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I love to Camp!
Personal reflections on being a Camp Cook


Soon after I was married, I found yet another reason to be glad I had chosen John for my husband.  He had grown up in a family that went camping on their yearly cross country vacations.  I had, of course, 'heard ' of camping.  I'd just never known anyone 'crazy' enough to actually do it!

The first summer we were husband and wife was my introduction to one of the best possible ways to travel in this big, beautiful country of ours:


and my life has not been the same since.


There is an incomparable feeling to be had when I unzip the door and step out of our tent right onto the cushioning carpet of pine needles fallen from the trees towering over me.  The air is so sweetly scented with pine resin and carries just a hint of coffee and bacon smells from the early risers down the way.  It's so quiet that you would never know there was another human within 20 miles without the whiff of breakfast riding on the air.  That same light breeze dapples the early morning sunlight falling around my feet and ruffles the smooth mirrored surface of the lake only fifteen yards from where I stand.  Across the expanse of water, at the edge of the darker forest, I catch a glimpse of movement and spy a doe checking to see if it's safe to step to the water's edge for a drink.  Over my head, two jays' raucous quarrel echoes from tree to tree, finally fading away.   I hear the whir of frantic wings that tells me a hummingbird is near and glance up in time to see an iridescent green glint zipping by.

Sounds idyllic, doesn't it?  Well it is....  But a bit of planning will make everything easier and give you ways to cope when things aren't so perfect.  Because, sometimes they won't be.  To me, the trade off for all that incredible natural beauty and peace and the unparalleled opportunity to be up close to nature makes up for the things I don't like about camping.  Such as:
*Trekking to the bathroom, sometimes in the middle of the night with only a flashlight as your companion in the dark.
*Sleeping on the ground.   Especially if your air mattress springs a leak.
*Thunderstorms in camp (and the mud afterwards).
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So what's to learn?  Cooking is just cooking after all...

There is a subtle 'art' to camping.  And, as with most other pursuits, there are many different styles of doing the tasks necessary to have a successful experience.  Each person who heads off into the wilderness must make his or her own way in order to find the personal style of camping that suits them.  I don't pretend to understand (or agree) with all the ways that campers 'celebrate' the camping experience.  But I do try to respect their right to go wherever their path leads.  I just want them to give me the same consideration. I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers, but after almost 38 years of camping in a lot of different settings and under many different conditions, I thought that sharing a few of my experiences might help the novice camper get started.

Perhaps the most consistent, predictable part of any camp experience (aside from dealing with the fact of sleeping in the midst of nature) is Camp cooking.   Whatever else we do every day, we all still expect to have our breakfast, our lunch and our dinner.  Now if your idea of camping is the KOA within the city limits of Laramie, Wyoming, I'd recommend The Overland for breakfast, Wingers American Diner for lunch and The Library Restaurant & Brewing Company for dinner.  And maybe a nice toasted marshmallow treat for everyone around the ol' metal grill at your campsite before turning in for the night.  But, if you want to try something a little more 'out there' in the real woods, under the stars, with the wind whispering through the pines and a babbling brook singing your bedtime lullaby, you may have to rely on learning some basic camp cooking.

My camping style

I love to get away from it all.  That pretty much means no fancy four course dinners, as few dishes and clean-up chores afterwards as possible and enough time to go for a walk or sit and look at the stars before getting ready for bed.   I like to cook, but camp cooking has got to be simple, or I don't do it.  So I don't pack the portable, campfire oven.  For me, it's a waste of space and weight, even if it does fold down flat for storage.  My camp cook philosophy is: Don't bake a a cake, preferably from the nice little bakery shop in the small town you passed through on your afternoon drive.  Or forget about cake and have a candy bar, a piece of fruit or a S'more, instead.

If you are going to be camping for more than one night, and know that you will be cooking the majority of your meals in camp, it's an excellent idea to make out a detailed meal plan a few days before you leave.  It will be easier to shop, even if you plan to buy most of your food supplies at a grocery store near where you are camping. Making the list will give you the chance to pack some of the essentials while you are at home in your own kitchen (where you already have a lot of the good stuff).

