Why does food always taste better when eaten outside? Perhaps because a day of hiking, wild swimming or general gallivanting will always make you ravenous. Or perhaps it’s the excitement of watching and smelling something tasty as it bubbles and spits over the flames, scenting the air with wood smoke and tantalizing smells.
When I think of my favourite moments outdoors, they’re often linked to making or eating food. Baking (and accidentally incinerating) potatoes with my brother, making s’mores over the fire with friends, sitting around a camp stove to brew up coffee in fresh morning air. Cooking anything more sophisticated than instant noodles can seem a bit daunting to beginner campers, but it’s well worth branching out and trying more creative ways to make an alfresco supper, and these easy camp cooking tip and tricks will bring out your inner chef.
Camping cooking tips and tricks
1, Cook over a fire
One of the most rewarding way to cook outdoors yourself is over a good fire, and many campsites allow cooking fires (Hip Camp is a good place to search for campsites with campfires). Choose a dry spot on flat ground, away from tents and trees, and clear an area around three feet in diameter. Enclose your spot with rocks if there are any handy – this prevents embers from scattering and offers a bit of wind protection. Make a pile of flammable materials such as paper in the centre of the circle, and over it create a tipi construction by leaning sticks of kindling together. Light the inner materials. When the kindling catches fire and begins to burn, start to slowly add bigger pieces of wood, taking care not to add too many and suffocate your beautiful new fire. When the larger logs are crackling away you can add progressively thicker logs.
2, Get grilling
Grilling is my go-to method for cooking over a fire. It does take time, but that means you get to sit and drink beer whilst tending to dinner, which is fine with me. First, you need to wait until the wood fire you lit blazes away for long enough to produce a glowing bed of hot coals – this usually takes an hour or so. When you’ve got some glowing coals, use a stick to spread them out to make an even base. Once that’s done you can stick a grill over it. Old barbeque grills or grills with their own pop-out legs are ideal, otherwise you can balance a grill on two bricks or large rocks on either side of the fire. To gauge if a fire is hot enough to cook on, hold your hand about seven inches over it. If you have to draw it away after a few seconds, it’s ready.
3, Cook in foil
Make your own mini oven by wrapping meat, fish, veggies or potatoes in thick foil and burying the parcel in the coals to cook. I rub the inside of the foil with oil first, then sling in the grub and add sauces, herbs or just loads of butter. Make sure the parcels are well wrapped, and check them periodically to see if they’re done. This is also a great way to package up food in your kitchen to take with you on a camping trip. Wrap up foil packages, bung them in a plastic container then then pop on the fire for a zero-prep supper.
4, Make your own bread
First time cooking on a fire? Try my famous (and easy) campfire bread, wound helter-skelter style around sticks. Before you head off for a night of canvas and stars, mix up three cups of flour, one hefty pinch of salt, one pinch of baking powder and one of brown sugar. Sift the mixture, then add a tablespoon of oil and 200ml of water to your mix and chuck it all about until you have a firm dough. Roll the dough out flat, lay a sheet of baking parchment on top and roll the dough around the parchment, jam roll style, to take with you. When you’ve got a happily burning campfire going, cut the flat dough into inch-wide strips and wrap each strip around a clean stick. Bake over the fire, turning the twists regularly as they cook. The twists are ready when they’re no longer doughy in the middle (check by tearing a bit off).
5, Cook on a camp stove
Just because you’re wild camping or travelling light doesn’t mean you can’t whip up a tasty tea. The awesome thing about camping stoves is that they are essentially portable hobs, meaning that anything you can cook on your stove at home can be whipped up in the great outdoors by sticking a pot or frying pan on top. They’re also the only way you can cook a hot meal if you’re wild camping, or staying at a campsite that doesn’t allow campfires. Always have a go at setting your stove up at home first – there’s little more frustrating than realising you brought the wrong fuel when you’re desperate for a cuppa after a massive hike. High winds can also be an issue – move your cooking station somewhere sheltered, or at a pinch use a coat or tarp to shield the flame.
6, Pack good knives
It’s as true on camping trips as it is in the kitchen – good knives make food prep easier and more fun. This Heinnie Penfold knife is sharp and solid but can still be fold up ready to store safety in your backpack when you break camp.
7, Try Cowboy Coffee
I can’t start the day without coffee. If you don’t mind your cup of Joe a little rough around the edges, try making old-fashioned cowboy coffee (this is how they make coffee in the wild in Scandinavia, too). Simply add coffee grounds to water and bring briefly to the boil. Pour into a cup and let the coffee sit for a minute before drinking so the grounds sink to the bottom, and don’t drink the last inch. If you want to make a fancier filter coffee, my guide to making coffee outdoors has more portable tips and tricks.
8, Don’t forget seasoning
Seasoning maketh the camping meal – and I know from experience, after once having to eat plain pasta with plain boiled mushrooms on a memorable wild camping trip. Rather than carrying lots of different bottles of herbs and spices with you, which adds weight, mix things like salt and pepper or chili flakes and oregano together and take them with you in tin foil packets or small Tupperware containers for instant seasoning.
9, Make pancakes on the go
Did you know you can pre-make pancake mix at home? My favourite camping recipe has added oats for a hearty pre-hike breakfast – just mix together one cup of oats, one cup flour, a pinch of salt and two teaspoons baking powder, then add one cup milk, one egg and one tablespoon vegetable oil. Pop the mix in a squeezy bottle and you’re ready to cook up fresh pancakes on an outdoor stove.
10, Forage for extras
Turn a hike into a brilliant way to prep for your camping supper by doing a spot of foraging as you walk. Camping by the coast? Seaweed is great for wrapping around fish before you pop it on the fire. Wild garlic goes brilliantly with steak, and just-picked blackberries will liven up your breakfast pancake mix.
11, Cook under shelter
Bad weather? It’s dangerous to cook on a camping stove inside a tent, and not much fun trying to whip up pancakes out in the rain – sling up a shelter and get cooking under that, instead.
12, Get BBQing
Barbeques aren’t just for the back garden. Campingaz make the portable and lightweight Attitude 2Go, which runs off bottled gas – ideal for cooking up a feast on relaxed camping weekenders.
13, Make a Swedish Torch
A great middle ground between an open fire and a camping stove, Swedish torches are single logs with deep cuts in them that can be lit for a small and contained fire. They’re perfect for making one-pot meals or if you want the fun of a campfire without the fuss or in a small space. Here’s how to make your own, or you can buy pre-cut torches to bring along.
14, Learn to use a skillet pan
A fire-ready, cast iron skillet pan is one of the most versatile bits of camping cooking kit you can own, and is ideal for making one-pot camping meals and for cooking over an open fire or on a grill.
15, S’mores are always a good idea
This all-American (and all-calorific) campfire delight involves toasting a marshmallow and then sandwiching it between chocolate slabs and biscuits. In the US, you can use the classic Hershey’s chocolate and graham crackers, but in the UK I pack marshmallows and Leibniz biscuits for instant s’mores.