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The Outdoor Chef: How to Plan Meals for a Successful Camping Trip

camp cooking in the pacific northwest

When I tell someone I love camping, it’s an understatement. Camping gives me the opportunity to study maps, bird watch, hike, kayak, bike, and learn more about the plants, animals, and geology of the Pacific Northwest. All of these activities are a lot more enjoyable when properly fueled, so I get to be camp chef as well. I always keep things very simple for breakfast because my goal is to eat and get moving. Oatmeal, yogurt, granola, eggs, and fruit are all morning staples. For lunch, I’m perfectly content with a sandwich with a side of chips or pretzels. But dinner? Bring it on!

The key to camp cooking is having a solid plan. There are several factors that go into planning camping menus that are easy to prepare and sure to please.

Tools and Equipment

Our VW van has a limited amount of space. The kitchen drawer holds a small set of silverware, measuring spoons, a bench scraper, and a can opener. Inside the cabinet, you’ll find my chef’s knife (with blade guard), measuring cup, a saucepan, tea kettle, cutting board, aluminum foil, four bowls, two plates, and an oven mit. I also have these amazing snap bowls that are perfect for both prep and serving. The one item that doesn’t reside in the van but tends to come along each trip is the Le Creuset braiser as it is extremely versatile and it fits inside of the cabinet. Depending on the menu, I sometimes bring along a colander, zester, or grater. I make a point to stick with tools that aren’t bulky or difficult to clean.

We have a two-burner stove inside of the van, but we try to cook outside as much as possible so that our van doesn’t smell like a food truck. The trusty Coleman stove has proven to be reliable and easy to transport for many years. The biggest issue with camp stoves is temperature control. I shy away from foods that can burn really easily or require precise temperatures. It’s also important to consider cook time as running out of propane can certainly throw a wrench into the works. If you’re new to cooking with a camp stove, it might be beneficial to cook a few meals at home to familiarize yourself with the burners and to make sure the cookware you’ve chosen is going to fit.

Once dinner is over, it’s time for clean-up. Unless you’re staying at a state park where water is available, washing and rinsing dishes can be a real water hog. I once got overzealous and cooked a meal for two that consumed two gallons of our precious water supply during clean-up. That’s one reason why I try to stick with one-pot meals. This way, I only have to wash the prep tools, a single pan, our dishes, and the utensils. A small plastic tub can serve as a dish sink and a collapsible dish rack speeds up the drying process.

Food Transport and Storage

I never want someone to camp with me and say, “She brought everything but the kitchen sink!” We bring along a plastic storage bin designated for pantry foods. I keep the food organized by placing two canvas grocery bags into the bin. One holds breakfast, lunch, and snack items, while the other is for dinner food. I pre-measure spices and place them into small condiment cups with lids so that I don’t have to bring full spice jars. I weigh grains and pasta into Ziplock bags to save additional space and prep work.

camping refrigerator vw van

Cold foods present the biggest challenge, especially for longer trips. Coolers are really functional for keeping beverages cold, but are not ideal for food because of space limitations and temperature control. If you are bringing along ground beef, hot dogs, deli meats, or prepared salads, they need to be kept at a temperature of 40 degrees F or below to prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms. We are very fortunate to have a small refrigerator in our van. To save space, I pre-measure any condiments we’ll need so that we can leave the full-size jars at home. I also plan meals that don’t require lots of refrigerated ingredients. This doesn’t mean we can’t eat fresh. Vegetables like corn on the cob, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, avocado, onions, garlic, sweet potato, and winter squash can survive multiple days in a cool, dry spot. If I insist on making a meal with leafy greens, fresh herbs, or meat, I make sure those meals are prepared on the first night or two of the trip. Even with our refrigerator, if we’re camping during hot weather, it can be difficult to maintain a consistent food safe temperature.

Duration, Location, and Weather

Whether you’re heading out for a one night adventure or you’re going to be gone for several days, you still need to have your tools, equipment, and ability to store food. However, the duration of the trip has a tremendous influence on the menus as well. I recall a one-nighter where I made shrimp jambalaya because I was able to pick up shrimp up from the Market that morning and by the time we rolled into our camp spot, they had just finished thawing. Since the weather was cool, the shrimp didn’t attract every fly on the mountain while the jambalaya was cooking and we weren’t there long enough for the shells to smell like a dead body. I would never cook up that dish on a multi-day trip!