For instance, most of us want salt and pepper on hand for seasoning and cooking and sugar for our coffee or cereal.  Purchase small, water-proof, plastic containers to hold these and other spices, seasonings and essentials that you can't get along without and fill them in your kitchen before your trip.  If you are going camping for four days, you won't need a whole box of salt or the giant economy size of garlic powder that you bought at Cosco.  So pack and carry only what you will need for the time you are gone.

My mother-in-law taught me to pack for a camping trip. So I learned from an expert.  38 years ago, we had a wooden camp box as big as a foot locker which we gradually added items to, building it up so we could have most of the cooking essentials ready for our trips without raiding the kitchen.  Inside the top of the lid was a list of what was already inside AND a list of what we would have to add before putting the box into the trunk of our car.  These days, we use two clear plastic storage containers.  They have the advantage of being much lighter weight than the old wooden box and you can see into them without opening so you know the contents.  And I can lift one of them by myself.  I still put a list of the box's contents in the lid, completely covered with water-proof, wide, clear packing tape. And I take time, before we pack up to leave on a trip, to check the list against what's actually in the box, in case we have run out of something.

Here is the list of what I pack in each box:

Box 1
( ) paper towels
( ) napkins
( ) aluminum foil
( ) zip lock bags
( ) covered disposable containers
( ) paper plates, bowls
( ) plastic or metal plates, bowls
( ) plastic cups, drinking glasses
( ) coffee cups
( ) silverware(knives, forks, spoons-lg. & sm.)
( ) utensils, spatula, slotted spoon, bacon fork, tongs, wire whisk
( ) can opener, bottle opener
( ) sharp knife (knives)
( ) cutting board
( ) Measuring cups & spoons
( ) Mixing bowl, metal or plastic
( ) all weather table cover, plastic tablecloth
( ) broom, whisk broom
( ) dust pan
( ) clothes line, rope
( ) snap clothes pins

Box 2
( ) plastic tub(s) for dish washing
( ) metal bucket(s) for heating water
( ) plastic bucket for carrying water
( ) rubber gloves
( ) dish soap
( ) sponge (s)
( ) chore girl, SOS pads, plastic scrubber
( ) tea towels
( ) coffee pot
( ) cooking pan(s) of size for your family &/or to heat water
( ) iron skillet and iron griddle
( ) Dutch oven or other large pan for one-pan meals like chili or soup
( ) pot holders, oven mitts

( ) plastic trash bags
( ) newspapers

Why I make a menu list:

There are a number of good reasons to make a list of what you will serve while at camp.  The absolutely most important one is this:  If you want to make your famous-from scratch-pancakes and you begin to put all the ingredients together (with your hungry family all milling around the table clutching their forks in anticipation) you don't want to have to break the news to them that you forgot to pack the baking powder and the nearest store is 55 miles down a winding mountain road.  So don't take it for granted that you will automatically remember to pack every ingredient for every thing you want to cook at camp. MAKE A LIST!

Learn to make due.  Those 'from scratch' pancakes may be essential to your family's happiness.  But, if they can get along with a mix, by all means do it that way.  I found that there are very tasty pancakes made from some of the 'just add water' mixes.  So you don't even need to buy and pack along eggs(which should be kept cool in an ice chest)! 

When thinking 'seasoning', consider the packets available in the spice aisle at the grocery.  They are the size to make one meal and then you throw the wrapper away.  Beef Stew seasoning can be used to flavor a vegetable soup.   Spaghetti sauce seasoning makes an interesting flavor addition to meatball stew.   Think outside the box, use your imagination.  I use bottled ranch dressing to moisten drained canned tuna and serve it on whole grain bread with slices of avocado and we think it's delicious.

I feel the same way about other fast, short-cut alternatives.  Make it simple, make it easy.  Chances are, the fresh air will make whatever you cook in camp taste just delicious!  Also, unless you want to cope with safely storing leftovers, try to cook only the quantity that can be eaten at one meal or throw away what you don't eatUnder NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you ever leave any leftovers out "to feed the wild animals".  It's NOT SAFE, for you OR the animals.

