It’s easy to screw up what food to bring camping. While pretty much all camp-made food worth noting has the delicious uniting factor of being cooked over the coals of a live fire, there are a lot of half-baked weenies and scorched s’mores out there. Chefs, however, do it right when it comes to the best food to take camping.
We reached to chefs around the US to find the best camping food ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. Because when you find time in your busy schedule for a camping trip, few things beat a good meal around the fire.
If there are two things that everyone can agree on about camping meals, it’s that it should be easy and tasty. Few things are as easy, or as flavor-stuffed, as a packet of foil filled with meat and vegetables.
“My go-to camping meals are foil-pocket dinners,” says Bryant Kryck, chef at CRAFTpdx in Portland, Oregon. “You cut all of your vegetables and meats at home, place them in Ziploc bags and into a cooler.” Once ready to start cooking, empty the bags (Kryck likes peppers, mushrooms, chicken, onions, rice, a splash of beer, and cream of mushroom soup) into foil and wrap it tightly. Let it cook against a rock near the flames for 20 to 30 minutes and enjoy.
What you put in your foil pocket is up to you. Pork and pineapple is a good combo, as is shrimp and andouille sausage with Cajun seasonings. You can also use foil pockets to cook your sides, suggests Josiah and Shannon McGaughey, chef/co-owner and co-owner of Vivian in Asheville, North Carolina. They’ll fill the foil with diced vegetables like eggplant, peppers, and potatoes with butter and cook it in the coals while roasting a whole protein over the fire (bacon-wrapped rabbit stuffed with foraged angelica has been one of their standouts).
Pro tip: “Do all the prep and cuts at home before you get to the campsite so you can enjoy yourself hanging with friends and relaxing and all you have to do is fill your foil pockets,” says Bill Espiricueta, executive chef and owner of Smōk in Denver.
When Kyoo Eom, executive chef at Washington DC’s Dirty Habit, goes camping in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains with his family, he whips up a meal that his mom made on camping trips as a kid: kimchi-jjigae.
Kimchi-jjigae is a type of kimchi stew. “It’s spicy, hot, and full of rich umami flavor,” Eom says. “When we ate it back then, it instantly warmed my entire body and offered so much comfort.”
When you make it, stick to the simple version, “and don’t get too wild,” Eom says. “Just sear the pork belly (in a cast-iron stew pot). The fat renders from it and you can sautee the kimchi with that. Add the kimchi liquid, bring it to a boil over the flame and simmer. If you need a little water that’s fine, but don’t boil it or you lose the flavor. Simmer for an hour and that’s it! Plenty of time for the kids to go for a swim.”
There’s nothing wrong with a good s’more, but there’s a whole world of desserts out there to be enjoyed around the campfire. William Schultz, executive chef at the Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park, uses a Dutch oven to make a peach cobbler when camping with his wife. Dutch oven camp cooking opens the door to a range of recipes that can’t be made over an open flame, and desserts are up there with the best of them. Schultz buries his Dutch oven in coals under the fire for a crispy crust and moist center. Brown sugar, butter, and rolled oats go on top for a crunch, and to go the extra mile, Schultz pairs the cobbler with some homemade ice cream.
Skip fish filets, which can fall apart over the fire if you’re not careful, for a whole fish. Bonus points if you catch the fish yourself.
“I always leave the fish whole,” says Chris Royster, executive chef and partner at Flagstaff House Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado. “Clean and then fill with fresh herbs and lemon, especially for trout. Cook over the lower heat side so the fish begins to get smoky.”
He’s not alone in his whole fish preference.
For the perfect fish, Daniel Morel, chef at Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello, has a few tips (plus the reassurance that all you need is some foil, lemon, garlic, rosemary, olive oil, twine, and salt). First, if you’re cooking your own catch, clean out the stomach and liver because it has a strong iron taste that’ll takeover. Fill the fish evenly with the herbs and spices, tie it shut, and wrap it twice in tinfoil. Cook it directly on the embers of a fire (around eight minutes each side for a decent-sized trout).
Don’t feel limited to eating as-is when it’s done.
