Preparing Food for Camping


Food packaging for camping


© copyright 2004, by Gary Benton

It was late afternoon when a small van pulled up into the campsite next to mine. I was enjoying a cold glass of ice tea and I stood watching them unload their equipment for a long time. I was amazed by how much junk they had brought with them. Now, there are two ways to camp, with gear and with minimum gear. These folks had gear, and then some more gear. I have discovered that most campers have no idea how to pack, what to bring, or even what to eat. It was the next morning before I met my new neighbors.


I had just pulled the coffee pot off the fire and was pouring a cup when I heard a voice ask, "So, have you been here long?"


I turned to find a middle-aged man, the same man I had watched unload the equipment from the car the night before, standing at the edge of my site. I invited him over and poured a second cup of coffee as I replied, "Oh, we've been here a few days."


As I handed a cup of steaming coffee to him, I made a comment that I had seen him unloading and wondered, though it was none of business, why he had some much gear.


I can still remember the look of surprise on his face and his response, "Why, we need a lot of gear and especially food. After all, we are going to be here for three days and we both have to eat."


I had an inner chuckle at his answer. See, I had been there a week, had another week to go, and I had about a third of as many containers as he did and four more people.


Most folks just don't know how to pack foods for a camping trip. I guess it doesn't matter much if you have a big enough vehicle to bring it with you, but it is still a good idea to cut down on gear and weight. I usually keep my camping foods separated at home, so I can load very quickly when the urge to camp hits me. But, let's look at how we can pack perishables, dried foods, boxed foods, grains and pasta, canned goods, and what tools we need to cook with as a minimum.


Perishable items should be kept in an ice chest at all times. I am speaking of fresh milk, butter, meats, eggs, certain veggies, and other such perishable items. I suggest you place many of your items in air tight containers (I don't recommend zip lock bags for ice chest use) to keep them from getting wet from the melted ice. There are very few things more unappetizing than removing a nice thick steak from the cooler and discover it is water logged.


Most mountain streams or spring fed streams are cold enough for the safe storage of most perishables, just place the bag in the water near the bank of the stream for easy removal. But, in some public areas this method of cooling foods and drinks may not be allowed due to the potential or pollutants in the water or from your food stuffs in the bag, so it is best to ask the park rangers if it is acceptable. While I agree there may be some health risk with this method, in an emergency the procedure can be used as long as any item placed in the water is completely sealed in a water tight container. Just be sure to wipe the outside of the container off very well before you open it. If you feel uncomfortable with this method, simply don't use it.


I usually keep all drinks in the stream if the water is cold and it is legal to do so (a little trick here, use a mesh laundry bag to store your canned or plastic containers of drinks, but don't forget to secure it to the bank with a rope! ). A word of caution, if you use the mesh bag to store drinks in, make sure the children are old enough to get their own drinks or you get the drinks for them. This is a potential water safety factor with younger children.


If you use an ice chest, or cooler, make sure you keep ice in it and the lid stays on tightly. This may be a problem if you have children along, because they are frequently opening the cooler to get soft drinks. Check the lid constantly to keep the inside of the cooler chilled and your food items cold. Also, make it a rule that children drink all soft drinks before they can have another one and that empties are placed in designated areas. During the summer months insects will be attacked to half empty cans of soda-pop and the list includes bees (which sting) as well as ants (some can bite). But, I will address camp hygiene in a few minutes.


I suggest you bring along a large quantity of dried foods when you camp. They are lightweight and do not require any temperature controls. I always have zip lock bags of beans, pasta, spices, and other goodies with me. Also, I usually bring home made beef jerky, dried fruits, and I also make my own trail mix (my little campers seem to like a mixture of raisins, nuts, dried breakfast cereal, and dried fruit). The jerky is made by cutting lean beef cross grain, soaking in a slight salt and water mixture over night, and then drying it in the oven at the lowest temperature setting. Make sure the meat is not over lapping when you place it on a large cookie sheet (turn the meat frequently to allow it to dry evenly). And, keep in mind it takes many long hours for the meat to dry properly. Nonetheless, if kept in an airtight container jerky can last for years, if you can keep the kids away from it that long.


Fruit can be prepared the same way as jerky, but without the saltwater mixture. My trail mix is made of a dried commercial breakfast cereal, dried fruits, raisins, and various nuts. These quick energy foods are great for a small mid-day meal or for snacks as you fish or hike, and the kids love them! Keep them stored in plastic zip lock bags to protect them from the elements and for ease use. Also, I store all of my foods out of direct sunlight at all times.


All boxed foods can be removed from the box and placed in zip locked bags. Make sure the content's of each bag is marked clearly with a permanent laundry marker. Additionally, any special instructions can be written on the bag as well. You will be surprised how much easier it is to pack and the weight you save, once you have repackaged the product from the boxes. Pasta, grains, dried beans, and any powdered items can be stored the same way. Give it a try; it works very well, especially if you must backpack to your camping spot.


Canned goods are to be avoided as much as possible, unless you have room in your car. They are heavy and take up a lot of space. At times you just cannot avoid taking some canned foods. If they are along for the camping trip, store them on the bottom of the container and not too many cans to a container. If the container is too heavy it will be difficult to remove from the vehicle. And, if you are backpacking, you will sweat for every can you pack. I avoid them as much as I can and still serve healthy and appealing meals in the woods.