Safe storage of food in camp is a lot more than just refrigeration

In many parts of the United States, the safe storage of leftovers (and of all food items in general) is not just about avoiding spoilage, while camping.  It's about bears, and raccoons, skunks and chipmunks.  In fact, it's about all wild creatures, large and small, who will be drawn to your food supplies by smell and the promise of a free meal or midnight snack.

Most of the state and national parks have regulations in place that insist on the safe storage of food and other sweet smelling items (like shampoo, soap, etc) inside of animal proof metal containers (your auto's trunk qualifies as do so-called 'bear boxes' that are located around the campgrounds).  Lock coolers, plastic boxes, etc. up every night and even during the day, if you will be away from your camp site for more than a few minutes.  Ignoring these guidelines could invite an unpleasant incident, if not real danger, to you and your family.  And in areas that are posted, it could also get you a written warning or a ticket requiring you to pay a monetary fine for non-compliance.

Even if you are on private land or within the boundaries of a park which has no such regulations, please keep your family safe by taking similar precautions with your food stuffs.  It's really an easy thing to do, but could make the difference between having a great camping trip or a very bad experience.  Old timers used a gunny sack and rope to suspend food from a tree far away from where they were sleeping.  And they lived to pass their knowledge on to us.   It's not a joke.  Camp Safely and live to teach the next generation to do the same.

And further...

*As for storing perishable items in an ice chest, here are a couple of tips:  Purchase Blocks of Ice instead of cubes when ever possible.  Block ice will last many hours longer than cubes.  In camp, place your ice chest in the shade (under a tree or under the picnic table).

*Purchase milk and juice in plastic screw top containers if possible because they will be less likely to leak if they should tip over.  There are also plastic containers with screw lids for sale at camp stores and many household goods stores which can be used to transfer contents of open cartons to prevent leaking. 

*Keep a close eye on how much ice you have left in your cooler.  If you are getting low on ice, take the chest with you in the car while sight-seeing as you may find someplace that sells ice.  Also be sure to check with the rangers at the park where you are camped.  Many of these parks now have posted hours when they vend ice (and sometimes other items) on the site.  Up to a point, leaving the cold water in the ice chest is better than draining it off until you have found someplace to purchase replacement ice. 

*When you drain the water, do so at or near the drains at a campground, in case there may be any food odors in the water.   Carefully observe all signs at campgrounds which make specific requests, such as where to dispose of dishwashing water and trash, etc.  There are good reasons for these rules that generally have to do with public safety or public health.  Both should be of concern to all campers, for it could make a difference between having a wonderful vacation OR becoming ill or being injured by a wild animal.

Time Saver/Space saving Tips

Okay, your family IS NOT going to give up your fine made-from-scratch pancakes. But you have been making them in the same quantity for your brood for three years, so:  Measure out all dry ingredients for a batch before you leave home.  Put these into a ziplock plastic bag that is a lot bigger one than you really need to hold the dry ingredients alone.  Here's why:  With great care, you may be able to use the bag as a mixing bowl, pouring in milk, egg, oil and using a whip to combine all. 

But, even if you don't want to make the bag into a bowl, here's another reason: if you happen to be traveling to the mountains from a state with lower elevation.   You may be amazed to discover the effects of the change in elevation on sealed containers.  John and I discovered this scientific fact in a very visual way one time many years ago.  I had a Tupperware container packed almost full with our ground coffee and then tucked into the food camp box.  We were driving along in the late afternoon(coming from Missouri), excited to be finally getting close to our destination (the mountains near Colorado Springs) when we heard this distinct "POP" sound which originated from the back of our Suburban.  When we investigated, we discovered coffee grounds exploded all over the inside of the camp box.   A Very interesting visual, but I wouldn't want to try it again, thank you. ~smile~   Now I take the precaution of packing things in larger than necessary plastic bags, I roll the extra bag around the container to force as much air as possible from inside the bag then seal it across, then I set each bag upright and unseal just the tiniest bit of the bag.  If you do it carefully, air doesn't seem to go back into the bag and so far, no more explosions, so I guess it's working.  I also put items that are already packaged into large plastic ziplocks to guard against spills.  If a juice box springs a leak, it's confined to the bag and not all over everywhere in the camp box.   Ziplocks can be used over and over again to save money and the environment.   Some of my ziplocks have 'traveled' many hundreds of miles.  They are as well-traveled as I am!

