The type of meals you can eat on a camping trip depends upon the amount of kitchen equipment, fuel, and food you can carry to your campsite. Backpackers only have room to carry a small stove and a few kitchen items and, thus, have a limited range of meal choices; they frequently are limited to dehydrated packaged meals that can be re-hydrated with a little hot water. Canoe campers, equestrian campers, and motorcycle campers have a little more packing space to carry a larger stove, more kitchen equipment, and more food items - thus, allowing a wider range of meal options. Families who travel by automobile and camp in developed state and federal campgrounds have the widest range of meal options. They could leave their kitchen equipment at home and drive to restaurants every day - if they wanted to. Or, they could pack a small stove, a pot or two, and plan to buy small amounts of food in grocery stores as needed. Or, they could pack a large stove, several pots, a cooler, and a variety of foods that would allow them to prepare meals for several days. Eva and I fall into the last category as do many other modern tent camping families. We like to eat a wide variety of foods on our camping trips and prepare most of these meals in our campsite. To be able to prepare a range of meals, we must first decide what stoves and kitchen equipment we can pack.
Although most developed campgrounds have fire rings in their campsites, most of these fire rings are inefficient as cooking stoves. As a general rule, they are much too large and require excessive amounts of wood to cook simple meals. Frequently, they hold moisture from previous rains and this moisture reduces the heat output from the wood, and some do not have decent cooking grates. Pedestal grills would be a better cooking platform but few campsites have them. Consequently, modern tent campers need to pack a reliable stove to cook their meals.
A wood stove is a great camp cooking option. Wood stoves use plentiful fuel that is either free or reasonably priced. In many campgrounds, small amounts of wood can be picked up from the ground near your campsite. Good wood stoves are fuel efficient and are available in a wide range of sizes. Small stoves (for example the Firebox) are popular with backpackers because they fold flat into a small package and use small twigs for fuel - but they cannot accommodate larger pots needed to prepare family meals. Medium sized stoves such as Solo wood stoves are popular with many campers but they require a little more packing space and still cannot accommodate larger pots. Several other brands have been praised on the web and in YouTube videos but none of them are designed to cook large meals. So, I recently developed a Woody portable campfire stove that is large enough to accommodate a 12-inch fry pan, a 10-quart stock pot, or three small saucepans. A few photos of Woody and its prototype are presented below. See the "Gear" page for specific details.
Propane stoves have been a very popular choice for family campers for many years. They are very simple to use and their fuel cylinders can be found in almost any department or convenience store. Just screw the fuel cylinder onto the stove and turn on the burners. When the cylinder runs out of fuel, just screw it off and screw on a fresh cylinder. The primary limitation of these stoves is the relatively large amount of packing space they and their fuel require. A second limitation is the inconvenience of having to walk or drive to the store to buy replacement fuel cylinders. Several companies make these stoves but the best known is Coleman.
Before propane stoves became popular, gas fueled stoves were popular with camping families. But these stoves had many limitations. Typically campers had to pack a one-gallon can of white gas and a small funnel to fill the stove's gas tank. When the tank ran out of fuel, the camper had to wait until the stove cooled to the touch, find the funnel, pour the fuel through the funnel into the tank, pump air into the tank, and relight the burner. Frequently, these operations resulted in small fuel spills on your hands, clothing, and equipment. And you smelled like gasoline until you could take a bath and change clothes. After the trip, you had to drain the fuel out of the tank and burn it out of the fuel jets. And you had to replace the fuel generator every 3 to 5 years. Today, backpackers who travel to remote areas or camp in high altitudes or in cool weather still prefer small gasoline stoves. A good example is the MSR Whisper Lite stove.
Small Isobutane-Propane canister stoves have been very popular with backpackers for several years and offer a simple way to cook small amounts of food. Like propane stoves, you just screw on a fuel canister and light the burner. Their primary limitations are: their fuel canisters can be difficult to find in remote areas, they do not simmer foods well, they are too small to hold large pots and pans, and they may not work well in high altitudes or cool weather. The most popular canister stove, by far, is the MSR Pocket Rocket. It works like a small blow torch and heats water very fast.
