Drop by anytime in the backcountry or even at your local national park campground and you’ll quickly realize the importance of a great meal in the great outdoors. Not only do you need calories to hike, but a good meal can also help ease the pain of the long day and turn that rainy trip into a less well-eaten trip.
Bringing the kitchen outside isn’t always as easy as it looks. I’ve been a professional chef and have also guided quite a few groups through the wilderness, and during that time I discovered what every professional guide knows: food makes or breaks the trip. Here, I’ve put together a mix of ideas, from the gear you need to meal planning tips. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re new to camping or you’re a tent veteran. Be sure to check out our outdoor guides for more tips, including the best camping gear and tents.
Special offer for Gear readers: get a One-year subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if desired). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.
The basics: a good stove
For car camping, I recommend a two-burner stove. The size of the stove really depends on the size of your group. For a group of five or less, the best choice is this Coleman Classic 2-Burner Propane Camp Stove. It strikes a good balance between cost, cooking power and size. If you’re going with a larger group, you’ll either want to use a few pans or opt for something like the Camp Chef Pro 60X Deluxe ($320). If neither suits you, our Best Camp Stoves guide includes more recommendations.
Finding a good backpacking stove is trickier because weight matters a lot more. In fact, ultralight backpackers will say you don’t even need a stove, just bring ready-to-eat food. But for the rest of us, a nice hot meal can really be the difference between survival and real fun. I used and enjoyed the Primus Firestick ($90), which is perfect for meals for two.
If you go solo, the Jetboil MiniMo ($155) is a perennial favorite. If your group is larger, my suggestion is to divide the food into pairs, one stove for two people. It’s certainly possible to cook more on a single backpacking stove, but I find it more difficult than just bringing an extra, lightweight stove.
A good cooler
The best cooler is the Yeti Tundra Series. I wish the more expensive option wasn’t the best, but it is, and impressively so. I’ve been testing a Yeti Tundra 45 for a few months and regularly get a good week’s worth of cooling from a single block of ice. Even bags of cube ice typically last three to four days at temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it gets hotter than that, performance drops (humidity will also melt it faster), but it’s still better than anything you’ll get from other coolers. Yetis aren’t cheap, but they’re nigh indestructible and outperform anything we’ve tested.
If you can’t camp enough to justify the cost of a Yeti, I suggest going with whatever is available at your local store. Most other coolers are about equal in performance. Make sure you have something with plenty of room for your food and ice. Most cooler manufacturers suggest a 2:1 ratio of ice to goods, but I confess that I rarely pull this off with a family of five camping for a week. In my testing, a 1 to 1 ratio is more realistic and always seems to keep my food fresh.
Whatever cooler you buy, store it properly. If you’re in bear country, that usually means in a supplied metal storage box. Wherever you are, keep your cooler out of the sun when possible and make sure the lid stays tightly closed. Open your cooler as little as possible so that it retains the cold air inside. One way to minimize airflow and make ice last longer is to bring a separate beverage cooler so you don’t constantly open and close your main cooler just to get another drink. I also suggest making your own block of ice if you have the freezer space.
A camp table
If you’re heading to a campground, you’ll likely have access to a picnic table, which you can use for cooking, but takes up space for eating. If you have a larger group or don’t have access to a picnic table, a good camping table is a must. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, I haven’t used a camping table that I really like and is still available for purchase. The best thing I’ve used recently is this table from Alps Mountaineering, which is reasonably stable and stores well and small, although it looks pretty cheap.
Another option is the more affordable plastic folding table you’ll find at most big box stores like Walmart. i used this Mainstays 4-foot model ($40) when camping, and it did the job, although it warped over time; metal pans will also slide on them, so be careful when cooking.
You’ve got your food safely stored on plenty of ice, your stove is set up on a table, and now it’s time to cook. What do you cook with? To get started, just bring pots and pans and cooking utensils from home. I happen to cook almost entirely on cast iron, which works well in the RV, as it’s very durable and retains heat well. But it is very heavy.
If you don’t want to bring your nice pans from home, another option is to go to your local thrift store and pick up a few cheap pans that you don’t mind banging around camp. But if you’re looking to take your camp kitchen to the next level, consider a Dutch oven. Baking in a Dutch oven takes a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, there’s very little you can’t do with one. I own and recommend the Lodge 6 quart model with a flat lid. The lid can be used as a hot plate.
Cooking at the campsite or in the backcountry can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want it to be. Whether you like hot dogs on skewers or alder smoked trout with radishes and herb aioli, there are a few things to keep in mind when planning your camping meals. .