Maybe it's just our afternoon snack attack talking, but we think getting your camp cooking strategy ironed out straighter than a well-crimped jaffle is one of the most important steps in planning any camping trip. From fire policies at campgrounds and which cooking equipment to buy, to researching camping recipes and plotting out meal plans, there’s a fair bit to think about when it comes to dining in the great outdoors. And while we do think that learning as you go is all part of the adventure, there's also a lot to be said for sauntering into camp with the upper hand. Holding beer, preferably.
That’s why we’ve gone back to base camp to serve up ten tasty nuggets of wisdom that we hope – nay, that we know – will mean the difference between a multi-course feast and cold beans for dinner.
Always use existing fire rings to prevent further fire scars on the ground. Image credit: Louise Chellingworth
1. Campfire or portable stove?
Before anything else, you’ve got to know what your ‘kitchen’ is going to look like. Not all campgrounds and caravan parks allow open fires, so you wouldn’t want to rely on one for cooking purposes without checking first. Remember, campfire policies are usually seasonal so going off past experiences won’t always work in your favour. A stove or portable barbecue is likely to be your first preference anyway – they’re cleaner, safer, faster and give you greatest control over the cooking process.
With a camping stove you can replicate a lot of dishes you’d make at home, but if you want a more rustic meal infused with smokey flavours and blistered to perfection, cooking over a campfire is the way to go. Depending on whether you need to purchase firewood, it’s potentially the more economical option too.
2. Be a gear nerd
For the most part, what you cook at camp (and how well it turns out!) is determined by the cooking equipment you have. So if you’ve got cravings for gourmet toasties or a campfire roast, you’re gonna need the right tools for the job. Old kitchen pans will be fine on your portable gas stove but should not be placed straight on hot coals. We’d recommend investing in a cast iron skillet as an all-rounder that can withstand any heat source.
If you’re hiking to the campsite, cross cast iron off your packing list and get yourself a lightweight hiking stove. We’re pretty fond of integrated systems, as explained in our Jetboil MiniMo review, or you can go have a geeze at the full range of camping stoves for sale on Outdoria.
Don’t know your dutch ovens from your griddle pans? Check out our guide to outdoor cooking equipment for beginners.
Read More: Australia: a camper's wonderland
3. Make a game plan
Mealtimes at the campsite are no different to mealtimes at home. Fail to plan and you’ll end up eating tinned spaghetti in either scenario! Now, “meal planning” isn’t a term we particularly like but it’s gotta be said: put the legwork in ahead of time and you’ll be able to relax when it counts most. Not only are you doing your future self a favour, knowing what, for whom and when you’ll be cooking will stop you from bringing excess food (which may then go to waste) or worse, not enough.
The smartest meal plans make the most of minimal ingredients. Versatile seasonings, spice mixes and multi-purpose condiments will put the oomph in your dishes while keeping grocery lists short.
Make sure you prepare your meals in order of how perishable the ingredients are, from most to least. Fresh veg, dairy and proteins go down the gob first, while pantry-based recipes and hard root veg (think potatoes and carrots) can be counted on long after the ice packs melt.
4. Get inspired
Inspiration for easy family campfire meals doesn’t come out of thin air. Expect to bookmark a bunch of camping recipes if your goal is to eat like a king and impress the fam. From campfire flatbreads and beer damper, to three-course feasts and omelettes cooked in bags, we’ve got an ever-growing collection of campfire recipes to get your tastebuds watering.
If you’re cooking-averse, try our I-can’t-cook campfire quesadillas. Ramen noodle soup with Japanese mushrooms gives 2 minute noodles a gourmet spin, while spicy jerk chicken and couscous proves you really can’t look past a make-ahead spice blend.
Dicing up ingredients at home saves time and sanity once you're at camp.
5. Cut back prep work
After the recipe research and meal planning is done, the ultra-organised camper would also do some form of food prep before they leave home. You can slice up mushrooms and onions, marinade meat, wash fruit and veg, skewer kebabs and and mix sauces and seasonings… whatever you can do to ensure your main elements are in a throw-together state once you’re at camp, do it! Now is the time to cut as many corners as you can. Switching out fresh ingredients for powdered, jarred and tinned alternatives is the best thing you can do to save time, work and sanity at camp.
6. For the love of foraging
Before you head off, try to find out what’s in Mother Nature’s pantry. Sourcing ingredients from the environment around you is a fun way to spend the day and tightens your connection to the outdoors. Obviously, you need to know what to look for and how to do ID checks. Whether you’re foraging for edible mushrooms or bush millet or dandelion tea, research, knowledge and caution will keep the belly aches (or worse, trip to the ER) at bay. When in doubt, go without! You should also confirm foraging (or fishing or hunting etc.) is allowed in the area you're camping to avoid angry looks (at best) or a nasty fine (at worst).
Image credit: Louise Chellingworth
7. Command the coals
If you’re gonna warm yourself around the fire you might as well cook with it and save yourself some gas. Besides, what could be more authentic than using cooking methods that are thousands of years old?
That said, it’s worth noting that campfire cooking is an art. The flames are great for boiling water and using a grill, while the coals are more suited to slow roasting, baking and stewing, so you’ll want to feed the flames on one side while also having an area designated purely to cooking with coals.
Mastering cooking over a campfire is also about regularly repositioning the pot, and less about trying to tame the flames. It’s a lot easier to move a pan around than it is to regulate a campfire’s temperature – just make sure you’ve got the kit to enable this. A campfire grill will save you a fair bit of grief, as will long-handled tongs, lid lifters, a cook stand and maybe even some heat-resistant gloves.
8. Always take foil
If you’re going to get beamed up, let’s be logical about it – is it going to happen while you’re in a brick fortress, or pottering about outdoors? So, intercepting Martian intel is reason one to always have aluminium foil while camping. Another reason is to try your hand at campfire meals in foil. Think jacket potatoes, roasted corn cobs, baked apples or parcels of freshly caught fish. Load the foil parcel with garlic, herbs, citrus and butter to turn simple ingredients into a flavour fest.
9. Get a dutch oven or camp oven
Oh the possibilities camp ovens open up! Casseroles and soups are just the beginning. Use yours to make gooey desserts, syrupy cobblers and pies, cheesy pull-apart loaves, potato bakes and more.
There is a bit of an art to cooking with a camp oven, and it starts with the fire. Let it establish for a good hour or so before corralling the coals. A camp oven with legs is best for the outdoors as it keeps the pot base up off the heat, while one with a lip will let you pile coals onto the lid to create an ‘oven’ – great for baking. A foil pastry tin inside the pot makes retrieval easy and minimises clean up.
10. Many hands make light work
When it’s all said and done, being a slave to catering isn’t our idea of a good time and we doubt it’s yours either. So rally the gang and divvy up the jobs. Chances are kids will be too hopped up on the new environment to moan and groan as they would at home. If you’re camping with friends and family, assign a night each where one person/couple/family cooks for everyone. That way, everyone gets a night off.