Spend anytime in the backcountry or even at the campground at your local state park, and you’ll soon realize the importance of good al fresco dining. Not only do you need the calories to hike, but a good meal can help ease the aches and pains of the long day and turn that rainy trip into an at least-we-ate-well trip.
Bringing the kitchen outdoors is not always as easy as it sounds. I’ve been a professional cook and have also guided a few groups through the wilderness, and in that time I’ve discovered what every professional guide knows: food makes or breaks the journey. Here I’ve put together a mix of ideas, from the gear you need to meal planning advice. There’s something for everyone here, whether you’re new to camping or a seasoned camper. Check out our outdoor guides for more tips, including the best camping gear and tents.
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The basics: A good stove
For car camping, I recommend a two-burner stove. The size of the oven really depends on the size of your group. For a party of five or fewer, this Coleman Classic 2-Burner Propane Camping Stove is your best bet. It offers a good balance between cost, cooking performance and size. If you’re traveling with a larger group, consider either going with a couple of stoves or opting for something like the Camp Chef Pro 60X Deluxe ($320). If neither feels right for you, our Best Camp Stoves guide has more recommendations.
Finding a good backpack stove is more difficult as weight is much more important. In fact, microlighters will argue that you don’t even need a stove, just bring ready-to-eat food. But for the rest of us, a good, warm meal can really mean the difference between survival and real fun. I have used and enjoyed the Primus Firestick ($90) which is perfect for two person meals.
If you’re traveling solo, the Jetboil MiniMo ($155) is a perennial favorite. If your group is larger, I suggest dividing the food into pairs, one cooker for every two. It’s certainly possible to cook more with a single backpack stove, but I find it harder than just bringing an extra, lightweight stove.
A good cooler
The best cooler is the Yeti Tundra series. I wish the most expensive option wasn’t the best, but it is, and impressively so. I’ve been testing a Yeti Tundra 45 for a few months and regularly get a solid week’s cool off from a single block of ice. Even bags of cube ice typically last three to four days in temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it gets hotter, performance drops (moisture also makes it melt faster), but it’s still better than anything you’ll get from other coolers. Yetis aren’t cheap, but they’re nearly indestructible and outperform everything else we’ve tested.
If you don’t camp enough to justify the cost of a Yeti, I suggest going with what’s available at your local store. Most other coolers are about the same when it comes to performance. Be sure to get something with plenty of room for your food and ice cream. Most cooler manufacturers suggest a 2 to 1 ice to commodity ratio, but I’ll admit I rarely manage to do that when a family of five is camping for a week. In my testing, a 1 to 1 ratio is more realistic and still seems to keep my food cold enough.
Whatever cooler you get, store it properly. If you’re in bear country, that usually means in a provided metal storage box. Wherever you are, keep your cool box out of direct sun if possible and make sure the lid stays tightly closed. Open your cooler as little as possible so that the cold air stays inside. One way to minimize airflow and make the ice last longer is to bring a separate cooler for drinks so you don’t keep opening and closing your main cooler just to get another drink. I also suggest making your own block ice if you have the freezer space.
A storage table
If you drive to a campground, you’ll likely have access to a picnic table to cook at, but that takes up space for eating. If you have a larger group or don’t have access to a picnic table, a good camping table is essential. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this article, I have not used a camping table that I really love and that is still available. The best I’ve used lately is this table from Alps Mountaineering, which is reasonably sturdy and packs up nice and small, although it feels pretty cheap.
Another option is the cheaper plastic folding table, which you can find at most major department stores like Walmart. I’ve used this 4-foot Mainstays model ($40) when camping, and it did the job, although it has warped over time; Metal ovens also slide around on it, so use caution when cooking.
You’ve safely stowed your food on lots of ice, your stove is on a table and now it’s time for the actual cooking. what do you cook with To start, just bring a few pans and cooking utensils from home. I cook almost exclusively on cast iron, which is great for car camping because it’s very durable and retains heat well. But it’s very difficult.
If you don’t want to bring your lovely pans from home, another option is to head down to your local thrift store and snag some cheap frying pans that you’ll be happy to bang around camp. But if you’re looking to take your camp kitchen to the next level, consider a Dutch oven. Cooking in the Dutch Oven takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it there’s very little you can’t do with one of these. I own and recommend the Lodge 6 quart flat top model. The lid can serve as a grill plate.
Camping or backcountry cooking can be as simple or as fancy as you like. Whether you like hot dogs on a skewer or alder-smoked trout with radishes and herb aioli, there are a few things to keep in mind when planning your camping meals.