During recent years, one-burner butane stoves have emerged as another stove option for camping families. These stoves require less packing space than the two burner propane stoves and offer a neater way to incorporate the fuel bottle into the stove. Several companies make these stoves but Coleman is the best known because it has a long history of making good quality camping gear. These stoves have become popular with singles and couples living in small dorm rooms or flats but not with campers.
Solid fuel stoves and tablets are popular with backpackers because they are very small and lightweight. But they are only designed to boil a small amount to water needed for a cup of tea, hot chocolate, or dehydrated meal. The best known example of solid fuel stove is Esbit Pocket Stove. Their primary limitations are: they require about 8 minutes to boil a cup of water, they are not strong enough to cook large meals, and their fuel tablets are difficult to find in many remote camping destinations.
Alcohol stoves are a second type of small lightweight stove primarily designed for heating water to mix with dehydrated backpacking foods. A good example is the Trangia Spirit Stove. Their primary limitation is that they are too small and fragile to cook large meals. Furthermore, they require large bulky containers of alcohol to operate them, and pouring this alcohol into the stove can be messy. You can find instructions for making a crude alcohol stove from a small food can on the internet or you can buy a nicer one from a camping outfitter.
Small charcoal grills offer another way to cook meals but charcoal is expensive, bulky, and requires special equipment to keep a hot fire going long enough to cook a meal.
Tent campers could leave their pots at home and cook a wide variety of foods with aluminum foil and disposable aluminum pans, but having two or three cooking pots increases the range of meal options that can be easily prepared in the campsite. If you decide to include pots in your kitchen equipment, you must decide what size, what materials, and how to pack them. Backpackers frequently choose a small aluminum or titanium pot because these materials are lightweight but aluminum warps easily and may cause health problems. Titanium does not distribute heat well and, thus, does not permit long simmering. Plus, it is expensive. On the other hand, cast iron Dutch ovens are popular with many campers but they are heavy and require considerable maintenence. We use a combination of enamelware and stainless steel pots with folding and bailed handles that can be nested inside each other. For example, we have a 6-quart stock pot, 4-quart, and 2-quart bush pot that nest neatly together. Several companies including GSI and Imusa, make good quality enamelware pots. Self Reliance Outfitters sells a good 2-quart stainless steel Bush Pot. Occasionally we will pack a cast iron Dutch oven for long-term base camps.
A frying pan is also unnecessary, but having one allows you to cook a wider range of delicious foods such as bacon, Hamburger Helper meals, chicken, fish, pancakes, fried eggs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. We pack a vintage 10-inch cast iron skillet but it is heavy, has a long awkward handle that require unnecessary packing space, and requires extra care to keep it seasoned and prevent rust. We have found that ultralight aluminum and titanium fry pans used by backpackers are too thin and lightweight to prepare good tasting fried foods. Thicker aluminum pans sold in department stores cook well but warp easily, stain easily, and have possible health risks. If you don't want to carry a cast iron skillet, consider a carbon steel pan (such as Lodge or Matfer Bourgeat) or a stainless steel pan (such as T-fal).
In addition to your pots and pans, you'll need a few utensils to prepare your food. Resourceful bush crafters sometimes carve their utensils from wood but most tent camping families will buy them from department stores. As a general rule, wood or nylon cooking utensils are preferable to metal ones. At the very least, you'll need a pair of tongs, a knife, and a can opener. If you have packing space available, you can add a stirring/serving spoon or two and a spatula. To store these utensils, we use an empty food can.
Plates & Bowls
Economically priced dinner plates and salad bowls can be found in many department, sporting goods, and camping outfitter stores. They are typically made from plastic, aluminum, stainless steel, and enameled carbon steel. Good quality 9-inch pie baking pans (such as Wilton's vintage pie pans) also make good camp plates/bowls. Over the years, Eva and I have discovered that we need more than just two plates and two bowls. Sometimes we need serving platters to hold our food; sometimes our grandchildren accompany us on our trips, and sometimes we have friends over to eat with us. As a result, we typically pack a total of 6 plates and 6 pie pans. Since I am fascinated with the early history of camping, I am gradually converting over to enamelware. Recently we bought a set of Coleman enamelware plates. Good-quality, economically-priced vintage enamelware can also be found in many flea markets.
