What to Eat on a Camping Trip

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Lomo al trapo. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Writing a generic roundup of recipes to prepare for a camping trip is a bit like trying to create a wedding playlist that all 250 of your guests will enjoy. The range of possibilities, and the diversity in preferences and needs of each individual, is really too vast to make it a worthwhile exercise. Will anyone in your audience actually want to put the effort into keeping marinated fish fillets chilled in the woods/dancing to the Smiths? In either scenario, how drunk are people likely to get? Your best bet is to produce something that speaks to the average participant, and includes at least a few items that just about everybody can appreciate (homemade Cheez-Its/Stevie Wonder).

The "average participant," in the case of camping, is not the veteran hardcore backpacker who carries every single item on their shoulders until they bed down after each day's 20-mile hike. If you are such a John Muir adherent, I both admire you and assume you're not actually reading this food website to tell you how and what to eat while backpacking. If you're planning your very first intensive backpacking trip this summer, I suggest you look elsewhere, probably to your John Muir–type friends, for ideas. Your priorities should be foods that are calorically dense but as lightweight as possible, and we don't have enough information on either attribute for any of our recommended recipes.

The average participant is also not the Winnebago commander touring the national parks with a full, if small, kitchen's worth of supplies and equipment. Instead, this list aims to address the car camper—the person who, of a nice weekend in June, gathers a few friends together, drives up to the nearest patch of mountains, pitches a tent no more than a half mile from their parking spot, and spends the next two days or so enjoying the fresh air, taking casual day hikes, maybe strumming a guitar or listening to one, and drinking beer in one of those nylon camp chairs with their college mascot on the back (I may be getting a little too Georgia-specific here).

And, of course, someone who also happens to like eating well while they do so. Because, though it's not hard to put together tasty meals in nature, it does take a little planning and some work—you've got to at least want to eat more than instant oatmeal and PB&Js all weekend. If that sounds like you, here are our suggestions.

Before you even start adding the big things to your grocery or packing list, though, remember the little ones—namely condiments. I once camped out in New Jersey with a group of friends, and, though we'd collectively brought enough food for an army, no one had thought to pack salt. (We resorted to seasoning with potato chip crumbles, which was actually pretty effective, if labor-intensive.) Don't make our mistake: You'll want at least salt, black pepper, and a modest amount of olive oil, ideally in a squeeze bottle with a secure top. Other ingredients that can quickly add concentrated flavor to lackluster camp meals include curry powder, cumin, paprika, cayenne, hot sauce, and miso paste. If you're packing burgers or hot dogs for the first night, bring mayo, mustard, ketchup, and/or any other dressings you're fond of. Seal the seasonings or condiments up in individual small zipper-lock bags, where they'll take up very little space.

Snacks

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Camping makes you snack-y, and not just because you're taking long walks or swimming during the day. Much of the time, you're also sitting around doing nothing—watching the campfire, gabbing with your friends, petting the dog, drinking the aforementioned beer—which is kind of the point of it all. You'll want something salty to eat by the handful, and you will also need sustenance for those day hikes. Thanks to a hefty volume of cheddar and cream, these DIY Cheez-Its are beautifully browned, crispy, and loaded with cheese flavor; if the originals are your weakness, you'll fall in love with the homemade version. The recipe makes 250 crackers (!), plenty to share with your fellow campers, although we'd hoard some at home for ourselves if we were you. In an airtight container, they'll keep about a month unrefrigerated.

Beyond that, homemade potato chips, either plain or flavored, will last a couple of days in a zipper-lock bag and quiet your stomach rumblings in the afternoon. We recommend flavored, since, if you're going to be camping for several nights, with a limited repertoire of food available to you, it's a good idea to make all of that food as exciting as possible for your taste buds. Try chips seasoned with Thai coconut and red curry, za'atar, or miso soup mix. Nuts are also great fodder for spicing up, with sea salt and vinegar, olives and rosemary, or cayenne and smoked paprika.

Trail mix is a given, but chewy no-bake oatmeal bars, studded with chocolate chips and bound with a combination of marshmallow and peanut butter, or oatmeal raisin bars chock-full of shredded coconut and dried fruit, can satisfy your sweet cravings and be eaten with one hand (an honestly useful attribute while camping).

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

When you need something fatty and filling after a long day of exertion, try making guacamole directly at your picnic table: Our basic version requires just a handful of ingredients and simple utensils. If you don't tend to bring a mortar and pestle with you on excursions to the great outdoors, feel free to simplify by just mixing in the aromatics. Or, brown some bread on your campfire grate and spread it with ripe avocado for a quick avocado toast. And, for a ready-made salty treat that requires zero preparation, it's hard to beat beef jerky, cured meats, and hard cheeses, which need little to no refrigeration—Parmesan is a good bet, since it can be used for topping as well as snacking.