washington state parks

Location plays into this as well. If you’re at a state park campground with easy access water, ice, or a grocery store, you can quickly restock and have a lot more flexibility. There is also a dumpster far from your campsite for those shrimp shells. If you’re heading to more remote areas, you have no choice but to be prepared since whatever you’re bringing in has to be packed out. For lengthier trips, this is where canned foods come in handy. Once rinsed, you don’t have to worry about flies, wild animals, or nasty aromas. (But take it from me, go easy on the beans…)

Preparation includes paying close attention to the weather forecast. For one trip to eastern Washington, daytime temperatures hovered near 100 degrees Fahrenheit for three solid days. On another trip to that area, daytime temperatures never got above 60. Needless to say, those trips required very different menus. Call me a fair weather chef, but if it’s really hot or really cold or windy, I don’t want to stand outside cooking. I make sure dishes can be ready in 30 minutes or less. If I know it’s likely to rain or snow, I choose meals that I can cook inside of the van (nothing fried or smelly). There is also no shame in opening that can of your favorite soup.

And while we’re on the subject of weather, it doesn’t hurt to talk about cooking over fire. For most of the warmer months, the state has burn bans in place. Even though it’s unlikely that a ranger would catch us out in the middle of nowhere, I certainly don’t want to be the person responsible for a wildfire just so I could grill. When the rainy season kicks in and the bans are finally lifted, the wet wood dampens my enthusiasm for cooking by fire. If I get the itch to cook over hot coals, I’ve got a great charcoal grill on my deck!

This blog wouldn’t be complete without sharing the menu from our most recent camping trip. For three of the four nights the weather was ideal for cooking outside. The temperatures were cool enough to warrant comforting dishes. One evening, the wind was blowing a steady twenty to thirty miles per hour so I was relegated to cooking in the van. We made record time with the dishes that night, too.

penne pasta on the camp stove

Night 1: Skillet Penne with Tomatoes, OIives, and White Beans

Equipment: Cutting board, chef’s knife, grater, can opener, braiser, stirring spoon

Pantry: Penne, white beans, vegetable broth

Fresh and/or refrigerated: Cherry tomatoes, basil, parmesan, kalamata olives

Recipe source: The Best 30-Minute Recipe from America’s Test Kitchen

cooking on a camp stove

Night 2: Braised Lentils with Cabbage and Kielbasa

Equipment: Cutting board, chef’s knife, braiser, stirring spoon

Pantry: French-style green lentils, chicken broth

Fresh and/or refrigerated: Shredded cabbage, onion, carrot, celery stalk, garlic, parsley, kielbasa

Recipe source: One Pan, Two Plates by Carla Snyder

cooking ramen in vw van

Night 3: Hot & Sour Ramen with Shiitake, Tofu, and Spinach

Equipment: Cutting board, chef’s knife, braiser, stirring spoon, chop sticks, grater

Pantry: Instant ramen noodles, soy sauce, cider vinegar

Fresh and/or refrigerated: Mushrooms, tofu, spinach, garlic, ginger, Sriracha

Recipe source: The Best 30-Minute Recipe from America’s Test Kitchen

camp cooking on camp stove

Night 4: Nigerian Kidney Bean Stew with Peanut Sauce and Basmati Rice

Equipment: Cutting board, chef’s knife, can opener, braiser, stirring spoon, saucepan, foil

Pantry: Kidney beans, crushed tomatoes, peanut butter, ground cumin, ground cayenne

Fresh and/or refrigerated: Onion, garlic, bell pepper, lemon

Recipe source: World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey

I hope this gives you some inspiration to get out of the kitchen, go on an adventure, and cook up a tasty meal in a beautiful location. With careful planning, you’ll be rewarded with a happy belly and some great memories without spending hours in front of the stove.

Did you notice that there were no ads on my page? I’m not receiving any compensation for these articles or links, so if you’re enjoying the content, show me some love with a like, comment, or share. Thanks! 🙏🏻

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I appreciate all of the thoughtful tips and links to make cooking and camping tasty and stress free. Camping meals are part of the experience and bring so much comfort to the adventure. You’re awesome!

Replying to

Thanks! There’s certainly nothing better than eating a delicious meal in the great outdoors.


Love this!!! I completely relate to being excited to cook outdoors are just bought a pop up aframe and have been looking for alternative recipes that don’t require a fire, but can be cooked over a pan or even with boiling water on really bad days. Thanks for the recipes!!

Replying to

I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and that it came at the perfect time. Another cookbook that I’ve used for quite a few camp meals is Cookish from Milk Street. Hope your summer camping adventures are fun and delicious!


Ken O
Ken O
May 31

Thanks for a very informative article!

Replying to

I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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