Food & Drink

Great camping food starts with good planning, packing

By From page A8 | June 19, 2013

We had our first camping trip of the year over Mother’s Day weekend, when, perhaps unsurprisingly, the campgrounds all had mad availability. It makes perfect sense: Not all moms think that crouching over a smoky fire scorching pancakes in an ancient battered pan is the height of luxury. Or perhaps they do not like the giant millipedes that made a late-night march across our campground. Who’s to say?

Millipedes (no, really, they were huge) aside, camping can be surprisingly luxurious, particularly in the food department. For about the price of one “fancy” restaurant meal for two people, you can feed those same two people extra-nice meals for a whole weekend of camping. It does take a little preparation, and a few recipes. (You no doubt know some of them, so the ones included below are marked with an asterisk.)

Good camping starts with good packing, and good ice chest packing starts with a hard truth: Your ice chest doesn’t make things cold. It only preserves whatever cold you started with, and much of that is lost every time you open the ice chest and rummage around. For food safety, and cold beer, you need to pack as much cold into your ice chest as possible right at the start, and keep it there as long as possible. I’ve taken to packing two ice chests when I can, with all the items for the second half of the trip grouped in one ice chest that doesn’t get opened until then.

Planning ahead really pays off in both cold storage and yum. A few days before, make and freeze drinks and dinners in heavy-duty freezer bags. I find loading things into gallon ziplocks and freezing them flat (on a baking sheet in case of leaks) gives me the best results as far as ice chest arrangements. Chill anything that you want to be cold that shouldn’t freeze (beer, soda) for at least 48 hours.

If you have extra room in your ice chest, freeze drinking water and use that to keep things cold as well — we save quart plastic juice jugs for this purpose, since gallons are inconveniently large for both the freezer and the ice chests.

Most camping trips start with lunch. We’re always eager to get on the trail, so I pack our lunch straight into two-tiered bento boxes to take with us. One box has cubes of extra-nice cheese along with really good salami in one tier, and carrot sticks and cherries or grapes in the other. The second has crackers in one tier and cashews in the other. The cheese box, of course, gets packed in the very top of the cooler so it’s easy to grab.

After your hike, lunch and camp setup, a cocktail is generally in order. For the second half of the trip, that’s usually beer in cans or wine in boxes, but the first night a Semi-frozen Cosmopolitan* is lovely, maybe with the leftover cheese and salami.

For dinner the first night, I love Hobo Packets*, which cook nicely over the campfire alongside a loaf of garlic bread wrapped in foil.

You can certainly do a nice garlic bread from scratch, but I’m pretty fond of the frozen Alexia garlic bread, which comes in a convenient two (tiny)-loaf pack that’s just right for two nights of camp dinners. The “wrapped in foil” cooking theme extends nicely to a dessert of Cake Melt*.

Some people absolutely love pancakes or oatmeal cooked over an open fire for breakfast. It’s not really a good idea for me to play with fire before coffee, so our camp breakfasts are Cold Brewed Iced Coffee* with muffins, fruit and hard-boiled eggs, or a quiche*, which I find packs best when cut into individual slices, with each slice wrapped in foil and packed into a non-squishable container. Quiche also makes a nice camp lunch if you want more than the leftovers from the last three meals, of which we always seem to have plenty.

Pasta is pretty delicious for a camp dinner, and we make and freeze several batches of meatballs for Campfire Meatball Pasta* at the start of each camping season. The frozen meatballs in sauce are usually partially thawed by the second night.

I keep a stacking screw-top pill container with various herbs and spices in my camp kit for spicing up dinner. I also have salt and pepper shakers and a squeeze bottle of olive oil. As far as utensils, I have a big stainless steel pan with a glass lid from Ikea, a hot water kettle, a spatula and tongs, and a knife and cutting board. Don’t forget a couple of dish towels, heavy enough to double as pot holders.

The recipes

Semi-Frozen Cosmopolitan

Because of the alcohol, this will not freeze hard. I like to slush mine into a tall glass and add fizzy water.