**How would you like to serve a nice pot of homemade chili or bean soup and corn bread to your family on the second or third night you are in camp?  It's a lot easier and less work than you might think because:  You do all the cooking at home at least several days ahead of your departure, then freeze everything in large freezer containers.  Put the frozen containers of food into your ice chest along with plenty of ice and it will take a full day or more for them to unthaw.  In the mean time, their being frozen will really help keep the ice chest cold. Just remember to keep the container of corn bread above the water (put into the hanging basket if you have one) and keep it sealed in foil or plastic wrap.

Why pack newspapers?

Newspapers can be used to drain bacon, keep spattered grease off the wood picnic table, to sit on, if the bench or log is wet.  To throw vegetable and fruit peels on, then fold over and throw away in the garbage bag.  Dozens of uses, just like at home!

Some comments on equipment for camping

There is really no reason that campers on a budget can't use their regular household items such as pots, skillets, dishes, cups, glasses and silverware in camp.  Then bundle them home, give them a good washing and put everything back in the kitchen cabinets.  BUT, when packing for a camping trip you may want to consider a few pointers in choices of what to take and what to leave at home. Always chose unbreakable.  Plastic or metal for plates, bowls and cups, plastic drinking glasses.

Pack one full set of dishes and silverware for every member of the camping party and no more.  It saves weight, it saves space and, remember, you are going to be living in considerably less space than you are used to (if you don't count the great outdoors and the long stroll to the bathroom)

After considering your menu, decide to take only the cookware you need to do the jobs you have.  You can't go wrong by taking 1 large or medium iron skillet(depends on size of your family) 1 Dutch oven (or other large, heavy metal soup pan)  I also like to take a smaller skillet and a medium size sauce pan (since there are generally only the two of us) BUT we could get by with only the larger pans.

I almost always pack the iron griddle for pancakes and we bring a large coffee pot, because we like lots of coffee.

Over a period of time, it has simplified our lives to have a whole set of cooking and eating supplies that we use just for camping.  They stay packed in the boxes, after being run through the dishwasher when we get home and we can just pick them up, put them with our tent trailer and sleeping bags and can be 'nearly packed'.  I always looked for needed items when at rummage sales & garage sales and spent very little on the kit as a whole.  When choosing items look for quality and practicality over beauty.  Something heavy-duty will take to camp life with more grace and have a longer life.  If you have a family to pack for here is a hint to keep kids from arguing about whose plate, glass and fork got thrown in the stream.  Try to find similar size BUT deliberately choose a different pattern or color for every member of the family.  (it's also a good way to keep germs from being passed around from using someone else's cup)  The same with silverware.  But if you use the nesting knife, fork and spoon sets sold in camp stores, as we do, then:  Engrave names or initials on the handles of each piece.

Measuring cups & spoons, spatulas, wire whisks, slotted cooking spoons, etc...  All these items are generally priced under a dollar at rummage sales, but try to pick ones that are stainless or nylon-coated to guard against rust.  A fairly shallow, long covered plastic box such as a shoe box will keep them and your sharp knives together and safe.  If you put a few paper napkins on top of everything and close the lid, they won't rattle around so much and you can use the napkins when you eat.

Either purchase new or get clean, used sealing storage containers which hold small quantities of various items you may need for cooking such as spices, seasonings and baking powder or soda.  These items do lose their potency so don't leave them in the camp box for years on end without replacing them.

Having the camp boxes 'ready to go' really makes packing for a trip feel so much easier!

Setting Up the cooking area

Many of the established campgrounds all over the country have picnic tables, fire rings or barbecues, lamp stands and other aids to help in setting up an orderly, well maintained camp.  If you are tent camping, try to pitch the tent on the pad which has been outlined for it (if there is one).  This will generally be at least several yards from the table and fire ring and sometimes, raised a few inches with a nice smooth surface(less rocks and roots).  The more space you can have between the sleeping and cooking/eating areas, the better, since cooking odors will sometimes draw critters.

