or in the bowl will send you on your way.
- Tofu or Egg Veggie Scramble: Tofu or eggs can be used in this breakfast dish and it's one that can easily be cooked over your outdoor stove. Bring along your favorite ingredients for this delicious scramble: sweet potatoes, potatoes, butternut squash, onions, spinach, red peppers, cilantro, arugula, tomatillos, tomatoes, and the list goes on! Add in the tofu or eggs during the last 10 minutes of cook time. To save time, chop veggies at home!
- Blueberry Muffins: over the fire? Yes, please! Read more about how to make muffins (use any flavor that you wish - boxed mix or homemade) that take less than 20 minutes from the bowl to your mouth.
- Breakfast Burritos: a great choice, no matter the time of day! Burritos can be pre-made at home and frozen prior to use or you can fire up the compact stove, sauté your favorite fillings, and wrap up the goodness. If you're pre-making the burritos, wrapping them in aluminum foil will allow you to drop the burrito into the fire for an easy heating option.
- Fireside Cinnamon Rolls: necessary? Yes, we would say so. Check out the tutorial by Anne here.
- Need something even easier and quicker? Check out the Mountain House Breakfast Bucket; this bucket includes four scrambled eggs with ham, four scrambled eggs with bacon, four granola with milk and blueberries, and four breakfast skillets. Mountain House also guarantees freshness for 12+ years.
Top 10 Lunch Meals
Lunch is that time of the day when breakfast is starting to wear off and you're feeling hungry again. Can you make it until dinner? Will a bar suffice or do you need something more? Check out 10 of our favorite lunch ideas.
- Slap together a classic peanut butter and jam sandwich - you can't go wrong, can you? Or, use my personal favorite, coconut butter, and smear it between two pieces of bread. Jam too, of course! Top your sandwich off with some lemonade and a bag of of the most delicious chips you can imagine! A side of fruit or veggie sticks can also be refreshing!
- Mediterranean style? How about a tasty cucumber, tomato, feta, olive, and hummus sandwich? Throw in some chips and a bar of dark chocolate and you're set. Wanna take it to the next level? Buy a can of dolmas and serve with a side of goat cheese and crackers.
- Quesadillas: a scrumptious lunch whether you're roughing it or at home! This lunch is super easy to make: consider chopping the veggies at home, place in tupperware or ziplock bags, shred the cheese beforehand, and make or buy any guacamole or salsa. Yum! Step it up to gourmet status by adding sundried tomatoes, corn, roasted red peppers, and black pepper goat cheese.
- Fireside Toastie or Grilled Cheese: this delight can take off in so many different directions; use whichever veggies, meat or meat substitutes, and cheeses that sound tasty to you. One option is to make your typical grilled cheese over your transportable stove. The second option is to buy a loaf of french bread, and cut the bread into slices (be sure not to cut all the way through - you should cut it to about an 1/4 inch from the bottom of the loaf). Spread butter and your favorite mustard on all of the slices and then decorate according to your tastes (slip your toppings into the slots of bread). Wrap the sandwich in foil and cook in the fire or on the grill (turning frequently) for 15-20 minutes. Another excellent option is to look into buying a pie iron.. This gadget will allow you to make grilled cheese, tacos, waffles, or paninis.
- Cold Noodle Salad: this easy take on Asian will leave you salivating! If you're spending the day around your tent or happen to be there for a quick lunch, be sure to try this one out! Cook your udon or soba noodles according to the directions on the package (toss with sesame oil after finished cooking) and whip up the dressing; we like to use three tablespoons of tahini, one tablespoon of soy sauce, two tablespoons of rice wine vinegar, two tablespoons of fresh ginger, a tablespoon of sesame oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Throw in a 1/4 cup of vegetable broth. Toss together the noodles, one diced red pepper, one cucumber, one tomato, a cup of cilantro, a 1/4 cup of chives or scallions, and one tablespoon of sesame seeds. A refreshing pick-me-up during the heat of the summer!
