How to Prepare Food for Camping

By: Alison Kim Perry
family at campfire
Your camping food options stretch way beyond franks and beans. See pictures of national parks.

Riffing about long waiting lists for camping in national parks, comedian George Carlin said, "When you have to wait a year to sleep next to a tree, something is wrong."

Obviously, not everyone agrees. Each season, countless families look forward to packing their belongings and being at one with nature. To them, there's nothing like roughing it.


We've all watched TV shows depicting folks sitting around a campfire eating beanie weenies out of a can. As "scrumptious" as that may sound, modern day campers take a pass because the taste of food for camping has evolved. Just because you're giving up the comforts of your favorite restaurant for the weekend doesn't mean you have to forgo your favorite foods. Let's face it, somehow food always tastes better outdoors: Hence the crowded cookouts, picnics and fish fries.

But there's more to camping than good-tasting meals. Preparation is the key to making sure you bring the right amount and right kinds of foods to make it through the weekend. Let's look at some ways to prepare meals that don't require refrigeration on the road.


Freeze-drying Food for Camping

When you think of "freeze-dried" foods, something about those two words doesn't initially sit well with your palate. That's because you immediately think of the unappetizing foods that soldiers and astronauts eat while on the battlefield and in space. Freeze-dried foods are great in those settings because they're lighter and have less chance of spoiling. So it makes perfect sense that campers would like freeze-dried foods for those same reasons. But they also taste better than you'd think.

So what exactly is freeze-drying or lyophilization as it's formally known? This is a process "that allows food to be shelf stable while retaining the maximum amount of nutrients" [source: Shelf Reliance]. Both fresh and cooked foods can be freeze-dried so the kids will be happy to know that they can bring the family's favorite macaroni and cheese recipe with them on the trip. Cooked freeze dried eggs are great for breakfasts while freeze-dried fruit like apples, pineapples and raisins make great snacks. You don't lose taste and texture with this method.


Some campers opt to purchase freeze-dried brands for convenience, while others go for freeze-drying their own food. More campers prefer the option of purchasing pre-packaged food online and from places like sporting good stores. But, if you do choose to dry your own food, know that it's a costly and a time-consuming process. Freeze-drying machines are not cheap and can run up into the thousands of dollars. They can be purchased from places that sell equipment to restaurants.

So if you opt to freeze-dry your own food, here's how you do it: First, place the fresh or cooked food in a freeze-drying machine which will freeze the food. After it's frozen, the vacuum chamber in the machine will vaporize the ice and water at a temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). About 98 percent of the food's moisture will be taken out by evaporating the ice. Look to finish this process in several hours to days to make sure the food is dry to prevent spoiling.

Next, seal the food in packaging that prevents moisture and oxygen from getting inside. A Ziploc bag will work just fine. The food will stay fresh until you open it again [source:Wild Backpacker]. When everyone's ready to eat the beef stroganoff around the campfire, simply add it to a pot of boiling water. The food will keep its original color, form, size, taste and texture. On our next page, we'll talk about another method to prepare food for camping.


Dehydrating Food for Camping

People have been preserving food by drying them for generations. Just ask your grandmother. Campers have latched on to the idea of dehydrating food for space and convenience. Dehydrated foods take up less space than freeze-dried foods. That's because water is the heaviest part of food, so when it's evaporated the weight of the food is drastically decreased [source: Wild Backpacker]. Also it's easier and less costly to do it yourself than is freeze-drying.

However, more campers choose to purchase freeze-dried foods over purchasing dehydrated foods for one reason: freeze-dried food simply tastes better. Campers will need to cook and season dehydrated foods while camping on-site because they tend to lose their taste and texture through the dehydration process. Also, you can only dehydrate a single ingredient like rice while you can freeze-dry a whole entree, like a pasta casserole.


When you dehydrate food or dry food as it is often called, you are simply removing the water from it and preventing enzymes and bacteria from growing by circulating hot, dry air through the food [source: The Dry Store]. For years, people have dehydrated their foods using a variety of methods including air drying or putting food out in the sun.

However, you have to make sure that you have several sunny, low-humid days of at least 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) in a row. You'll know the food is dry when it feels like leather, and you won't be able to spot a drop of water. A tip: it's not recommended to dry vegetables and meats in the sun because they are prone to spoil. After they dry, make sure the food is cool before putting them in glass jars, metal cans or freezer containers with tight lids [source: All Things Emergency Prepared].

