Camp Cooking – Round 1: Tips, Tricks, & Ideas

Everyone’s gotta eat.  Being on an overland adventure doesn’t have to mean eating dehydrated meals out of a bag or subsisting off PB&J (although, to be honest, I do love a good trail side PB&J sammich).  A lot of people I talk to are intimidated by camp cooking so in this blog post I will share some of my tips & tricks as well as a few meals I enjoy cooking.

I know we haven’t even started, but are you hungry yet?

Disclaimer: I accept no responsibility for the hunger pains you’re about to experience.  I highly suggest you go eat something now lest you try and lick the screen as you read…

Tip #1 – Enhancers: Savor the flavor

The number one complaint I hear from people when they are eating a camp meal is it’s bland.  In the days of SPAM, MRE’s, and hot-dogs on a stick there weren’t many options in terms of wholesome homestyle meals unless you packed an entire kitchens worth of spices.  Luckily in the last few years the spice companies have caught on to the fact that many people either a) don’t know how to cook or b) just want to cook something quick and simple.  Enter what I call, “enhancers.”

My go-to enhancer for potatoes, chicken, and sometimes steak.
Since it’s salt-free you don’t have to worry about the salt drying things out as it cooks.

This is great in burgers.
Just enough to dress up basic ground beef without overpowering the natural flavor.
There are also a few others in the “Grill Mates” series that are awesome!

Brown Sugar Bourbon Bacon Cheese Burgers.
Nom Nom Nom

During my summer camp days I developed a reputation at the go-to-guy when it came to taking a bland campfire meal a turning it into something respectable.  Over the years I slowly filled an old tackle box full of seasonings, oils, spices, salts, and peppers. I say plural because it’s not just as simple as basic table salt and pepper.

Liquid marinades can range from pre-packaged “drop and plop” marinades to DIY dressings you add to your own bag/box of meat.
What’s nice about these bags is they’re quick and easy and once you’re done with you you can throw it out.
Out of the bag and onto the grill.

Off the grill and into your belly!

Putting together a selection of enhancers allows you to customize your meals on the fly without much thought into long-term meal planning.  A small box of pre-packaged seasons, sauces, and stuff can ride with you for months at a time without spoiling.  Most don’t need refrigerating and those that do can either ride in your 12v fridge (if you have one) or in a cooler (if you don’t).  In the case of a cooler I suggest buying small if you’re trip is short.  Also don’t be afraid to repackage your favorite sauce, marinade, or dressing into a smaller plastic bottle.  No need to pack a 36 ouch bottle for a weekend trip (also a lot less messy if/when it leaks, ask me how I know).

I love stir-fry meals.  Lately I’ve been using these which are nice because they are single-serve and don’t need refrigerated.

Once you settle on a few things you like it’s easy to pick up fresh ingredients on the way.  Not only is it healthier than all that processed freeze-dried dehydrated crap but it will taste better and boost your morale while out on your adventure.  This can be clutch when factoring in things like significant others and families with children who may new to the outdoor lifestyle.

Tip #2 – Practice: If you screw up at least you can order pizza

A mistake far too many people make is trying to cook for the first time when out on an adventure.  I once camped next to a couple who literally unboxed their stove, read the directions, and then proceeded to try and cook their very first meal in the outdoors with no clue how to use anything they had bought.  The humor in all this was only surpassed by watching them try to set up their brand new tent in the dark with an impending thunderstorm on it’s way.  Sadly before I could render aid they rage quit and drove off in search of a hotel.  Practice, it helps.
Before I found the Blue Dragon sauces pictures above, I tried out this McCormick dry Beef & Broccoli sauce.
Although tasty, It was more complex then I wanted to deal with.
The pre-made sauces are quicker, easier, and less messy to use which are all important factors in a camp meal for me.

Glad I found this out at home and not on the trail.
Prepackaged meat & veggies are great for a solo traveler like me.
This was an experiment meal at home on the stove.
Worked out well.  Ended up eating it while in NC last fall.
Similar ingredients as above and another experiment in the safety of my home kitchen.
These meals are also very budget-friendly costing under $10.
When you practice at home you can do two things.  First, you can experiment with recipes, ingredients, and meal ideas all from the comfort of your home kitchen.  If you need something it’s right there.  If you screw up at the very least you can order pizza and laugh about your failed attempt (assuming you didn’t set the kitchen on fire).  The second way you can practice, and I can’t stress this one enough, is practice with your cooking gear while at home.  Take your camp stove out into the yard and try and cook a meal.  It’s a great time to realize you need a certain utensil or a different enhancer when you can run inside and grab it.  It’s a good time to check your packing and shopping lists.  Nothing worse than being at a remote campsite with plans to have mac-and-Cheese and find out you don’t have any milk (John!).  Which, by the way, you can make mac-and-cheese with water it’s just a little runny.  It’s also a good way to find out if you have the right tools for the job.  For instance, if you’re trying to make hash-browns on a TemboTusk Skottle you will soon realize a soft spatula isn’t going to work (John, again).  A metal or wooden one is much better (truth be told, I learned that lesson the hard way too).  Better to find that out before your trip than while on it.