If you want to make this recipe ahead of time, the noodles and dressing will stay fresh for 2-3 days. Add in a splash of sesame oil to keep the salad from drying out.
- Couscous with Clementines, Chickpeas, Olives, and Dates: sound good? That's because it is! Couscous is delicious for lunch or breakfast and you can adapt this recipe according to your tastes. Want to omit or add something? Why not try it out? A few other options include sautéed butternut squash, herbed goat cheese, and cranberries. Finish reading the recipe here.
- Nachos: try this delicious lunch idea if you're short on time! A personal favorite is: sautéed butternut squash or sweet potato, red pepper, tomatillos, zucchini or yellow crookneck squash, and black or pinto beans. Add on raw onions, your favorite salsa and shredded cheese, and homemade guac. Crumble up tortilla chips and snack on that.
- Hot Dogs: it doesn't get much easier than this! Fire up the grill, stove, or fire and roast up the dogs. Vegetarian? Most stores have a vegetarian hot dog version available (it's quite tasty, might I add). Add in a side of baked beans and chips and don't forget the ketchup and mustard!
- Sweet Potato and Black Bean Tacos: need we say more? This recipe is easily adaptable, much like the nachos. Warm up a tortilla, slather it with refried black beans, and sauté your favorite vegetables and meat. Top with cilantro, parsley, lettuce, salsa, and goat cheese - and say mmmmm.
- Leftovers from the night before: it's also easy to use leftovers from dinner the night before; plan ahead while cooking dinner as to whether or not you'd like to eat leftovers for lunch and prepare accordingly. If you're around the site, cook up whatever you feel like. Don't forget to bring along the reusable Snack Time Baggies.
Top 10 Dinner Meals
Dinner is one of our favorite meals to make while in the outdoors! It's a great way to spend time with family and friends and we find that it's often a form of meditation after a long day. Of course, there are also the long days where you'll want to make the easiest thing possible, just so you can hop into your cozy sleeping bag, read, plan for the next day, and call it a day.
- Want the easiest dinnertime solution that will require the most minimal effort? Dehydrate your own meals beforehand or check out the many options available: for the meat eaters out there, you can buy the classic bucket, which includes two beef stroganoff, two chicken teriyaki, two beef stew, two lasagna with meat, two noodles and chicken, and two granola with blueberries. Vegetarian? Check out a few favorites: the Pasta Primavera, Vegetarian Lasagna, and a Vegetarian Soup Medley. If you're interested in backpacking food, check out the The Best Backpacking Food.
- Have you ever walked through your grocery store aisle and passed by something called Tasty Bites? If you're into Indian food, these are easy and delicious - buy the kind you're psyched on and either pop them in a pot of boiling water or pour into a pan and warm up to your liking. A few of our favorites are Peas and Paneer Cheese, Channa Dal with Zucchini, and Madras Lentils. You can even buy rice. The Teriyaki Noodle Bowl is also a quick and easy meal idea!
- Pasta and sauce with sautéed veggies and/or meat is delicious after a long day of hiking, biking, or climbing. Sprinkle on some fresh oregano, basil, or parsley and top with parmesan cheese!
- Paella: have you ever been to Spain? Why not bring the taste to your wilderness experience? This is a ridiculously simple recipe.
- Fire-roasted Veg or Meat: yet another meal that's easy to prepare at home! Chop your veggies ahead of time: think sweet or regular potatoes, onions, peppers, cauliflower, zucchini, squash, cabbage, carrots, celery, garlic, and tofu, fish, or meat of your choice. Dont forget your salt, pepper, and any tasty fresh herbs. Wrap in aluminum foil and freeze ahead of time or pop in your cooler on your way out the door. To cook, place on your grill or put in the fire, turning every so often.
