Make your next camping trip a success by having a meal plan. It’s not always easy to pack food for a camping trip but we have learned a few tips over the years.
Over the past few years, we’ve done a lot of tent camping as a family. In kindergarten, Tyler joined Cub Scouts and Justin started his tenure as the leader of his Den. Now he is about to go into 5th grade and we are still going strong with scouts. But, we’ve added a few roles to our repertoire. Justin is still the leader of Tyler’s den and I am now the leader of Ryan’s den (just finished our third year) and have been the Cubmaster for our Pack for almost a full year now.
Our Pack does two camping trips per school year, one in October and one in March. For the last few years, I’ve also been in charge of food for a lot of people! We have a fairly large Pack and most of the families love to go camping. Our campouts tend to have about 75-100 people at them. We have a good idea of what it takes to plan, pack, and prepare food by this point.
There’s s big difference between how I pack food for a camping trip of that size versus how I would for just our family of four. But either way, you need to consider many of the same things.
You need to consider all of the meals while you are there. For our Cub Scout camping trips, we always tell families that they are on their own for dinner on Friday night since we all arrive at different times based on work and school schedules. Then we have a meal planned for Saturday breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. Sunday breakfast is easy grab-and-go food since we are all packing up.
Originally Published On: April 21, 2023
Planning Food for a Camping Trip
The first step to packing for a camping trip is to make a plan. What are you going to eat at each meal? What snacks will you have throughout the day? Are there any dietary restrictions for anyone going? What will you have access to while you are camping?
Remember, you can’t just easily run to grocery stores or grab a substitution from your pantry while you are at the campground. Although many campgrounds do have a small camp store that you can visit. It will have your basics, such as trail mix, granola bars, olive oil, and likely the ingredients for s’mores. Make sure you have enough food for your trip, but not too much food that you have to deal with getting it there and back home.
Think about every meal you will be at the campground for. Write down a list of ingredients and materials used for all of them. Oftentimes we don’t think about what it takes to grease a pan since it’s always in the pantry. But, again, you won’t have access to your pantry at the campground!
The best thing I can say about shopping for ingredients for a camping trip is to try to avoid too many fresh foods unless you have a plan to store them the right way. Trust me, when you are out camping is not the time to get food poisoning!
Shop sparingly. Only purchase and bring what you need. Sometimes this can be achieved by moving foods from their original packaging into smaller containers. Not only will this save on space in your cooler and dry food containers, but it also means you aren’t wasting food.
Consider the Campground Facilities
Before making your camping food list, you want to consider what you will have access to. With Scouts, we are required to have access to potable water and restroom facilities. We usually try to get sites with electric hookups as well. Our favorite campground doesn’t have electricity at each tent site, but there’s a central pavilion with lights, tables, and power outlets so we set up our kitchen in this area.
Do you plan to cook only over the campfire? Will you use an electric, gas, or charcoal grill for cooking? What about cooking over charcoals in a fire ring? Each of these has its own advantages and disadvantages but knowing what you plan to use will help you decide what food you want to cook.
Plan your Camping Meals
Now, it’s time to make a meal plan. We like to eat well when we are camping and need recipes that can scale easily. Typically, for breakfast, we like to make pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, and corn beef hash with bread. For lunch, we like to make foil-pack hamburgers, dutch oven mac and cheese, and salad. Dinner varies at each campout with our most recent being a taco bar. We have also gone really simple with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch. Those are great if you know you will be hiking and need a lunch you can pack in a backpack.
Packing Food for a Camping Trip
Now that the meal planning is done, it’s time to start preparing and packing your food. The best way to make sure you don’t forget anything is to make a list. The dry foods are easy to set aside for packing, but you can’t put out the cold foods until it’s time to go.
In the past, we have prepped some of the food before the camping trip. Sometimes this is to prevent it from taking up too much space. Others it’s for the convenience of packing easier. And some food is prepared ahead to make things easier to cook so we can spend more time enjoying the great outdoors.
A great way to transport eggs is to go ahead and crack them ahead of time. I read this somewhere years ago and thought it was genius. We used to try to bring the eggs full and let the scouts prepare the eggs for breakfast. While they enjoyed cracking the eggs, it wasn’t very efficient and left the chance of broken eggs when we arrive at the campground. They also take up less space when you break the eggs and transport them in a container. We find empty 2-liter containers or milk jugs work well when you have a lot of eggs.
You can also precook meats to make meal time easier. Instead of bringing raw meat, cook it at home. When we did our taco bar, we cooked the chicken and ground beef with the taco seasonings the night before leaving and put them in plastic bags in the refrigerator. Saturday evening we just had to open the bags and reheat the meat in a skillet over the campfire.
Fill the Cooler
Did you know there’s a “proper way” to pack a cooler when it’s time to pack food for a camping trip? We’ve learned as we go that some things work better than others. I like to put some ice packs in the cooler a few hours before we pack to start to cool the inside. That will help keep the food cold longer. It also helps to not store the cooler in the garage or a hot area before filling for the same reason.
Freeze a water bottle or two before camping and use those in the cooler. It will keep your water cooler longer and is something you can use later as it starts to melt. It also helps to use large chunks of ice instead of ice cubes if possible. They aren’t as easy to pack around, but they take a long time to melt. For short trips, such as a weekend camping trip, ice cubes work well as long as you have a decent cooler.