Keep the cooking/eating area clean (Policing the area)

Keep the table free of litter and especially food scraps.   If you have very young or very careless children, try to keep the area under the table free of food or litter also, between meals and before bedtime.  Make it a rule that each camper must pick up after himself and there may just be less that gets dropped in the first place.  Please take time to teach each child to respect the environment and other people's rights to a clean campground.  And make it a matter of pride with them to leave things as nice or even a little bit better than when they arrived.  It can become a fun game that may develop into a lifelong habit.

If you are cooking on a propane camp stove, wipe up messes and spills & spatters carefully both from the stove and from the table (if that's where you have it set).  After the stove has been turned off and cools, remove the fuel source from the stove and store the stove in your automobile or a bear box, if it's permissible.  If in doubt about what you may leave on the table, ask a ranger for guidance and follow his/her instructions.

I like to use a plastic table cloth on the table where ever people are sitting down to eat.  It keeps food spills from soaking into the wood of the table and gives a cleaner surface for placing plates and silverware.  Yet it's easy to sponge off and after air drying for a little bit, can be folded away and put back into the camp box.

One of the last chores before you go to bed every evening MUST BE to take the trash bag with all trash you have accumulated that day to the trash container.  Many campgrounds have animal-proof, covered containers.  Always be sure that the cover is securely closed after you put your trash in.  Don't ever leave trash in a bag at your site during the night.  It's a magnet to wild things and could pose a real danger to your family or others in the campground.

Do the dish washing and clean-up easier

You have cooked the meal and everyone is ready to sit down.   Just before the food is done cooking, send someone for a bucket (or two) of water.   When the food pan(s) come off the stove, put the water on the burner(s) so that it can heat up while you are eating.  There are two ways to wash dishes in camp.   The way I learned was by using galvanized metal buckets.  Galvanized metal buckets can be set directly on a heat source (camp stove or over a wood fire, preferably on a grate, so it will sit level).  If you use two buckets, you can wash directly from one and rinse from the other.  Be sure to have cool water available to cool the heated water to a safe temperature for putting your hands into.  I also take rubber gloves to protect my hands, but that's just my personal preference.

The second way (and the one I use now) is to heat the water and use two plastic wash tubs in which to wash and rise the dishes.  The one real advantage to the tub method is that tubs are not as deep as a bucket and are a wider shape, making it easier to wash larger plates and bigger pans.  I still like to use a galvanized bucket to heat the water, but you must remember to use a hot pad/oven mitt to protect your hands from accidental burns, because the bail of the bucket as well as the bucket itself will get hot.  Some pans have handles that resist heating up and can offer some protection from burns.  So you should really use whatever you feel most comfortable using to heat dish washing water.  Remember that pans can 'blacken'  over wood fires, and care should be taken with Bakelite or plastic handles around campfires.  Watch them closely to avoid accidentally burning or melting them.

Determining 'your' level of comfort when choosing a campground

Some campers love a challenge.  The bigger the challenge, the happier they are.  So they seek out the really primitive campgrounds or camp on National Forest land with absolutely no facilities and don't care if they have to bring in all their own water.  They will happily dig a latrine.  They eat things directly out of cans all week and bury their garbage, then pack it back out with them when they leave. 

Other people really don't like to give up many of their creature comforts and they will experience the wilderness more as an extension of their own 'living room' back home.  I always pray that I won't be in the campground site next to one of these people.  They are often the one's who bring the 35' deluxe RVs to the park.   Then they turn on their noisy, gas-powered generators and crank on their air-conditioning.  They tune in their favorite reality show on the tube or a nice National Geographic special on wildlife and draw the shades to keep the night outside and maintain their sense of privacy at the expense of their neighbor's ears and nerves.  They don't always remember that the generators are supposed to be turned off at 10 p.m. and that they ostensibly came to the wilderness to get away from noise, pollution and the complications of their everyday life.  To see and experience something new, different, natural and beautiful certainly doesn't seem to have been their goal and I often wonder why they made the trip in the first place.