- Campfire Pizza Log: intrigued? You should be. If you haven't quite mastered the dutch oven, this one is for you. It's simple to cook (just heat it up in your fire) and you can make it at home before you even leave for your outdoor destination! Use your own dough or use a store bought brand; add a 1/2 cup of tomato sauce, eight ounces of mozzarella, and any toppings that you'd like to bite into while sitting beside the fire. Starting rolling the dough around the toppings and pinch the ends closed. Sprinkle on any fresh herbs, wrap in foil, and freeze. Ready to cook it? Fire up the grill or get the fire and coals nice and hot - turn frequently for 25-30 minutes. EAT!
- Plan ahead and make a delicious chili or soup in your slow cooker. Package it in a ziplock and either freeze or pop in your cooler when heading out the door. Bake some cornbread either at your house or in the dutch oven and soak up the deliciousness. Check out a favorite cornbread recipe here.
- Foil-Wrapped Pasta with Goat Cheese and Tomatoes: this delicious dish can be made according to the recipe or you can do without the foil and make in your skillet (boil the pasta - while your pasta is boiling, sauté olive oil, onion, garlic, and tomatoes and season with salt and pepper; add in the pasta to the skillet, and top with fresh basil).
- Polenta Rounds with Caramelized Onions and Goat Cheese: yum! You can buy a log of polenta from most grocery stores, as well as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's; one log will feed about two people. You'll want to slice the log into thin rounds and cook on medium heat (with either olive or coconut oil). Once the side begins to slightly harden, you'll want to flip it and repeat. While the polenta is cooking, start to caramelize your onions. Add in a few tablespoons of oil, three tablespoons of sugar, and two onions; cook on high low heat, stirring frequently until the onions have hardened (about 12-15 minutes). Bring along your favorite goat cheese; once the rounds and onions have finished cooking, assemble: polenta round on the bottom, followed by caramelized onions, and topped with goat cheese.
- How does Foil-Baked Lemon-Garlic Fish, with Asparagus and Couscous sound? Check out the recipe here. Instead of preheating the oven, start a fire and toss it in, turning every few minutes until cooked to your liking. Make a side of couscous and voila, gourmet food in the outdoors!
Top 10 Fun Outdoor Meals for Kids
- Walking Tacos: this one is perfect for kids - who doesn't want to eat dinner out of a chip bag? Pre-chop veggies at home and bring along everything that your child would want on a taco. For those on the health conscious side of things, consider buying a healthier brand of chips. Check out the recipe here.
- Fireside Mac and Cheese: more fun than buying your typical box of macaroni and cheese! Roast over the open fire! Or, go gourmet and check out the dutch oven version below.
- Hot Dogs: life doesn't get any easier than roasting hot dogs - the original camping food! Roast these dogs over an open fire, complete with a stick picked out by your child (tip: save the stick for marshmallow roasting later).
- Basic Burritos: open a can of refried black beans (or substitute for your favorite kinds of beans). Using a butter knife, slather the beans on the tortilla - add in cheese and any other toppings that your child eats. Heat the burrito in foil over the fire (or on the grate) for about 10 minutes, turning frequently to prevent from burning.
- Grilled Cheese: this one is self-explanatory, but oh what a classic! Butter two slices of bread and add in your favorite cheese; wrap in foil, and turn frequently in the fire, on the grill, or in in the skillet (minus the foil for the grill or skillet versions). Remember the pie iron? Assemble your grilled cheese inside and cook over the fire!
- Cream Cheese and Veggie Sandwich: this one is for all the picky eaters out there. Slather cream cheese on two slices of bread and add cucumber, tomato, and any other veggies or meats that your kids likes. Check out a few ideas here.
- Tortellini and Pasta Sauce: buy a package of tortellini or ravioli, boil according to the directions on the package, toss with pasta sauce, and top with parmesan cheese. Magic!
- Potato Boats: this easy potato boat recipe will have your kids psyched! You can make it sans meat and add a side of fruits and veggies! Check it out here.