Put a layer of ice at the bottom of the cooler. Then use something like cardboard or a plastic cutting board to make a barrier. This prevents your food from falling into the ice and getting soggy. For the same reason, if you have anything you are packing that comes in cardboard, I suggest moving it to a better container.
Pack strategically. For obvious reasons, the heaviest stuff should be at the bottom. But it also helps to keep things in sections. If you have your meat in one area, vegetables in another, and condiments in its own area, it’s easier to find things. Personally, I prefer to keep the food items needed for each meal together. When it’s time for breakfast, I know that’s the food at the far left of the cooler. At lunch time I grab the next group of foods, etc. I do this with our dry goods as well.
When packing dry food, we have two containers I like to use. Sometimes we use plastic bins. You can find some cheap ones at Walmart or the dollar store. They are great because they are sturdy and reusable. Once you use up the food that was in the containers, you can pack other things in them on the way home. Plus, you have them for use the next time you go camping if you keep these with your camping gear.
Another option is to use cardboard boxes for non-perishable foods. Once the food has been consumed and you no longer need the box, you can use it as fuel for your campfire or camp cooking over the open fire. The best thing about using cardboard boxes means you can burn or recycle them and not have to take up that space in the vehicle on the way home.
Foods to Avoid
There are some foods we tend to avoid when we are camping. One of those is fresh milk. It spoils easily if it doesn’t stay cool enough. We are also careful with fresh fruit. You can bring it, but make sure you don’t leave it out in the sun to keep it from spoiling.
Equipment to Prepare Food for a Camping Trip
If you go to a camping store or an outdoor/sports store, you will find a plethora of camping gear, including cookware. Your camp kitchen doesn’t need to be filled with the newest top-of-the-line gadgets, though. Sometimes simple is the best way to go.
Our favorite way to make food is with a dutch oven or a propane cook top (also called a camp stove). We have also used a propane grill and a charcoal grill in the past. Don’t forget the firewood and charcoal that you’ll need to get your heat source warm. You don’t want to end up with cold food or uncooked food the entire trip!
When you go camping, remember, you have to bring everything with you. This also includes all of your cooking utensils. We keep a set of metal utensils with our camping gear. Metal can be used (carefully) in cast iron cookware or over a grill. It’s an easy way to bring as few items as possible with the most versatility.
Don’t forget, you also need dishes to eat your food from. You can purchase “mess kits” that are ready to go or bring your own plates, bowls, cups, forks, spoons, and knives from home. I suggest a good plastic or metal set, though, as you don’t want glass at a campground.
For most people, their morning coffee is the best part of a long day. There are a few ways to make coffee while camping but we have found using instant coffee grounds in a camping percolator over the propane cooktop is the most efficient and simple way.
You also may want to consider bringing just a few airtight containers. Sometimes this is good for storing extra food to eat later. Or you may end up needing it for food you open but don’t use all of it. I forgot the first time and we had an extra stick of butter from the package. It was thrown in the cooler in the cardboard box but that got soggy and the butter was all in our ice by the end of the camping trip.
The last step of any meal is cleaning up. While this isn’t the fun part, it’s necessary. With the scouts, we have a 3-step washing station that works well.
Step one: a bucket of warm water (start this over the fire or grill when you start cooking) mixed with some dish soap. Add a sponge or cleaning brush with this to scrub your dishes.
Step two: a bucket of warm water to rinse the dishes.
Step three: a bucket of cool water with a splash of bleach to sanitize.
When you’re done cleaning your dishes, the best way to dry them is on a line. We string it between two trees and everyone puts their dishes in a mesh laundry bag that gets clipped to the line. It allows for it to hang dry, but still have easy access to our dishes for the next delicious meals.
Please make sure you know how to properly care for your cast iron cookware. It cannot be scrubbed with water or other chemicals. Use a scraper to remove any stuck-on foods. Then use water to rinse it out. If the food is very stuck, you can add some water to the pan and put it over the fire to boil and loosen the food. Once it’s been rinsed out, you’ll want to put it over the heat to make sure the water has all evaporated. A cast iron pan left damp will rust quickly.
There are obviously a lot of animals around when you are camping. Make sure you have your trash hanging from a hook (if the campsite has one) or from a tree branch during the day. Once you are done with your evening meal, you’ll want to make sure to take it to the dumpsters that are on-site at most campgrounds. Trust me, we’ve had raccoons tear up a campsite before when we forgot to remove the trash. It’s not fun to clean up in the morning.
A few more general tips for when you pack food for a camping trip:
- Bring a LOT of water. Bring more water than you think you’ll need. If you know there’s a water source that you can use for cooking, then that is helpful. But I like to bring more bottled water for drinking than we should need. Especially if we are camping in hot weather.
- Hand sanitizer is a great substitute when you can’t easily wash your hands.
- Keep your food in either a sealed cooler or in the vehicle. We had one campout where the vehicles were far from the site so we made the mistake of leaving the food in our tent. I woke at midnight to the sounds of raccoons trying to claw their way into our tent!
- Some of the best snacks to bring include trail mix, granola bars, freeze-dried fruits, dehydrated foods, and similar types of food that are easy to carry and don’t need to be refrigerated.
And NEVER, ever forget the stuff to make s’mores!
More Recipes Perfect for Camping
- Best Tips for How to Pack Food for a Camping Trip
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- S’Mores Cookies – Girl Scouts Copycat Recipe
- Fluffy and Yummy Scrambled Eggs
- Quick and Easy Bisquick Pancakes
- How to Create an Allergy-Friendly Taco Bar
- Chicken Salad Sandwich