With warmer weather come outdoor excursions, and one of the greatest things about such adventures—apart from the majestic beauty of the wilderness and what-have-you—is the food. Whether your outdoors-y side takes the shape of car camping or backpacking treks, food tastes better after you've spent the day scampering through greenery, when you can scarf down multiple servings and call it 'fuel.'
Of course, car campers have the ability to lug unwieldy Dutch ovens, grills, and coolers full of steak and beer; you're just a crackling campfire away from a feast (and here are 20 recipes to prove it). Even if Smokey the Bear limits you to a camp stove, you can make many things ahead of time and keep them cold until you're ready to reheat. (You can also bring a smorgasbord of fancy cheeses and call it a night, but if you wanted to do that, you would've stayed in the city.)
Options are more limited if you ditch your car at the trailhead—when you carry your life on your back, foodstuffs vie for valuable backpack real estate. Food must be filling, quick to make, and somewhat shelf-stable; it should also be lightweight but durable. In my own backpacking experience, gourmet innovations are often just bizarre food combinations: instant oatmeal sweetened with Jell-O powder; ramen noodles with peanut butter and soy sauce; a sandwich of peanut butter, cheddar, honey, sriracha, and crackers. This is how you prove yourself as a rugged denizen of the backcountry and not a lily-livered city mouse. (For the record, I didn't eat the oatmeal.)
No matter how extreme your planned excursions are, here are some tips for stocking the backpack pantry you never knew you had and making your outdoor meals even better. Think of it as the outdoors(wo)man's food pyramid. Just watch out for bears.
Think of those ingredients you always seem to reach for: they're pantry stalwarts for a reason, and even on a long-distance hike, some of them can find a home in your pack. Start with good oil, which you'll use for just about everything, and choose your hot sauce wisely. (You can also bring salted butter if it's packed in a durable container.) Tiny ziplocs of dried herbs and spices—I cannot hike without cumin or cinnamon; herbs de Provence, coriander, and bay leaves are also nice—have the most versatility for virtually no pack space. Miso paste could be the savior to your instant ramen, likewise Dijon mustard for your foil-wrapped dinners and pita-wrapped lunches. Think, too, about jolts of flavor like capers, anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes, and oil-packed tuna: if it's a standby at home for ramping up salads and pastas, it can likely follow you into the woods.
It's said that bread is the staff of life, but let's broaden that category to include almost all carbs, since they neatly check all the boxes required of good camp food. There's pasta and couscous, sure, but don't stop there; change up your grains game with amaranth or freekeh, or use the time you're saving away from the Internet to make farro, polenta, or steel-cut oats (fold in vegetables, nuts, and dried fruit, or just top with a drift of shaved Parmesan).
As trail-ready breads go, pita and tortillas are the most obvious. If you're not worried about saving space, though, bring your favorite sturdy loaf and grill it for crostini when it starts to get stale. Bannock, or campfire bread, is arguably the most badass of all backcountry breads; if you pack the dry ingredients together in a ziploc and have access to a campfire (and a thinnish branch around which to wrap the dough), it can be yours. (You can also just fry it in a pan, for fewer badass points.) But even with no campfire, so long as you have a skillet, a flame, and a little agility, try your hand at skillet pizza, skillet flatbread, or even skillet cornbread (ideally with bacon and fire-roasted jalapeños) if you're brave enough to flip it halfway.
Think beyond the beans and lentils. Know what else doesn't need to be refrigerated? Cured meats and hard cheeses. Nothing's stopping you from assembling a deep-woods charcuterie board (remember that crusty bread and fancy mustard you packed, you sly fox?). Cheeses like Parmesan work best, but even cheddar or Gouda will keep if they're kept out of the heat. Don't skimp, either; cheese, given the opportunity, will make just about every camping meal better. As for beans, those old friends, they're classic for a reason, but wouldn't that austere pot of cannellinis be better with a sprig of thyme? Leaving no trace just got a lot easier.
You already know onions, carrots, and potatoes travel well, but so do their sturdy friends beets, cabbage, and corn. Citrus does, too, whether you're eating it or squeezing it into a vinaigrette. Many others are fair game if they're packed well and it's not too hot: think mushrooms, squash, or artichokes. While you could prep your vegetables the way you're used to doing at home, they've been waiting all year for you to wrap them in foil and throw them in a fire. (If you're feeling fancy, drizzle in some white wine and lemon before you do.) And apples make good snacks, yes, but they're just as good sautéed with cinnamon and honey (you can hardly tell if they're bruised) or toasted marshmallow-style.
Desserts and Snacks
If you have a DIY streak, let it shine with homemade marshmallows, graham crackers, and granola. Pancakes can be mixed in a freezer bag and squeezed into a skillet, as can brownie batter (it is scrambled, and it is heaven). Make these banana boats, not by grilling but by wrapping them in foil and roasting in your campfire's embers.