Mains

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

If you're bringing a charcoal grill with you, of course, you've already got no shortage of options for meaty main courses—steaks, burgers, chops—as long as you keep that meat stored on plenty of ice prior to cooking. But even if you don't have a grill and don't want to futz with a finicky campfire grate, you can still turn out a gorgeous piece of roast meat using fire alone. One of the coolest camping-appropriate recipes Kenji has developed in recent years is this one for lomo al trapo, a Colombian specialty whose name literally means "beef tenderloin wrapped in a towel." That's exactly what it is, too—a whole chunk of beef tenderloin, swaddled in a damp towel that's liberally seasoned with salt, carefully tied with cotton twine, and tossed directly onto a bed of coals or into a campfire. Let it cook for 10 minutes, flip it over, and continue cooking until the towel has burned and blackened completely. During that time, the heavy layer of salt will form a crust surrounding the meat; when it's cracked open with the back of a knife, a juicy, tender, flavorful, pink-at-the-center roast is revealed. A stunner even at home, when pulled directly from a live fire, lomo al trapo offers a sense of primal satisfaction that's hard to match—I cooked my meat in a fire! Like my Paleolithic ancestors! Minus the chasing-with-a-spear-at-great-risk-of-painful-death part.

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Stews are great, hearty options to make for a crowd over a camp stove or cooking grate. Try a thick Tuscan vegetable and bread stew called ribollita (made with your choice of winter or summer vegetables), a black-eyed pea stew with sausage, pasta e fagioli, or a simple campfire chili of beans with beef, pork, or lamb. Most of these recipes are made in a single Dutch oven, meaning easier setup and cleanup; the bulk of the work here is chopping, so be sure to bring a sturdy cutting board and chef's knife along with that cooking vessel.

Another dish that needs just a single pot, involves no chopping at all, and is practically guaranteed to make everyone happy? Three-ingredient, 10-minute stovetop mac and cheese. You'll have to find a spot in your cooler for the cheese, but the evaporated milk and pasta are shelf-stable, the recipe can easily be scaled up for a big group, and, seriously, the reward-to-effort ratio we're talking about here is off the charts.

Instant-noodle packets from Manchu Wok or Cup Noodles (or, if you want to get a micron more fancy, Thai Kitchen) are a backpacker's staple, and they make a reliably tasty if not exactly inspired lunch at the campsite, too. You can do yourself one better by bringing along your own homemade instant noodles in adorable little jars. Noodles with miso and vegetables or kimchi and beef jerky do best with refrigeration in advance, but they can easily sit around unchilled for several hours. When you're ready to serve, just add hot water to the jar, let it sit a few minutes, and stir in a handful of chopped scallions for a bit of fresh green flavor.

Sides

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Grilled sweet corn is the summer side to rule all summer sides, and luckily, it's easy to produce corn in varying degrees of juicy-inside and charred-outside, depending on the method you choose, right there at your campsite. The least fussy way to do it is to toss the unshucked ears on the grate above your campfire and let the corn steam in the husk for about 15 minutes—you won't get the slight crunch on the exterior, but the kernels will be nicely moist. You can also shuck the ears and wrap them in foil, then set them over the grate, which allows you to add a flavored butter inside the foil before cooking if you like. Or—our preferred method—shuck the corn and grill it naked over the fire, which gives you a light nutty crunch outside that really makes the corn taste charred and smoky.

Foil pouches are handy for cooking all sorts of vegetables over a campfire, most notably potatoes, which get creamy and tender in about 35 minutes when grilled in a foil packet with shallots and thyme. Frijoles charros, a simple side of pinto beans cooked with bacon, is easily prepared in a Dutch oven over a campfire; substitute salt pork for the bacon to give the dish a more naturally smoky flavor. Grain or bean salads make excellent side dishes for camping, since they can be prepared in advance and served at room temperature, and often get even tastier over time as their flavors meld—try this vegan carrot and chickpea salad, for instance, or this spelt salad with vinegary marinated mushrooms. We've got plenty more grain salad and bean salad recipes if you need extra inspiration.

Desserts

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

If you're not planning s'mores for dessert, who are you, even?we respect your willingness to buck tradition. How about banana boats, split bananas stuffed with all the chocolate and mini marshmallows your inner scout demands and grilled into a gooey, sticky, delicious mess? Grilled watermelon brushed with lime, honey, and cayenne makes a lighter dessert that's satisfyingly smoky, spicy, sweet, and tangy all at once. But if you want to get dessert out of the way in advance, stick to cookies: easy to make ahead, easy to serve, and, in many cases, easy to store and transport in a sealable container. We recommend something simple and unpretentious—like Biscoff cookies, snickerdoodles, or gingersnaps—that'll carry you back to childhood for just a little while. And if you feel like s'morifying a couple of those Biscoff (or—even better—homemade McVities, which have the chocolate built in!) with any extra marshmallows or chocolate that's lying around, remember that the dim light of a campfire keeps secrets well.