- Pie Iron Pizza: remember the pie iron? Did you know that you can make pie iron pizzas with it?
- Fireside BBQ Chicken and Potatoes: this one is good for the entire family! Cook diced chicken and potatoes in a pan and then douse in BBQ sauce! Pop it in your cooler the day you leave and cook it up for dinner. Wrap it in foil and reheat on the grill or in the fire. Serve with a side of baked beans or corn on the cob cooked in the fire (leave the husks on and roast for 20-25 minutes, turning occasionally).
Top 10 Meals for the Gourmet Chef
This section is for all of you do-it-yourselfers out there! Most of the recipes will need the use of a backcountry stove at the very least, with most needing a Dutch Oven. We recommend the Lodge Dutch Oven - 8 quart, which is a good size for group cooking. Lodge also makes 5qt and 10qt versions. You'll also find that having a pair of Dutch Oven Tongs and a Coal Starter, as well as a Deluxe Lid Lifter can be useful accessories. To find out more about dutch oven cooking, take a peek at 101 Things to Do with a Dutch Oven.
- This is a favorite veggie burger recipe that will continue to be used over, and over, and over, and over again. Check out the Homemade Veggie Burgers with Buffalo Sauce recipe!
- Pizza? At your campsite? Dutch Oven Pizza. Yes!
- Another favorite! Check out the recipe for Black Bean and Butternut Squash Enchiladas here. Instead of preheating your oven, assemble the enchiladas in your dutch oven and cook for an hour, checking every 30 minutes.
- This delicious Mac and Cheese will leave you wanting for more! Are you vegan? Check out the vegan version, complete with caramelized onions.
- Care for a fresh pot of chili while spending a night in the wilderness? We've got you covered! Check out the recipe here or consider buying a Wonderbag, a cool slow cooker that requires absolutely no electricity! You simply boil everything that would go into your soup or chili on your stove for 5-10 minutes, seal in the Wonderbag, and voila! You come back from hiking or climbing 4-12 hours later and your meal is still warm - and ready to be eaten!
- This one is another favorite! It's hard to go wrong with Dutch Oven Lasagna! Pour some pasta sauce in the bottom of the dutch oven, and layer with your favorite favorite vegetables, meat, or veggie "meat" crumble, add ricotta, mozzarella, and noodles, and keep on layering! If you have dairy issues, you can forego the ricotta and mozzarella and add goat cheese throughout! Sprinkle oregano and basil on top!
- How about some authentic Indian food? This recipe for Chana Masala will leave your mouth watering and your stomach wanting more!
- How about some comfort food while in the outdoors? Check out the Chicken Pot Pie - use this recipe, but cook in the dutch oven for about an hour or until the crust has browned. Or, the Sage Tofu Pot Pie - one of my favorite dishes to make to date!
- This Polenta Bake is a new addition to the collection. Sweet potatoes, zucchini, crookneck squash, onions, corn, and red peppers are a delicious combination that are sure to please; add in any other favorites! Instead of preheating your oven, heat your coals and layer the polenta on the bottom of your dutch oven - top with veggies. Cover with marinara and top with cheese. Cook for about an hour, checking in on the goods every 30 minutes.
- BBQ Pulled Pork? Say what? Make this feast in your dutch oven and serve with a side of corn on the cob and coleslaw.
Top 10 Snacks
The snack attack hits you and you need something - fast! Snacks are great to have handy on a trip into nature, especially if you're going with kids. We like to prepare snacks at home before we leave to simplify things.
- Homemade Granola Bars are easy to make at home. Pack in reusable Snack Time Baggies or ziplock bags. You can add in chocolate, carob chips, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, coconut butter, cashews, dried fruit, or anything to your liking.
- You can't go wrong with fresh fruit! Stock up on fresh fruit such as apples, bananas, grapes, pears, and oranges at the grocery store beforehand; the juice from the fresh fruit will taste amazing during and after a long day.
