I come from a family of campers.
My Grandma Cross was the queen of the camping hack, those odd applications of ordinary items that make everything easier. My very favorite Grandma-hack was for the benefit of the 20-pound cat Bugs. Bugs really liked camping, but the wilds of Lake Isabella aren’t safe for even a very large cat. Grandma’s solution was a clothesline strung between two trees, with a leash snapped over it so it could run the length of the line, and Bugs tethered to the leash. This gave him a huge territory to roam while preventing him from wandering out of our range and into that of the coyotes.
My dad solved many a camping problem with tin foil. One of my all-time favorite camp meals was a hack resulting from the failure to pack the fry pan: a whole trout, dressed with salt, garlic and white wine, wrapped in foil and propped on the grate over the fire to cook to meltingly tender perfection. (This was, as I recall, substantially better than the subsequent breakfast pancake hack. Foil can’t fix everything.)
Every camp kit can benefit from hacking tools: heavy duty aluminum foil, duct tape, stout twine, fine wire, needle nosed pliers and a screwdriver with changeable tips. If you don’t usually carry a hatchet for firewood and a pocket knife, you’ll want to add some kind of cutting tool. Put everything together in a shoe box and pop it into the camping stuff so you always have it — you’ll be happy you did!
Some camping hacks take place before you leave the house. My favorite is coffee, cold-brewed, adulterated to taste, and frozen in screw-top jars (Talenti Gelato containers are perfect, and a bargain since you get to eat the contents first) that help chill the ice chest. In fact, I’ve reached the point where every single thing that can be frozen before camping is. It doesn’t obviate the need for ice packs, but it does ensure that everything in the ice chest stays cold and gives me a measure of how well the temp is holding — if your coffee hasn’t even started to thaw, you know you’re good!
Many camping hacks are tiny repurposing of objects: a bathroom rug outside the tent door to keep dirt out, glow-in-the-dark stickers on the tops of tent pegs to avoid tripping, and my shiny new Ikea solar desk lamp for lighting up the picnic table when I’ve started dinner too late again.
Once you’ve made your camp, all that’s left to do is make your dinner. If you don’t have a perfectly fresh trout handy you can make do with some of these delicious dinners.
(coleslaw see below)
Slice rolls most of the way through to make a “book.” Stuff with ham, salami and cheese and wrap in heavy duty tinfoil. (Can be made up to one week ahead of time and frozen.) Keep chilled up to three days.
Place foil wrapped sandwiches on grate over coals. Cook, turning occasionally, until hot through and cheese is melted, 15- 45 minutes depending on your fire. Open, add coleslaw and eat.
2 cups finely shredded cabbage
1 carrot, shredded
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
(optional: shredded sweet or hot pepper)
Shred cabbage and carrot. Sprinkle with salt and let stand in a colander for 30 minutes. Mix mayo, vinegar and mustard. Toss with drained cabbage. Taste and adjust seasonings. Can be made up to three days ahead of time; keep cold.
In terms of food safety, I’m not a big fan of bringing uncooked ground meat, poultry or fish when camping. Cold fried chicken is a great first-night dinner and we often cook and freeze meatballs in sauce to take with us. I’m also a huge fan of precooked pulled pork, which freezes beautifully for several months if you pack it in its own juice. Lately this roast pork shoulder is our favorite.
Roast pork shoulder
(based on a recipe from Bon Appetit)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 –3 pounds skinless, boneless pork shoulder (Boston butt)
Preheat oven to 275°. Mix together sugar, pepper, thyme, cinnamon, cloves and salt. Line a roasting pan with foil or use a Dutch oven with a lid.
Pat the pork shoulder dry and trim any fat that’s more than 1/4-inch thick. Rub shoulder with spice mixture. Place in pan and cover with foil or a lid.
Roast pork until very tender, 3-4 hours.
To store, pull into shreds and pack into quart freezer bags. Add some of the drippings to help it stay moist. Press all the air out, smush the bag so it lies flat, and freeze for up to three months.
If you have more drippings than you need, store them in the fridge for a week or the freezer for three months. Cook mushrooms, roast potatoes, wilt with dark greens or add to gravy that needs to be enriched. Fat is flavor, don’t throw it out!
Heat, add BBQ sauce and serve on rolls, or use it in this campfire pasta recipe:
A bit of olive oil
1 onion, sliced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 bunch chard or kale, washed and chopped
12 ounces shredded pork in juice
3 ounces pasta shapes
Clean chard and slice into ribbons. Slice onion.
Fry the onion in a bit of oil in a large skillet with a lid, salting lightly. When almost done, toss in the greens. Cover and let wilt a minute or two. Add pork and a half cup or so of water. Stir well, then add pasta. Cover and let cook over the lowest heat you can manage, stirring now and then, until the pasta is tender. You may need to add a bit more water to rehydrate the pasta.
The last night of a longer camping trip can be a little tricky, since not everything stays nice in an ice chest for long. If you actually like canned tuna and ramen, go right ahead. Otherwise, here’s a last night recipe that uses pantry ingredients.
BethAnn Minkler’s pupusas
2 cup masa harina
1-1/2 cups warm water (+ 3 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 can refried beans
Oil for cooking
1 bell pepper
Salsa or hot sauce
Mix together masa harina, cumin, and salt in a gallon ziplock bag. Pack a can opener if your camp kit doesn’t have one. If you’ll be cooking within three days, slice pepper and onion and package together.
Add 1-1/2 cups of water to the masa in the bag and mix. As the masa begins to form a dough you will have to use your hands to knead the dough. The dough should be soft but not sticky. If the dough is too dry, add more water 1 tablespoon at a time.
To make pupusas, take 1/2 cup dough into your hand. Form into a ball. With your thumb push a deep hole into the middle. Fill hole with 1-2 tablespoons of beans. Pinch and push the hole shut. Flatten the pupusa between your hands, being careful not to squish the filling out. Repeat until all pupusas are filled.
Slice onions and peppers and cook in lightly oiled skillet until done to taste. Remove from pan. In same pan, cook pupusas over medium high hit 2-3 minutes on each side until golden brown and filling is hot.
Serve with onions and peppers, and hot sauce or salsa to taste.