Milk and some dairy products can be purchased in powdered form for most trips. I suggest you start with the fresh dairy items and keep the powdered stuff for later in your trip. Milk can also be bought in a container that does not require refrigeration at all, until opened (many children will dislike the taste of all but fresh milk at first). Just ask your grocer where to find these items.


Those of you that dislike cooking complete meals in the bush, you can still eat very well if you consider using U.S. military rations (MRE's), dehydrated foods, or freeze-dried foods.


Military rations (Meals Ready to Eat) are available at most military surplus stores in the U.S. or they can be ordered from on-line military surplus suppliers (just type MRE in your search box). Keep in mind that MRE's are a complete meal in a tough plastic bag and have a very high calorie count (combat energy). They can be eaten cold or hot, but trust me on this, they are much better hot. They can be warmed up with commercial heating packs or dropped in hot water. The typical meal contains an entrée (everything from salmon to ham and shrimp jambalaya), side dish (noodles, Mexican rice, western beans, wild rice, and so on), dessert (cookies, energy bar, cake or fruit), crackers or bread, a spread, dried beverage, accessory pack (salt, pepper, moist napkin, coffee, gum, creamer, etc.,) and all for about seven dollars (U.S.) per meal. I have eaten hundreds of MRE's and I have found them to be filling as well as delicious, when served hot.


Dehydrated or freeze-dried foods offer a much wider variety (from chicken and rice, pasta primavera, scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast, and many others) for meals and even cater to those who prefer meatless meals. Many of these meals are available at sporting good shops or even in some supermarkets. I have found a complete weeks worth of meals (three meals a day and even snacks) can be purchased for around ninety dollars ( U.S. ) and though that may seem expensive, it all weighs less than twelve pounds. All you do is add hot water to a pouch and in a few minutes your meal is ready to eat. Keep in mind, this type of food requires water to process the meal, so if you have a limited amount of water where you camp these may not be for the food of choice for you. Additionally, do not eat the meals without water because they will take water from your body to process waste. That means it will speed up dehydration if you are not drinking enough water, or if you have a limited amount to drink.


Cooking most meals at a campsite should not be much different than cooking at home. You can eat almost the same meals, drink the same drinks, and even have dessert. I usually bring one large frying pan, one small pot, a coffee pot, and a large pot. All of these cooking containers are made of lightweight aluminum to reduce weight. Also, I bring a roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil for baking or cooking with. I have found these items to be all I need to prepare a meal as I camp. And, this may surprise you, but the meals are as good as the ones I eat at home. It just takes a little camp cooking experience and that will come with time.


One last area you should be concerned about is hungry animals near your campsite. Believe it or not, the biggest threat to your food supply is not large animals, but the smaller ones. Rats, mice, opossums, raccoons, squirrels and even birds can eat you out of tent and home. Keep all food items stored out of reach of these animals. If your vehicle in near you, place your cooler and other food stuffs inside for the night so it is out of reach (and roll up the windows). Rats and other rodents will eventually discover a way to your dried foods if the foods are not stored in a tight fitting container and out of reach. I have known them to chew through wooden boxes to gain access to grains and nuts (I suggest discarding any foods wild animals have been into). In remote areas (if you backpacked in) you may have to throw a rope over a high limb, tie one end of the rope to a bag full of food stuffs, and secure your food up high and out of reach of most animals. But, I can assure you, it still may still not be safe from raccoons or squirrels that will simply climb the tree and then down the rope to chew through your storage bag. If you keep most foods in airtight containers, it does help reduce the smell of food and keep the number of hungry critters to a minimum.


One night a few years ago I watched, from my sleeping bag, a nice healthy raccoon open my ice chest, take out what he wanted and then quietly lower the lid. He ate what he had removed, opened the lid once again, and took some more. It was then I realized he was a park "coon" and knew his way around coolers, tents, and perhaps even open car windows. They are smarter than we often give them credit to be. A word of caution here, never try to catch a wild animal you find in your foods, they can cause very painful injuries by biting or scratching, not to mention the very real danger of rabies.


To avoid animals in your campsite, "hungry critters" as my grandfather used to call them, keep your campsite clean. Dirty dishes should be washed immediately following all meals, pick up discarded snacks, trash, garbage, empty drink containers, and even empty your dishwater in designated spots. However, never empty your dishwater near your campsite or into streams, lakes, ponds or other sources of water. Keep in mind that most of the small animals in public parks live on left over foods and our garbage. A dirty camp will attract insects (most of which bite or sting) and animals in droves. In public camping areas place all garbage in designated trash containers and while in the wild, make sure you keep your site clean and pack out your trash. I have known dirty campsites to attract bears and other large animals, so you know I am serious about good camp cleanliness and basic hygiene.


You primary consideration when camping is keeping your foods at the proper temperatures (too avoid illness), cutting down on weight, and yet being able enjoy a good quality meal. An inexpensive cooler can do the cooling job for you and we have discussed packing and storage procedures. However, in an emergency you can keep almost any foods safe for eating by using common sense, proper storage, and by using what is available around you (snow, cold streams, etc). Nonetheless, at any time you suspect a food has not been stored at the right temperature or you just don't like the look of it, do not consume it. As we use to say in the military when it came to food, when in doubt, chuck it out.


Good luck in your camping and I will see you on the trail.



Food for Thought


Some information used in preparing this article from the American Red Cross

Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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