Tip #3 – Keep it Simple: Complexity is the mother of frustration 

Camping is hard work. Driving is hard work.  Camping after driving all day, super hard.  As relaxing as it is once camp is set and the fire is lit, getting to that point is exhausting.  Traveling solo has taught me a very hard lesson that the more complex you make things the more frustrating they can become when you’re fatigued.  After a long day on the trail the quicker you can cook a good meal the better.  Lately I’ve been trying to create a list of meals that take 5 or less ingredients, use 5 or less tools, and take 5 or less minutes to prep.  This doesn’t mean they have to be bland boring meals.  I’ll go into more detail on the meals themselves soon.
A single burner stove & skillet plus a cut up potato…

… plus a Delmonico steak…

… plus a can of beans = a great ‘hobo meal.’
The nice thing is since I travel solo is no one yells at me when I eat out of the skillet.
Only one dish to clean!
Keep it simple.
Keeping the meals simple is one thing.  Keeping your kit simple is another animal altogether.  As overlanders it’s very easy to over-pack and end up with everything including the kitchen sink.  Literally.  I saw a guy using an old kitchen sink as part of his cooking kit.  Honestly not a bad idea, but you get the analogy.  There are a lot of cool “toys” on the market right now.  As overlanding has exploded recreationally it has exploded commercially as well.  There are a lot of great things for sale out there but most of them are just hype.  The more I travel the more I realize that if someone can hike the entire Appalachian Trail with everything they need in a sack on their back the same should be true of an overlander.  We don’t need to fill every void in our rigs with “stuff” just because we can.
I have been using the same MSR DragonFly single burner backpacking stove for almost 20 years.
When I got it I also got a three-piece stainless steel pot set.
Although basic, soup is always a welcome meal when camping in the fall.
 
That said, there are some things that are worth the hype.  Recently I invested in an MSR WindBurner.  It’s a rapid-boil stove that does one thing really well – boils water.  I was a little skeptical to be honest.  I knew I’d use it a lot to boil water for cleaning and for tea (I can’t drink coffee so my go-to hot beverage is tea).  While camping in VA, the first time I used the stove (I know, I know, I said practice before you go out… do as I say not as I do)  I used it to cook rice.  It was messy.  It was sticky.  It was delicious.  It also cleaned up really easily.  The other thing I got to try out was John’s TemoboTusk Skottle.
Boiling rice in my new MSR WindBurner.
For those that don’t know, a skottle is basically a giant half-wok-half-skillet-half-grill “thing”.  The TemboTusk Skottle is based off a South African design that used old harrowing discs and was placed over a fire.  Rather than a fire the TemboTusk version stands freely on its own legs and uses a single-burner propane stove.  One of the reasons I enjoyed cooking in it was it was so simple.  It’s just a giant skillet.  You can grill meat on it (burgers, steaks, etc), you can stir-fry, and you can do the basic bacon-and-eggs if you’re so inclined.  The best part is it cleans up so easily and the more you use it the better seasoned it gets making it even easier to clean and even easier to cook on it.
First time I got to use one was in 2016 when Jason (@mr_jcraft) did chicken wings on his TemboTusk Skottle while at the 2016 MOAF.
Quick, simple, and a very easy cleanup.
My ultimate goal for my 2017 season is to downsize from the large clunky two-burner stove to just my new MSR WindBurner, my recently rebuild MSR DragonFly, and eventually my own TemoboTusk Skottle.  While it seems like that might be a lot, both the WindBurner and DragonFly are compact.  Together they are still less than the size of even the smallest two burner camp stove.  The skottle also breaks down relatively small making it easy to store.  All three are also portable making them extremely mobile in terms of when and where you can set them up.  Nothing worse than being tethered to your vehicle every time you need to cook a meal.  Case in point, the above photo of Jason cooking on his skottle was nearly a half mile away form his camp.  He came down off the hill at MAOF to hang with Josh, Phoenix, and I at Josh’s Bomber Product’s booth in the vendor area.  There are also many times I’ve move to a picnic table or set up my own table somewhere with an epic view that was a few yards from my Jeep.  Slide-outs are cool and all, but too restrictive for me.

