Part of my menu preparation for our camping trip required some deep thinking about what foods were "camping friendly" and convenient to have on a 8 day trip. This meant food that didn't require more than the three days of the refrigeration we would get from our collapsible cooler, food that was relatively lightweight and compact, had minimal but sturdy packaging, and food that could be prepared before-hand so it was fairly easy to prepare in camp. And it also had to taste good.
On our fourth day camping, we decided to take a longer day trip from the Middle Saranac Lake where we were staying, over to the Upper Saranac Lake. On our way back, we met a family of 5 (two parents with 3 kids aged probably 9 - 15) who were on a long Canoe trek from the Raquette river to the Middle Saranac (part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trial that goes from New York to Maine). They were at the second of two canoe portages of the day (first one was 1.5 miles and the second .5 miles). They had two canoes and had all of their gear packed in 5 backpacks for easy portage. I was duly impressed with the hard trek they had, but I was really wondering what food they had to eat. I assumed they had packaged, dehydrated backpacking/camping food and I felt really sorry for them - that after doing all of that hard work they wouldn't have any good food to eat for dinner. As you can see from some of the menu highlights of our trip, I think we ate pretty well. Part of it was planning, part of it shopping and part of it was actual cooking. So here are my tips for better camp food:
Planning Your Menu & ShoppingGenerally speaking, the most convenient foods for camping are foods that don't need refrigeration, that pack and store easily and that are simple to cook or heat up. Smaller packages or single servings help reduce food waste and mean that you don't have to refrigerate leftovers. A few of my favorites:
- Boxed milk - I bought Horizon organic in the 8 oz packages. We used it for granola, making pancakes and occasionally for tea.
- Cured meats - Salami and other cured sausage doesn't need to be refrigerated, don't require cooking and only require a knife to cut and eat. And they are usually delicious. I got some Saussion Sec (french style garlic sausage). I also got some beef jerky from Trader Joe's, (I'm actually finding it really hard to believe that here is a site of JUST reviews of beef jerky, but here it is) that we both found it overly sweet and didn't really like.
- Flat bread - I prefer this rather than loaf bread because it's easy to pack and doesn't get smashed. It's also easy to warm directly on the fire, on the grill or in a pan.
- Instant noodle soups - Annie Chun's Korean Kimchi Noodle Soup only requires boiling water, comes in a re-usable, biodegradable bowl with a lid that you can eat the soup out of, doesn't have MSG and tastes really good.
- Tuna - We didn't actually eat any tuna on this trip, but I always bring a can or two just in case. Cans are good for day trips, as long as you remember to bring your pocket knife and know how to use the can opener. I've recently seen tuna packed in flat plastic envelope type packages, but I haven't tried them.
- Crackers - Alhough you have to be careful with packing, crackers go with cheese, tuna, salami or other stuff for snacks. I brought Trader Joe's wheat crackers (similar to Triscuits) because they come in a bag in a box and don't crush easily.
- Nuts & Trail Mix - A must have for day trips and for snacking around camp. Not to mention Trader Joe's too much, but they have great trail mixes at decent prices. You can also make your own by buying nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
- Peanut Butter - I'd like to say that I don't go anywhere without peanut butter, but it's not really true. I would if I could.
- Sweet stuff - I planned on making homemade cookies, but didn't get around to it with all of the other packing and preparation I was doing. So I just brought some Nutterbutters and some Raspberry Newtons.
- 'Smores - If you are one of those people who MUST have 'smores when you camp, a great tip that a friend passed on to me. Instead of buying graham crackers and chocolate separately, buy some Petit Écolier - either milk or dark chocolate, warm them by the fire, then put the toasted marshmallow between two chocolaty cookies.
Keeping Food Cold
I had planned for there to be about 3 days worth of cooler coldness on this trip, but I think because of the preparations I did before-hand, and because the weather wasn't too hot, we got about four days from our small collapsible cooler. These are a few tips that I found helpful for this trip:
- Block Ice - It's really important that you use a block of ice rather than individual cubes. One great way of doing this is to freeze a gallon (or several if you have a larger cooler) of water (thanks Camping Blogger for this idea) and use these as ice blocks in your cooler. For one thing, it stays cold longer because it keeps the water close to the ice. It also means you don't have tons of water in your cooler as the ice melts, and if you are carrying your water in, you can drink the water after it melts.
