My first experiences with camping date back to when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, at my uncle’s cottage in the country. I remember being carsick on the way there, Sam the stuffed Basset hound in my fists, and my elder cousin, a wise 7-year-old, telling me there were snakes under the bridge and my young mind conjured a full-on hissing snake pit of doom such that my uncle had to carry me screaming across it.
Later, pioneer camping with my 5th grade class at MacSkimming Farm, in little cottages with my classmates, my mom, and a teacher chaperone who wore a night cream mask to bed, wearing Laura Ingalls dresses and making dipped beeswax candles that I’m pretty sure still reside somewhere in my parents’ house. I remember eating pancakes and scrambled eggs that I also remember not liking because they weren’t like my dad’s.
In high school, shortly after I went vegetarian, it was the outdoor education class: on one of our trips we were to survive a night alone on a Ziploc baggie of rations that I recall included among other things an apple, Mr Noodles, and a square of baking chocolate that we were *not* to eat, building a lean-to with a tarp that I’m not sure to this day was not also host to nocturnal wildlife as I attempted to sleep, and making a mandatory gift for another camper (I made a Marge Simpson out of sticks, leaves, and a tall pinecone, and received a duct-tape-covered rock with grass hair and a happy face drawn on it).
And then in university came LARPing (which also happens to be how I met my husband). If you’re not familiar, live action role-playing is basically Dungeons & Dragons with real people dressed and acting as their characters, including homemade costumes and, in this iteration, pummeling each other with beanbag spells and boffer swords made with foam, duct tape, and PVC. It’s awesome. There are boffer weapons in our wedding photos, peeps. I regret nothing.
It was my time LARPing, which would typically run over a full weekend in the woods and on friends’ acreage, that evolved my camping style. My first rations for these weekends included instant oatmeal, apples, granola bars, and baby carrots… as well as bulk bags of chocolate-covered espresso beans, rice crackers, 6-packs of Boost, Gatorade, and oh so, so many Red Bulls and bottled Frappuccinos.
Then I went vegan between LARPing seasons, and in that time I was also engaged and working to feel awesome in my medieval fantasy wedding dress. So the camping cooler content also started to get an overhaul.
And with the many non-costumed camping trips since those days, I’ve now got several tactics in place for prepping and packing food to fuel an active weekend outdoors. These are by no means perfect, and I continue to learn about innovative techniques and tools, but I’ve found these helpful in getting my rhythm year to year.
Meals > ingredients
Packing ingredients is fine, but having your main meals already assembled saves more space in your pack and more time onsite. This one admittedly took probably more time than it should have to learn. I used to pack a container of salad greens, a package of whole-wheat tortilla wraps, a whole red pepper, a package of vegan breakfast sausages… and then assemble wraps when I wanted to eat them – which given the sometimes fast-pace of LARPing took up more time to awkwardly put together – and end up bringing half the ingredients home again, wilted and stale and sometimes wet from ice melt in the cooler. These were also usually in the original packaging, and I often did not plan with additional containers or baggies to store or seal leftovers.
Great meal ideas for packing: homemade chili, pasta and sauce with veggies and beans, root veggie and grain Buddha bowls, bean burritos or wraps with sauces on the side, sweet potatoes for baking on the fire.
Efficient storage is key
- Store what you can in large containers: that chili, for example. If you do bring cut vegetables and fruit for snacks, have those in a large container as well. Meanwhile, meals like burritos, sandwiches, and sweet potatoes do better individually. Wrap them in parchment paper, foil if you want to cook them directly on the fire, or reusable wrap/pouches.
Having something that you can just dump into a pot or have wrapped in foil to heat up over a camping stove or fire saves a lot of time trying to figure out what you can do with a pile of ingredients, without accidentally using up or wasting all your food.
- Keep cooking gear to a minimum. I really love kitchen gadgets, and ones that double for camping rank high as well. But related to point 1, keeping ingredients to prep minimal will help keep your equipment needs minimal too, and reduces the number of things you need to wash, carry, and keep track of. My gear usually consists of: a pot just big enough to heat 1-2 portions since it’s usually just me and my husband to cook for, a small pan, a steel kettle, a bowl that can double as a large mug (optionally with a handle), a plate, and some basic cutlery, plus a covered knife, serving spoon, and spatula.
The pot can be used to heat up servings of that chili, oatmeal, or just water if you don’t have or want to carry a kettle. If you’re like me and need something warm for breakfast while camping, I like having the small pan as well to heat up a tofu/chickpea scramble or vegan sausages alongside oatmeal and coffee or tea.
For coffee while camping, I have either ground coffee in my steel travel mug that doubles as a press, or I bring a jar or tin of organic instant coffee. I also love to bring a tin of matcha, hot chocolate powder, or superfood elixirs to enjoy by the fire or next to the water. And last year I discovered powdered coconut milk, which travels really well to use as creamer!
Bonus section: zero/low-waste body care
Avoid leaving a footprint with biodegradable and easy-to-tote essential items:
- Ditch the single-use sachets, non-recyclable plastic packaging: for toothpaste, look to small metal tins or glass jars, and even better, toothpaste tablets. This eliminates the need to carry a plastic tube that usually doesn’t get recycled and may even burst in your pack and get everywhere.
- Similarly, try a biodegradable shampoo bar or dry shampoo instead of bottles.
- A bottle of hand sanitizer over disposable wipes. If you do choose wipes, look for biodegradable ones.
- Menstrual products get a little tricky: for everyday use I love my silicone menstrual cup and reusable cotton pads, and they’re great for a day hike too, but to take them camping is a bit of a double-edged boffer sword (heh). Yes, I’m reducing the waste from tampon and pad wrappers, applicators, and plastic backings. But for a longer camping trip, there’s also the question of maintaining the sterility of the cup itself and the logistics of changing it. Unless I have a backup cup and a way to make sure I can wash it both safely and discreetly, my preference here is to stick with organic applicator-free tampons. I still bring my full supply of reusable pads, and tuck them away in a pouch designed for holding them to wash properly once I get home.
I expect to pick up more tricks and ideas with this coming season as well! No matter what, being immersed in a natural setting and among friends is one of my favourite parts of summer.
What are some of your favourite strategies, tools, techniques, and meals for camping?