1 1/2 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce triple sec
2 ounces cranberry juice
2 ounces grapefruit juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup or agave nectar
Juice of one-half lime

Putting it together:

Mix all ingredients. Pour into heavy-duty zipper bag, press out air and seal. Freeze flat.

Hobo Packets

You can prepare these completely ahead of time, or bring ziplocks of the various ingredients and let every one mix and match. Almost any cheese is good in this, but I’m partial to a big spoonful of creamy goat chevre.

Ham steak or smoked tofu, cut into bites
Lightly cooked mixed vegetables — broccoli, summer squash, asparagus, etc.
Sliced onion
Sliced bell pepper
Cheese to taste
Dried herbs
Heavy-duty foil

Putting it together:

Layer meat, vegetables, seasonings and cheese on a large sheet of foil. Fold edges up and seal. Wrap with a second sheet of foil and seal again. Place on grate over camp fire and let cook, turning occasionally, until hot through and cheese is melted, about 40 minutes.

Cake Melt

Sliced pound cake
Chocolate chips
Nuts, coconut, caramel bits, dried fruit, marshmallows, etc.
Heavy-duty foil

Putting it together:

Layer cake and fixings on a large sheet of foil. Fold edges up and seal. Wrap with a second sheet of foil and seal again. Place on grate over edge of camp fire and let cook, turning occasionally, until hot through and chocolate is melted, about 20 minutes.

Camping Cold Brewed Iced Coffee


3/4 ounce medium grind coffee (we use Pepper Peddler dark roast)
2 cups water

Putting it together:

Mix coffee and water and let stand at room temperature eight to 12 hours. Filter. Add sugar, milk, etc. Pour into heavy-duty zipper bag, press out air and seal. Freeze flat.

Breakfast Quiche

1 9-inch unbaked pie shell
1/4 cup onion, diced and sautéed
1 cup any combination of cooked vegetables, meat, fish or tofu
1 cup cheese, grated
3 eggs
1-1/2 cup whole milk
Salt and pepper to taste

Putting it together:

Bake pie shell until barely set and very lightly browned, about 7 minutes at 350 degrees.
Scatter onion, vegetables/protein and cheese evenly across bottom of pie shell. Beat eggs thoroughly and stir in milk. Add salt and pepper. Pour egg mixture over onions and cheese. Bake at 375 degrees for 40-45 minutes, until top is puffy and golden brown and middle is just barely set. Remove from oven and let stand for 15 minutes. Serve warm, room temperature or cold. Be sure to refrigerate leftovers.


2 1/2 pounds Italian sausage
2 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1 egg
1 cup bread crumbs
1 cup finely, finely, finely chopped onion
(1/2 cup finely grated parmesan)
3 cloves garlic, pressed
Olive oil
About 40 ounces tomato or pasta sauce

Putting it together:

Mix together everything except the olive oil. Check to make sure mixture forms a marble-sized ball that holds together when fried — you can even fry one to check. Add more bread crumbs to dry it out, or a bit of olive oil to loosen it up.

Make approximately 60 meatballs. Fry in a heavy frying pan, only as many as will fit in a single layer, until lovely brown on all sides. After each batch, drain off any extra grease and throw enough tomato based pasta sauce in to cover the pan. Cook and scrape up the plain bits, then pour out the sauce and save it.

Store cooked meatballs, portioned out to fit your family, in sauce in ziplocks in the freezer. Eat a few for your lunch. Good job!

Campfire Meatball Pasta

We usually slice the onion and wash and chop the greens at home.
1 onion, sliced
A bit of olive oil
1 bunch chard or kale, washed and chopped
1 bag frozen meatballs in sauce
1 ounce pasta shapes per person

Fry the onion in a bit of oil in a large skillet with a lid. When almost done, toss in the greens. Cover and let wilt a minute or two. Add meatballs 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.

Julie Cross

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