Did you camp out as a kid? On overnights in the woods as a child, we roasted hot dogs on sticks over an open fire until they hissed and blistered. Then, while toasting marshmallows for s’mores, our counselor, Obie, smoked a pipe and told stories around the smoldering coals. Given our hunger and the soft damp twilight of those piney woods, everything on that trip tasted good.
To this day, I love to cook over a campfire — the flickering flames, the scent of wood smoke, all the primitive, elemental appeal. When cooking in the wilderness, the stakes are different from at home — expectations are lower, and the options are limited by what fits into a pack. Give me a singed hot dog and golden s’mores with dark chocolate any day, but I’ve also learned to craft interesting, dare I say elegant, meals that still reflect simplicity in the wild.
On the trail, you’re carrying the kitchen on your back (like a snail). Given all of the prepackaged camping options, it’s tempting to cave in to convenience. But prepared meal packages are not any easier or quicker than a trail dinner made from scratch.
Boxed mac-and-cheese isn’t really any quicker than fettuccine Parmesan that I make myself from start to finish.
Both require boiling water to cook pasta. But one relies on a generic powdered “cheese product,” the second calls for extra-virgin olive oil, fresh lemon, good aged Parmesan, fine salami and cracked pepper. The boxed option may fill you up, but the from-scratch dinner tastes good and is good for you, too.
A little planning is essential. Following the Leave No Trace (LNT) guidelines, we divvy up essentials into plastic containers, carrying only what we’ll need and taking anything that’s left back out.
Basics such as olive oil, vinegar, spices, bouillon cubes, dried beans, grains, cereals, nut butters, honey, jam or jelly, nuts, dried fruit, sugar, coffee, and tea bags are sorted and packed into plastic containers. Many staples — cereals, grains, dried fruit, and nuts — don’t require refrigeration.
Keep in mind that many parks prohibit fires during the dry season or restrict them to certain times of day, so a small propane-fired stove is essential. Just remember that getting that water to boil often takes twice as long in the woods. It’s a good idea to get a second pot going while you’re eating so you’ll have hot water ready for washing dishes or for coffee, cocoa or tea.
Let’s get that campfire going.
Beth Dooley is the author of “Minnesota’s Bounty” and “The Northern Heartland Kitchen.” She helps guide food-related kayak trips in the Apostle Islands with Wilderness Inquiry.