- Make a 'Freezer Chest' -Freeze anything you can before hand (all of your meat, bread, butter). Get a plastic container with a tight lid that fits snugly in your cooler. The day you leave, put all frozen food together in the plastic container. Your food will defrost slowly and will retain some of the cold as it does so. When you want to defrost something, remove it from the plastic bin and place it at the top of the cooler, away from the ice.
- Butter, cheese and eggs keep fairly well as long as it doesn't get too hot and you have a shady place to keep a cooler. I moved the butter and cheese into the 'freezer chest' after we defrosted and ate some of the meat, keeping all of the coldest things together.
Keeping Food Away from AnimalsUnless you are camping in your living room, you will most likely encounter some sort of animal - be it insects, mice, raccoons, or god forbid, a bear. I've been on previous trips to Saranac Lake where we were practically attacked by marauding mice, so I try to be tidy, clean up any dropped food, and store food in tight containers or put it out of reach. Some tips for keeping animals away from food:
- Buckets with lids - Last year we hit upon the solution of bringing along two 3 gallon plastic buckets with tight fitting lids. We use them to store food at night (I used them for the especially tempting animal favorites like trail mix, peanut butter, crackers and cookies) and they can do double duty as water gatherers and a dish sink.
- Tree Hang - For food that doesn't need to stay dry, or simply doesn't fit in your bucket, we rigged a rope between two trees that could easily be lowered and raised. We put food in plastic bags, clipped a carabiner clip to each bag, then clipped the bag to the rope and hoisted it up into the air out of reach. We hung up our trash each night and when we left camp in the daytime this way as well.
- Ziplock bags - whether it's in your cooler, the plastic buckets or just in your backpack, ziplock bags help keep moisture, dirt and insects away from your food.
- Use your kayak - if you have a kayak with a closed hatch in the front or back, you can generally store food there away from little animals. Just make sure that you park your kayak out of the sun so your food doesn't get too hot and spoil.
Two important notes about bigger animals:
- It is highly recommended that you don't keep food in your tent (this actually applies to small animals as well). I could imagine what a horrible thing it would be to wake up in the middle of the night to find mice, racoons or bears rummaging through your tent. If possible, keep your food cooking and storage area on the other side of your camp away from your tent. Luckily, I've only once had a bear encounter in camp (when I was a kid, and I slept through it), not including hitting one with my car a few months ago on the Taconic parkway (it was his fault, and he was OK enough to run off into the woods)
- If you are going into an area where bears have been sighted, it's a good idea to bring a bear safe or metal food locker. And just to be even more service-y, here's some info on what you should do if you encounter a bear and other bear proofing tips (excellent tip here: "Never try to move a grizzly bear!")
There are a few things that I forgot to bring for my kitchen set up and that aren't included in my previous post on Tools for Your Camp Kitchen:
- TONGS! - I can't believe that I forgot this super important utensil. From turning meat to grabbing hot things from the fire, tongs are a must for any camp kitchen.
- IKEA blue tarp bags - If you haven't ever been to IKEA, you may not know what I'm talking about. But those of you who do, may understand the utility and value of the blue tarp bag from IKEA. You used to only be able to use them when you were shopping in the store, but a year or so ago, they stopped using plastic bags for purchases and 'make' you purchase a blue tarp bag. They are super handy and versatile. We used them for collecting wood, storing food, and carrying tools. You could probably also use them for collecting water if you needed to.
- Stove canister stand - Also in my previous camp kitchen tools post, I mentioned that the small camp stove I have is a little difficult to use because it's unstable. I found this canister stand at EMS before I left, and it came in very handy. It fits on most gas stove canisters and provides a little bit more stability than just using the can alone.
Up next, the very last camping post, the recipe for Homemade Granola.