You can also use an electric food dehydrator or an oven to dry foods, and this is particularly good for fruits and vegetables. Place them (washed and dried) on dehydrator trays and set the temperature to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius). The process usually takes about eight to 12 hours. Check the food toward the end of the drying process. If the food feels dry when you touch it, then it's ready.


Preparing and Packing Food for Camping

fish, father son
That fish you just caught will taste amazing grilled over an open fire.

Many beginners tend to overpack food when camping. The best way to avoid this trap is to make a list of what you will need for each meal. For example, for a weekend trip, you need a meal for Friday night arrival, Saturday breakfast, lunch and dinner and Sunday breakfast if you are leaving in the morning. Be as specific as possible and get everyone in on the planning process. Count how many eggs your entire entourage will need for scrambled eggs for two breakfasts.

Freeze-dried chicken, beef or fish are great for lunches and dinners. And freeze-dried veggies go just fine with stew cooking in a pot over an open fire or on your portable fuel-burning stove.If you build a fire, dig a fire pit at least 8-10 inches (20 to 25 centimeters) deep and 2.5 feet (76 centimeters) square. A small grill can sit right over the coals [source: Westbrook].


Many foods can be pre-mixed or pre-cooked to make life on the trail a lot easier. For example, a dinner of pre-cooked boiled potatoes goes great with the fish caught earlier that day. Just put the potatoes in freezer bags and take them out when you are ready to eat. If you won't have access to ice and a cooler, don't bring items like real butter, cooked meats and eggs. Also know that bacteria on raw meat and chicken can spread to other foods so make sure that these items are transported in plastic bags and everyone washes their hands with soap and water or uses disposal wipes [source: USDA].

Self-sealing plastic bags are the best packaging for camping and fresh produce should be stored in a breathable mesh bag. Store beverages, sugar, milk and coffee in polyethylene plastic bottles. And don't forget to label food and include cooking instructions in the bag. Camping's not the time to go on memory.

Being a good camper means responsible clean-up, which includes putting all trash away or burning it and making sure the campfire is put out. It also means packing the right food for the trip. But above all, don't forget to pack the graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows for s'mores. You don't want a riot on your hands.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • All Things Emergency Prepared. "How to Dehydrate Food". (Feb. 6, 2012)
  • Are You Prepared? "Freeze Dried Foods. (Feb. 6, 2012)
  • California Department of Parks and Recreation. "Camping Tips". (Jan. 23, 2012)
  • Farmgal. "How to Dry Fruits and Vegetables". (Jan. 28, 2012)
  • Girl Scouts. "National S'mores Day." August 10, 2007. (Jan. 23, 2012)
  • Hodgson, Michael. "Camping for Dummies". 2000. (Jan. 23, 2012) IDG Books Worldwide Inc. Foster City, CA.
  • McCafferty, Keith. "L.L. Bean Family Camping Handbook". 1999. (Jan. 23, 2012). The Lyons Press. New York.
  • National Parks Service. "Campgrounds in Yellowstone". (Jan. 28, 2012).
  • Shelf Reliance Staff. "What is Freeze Dried?" Self Reliance. (Jan. 23, 2012)
  • Silverman, Goldie Gendler. "Camping with Kids: The Complete Guide to Car, Tent and RV Camping". 2006. (Jan. 23, 2012). Wilderness Press, Berkley, CA.
  • Survival Acres. "Dehydrated Vs. Freeze Dried Food". (Jan. 28, 2012).
  • The American Camp Association. (Jan. 23, 2012)
  • The Dry Store. "How to Dehydrate Foods". (Jan. 23, 2012)
  • The Quote Garden. "Quotations About Camping." (Jan. 28, 2012)
  • United States Department of Agriculture. "Food Safety While Hiking, Camping & Boating". (Jan. 31, 2012)
  • Westbrook, John. "How to Cook Over an Open Fire While Camping." Outdoor Eyes Extreme. (Jan. 28, 2012)
  • Wild Backpacker. "Freeze-drying & Dehydration: Understand the Two Types of Food Processes". (Jan. 26, 2012)
  • Will Jog For Food. "Food Fact Friday: Give me S'more". August 12, 2011. (Jan. 23, 2012) ttp://