- Fig bars are tasty and cheap! You can also easily buy something much like ClifBar Original or ProBar Meal. If you're an avid outdoor sleeper or backpacker, you may want to consider buying a Dehydrator to make your own jerky, fruit rolls, or dried fruits and veggies. Dried fruits (Trader Joe's has an amazing selection), salami and cheese, fruit leather - whatever your preference, make sure you have a good mix between sweet and salty.
- This recipe for Raspberry Fig Fruit Leather is easy to make at home and the results are so delicious! They make the perfect snack while on the trail or while hanging out at your site.
- These Popcorn Satchels are a hit with the kids AND adults!
- Classic S'mores - you cant go wrong with these! The Ginger Lemon Smores are also out of this world.
- Caramel Apple Dip? Why not? Find the recipe here; pair with apples, pears, and cheddar cheese.
- The Butternut Squash Tahini Spread is easy to make before you leave the house and stores well in the cooler. Pair with your favorite pita bread or crackers.
- These Tempeh Hot Wings are a great mid-day snack.
Top 10 Desserts
- Did you just say Chocolate Eclairs?
- You can cook this Blueberry Cobbler on the grill or in your dutch oven.
- Do apples hold the key to your heart? How does BBQ Apple Crisp sound? If you're staying close by a store, pop in for some ice cream (store the ice cream in your cooler full of ice for 1-2 hours).
- These Apricot Coconut Crumb Bars can be made beforehand - and oh, what a delicious treat they are!
- On the Go Strawberry Cheesecakes are super easy to make while camping!
- Mountain Berry Bread (or banana bread) can be made in your oven at home or in your dutch oven at your site! This recipe. Don't forget the butter!
- Cupcakes in a jar? Are you kidding me? Check out the recipe here.
- Back to the pie iron! You can use it to make Strawberry and Nutella Dessert Pies.
- Grilled Brownie Smores?! Check out the recipe here. Use your dutch oven or cast iron skillet to make these treats!
Are you backpacker? Looking for meal ideas? Check out The Best Backpacking Food.
Get out there and cook!
Armed with this new information, we hope you've been inspired to cook something delicious: something fast and easy, tasty and gourmet, or something that will satisfy your kids! Car camping offers you the rewards of star-gazing, spending time in nature with awesome people, and visiting incredible places - all while being able to bring the amount of comfort you want from home to the outdoors. Roughing it overnight in the outdoors does not mean that you have to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for every meal; what it does mean is that you can commit to a little or to a mega amount of cooking. We recommend bringing any cooking tools (read the Ultimate Camp Kitchen to be sure you don't leave anything behind) that you're psyched on bringing along with you to make your camping and cooking experience a gratifying one. Cook on!
Is Preparing Camping Food Worth It?
If you are spending nights in the outdoors for many weeks, it's likely cost-effective and more fun to assemble a full camp kitchen as we've outlined above. However, if you are going for only a night or two or just value your time highly, you may want to eat out or bring pre-made food and just-add-water food. Below we explore why.There are are a few big potential downsides to camp cooking
- You need to assemble a lot of gear which takes time and space in your car.
- Forgetting a fuel canister, hose or other key component ends your cooking experience.
- Cleaning dishes at a campground can both be difficult and time consuming.
- If you are buying camp kitchen equipment just for a few trips, camping food cooking is probably not cost effective.
- If you are not adept at camp cooking, results of your food will vary.
Alternatives to Preparing Camping Food
- Just eat out every meal.
- Bring just-add-water items for breakfast like coffee, tea, and oatmeal along with bagels and cream cheese. For lunch, bring pre-made sandwiches. For dinner, bring pre-made meals that you can reheat. For example, if you pre-cook chicken or steak, you can then easily make burritos by just reheating everything.
Overall, we generally avoid bringing a full camp kitchen for one or two night camping trips. It's just too much time, money, and effort. Better to spend the limited amount of time on a weekend trip actually hanging out and exploring with friends and family.