How I Pack Food for Car Camping

Tips from The Kitchn

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Look at that picture above. Now imagine yourself sitting right next to that fire pit, messily eating a hot dog, slathered in ketchup and mustard. Perhaps you're sipping a tumbler of hot, creamy chocolate or a long, cold, iced drink, lazily toasting marshmallows and listening to birdsong. You might be occasionally interrupted by the sound of wind, the river rushing by, and the odd sound of a child laughing.

Camping is such an idyllic way to connect with nature, but with it comes the fact that you have to bring everything you're eating and drinking in with you, not to mention the tools and equipment to prepare and serve it with. After you've mastered the basics of planning and packing for car camping, here are a couple of tips to help you successfully plan and pack for cooking once you get there!

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1. Keep the equipment simple.

Food and drink is obviously the most important part of camping... or at least, it is for me. But I do keep my cooking equipment pretty simple, as I don't want to carry too much. Here's what I always pack:

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  • Utensils: A couple of wooden spoons, a heatproof flat silicone spatula, tongs, and cutlery wrapped in tea towels. Use a large plastic container with a lid for storing all these utensils in, and not only will the box keep you organized, it will also double as a washing up tub.
  • Fuel: Matches or a lighter to start fires, and a few newspapers to use as fire starters. We use a combination of camping stove and campfire to cook, so I make sure we have extra fuel for the camp stove, in case it's too wet to make a campfire.
  • Prep equipment: A chef's knife (place in a knife carrier or wrap in tea towels), small paring knife, vegetable peeler, cutting board, lots of aluminum foil, paper towels, a set of prep bowls, plates, and mugs.
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  • Cooking equipment: A large, multipurpose saute pan, two small lidded saucepans (for boiling water), a small skillet (for frying eggs and breakfast foods), metal skewers for hot dogs and marshmallows, and, something I find essential, a teapot (I love my Falcon Enamelware sets). Okay, and this guy below. I really like toast in the mornings!
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  • Cleaning: Dish cloth and detergent that I decant into small travel shampoo bottles.

2. Food Planning.

I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you'll be surprised at how many people don't. I like to plan every meal so it gives me an idea of how to shop and how much food to buy, helping to avoid food waste. I cook dishes like easy chili or paella, for which I vary vegetables with the season. And, of course, hamburgers, hot dogs, and grilling meats are always camping staples.

3. Packing Perishable Foods

Since there's no refrigeration while camping, packing foods safely is especially important, which is why we use three coolers, each with a different purpose:

  1. A easy-to-access car cooler: I keep the first small cooler with sandwich fixings and travel snacks inside the car for quick munchies and lunches on the road. Pack sandwich rolls, hard-boiled eggs, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise and ketchup, a scoop of butter, chopped fruit, nuts, and fruit bars. These are all easy-to-prep snacks and lunches that will save you a ton of money that you may have spent on unhealthy fast food otherwise.
  2. A meat cooler: A heavy duty one to fill up with ice every other day. Use this cooler to store meat products like hot dogs and hamburgers. I also like to marinate chicken for my special tandoori chicken and freeze it in resealable bags. By the time we are ready to eat, it is defrosted and ready to be grilled. All meat products are double wrapped in plastic bags so as not to cross contaminate.
  3. An everything else cooler. Also a heavy duty one to fill up with ice every other day. Fill it with vegetables, fruits, eggs, butter, drinks, milk, condiments and all other fresh ingredients. I will store large bottles of frozen water in here water so that it keep the cooler cold and we have ice-cold water on hand.

4. Packing Non-Perishable Foods

Here are some tips on what non-perishable items to bring and how to pack them:

  • A dry goods box. This contains everything else that can be stored at room temperature. My crucial staples are coffee (yes, I do drink instant when camping), tea bags, cocoa, sugar, milk powder (in case we run out of fresh milk), salt, pepper, neutral cooking oil, and my secret weapon, fresh spice mixes that can jazz up any meal. I may also pack pancake mix, bread, and rolls.
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  • A separate treats box. Marshmallows, graham crackers, caramel chips and chocolate. You may claim these are for the kids, but everyone will enjoy these sweets.
  • Oils and other liquids. A wine bag, those ones with partitions, come in very handy for carrying liquids that don't need to be in a cooler. I carry bottles like my cordials and syrups and a small bottle of neutral cooking oil like canola or grapeseed in these bags, and wedge them in between boxes while packing the car.
  • Pack drinks. Lots of drinks. And finally, pack lots of water and other kinds of drinks. We always have a case of water and delicious additions like elderflower cordial or cherry syrup. We also carry juices, lots of beer, and occasionally some mixers so I can make cocktails. I mean... really... isn't that what camping is all about?
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While this may seem like an extensive and detailed list, all the hard work is already done by the time you hit the road. Once you get to your campsite, all you have to do is get your fire started and you're ready for the fun part: cooking and eating outdoors!

→ More camping tips from Michelle: The Beginner's Guide to Car Camping

(Image credits: Michelle Peters-Jones)

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