My personal level of comfort is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  First and nearly essential for me:  I really need fresh, safe, drinkable water available 24-7 at no extra charge on site.  I would much rather camp where there are flush toilets and (at least) cold running water from a tap in the bathrooms (although I can be persuaded to tolerate a pit toilet and no water in the bathrooms for the right view). And having a couple of electric lights near the bathrooms means less chance of wandering off course in the middle of the night.  Having a flushable waste water outlet is a very desirable extra and makes disposing of dish water and food solids a whole lot easier and campground-user friendly.

It's REALLY terrific to be able to get block ice and split wood for campfires on the campground site at nominal prices. But it's not an absolute necessity; just a really nice perk.  Another lovely 'perk' is hot showers on site, but most of the wonderful campgrounds in scenic locations haven't gotten that plush yet.


And Finally, here are two more lists for your consideration.  The first one is a list of the things you must pack if you are planning to cook at camp.  Some can be omitted or modified but you must have at least one source of heat if you are to do any heating of food or water.  And you must have some type of ice chest/cooler if you wish to protect perishables from spoilage.

Do not rely on being able to cook on an open campfire these days.   Many of the state and national parks severely restrict or completely ban open fires during times of drought.  Unfortunately, many of the western, southwestern and central states as well as many northern and northwestern states are currently experiencing drought conditions.  It may mean there will be no sitting around a campfire after dark and toasting marshmallows, but that's a vital compromise when forests are so dry that a single stray spark could cause a serious forest fire. 

So be sure to have an acceptable back-up source of heat for cooking.  Even charcoal grills may be outlawed where you wish to camp, as they are in some parks in the Rocky Mountains.  A propane camp stove is really the only alternative acceptable in some parks, so find out before you go and avoid being unpreparedAnd pack a good portable fire extinguisher to be extra safe.

( ) camp stove
( ) propane canisters or fuel & small funnel for white gas stoves
( ) matches, flint starter
( ) single burner camp stove*
( ) fuel canister (s)
( ) grill and charcoal and starter fluid
( ) fire extinguisher

( ) a light source such as gas powered lantern or battery powered lamp/lantern (for cooking, eating or cleaning up after dark ) 
( ) mantles for fuel type lanterns            
( ) extra batteries for lantern/lights (better to have an extra set or two, than be in the dark)           
( ) large ice chest
( ) smaller cooler
( ) Water jug
( ) coffee thermos

* used to heat or perk coffee or boil smaller amounts of water

The food list below is strictly a very general guide to remind you of some essentials that are taken on lots of camping trips.  Your menu plan will suggest the refinements to this list.  One thing that is worth remembering is that many campgrounds are located in remote areas with only one or two small grocery stores near by.  You may find a very limited selection of brands and items and (sometimes) shockingly higher prices.  IF you have preferences for certain favorite brands or food necessities, you might need to purchase these items from your home area and bring them with you.

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Lidded plastic tub for Food
( ) water**
( ) coffee, tea
( ) juice &/or soda pop
( ) instant cocoa mix
( ) crackers
( ) cookies
( ) fruit
( ) vegetables
( ) peanut butter
( ) canned tuna &/or meat
( ) milk, fresh, canned or powdered
( ) bread
( ) cereal, dry brands, instant oatmeal
( ) salt and pepper, sugar, powdered creamer
( ) any other herbs, spices & such things as baking powder and baking soda(as necessary from menu list)
( ) cooking oil or spray
( ) the Food & Meat/Fish to conform to your menu list, canned, fresh or freeze-dried, boxed or packaged

** there are times when drinking water is not available at the camp site.  You should find this out when making camping arrangements and make plans accordingly.   Remember that extra water should be kept on hand to supply  all cooking purposes, to make coffee or Kool-Aid for drinking as well as for brushing teeth and drinking.  A good rule of thumb is to ere on the side of having too much water, rather than too little for your family's needs.  This is especially important when primitive camping in areas far from grocery stores.


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7/29/03  The first camp recipe is ready! Click on the icon above.



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