“My go-to is whole roasted fish, which you can flake to turn it into tacos with salsa verde, and serve with a charred corn and cherry tomato salad,” says chef Matt Sigler of Portland, Oregon’s Il Solito. “The coals are a great way to cook while camping. I always cook corn in husks inside the coals, and you can also char a whole onion in the coals and slice for tacos.”
Speaking of tacos, don’t limit your options to fish.
“You already have an open fire to grill whatever meat you’d like to use as well as any vegetables, and you can throw your tortillas in a pan to warm them up,” says Diana Dávila of Chicago’s Mi Tocaya Antojería. “You can also make your salsa in a pot on the campfire as well — just mash it as its cooking”
Instant ramen and Korean-style short ribs
“Marinated Korean-style short ribs are my favorite, they are super tasty, cook very fast, and generate an awesome smoky beefy aroma that may attract new friends on any campgrounds,” says Thach Tran, executive chef at Ace Eat Serve in Denver. “Another go-to is instant ramen, Shin Black Label to be specific, but whatever works for you! Instant ramen is instant comfort when it is dark and cold, a great late-night, go-to meal.”
Fancy hot dogs
Hot dogs are the pop music of food. A hot dog can be low-brow and stripped down to the basics (ketchup and mustard) or elevated with ingredients — both have mass appeal. Julio Peraza, chef at fl.2 at Fairmont Pittsburgh, cooks natural-casing hot dogs wrapped in smoked bacon while camping, then tops them with guacamole, caramelized onions, and sautéed bell peppers.
“Growing up, this was our go-to for camping with my parents,” Peraza says. “It makes for an easy lunch or dinner. We always had it the first night we got to the campsite. It’s easy to prepare, and a hot dog with bacon – what’s not to love?”
Pro tip: Tuck the bacon into itself because it shrinks when cooking.
“My go-to camping meal has to be shakshuka, which is basically a rich tomato gravy with eggs poached into the sauce,” says Jessica Hazard, a chef who has worked for Disney World and President George Bush and runs the website Vancognito. “It can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be as the two main components are just tomato and eggs. And it’s great for breakfast, lunch AND dinner!”
Shakshuka can be made with whatever is on hand. All you really need is pureed tomato (can be canned), a bouillon cube, and eggs. Spices like cumin, paprika, red pepper flakes, and harissa paste are typically added, as well as some greens and herbs. For the best shakshuka, use room temperature eggs (it cooks more evenly) and a tomato sauce that’s simmered low and slow.
Overnight-cooked brisket and pork shoulder
While the foil pocket dinner is popular, there’s a larger-scale way of cooking with the method that takes just a little more prior planning: foil-wrapped brisket or pork shoulder.
“One of my favorite (and easiest) things to do is season it really generously with salt and pepper, then wrap in several layers of foil (you want to make sure it cooks through without getting scorched),” says Adam Vero, executive chef at Denver’s Hearth & Dram.
Simply bury the foil-wrapped meat under the hot coals before calling it a night and when you wake up, you’ll have a slow-cooked meal ready and waiting for you, that will make you want to sing next to the campfire.
Dinesh Jayawardena, executive chef at FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, also looks to his childhood for inspiration. Jayawardena grew up in Sri Lanka and would help his kiri-amma (grandmother) with the gardening. Come yam season, that meant helping out with the harvesting — and some of the eating.
Jayawardena would dig the yams up and dust them off while his kiri-amma started a wood fire. The collection of yams were then thrown straight onto the glowing wood coals. “I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to eat this? It is going to be ash soon,’” Jayawardena says.
The yams stay on the coals for a few minutes before being taken out, plated, and cracked open.
“The hot, steamy, roasty smell and taste is something I will never forget,” Jayawardena says. “Sharing that moment with my kiri-amma was one of the fondest moments of my childhood. That’s why with every chance I get I bring it back when camping throughout the wilderness of my now-home-state of Minnesota.”
This works for any root vegetable, Jayawardena says, including onion, rutabaga, carrot, parsnip, or celery. Yams have a high sugar content that makes them particularly ideal, however, as they take on the flavor of the coals to balance the natural sweetness.