Campers will need few cups to hold their beverages and perhaps cereal and soups. We also use a cup to dip water from a large bucket or stock pot. Enamelware cups look very nice but they have protruding handles that require unnecessary packing space. So we have accumulated a set of 6 stainless steel cups of varying diameters with either folding or no handles so that we can nest them all together. One of these cups is a small vintage tin measuring cup.
In addition to cups, campers will need at least one water bottle for each person. We keep these bottles handy when we are driving, hiking, visiting tourist attractions, and sleeping in the tent. Many people use stainless steel canteens or plastic bottles but if you choose plastic, be sure to get a BPA-free bottle. In a pinch, recycled Gator-Aid bottles will fill the need.
Campers will also need a few spoons and forks to eat their food. We have discovered that two people may need as many as 6 spoons and forks. Dinner knives are unnecessary since you can use a pocket knife or kitchen knife as necessary. Currently we are using vintage steel utensils that we bought in a flea market but you can find lighter nylon and Titanium utensils in camping outfitter stores.
Here are a few of our favorite camp meals. You can freeze some foods before leaving home so they will stay fresh a few days and buy additional items in nearby stores as needed. Please notice that a few of these meals have been featured on my YouTube Channel, Modern Tent Camping and these featured meals have hot links to their respective videos. More meal videos will be added soon.
Eggs (fried or scrambled), grits, meat (bacon, sausage, country ham), dutch oven biscuits or pan fried buttered toast, jelly or honey, fresh fruit (oranges)
Bisquick pancakes with syrup, meat, whipped cream & fruit (blue berries, strawberries)
Breakfast burritos (flour tortillas, scrambled eggs, sausage, tomatoes, grated cheese, salsa, sour cream, onions) & juice
Dutch oven Bisquick biscuits, Pioneer pepper gravy, sausage, fruit (stewed prunes)
Grilled cheese sandwiches, Claussen dill pickles & fruit (apples)
Hard boiled egg (or egg salad sandwich), fruit (cantaloupe)
Pastries, bagels, muffins, cream cheese & fruit (grapes)
Oatmeal with fruit (blue berries, strawberries, or raisins)
Cold cereal with fruit (blue berries, strawberries, bannanas, raisins)
Deli-style sandwiches with meat (ham, bacon, turkey, chicken salad, tuna salad, cheese & vegetables (tomato, lettuce, onions)
Fresh raw vegetables (carrots, celery, radishes, broccoli, cucumbers) with dip
Summer sausage, cheese & crackers
Canned tuna or chicken with bread or crackers
Fruit (apples, banana, raisins), crackers, & cheese
Peanut butter & jelly sandwiches with fruit (bananas)
Chips & dip
Grilled steak or pork chops with Rice-A-Roni rice Pilaf, cabbage slaw & desert
Grilled pork chops, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, McCormick pork gravy, canned black-eyed peas & desert
Grilled hamburgers or bratwurst, canned pork & beans, foil packet potatoes & desert
Picadillo (ground beef stew with potatoes, carrots, bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, tomato, onion, canned corn & canned lima beans) & desert
Zatarains red beans & rice (with Polish kielbasa, onions & green pepper), canned green peas & desert
Fried or blackened fish (grouper, tilapia, orange roughy), corn on the cob, boiled potatoes, salad & desert
McCormick's beef stew (beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, bell pepper), garlic toast & desert
Spaghetti with McCormick's spaghetti sauce, ground beef, onions, garlic toast, salad & desert
Carne Assada or fried chicken strip tacos, pinto beans, rice & desert
Chicken stew with carrots, celery, onions, lima beans, corn, cilantro & rice, tortillias & desert
McCormick Chili (with ground chuck, pinto beans, sour cream, grated cheese, onions, & Fritos) & desert
Hamburger or Tuna Helper meal with salad or canned vegetable & desert
Fresh fruit (grapes, apples, pineapple, water melon, cantaloupe, kiwi), canned fruit (apple sauce, peaches, fruit cocktail), stewed prunes, cookies, pudding cups, yogurt, foil packet cinnamon apples, Dutch oven cobbler (peach, cherry, apple, blackberry), Dutch oven brownies
Water, hot tea, hot chocolate, milk, fruit juice (lemonade, orange, tomato, cranberry, apple), Crystal light mixed drinks, coffee, pop