Happy Camper: Secrets to Creative Cuisine in the Wild

Liz Merritt
November 7, 2016
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As our activities gravitate to camping, hiking and backpacking adventures, there’s no better time to sharpen up our outdoor cooking skills. So we sought out Chuck Knapp, a camp cooking instructor at REI and outdoor connoisseur of the highest order to up our camp cuisine game.

Senior couple cooking and making food outdoors on a camping trip. Mature man and woman sitting outside the tent on a summer day at campsite.

The key to gastronomical glee in the wild, Knapp says, is in the planning, packing, setup and proper storage of all your camp cooking tools.

Like great chefs who covet a beloved set of fine knives, Knapp comes alive as he talks about his cast-iron camping cookware, much of which was passed down to him by his parents.

This Baby Boomer’s collection of circa 1950ish cast iron pieces trigger warm memories of family camping, as he passes around the treasured items to an audience of hungry learners. “I’m kind of a gear junkie. I definitely carry more stuff than the average camper,” he says.

Essential #1: Know Before You Go

“It’s important to know your cooking space logisitics, how you’ll be storing food and plans for preparing the food either in advance or at the campsite,” Knapp says. “Do some research on the campground, ease of access to water and the local facilities ahead of time.” Will your campsite have fire pits, barbecue grills, electricity, shelters, and picnic tables? Or will the campsite be miles from any amenities.

Essential #2: Table for 2 or 10?

Whether it’s a cozy campground for two or a giant gathering of camping comrades, take a head count and plan out your meals ahead of time. If you are one of several families, decide ahead of time who will bring what. Understand if anyone in your group has food restrictions or allergies, plan your budget, and know how much time will be spent cooking your planned meals.

You can save a ton of time, Knapp says, by prepping certain foods in advance. “Choose ingredients that won’t spoil quickly in a cooler, and plan to use overlapping ingredients so you have less to pack,” he says. “Potatoes at night become hash browns in the morning!”

Here are some other tips: marinate meat ahead of time; pre-cut veggies; grate cheese; pre-cook items that can be frozen and reheated at the campsite. Also critical: Always bring water along, even if you have a water source available at an established campground. You never know how reliable that water source will be.

Essential #3: Camp Kitchen Set-Up

Setting up a functional camp kitchen will make or break your outdoor eating experience.

The first place to start is with durable cookware appropriate for a camp stove or over a fire. Knapp is a big fan of Lodge cast iron cookware – non-enamel – for long-lasting performance.

Again, the theme of organization pops up. “Find a box or a bin to house all of your camp cookware together,” Knapp says.

Being organized creates convenience and decreases the chance that you’ll forget something important 40 miles from civilization.

Key items for your checklist include:

  • Stove, matches and extra fuel
  • Grill (optional)
  • Set of pots and pans, and consider a cast iron Dutch oven for baking
  • Set of plates, cups, bowls, eating utensils
  • Cooler with block ice, which will last much longer than ice cubes
  • Cutting board and knife
  • Lantern with fuel or batteries and/or a headlamp for nighttime cooking
  • Cooking utensils
  • Water
  • Assorted condiments and spices
  • Clean-up items, including a plastic tub for a basin, biodegradable soap and towels
  • Plastic wrap and heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Welder’s gloves or other heavy-duty gloves for handling hot cookware or hot coals
  • Heavy-duty table or camp cooking stand

Essential #4:  Food Handling & Clean-Up

First and foremost, be aware of food-borne pathogens and how easily sloppy food handling habits can turn a fun camping weekend into a gastrointestinal nightmare.

Knapp recommends using plastic gloves when preparing food, the kind you see restaurant workers wearing when they prep your food. Wash your hand before and after food prepping. And wash all utensils, dishware, pots and pans at least 200 feet away from your water source. In a pinch, hand sanitizer will do.

Essential #5: Campfire Safety

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Whenever you’re cooking in the great outdoors, fire safety has to be top of mind. Always use a grill grate when you are cooking over an open fire, as well as cast-iron cookware.

Campers, hikers, backpackers and anyone who wants to enjoy our outdoor spaces must minimize campfire impacts and dispose of all waste properly – what you haul in you haul out.

Hot Tips

Looking for a great place to camp and try out your new campsite cooking skills in your area? Go to www.recreation.gov, where you can sign yourself up to reserve campsites at most parks in your area and around the nation.

Other helpful websites include:


(From www.rei.com)

  • 1 cast-iron skillet
  • 8-15 oz. garlic alfredo sauce
  • 1 bag of your favorite tortilla chips
  • 1 diced tomato
  • ½ cup canned corn
  • ½ cup canned beans
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 cup shredded Mexican cheese blend
  • ¼ cup green onions for garnish


Pour a layer of alfredo sauce on the bottom of the pan to prevent tortilla chips from burning; sauce should have a depth of about ¼-inch thick. Add tortilla chips. Top with beans, corn, tomato green onions, avocado. Top with cheese and cover with foil. Let sit on camp grill until cheese is melted.

(Courtesy Chuck Knapp)

  • 10”-12” Dutch Oven
  • Olive oil
  • 1 bag Trader Joe’s whole wheat pizza dough
  • ¼ jar pasta sauce
  • Tomato paste (in tube or can)
  • ¼ onion, chopped
  • ½ bell pepper, chopped
  • Hard salami, handful, sliced and quartered
  • 1 Italian sausage, removed from casing and browned
  • ½ bag Trader Joe’s shredded Swiss & Gruyere cheese


Coat inside of Dutch oven with olive oil. Place dough in bottom of Dutch oven and flatten to make a crust, leaving edge thicker. Spread tomato paste on dough and top with pasta sauce to make a thick layer of mixed paste and sauce. Sprinkle in onion, pepper, meats and cheese. Bake in coals at around 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes, or until you can’t wait any longer!


(From www.campingwithgus.com)

A man is eating fresh grilled vegetables

  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Extra-lean ground beef formed into a patty (1/3 to ½ pound per packet)
  • Potatoes (1 cup of 1/4” thick slices)
  • Carrots (1 chopped carrot per packet)
  • Onions (2-3 slices per packet)
  • Worcestershire sauce (1 teaspoon, or to taste)
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1 tablespoon butter


Tear off a large sheet of aluminum foil and layer in the center with onions, hamburger, sliced potatoes and sliced carrots. Add Worcestershire sauce to taste and sprinkle with salt, pepper and a pat of butter.

Note: Other vegetables can be added, (or substituted), ie. corn, peas, sweet peppers, or green beans. Fresh is best, but frozen works fine. Tip: 1 tsp. of Monterrey Steak seasoning really boosts the meat flavor.

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