Spend any time in the backcountry or even the campground at your local state park and you’ll quickly realize the importance of a good meal in the outdoors. Not only do you need the calories for hiking, but a good meal can also help soothe the pain of the long day and turn that rained-out trip into an at-least-we-ate-well trip.
Bringing the kitchen to the outdoors isn’t always as simple as it sounds. I’ve been a professional chef and have also guided quite a few groups through the wilderness, and in that time I discovered what every professional guide knows: Food makes or breaks the trip. Here, I’ve put together a mix of ideas, from the gear you need to meal planning advice. There’s something here for everyone, whether you’re new to camping or a seasoned tent slinger. Be sure to check out our outdoor guides for more tips, including the Best Camping Gear and Best Tents.
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The Basics: A Good Stove
For car camping, I recommend a two-burner stove. The size of the stove really depends on the size of your group. For a group of five or less the best choice is this Coleman Classic 2-burner propane camp stove. It strikes a good balance between cost, cooking power, and size. If you’re heading out with a bigger group you’ll either want to use a couple of stoves or go with something like the Camp Chef Pro 60X Deluxe ($320). If neither feels right to you, our Best Camp Stoves guide includes more recommendations.
Finding a good backpacking stove is trickier, because weight matters much more. In fact, ultralight hikers will argue that you don’t even need a stove, just bring ready-to-eat food. But for the rest of us, a good, hot meal can really mark the difference between survival and actual fun. I’ve used and enjoyed the Primus Firestick ($90), which is perfect for two-person meals.
If you’re heading out solo, the Jetboil MiniMo ($155) is a perennial favorite. If your group is larger, my suggestion is to break food up into pairs, one stove for every two people. It’s certainly possible to cook for more on a single backpacking stove, but I find it’s more trouble than just bringing an extra, lightweight stove.
A Good Cooler
The best cooler is the Yeti Tundra series. I wish the most expensive option wasn’t the best, but it is, and impressively so. I’ve been testing a Yeti Tundra 45 for a couple of months and regularly get a solid week of cooling out of a single block of ice. Even bags of cube ice usually lasts three to four days in temps of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it gets hotter than that, performance drops (humidity will also make it melt faster), but it’s still better than anything you’ll get from other coolers. Yetis aren’t cheap, but they’re nearly indestructible and outperform everything else we’ve tested.
If you don’t camp enough to justify the cost of a Yeti, I suggest going with whatever is available at your local store. Most other coolers are about equal when it comes to performance. Be sure to get something with plenty of room for your food and ice. Most cooler makers suggest a 2-to-1 ratio of ice to goods, but I’ll confess I seldom manage that with a family of five camping for a week. In my testing, a 1-to-1 ratio is more realistic and still seems to keep my food plenty cold.
No matter which cooler you get, store it properly. If you’re in bear country, that usually means in a provided metal storage box. No matter where you are, keep your cooler out of the direct sun when possible, and make sure the lid stays tightly sealed. Open your food cooler as little as possible so that it retains the cold air inside it. One way to minimize airflow and make that ice last longer is to bring a separate cooler for drinks so you aren’t constantly opening and closing your main cooler just to get another beverage. I also suggest making your own block ice if you have the freezer space.
A Camp Table
If you’re headed to a campground, you’ll probably have access to a picnic table, which you can use to cook on, but that takes up eating space. If you’ve got a bigger group or won’t have access to a picnic table, a good camp table is indispensable. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, I have not used a camp table I truly love that’s still available for purchase. The best thing I have used lately is this table from Alps Mountaineering, which is reasonably stable and stows up nice and small, though it feels rather cheaply made.
Another option is the more affordable plastic folding table you’ll find at most big box stores like Walmart. I’ve used this 4-foot Mainstays model ($40) while camping, and it did the job, though it warped over time; metal stoves will also slide around on it, so be careful when cooking.
You’ve got your food safely stowed on plenty of ice, your stove is set up on a table, and now it’s time for the actual cooking. What do you cook with? To start, just bring some pans and cooking tools from home. I happen to cook almost entirely on cast iron, which is well suited to car camping, because it’s very durable and retains heat well. But it’s very heavy.
If you don’t want to bring your nice pans from home, another option is to head over to your local thrift store and grab a few cheap skillets you don’t mind banging around in camp. But if you’re looking to take your camp cooking to the next level, consider a dutch oven. Dutch oven cooking takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, there’s very little you can’t do with one of these. I own and recommend the Lodge 6-quart model with a flat lid. The lid can double as a griddle.
Cooking in the campground or the backcountry can be as simple or as fancy as you like. Whether you’re into hot dogs on skewers or alder-wood-smoked trout with radishes and herb aioli, there are a few things to keep in mind when planning your camping meals.