Camping & Trail Food 101

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.

"Camp & Trail Food" with image of bacon cooking over a campfire

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! You might be different, and that’s just fine.)

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

How Long will We be Out?

Is it a day trip, a weekend, a 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? Or do we have to bring everything with us for the whole trip?

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.

pan of brownies baking over a wood fire
Baking brownies over a wood fire

Any 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 people have self-imposed diet restrictions (like only eating organic) as opposed to medical diet restrictions (like a diabetic).

Either way, it’s often easiest to have that person provide their own meals and snacks.

Do We have to Carry It?

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 in a backpack up and down steep mountain trails for six hours.

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.

blueberry pancakes on the camper stove
Preparing meals at a camper in a campground means lots of conveniences we don’t get in the backcountry

What about Packaging?

Areas populated with bears usually have pretty strict rules about what can be packed in and how it can be stored. This is especially true in state and national parks.

Some backcountry wilderness areas have restrictions for bringing in glass or metal containers. Be sure you know how you need to back your food before you head out.

Will We have Refrigeration?

Is there access to a camper fridge? Do we need a cooler with ice? Will we put it in a Ziplock bag and sink it in the nearby cold-water lake or river?

Or do we need food that doesn’t require refrigeration at all?

Are there Gathering Options?

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 for a fish fry?

woman cooking blueberry pancakes over a campfire
This Boundary Waters campsite was surrounded by wild blueberries—yum. And we chose to haul in our cast iron skillet even though we had to carry it everywhere.

Are we going during berry season? Can we add fresh berries to pancakes or oatmeal? Do we want to add any wild edibles?

How about Cleanup?

Do you want minimal and easy cleanup? Or is a 4-course camp meal more of a priority?

Will you bring finger food or use dishes? Do we need biodegradable soap? Did we remember the washrags and towels for cleaning? How about a container for the soapy water?

What will We Cook With?

Is there a camper with a 2-4 burner cook stove? A grill? Or is it a backcountry trip with a backpacking single-burner stove? Or do we plan to cook over a fire?

If we plan to cook over a fire, do we know we’ll have an ample supply of firewood?

Is the cooking source stationary or will we have to carry it with us? If there are 8 of us, is our cooking source large enough to accommodate that many people?

Is Water Available?

We’ll need water for drinking, cooking and cleanup. Will we get it from a campground pump or from the nearest river or lake?

Do we need a water filter or purifier, or will we have to boil it? Or do we need to pack water with us?

Sometimes just-add-boiling-water backpacking meals are the way to go for ease and low weight

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.

Enjoy the Community Aspect

If you want to eat well on outdoor excursions (and especially if you want to eat healthy) the food/meals take quite a lot of planning.

And it takes quite a lot of work when we don’t have hot running water, a countertop for chopping, an oven, and other conveniences we’re used to at home.

But camp and trail food can be—and often are—a memorable part of our outdoor experiences. Planning for, preparing and cleaning up after meals is a great way to get the whole group or whole family involved.

To have fun together, to work together and have that time rubbing shoulders together.

The time around snacks and meals in the outdoors is ideal time to capitalize on the lack of distractions so normal in our busy lives.

We can enjoy quality time with the people we’re with at that moment or for that weekend, or during that week-long trip.

chicken drummies and a pot of rice cooking over a fire
Cooking over a fire often takes way more time than we think! But the results are delicious.

Here’s more…

Sharon Brodin