Camping & Trail Food 101

grilling camp food
Pork chops loaded up on the grill for a group retreat

Are you into gourmet camping food? Do you love spending lots of time prepping, cooking and cleaning up while you’re out enjoying the outdoors?

Me neither.

Yes, we want to eat. Yes, we want our camping and trail food to be reasonably healthy. But when I’m out and about I want easy prep and easy cleanup. If I want to spend time “in the kitchen” putting out a gourmet spread, there are much better places to do it than the wilderness. At least that’s my philosophy.

The kind of food that’s best for outdoor activities really depends on a bunch of variables like…

How long? Day trip, weekend, week or more?

Can I just throw some protein bars in a backpack, grab a water bottle and call it good? Or are we packing meals for eight people for a week? Will we have access to a grocery store while we’re there to stock up?

Who’s going?

I planned menus and packed differently when our kids were along, especially if my husband wasn’t. I had to keep in mind what they’d eat and how much help they’d be. Of course that was more of an issue when they were younger and much less so when they were old enough to help with the prep, cooking and cleanup when asked.

baking camp brownies over wood fire
Baking brownies over a wood fire!

Does anyone have dietary restrictions?

If people in your group have food allergies or other types of dietary restrictions, that’s something you need to plan around. Is anyone gluten-free? Allergic to nuts? Dairy-free?

Some women have self-imposed diet restrictions (like only eating organic) as opposed to medical diet restrictions (like a diabetic). Either way, it may be easiest to have that person provide their own meals and snacks. Something to think about.

Are we keeping it in the car or carrying it with us?

If we’re at the campground keeping our food in boxes in the car, it matters less how much we have than if we’re carrying it on our backs up and down steep mountain trails for six hours.

Is weight and bulk an issue? How about packaging?

A 5-pound bag of potatoes is no big deal if it’s in the car for a week. Not so if it’s in the food pack we have to carry over eight portages for the next five days. There are places like the Boundary Waters and areas populated with bears that have pretty strict rules about what can be packed in and how it can be stored.

Will we have refrigeration?

Camper fridge? Cooler with ice? Putting it in a ziplock bag and sinking it in the nearby cold-water lake or river? Or do we need food that doesn’t require refrigeration at all?

Are there hunting and gathering options while we’re out?

While I don’t advise planning on natural sources of food for survival, if we have a great day fishing do we have stuff along to for a fish fry? Are we going during berry season? Do we want to add in wild edibles?

cooking blueberry pancakes over the campfire
This Boundary Waters campsite was surrounded by wild blueberries—yum!

How much of a hassle is cleanup? Or…do we want any cleanup?

Finger food or dishes? Do we need biodegradable soap? Did we remember the washrags and towels for cleaning? How about a container for the soapy water?

What kind of cooking options will we have?

Cook stove? Grill? Roasting over the fire? Is the cooking source stationary or will we have to carry it with us?

Is water available?

For drinking, cooking and cleanup. Is it from a campground pump or from the nearest river or lake? Do we have a water filter or purifier, or will we have to boil it? Or do we need to pack it in with us?

Are there bears in the neighborhood?

This is top-of-mind for me from our times camping in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, and in northern Minnesota regularly.

“Be Bear Aware” signs and flyers are all over the place in grizzly territory—as it should be, both for the protection of us people and the bears. How we cook, store our food and clean up after meals in bear country takes on a whole new level of awareness.

basics of camp & trail food

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