Kitchn Love Letters

We’re a Family of Campers — And This Is the Easy-to-Heat Dinner We Bring on Every Trip

published Jun 27, 2022
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Friends sharing a meal while camped by the lake
Credit: Getty Images / Thomas Barwick

I come from a family that fully embraces the rustic side of life. When I was tiny, my parents moved to the Irish Wilderness in Missouri, where the three of us lived in a cabin with no running water or electricity. We were only there for a couple of years, but still 40-some years later, if you ask my parents when they were happiest, it was then.

After the cabin, we moved to a small town a few hours away, where we had the typical creature comforts, but most weekends were spent traipsing through the conservation areas near our home, my dad charting our course by looking at a topographic map of the area. During the summer and when we’d travel to see family, the outdoor theme continued, but this time in the form of camping trips.

The camp food was pretty basic in those days: sandwiches, cans of chili or soup, and s’mores. But as I’ve grown up, my love for food and camping have combined in a passion for Camp Food. My husband, Matt, shares my enthusiasm and since we’ve gotten married we’ve taken camp cooking to a new level. We’ve amassed quite a collection of camping cookware, camping stoves, and a wide array of tiny condiments perfect for stashing in your backpack.

Before we head out into the woods, we make a meal plan that includes some of our favorite al-fresco foods: pre-made pancake mix for mornings, a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough to make a skillet cookie over the fire, and our favorite camping supper, homemade tamales.

Credit: Nina Elder

Tamales Are the Ultimate Camping Food. Here’s Why.

Tamales might not be the first thing you think of when you think of campfire cooking, but the corn husk-wrapped packets of masa and meaty (or veggie) fillings are warm, comforting, and super satisfying — three things that I look for in a meal that I’ll be eating under the stars. Here are other reasons why they’re the perfect camping food.

  • They’re easy to make ahead. Matt and I usually make a big batch a few days or weeks before our camping trips. We have some for dinner and then transfer the rest to zip-top bags and stash them in the freezer. As we’re packing our camping provisions, it’s easy to just grab the zip-top bags of tamales from the freezer and transfer them to the cooler.
  • They’re very customizable. Our kid, Gus, is a vegetarian, so we’ll split up the batch of masa and fill some of the tamales with veggies and cheese (corn, mushrooms, and cheese are a favorite combo) and then fill the other half with chicken or pork, plus veggies and cheese.
  • They reheat beautifully. If you can boil water, you can reheat tamales. Steam them until they’re heated through, then eat. It’s that simple!
  • You don’t even have to make your own. Matt and I like to make our own tamales, but you can also buy delicious tamales at your local Latin market, your favorite Mexican restaurant, or at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s.

How to Reheat Tamales Over a Campfire or Camp Stove

When you’re packing your camp cooking gear, just be sure to pack a pot with a steamer basket. After a long day swimming or hiking or lounging in the hammock, all you have to do is add some water to the pot, add the steamer basket, bring the water to a boil, then add your tamales. (You may already know this, but just in case: You remove the tamales from the zip-top bag but leave them wrapped in the corn husks.)

If you have a small pot, you may need to add more water to keep the steam going. But really that’s the only pointer you’ll need. Tamales are very forgiving and difficult to overcook. The reheating time will depend on if your tamales are frozen or thawed, so just check them occasionally as they steam.

To see if they’re ready, carefully pull one out of the pot with tongs and stick a fork or knife into the masa. Touch the utensil. If it’s cold, the tamales need more time. If it’s warm, it’s time to eat. Top with crema or sour cream and your favorite salsa and dinner is served. Bonus points for heating up some black beans to go alongside.

Some Tamale Recipes to Get You Started

Ready to make a batch of tamales for your next camping trip? Here a few tasty options to get you started.

Credit: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne

Pork and Green Chile Tamales
This wonderful recipe from writer and cookbook author Lesley Téllez comes with a great step-by-step guide to help you hone your tamale-making skills.

Credit: Melissa Ryan

Chicken Tamales with Pumpkin Mole
This chicken filing is easy to make (or you can sub in rotisserie chicken if you’re in a rush). The creamy, nutty pumpkin mole will taste extra special when eaten in a camping chair. Any leftovers would be great as a sauce for breakfast burritos the next morning.

Credit: Melissa Ryan

Mushroom and Goat Cheese Tamales with Mole Verde
This vegetarian option is stuffed with a satisfying combo of hearty sautéed mushrooms and creamy, tangy goat cheese. The tomatillo-based sauce adds a tangy freshness to the dish.

Are you a camper? What are some of your go-to foods that you bring with you or make while you’re out in nature? Tell us in the comments below.