Tip #4 – Eat!: Quick and easy meals I enjoy cooking & eating

I’m going to quit typing out long paragraphs for now and just string together a bunch of photos.  I’ll caption them appropriately but try not to drool on your computer or phone.
Those same Green Giant fire roasted veggies pictured above as a side-dish for a group meal.
High heat + a little oil = crispy yummy veggies.

Precooked chicken + Green Giant seasoned carrots and broccoli.
Great single person meal and super simple to cook with easy clean up.

The Green Giant veggies come frozen which makes them nice in a cooler.

Beef and broccoli in the Blue Dragon sauce.
Looks a little “messy” but the water cooks off over time leaving a savory meat and veggie dish.
My only regret was no rice… which is why I ordered the WindBurner when I got home.

John’s marinated pork chops done on the skottle…

… with a side of mixed veggies from the skillet …
… and a side of mac-and-cheese from a small pot.
This was a little more complex of a meal but it was so worth it.

Wouldn’t be camp cooking without bacon, right?
On it’s own for breakfast, or on top of a burger, bacon is where it’s at!

Those Perdue chicken bags have a built-in zip-lock feature.
I marinated them in teriyaki sauce all afternoon.

Here’s the rice I used in the MSR WindBurner (pictured above).
I cooked it while I did the chicken on the skottle (pictured below).

Cooking up the marinated chicken.

Added some broccoli and then the rice.

Serve and enjoy.

An advantage of a Skottle is the multi-zone cooking surface.
Hot center for fast/primary cooking and a warm parameter for slow/secondary cooking.
In this case hash-browns in the middle with ham cubes just off the hot spot…

… then you add eggs and mix it all together.

Again, sometimes having a simple an of soup as a late night fallback isn’t a bad idea.
Doesn’t mean you have to eat it as-is.  That’s where the enhancers come into place.
A pinch of that and a dash of this will take a bland can of soup to the next level.

Chopped red potatoes with the salt free Garlic and Herb seasoning.

Once the taters were done I fried up this rib-steak with a little bit of the garlic and herb seasoning left in the pan.

No camp stove?
No skottle?
No problem!
Just cook with fire. People have been doing it for millennia.

And let’s be honest, not ever camp meal is a winner. 
Sometimes you’re tired, cranky, and cold oatmeal is the best you can manage.
And that’s okay.
At least cleanup was easy.

Conclusion

I didn’t get good at cooking overnight.  Mistakes were made.  Meals were burnt.  Things that shouldn’t catch fire caught fire (whoops!).  Some meals were epic, others not so much.  It’s been a lifetime of trial and error.  That said, it’s never too late to learn how to cook.  Even if you’re on a first name basis with every local pizza delivery driver and take-out food joint in a ten mile radius, there is hope.  Even if you’re the kind that turns every over-easy egg or attempt at an omelet into scrambled eggs there’s hope.
Oh, let’s not forget the best enhancer of all… Local Beer!
Just enjoy it responsible and AFTER your vehicle is parked in camp for the night.

P.S. – Wait, what about Dutch Ovens?

I know what you’re thinking, “Dean, how could you write an entire article on camp cooking and not mention a Dutch Oven?”  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Dutch Ovens.  I love cooking in them.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with them.  The problem is on my end and it’s three fold.  First, I travel solo.  Dutch Ovens make a lot of food.  More food then I need.  That’s why I stick to skillet meals.  I can cook single-serve meals a little easier.  Second, weight and space.  Not only are the ovens big, bulky, and heavy themselves they also need a host of tools and support items that I’d also need to pack.  Lastly, time.  Dutch Ovens are the king of slow cooking.  If I’m base-camping in one location for a few days with no obligations I love having a Dutch Oven simmering over the fire.  Sadly when I’m in travel mode I don’t have enough time to effectively set up a fire and prep a Dutch Oven meal.  When I’m in show mode, even though I’m base-camping, I’m usually so busy I don’t have the time to build a fire and prep a Dutch Oven meal.  As such, they just don’t work for me when I’m traveling by myself.  However, at some point I’m sure I write an article on tips and tricks for Dutch Oven cooking.  Maybe later this summer between trips.  I know American Adventurist does a Dutch Oven contest at the Appalachian Rendezvous every year.  Maybe I’ll throw my hat in the ring for that this year.

Look at all those Dutch Ovens down there…
Nom Nom Nom.

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