What's cooking?

Camp site cooking!


Cooking on a single tiny burner

Disclaimer: if you’re a glamper, this post is not for you. If you actually like camping, keep reading.

In the perfect place…

New Zealand has got to be one of the ultimate camping holiday destinations in the world. It’s full of public camp sites in stunningly beautiful places. In fact, you could work your way all around this country via the DOC camp sites – done right it’s the perfect holiday. The DOC sites tend to have a friendly atmosphere but aren’t cramped like commercial camp sites. And because you don’t spend a lot on accommodation, you can splurge a bit on getting out and about, seeing the sites and trying the many extreme activities NZ is known for.

But what do you eat when camping?

  • It’s often warm, so food goes off quickly.
  • You’re often more active than usual, and want high energy food.
  • And if you’re travelling with a backpack, you’re going to want to keep it as light and compact as possible.

… Now for the perfect meals

I’ll let you in on a secret. You don’t have to eat crap when you’re camping. Pasta in powdered sauce might be your cup of tea, but then again, it’s probably not. I’m guessing you don’t eat it at home – so why would you when camping?

While there are perishable and squishable foods that aren’t made for camping (think bread), mother nature has prepared other foods just for us. It takes a little forethought – here’s how I like to do it.

  1. Camp sites often have water (check in the DOC leaflet before you arrive) so you don’t have to carry the water content of food. Think of things you can add water to later, such as oats and fruit cordial.
  2. Speed and space are of the essence. Gas is limited, so either bring foods that cook quickly, or, when allowed, cook on a fire instead. (But not with any pots you want to keep afterwards!) You also don’t usually have great prepping areas, so do yourself a favour and be organised. Measuring out the right quantities of things like couscous can make life easy (e.g. if you need one cup water for one cup couscous per person, then use your camping cup as a measure to pack the right amount of couscous for your group). A small chopping board and decent small knife are invariably useful to bring along.
  3. Bring plenty! Remember you’re going to want a choice, and put some treats in there too. Why bring plain old peanuts when you can treat yourself to tamari-roasted almonds? Treats help to lift energy levels after the tough moments (a hard trek, bad weather, etc.). I always bring both salted and sweet treats, because I crave both salt and energy when trekking.
  4. If you’re going to be away from places where you can (or would want to) get supplies for more than a day, make a plan. Check you’ve thought of breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks – enough for every day!
  5. When making meals, remember you don’t have lots of burners. If your meal has multiple components (pasta and sauce, for example), you’ll need to do it sequentially. One-pot meals work best. It’s also good to avoid lots of washing up (cold water is not great on grease for example!).

Ingredients to pack

  • A little bottle of oil and a little bottle of washing up liquid plus a scourer. (Many dollar stores have travel bottles you can fill up with supplies.)
  • Some tin foil. Spare plastic bags to carry away rubbish.
  • Salt and pepper.
  • Tea bags and milk powder / small cartons of UHT milk (if weight isn’t an issue).
  • Many fruits and vegetables are too fragile to transport. But onions and garlic are packaged by nature for travel! Carrots are also great. Oranges and mandarins are a good snack if weight isn’t an issue. Chillis – fresh or dried – are great. Sometimes you can pre-chop bulky veggies to make them more portable (and quicker to prepare) if you’re going to eat them early in your trip (e.g. capsicum). Chestnuts are also perfect and won’t go off during your camping trip. Roast on a fire and eat as they are, or use the pre-roast kind as meal ingredients.
  • Individually wrapped stock cubes are great ways to pack some flavour without taking up lots of space. Use them to flavour rice or pasta, or make them into a sauce. On a similar note, dried grated cheese is a good meal ingredient. Parmesan is so aged that it has very little milk content to go off, and the dried kind even less so. Dried porcini powder is a particularly luxurious approach to packing some concentrated flavour! You can also put your favourite herbs into small zip-lock bags – your meals will taste that much more special!
  • Make a luxury porridge mix! Mix quick oats with milk powder and all sorts of dried fruit, a pinch of salt, and sugar if you wish (I gather convenient sugar sachets from my coffee shop outings and bring them!). Double bag your mix in case of accident.
  • Bread rarely works well when camping, but you can sometimes get away with flatbreads such as Arab bread, or dense breads such as fruit loaf and rye bread.
  • Chocolate tends to melt, but sugar-shell chocolates are good. Muesli bars are great too. You can even make your own custom ones with your favourite ingredients at home.
  • Crisps aren’t practical, but flavoured crackers fill the same gap, if pack space isn’t an issue. Make sure they’re sturdy ones though –  you don’t want a bag of crumbs! Remove excess packaging where possible to reduce bulk. To put on your crackers, consider recloseable tubes of pate. Most cheeses won’t stand the heat, but Baby Bels are quite good for a couple of days.

Meal ideas

  • Mediterranean couscous. Boil a cup of water, put aside. On a high heat, sauté some onions and peppers with oil and Mediterranean herbs. Leave vegetables to one side and bring water back to boil, then add to a prepared cup of couscous. When ready, mix everything with some grated parmesan or stock.
  • Pasta is bulky, and not great if you’re carrying your pack long distances. But if that’s not an issue, it’s worth considering. You can’t easily make a major pasta sauce, but you can manage tubes of pesto, or make an intense pasta sauce with oil, garlic, herbs, salt and concentrated tomato purée. Add a little of the water from the cooking pasta (it gets starch from the pasta, so it helps to make a bit of a sauce).
  • Boil-in-the-bag rice is not only easy (it doesn’t need a colander!) and quick, but it limits the mess to clean up. You can mix it with some Thai flavours, like lime, chilli, lemongrass and some crunchy veggies for a yummy meal. Coconut milk comes in small, concentrated sachets if you hunt for it – so you’re all set for a Thai-inspired feast!
  • Risotto sounds decadent but actually works really well if you have two burners (one for the stock and one for the risotto). Make sure you have enough gas for its half hour cooking time. Dried porcini mushrooms, garlic and parmesan risotto works well.
  • You can, of course, have perishable foods on your first day. Plan your meals out so you use things likely to go off first, and also heavier or less convenient things. Hard-boiled eggs and mini packs of cheese are good examples of a great lunch items which will last a day or so.
  • Include some super-easy options for when you’re just not in the mood. I like MTR’s packet curries. They have great ingredients and only require heating. Dried packet soups work for some people.

The important thing is to have food you’re excited about cooking and eating. You’re on holiday. Why wouldn’t you?

What are your favourite camp cuisine tricks?


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