There are few summer getaways as gratifying as a couple of days of camping, especially if you can manage to turn off your phone for the weekend. But if your last camping cookout left you longing for something other than toasted marshmallows and a sloppy, heat-and-serve pack, you’re not alone. Pulling off the perfect campsite meal takes a little planning, but the trick is to come equipped with a few basic pieces of cookware and ingredients for good-but-simple-to-make meals you’d actually eat at home. We asked Megan McDuffie and Michael van Vliet—the duo behind the camping cooking blog Fresh Off the Grid—to share the lowdown on everything you need to whip up several days’ worth of really good grub in the wilderness.
First off, ignore all the bell-and-whistle items at outdoor gear stores. “A lot of people get very excited about the kitschy camp stuff that’s out there,” says van Vliet. “There are a lot of single-use, camp- cooking gadgets that you probably don’t need and space is something you really need to consider.” Instead, stick with a very stripped-down version of the most essential items in your home kitchen.
If you bring just one piece of cookware, make it this super-skillet. “It’s one of the most versatile pieces of equipment. You can bake, you can fry, you can use it on a stove or directly over a campfire and they’re pretty economical,” says McDuffie. The couple makes everything from hash browns and pancakes to steaks and cornbread in it. And while you can bring a spatula or tongs along, using a regular old fork or knife to stir and flip stuff in the skillet is just fine too. “You never can really knick it up,” says van Vliet.
If you’ll be camping a few days and want more meal options, then make this your other piece of cookware. It’s deeper and comes with a lid so it’s great for cooking crowd-sized dishes like stews and chili. “The fewer dishes you use the better,” says McDuffie. “We do a lot of one-pot stuff because no one wants to be doing a lot of dishes when you’re camping.”
Chef’s knife and cutting board
Don’t try to use your pocketknife to chop an onion, please. “A really good sharp knife is the most underrated piece of equipment you can bring camping. It will really make a big difference,” says McDuffie. Though you can get away with chopping things ahead of time at home, waiting to cut them up until you’re at your site ensures that the veggies last longer and you have more flexibility with how much or little you want to use.
Two-burner propane camp stove
Yes, the idea of gathering wood and starting a roaring campfire is enticing (and you’ll probably still want to get one going on cool nights), but when it comes to actually cooking, a camp stove is easy-to-use and often more reliable. “It’s a great starting point since cooking on a grill over a campfire can be intimidating,” says McDuffie. “A camp stove functions more or less like your stove at home.”
Do everyone a favor and don’t get to the campsite with plans to cook something you’ve never made before. “There is nothing worse than messing up a meal when you’re camping because you have to eat it,” warns McDuffie. “You can’t order a pizza, and hungry and unhappy is not how you want to end the day.” The couple’s own meals skew vegetarian, and they, unbelievably, don’t travel with a cooler. (“It takes up a lot of room and we hate ice management,” van Vliet explains.) Even with a cooler in tow, the ice will inevitably run out, so it’s best to stick with items that can last a few days without refrigeration. And if you do want to make a meat-focused meal (think steaks in the skillet or brats over the campfire) tackle it the first night so you don’t have to worry about keeping the meat cold all weekend. Here’s what else you’ll need for a few days of good eating.
Besides simply frying them up in a pan (always a fine option), McDuffie and van Vliet do poached egg bakes with tomatoes and peppers, along with egg-and-potato hashes. If you know you’ll be bringing eggs on every camping trip, you might also want to grab an inexpensive protective egg carrier—because broken eggs in the trunk are never fun.
A jug of olive oil or coconut oil is easy to transport and doesn’t risk melting like butter. If you can’t live without that buttery taste, try Ghee, a shelf-stable clarified butter that comes in a jar.
A super versatile ingredient that can stay at room temp, this staple is the vessel for an infinite amount of meals from breakfast burritos to simple quesadillas to an almighty taco stuffed with literally whatever you’ve got.
Harder cheeses will last just fine with little or no refrigeration and can give a protein boost to just about anything you’re cooking up. It’s also the perfect thing to keep in your backpack to combine with a little salami and an apple for lunch while you’re on an afternoon hike.
Zucchini, squash, carrots peppers, corn, kale, onions, garlic, and potatoes are sturdy, can stand up to car travel, and are fine staying unrefrigerated. And they can all be easily used in just about every meal. McDuffie chops them up for breakfast skillets in the morning, saves the rest for quesadillas for dinner, or skewers them up for kebabs on the campfire.
“Nothing elevates a meal from mediocre to extraordinary than the right type of spices,” says van Vliet. Having one little jar on hand can go a long way for seasoning meat, mixing into eggs, flavoring stews, or spicing up veggies. The couple’s go-to picks are an Italian blend, a fajita seasoning, the adaptable Trader Joe’s 21-Season Salute, and a tandoori curry blend.
Canned beans and vegetables
In addition to beans for chilis, tacos and that fabled go-to camping stalwart, the stew, stock up on canned tomatoes, chiles, and artichoke hearts that can be paired with all of the above. And if you bring a few too many cans, nothing will go to waste.
Pasta dishes can actually be much more interesting than a jarred-tomato-sauce-and-spaghetti dinner without getting too complicated. McDuffie suggests filling your dutch oven with just enough water to cover and boil your pasta (so you don’t have to drain it at the end) and then tossing in some cheese a few minutes in. “The whole thing gets smoky and saucy,” she says, “and then you can throw some veggies in and everything is in just one pot.” Genius.