25 C
New York
Monday, April 15, 2024

The Best Camping Cookware

Spend any time in the backcountry or the campground at your local state park, and you'll quickly realize the importance of a good meal outdoors. Not only do you need the calories for hiking, but good food can also help soothe the pain of the long day and turn that rained-out trip into an “at-least-we-ate-well” adventure.

Bringing the kitchen to the outdoors isn't always as simple as it sounds. I've been a professional chef and have also guided quite a few groups through the wilderness, and in that time I discovered what every professional guide knows: Food makes or breaks the trip. Here, I've put together a mix of ideas, from the gear you need to meal planning advice. There's something here for everyone, whether you're new to camping or a seasoned tent slinger. Be sure to check out our outdoor guides for more tips, including the Best Camping Gear and Best Tents.

Updated March 2023: We've added the Trangia Spirit burner, a larger dutch oven, some useful accessories, and updated links and pricing throughout.

Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-Year Subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you'd like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.

The Basics: A Good Stove

Coleman Classic Propane Stove$48 at Target$48 at Walmart

For car camping, I recommend a two-burner stove. The size of the stove really depends on the size of your group. For a group of five or fewer, the best choice is this Coleman Classic 2-burner propane camp stove. It strikes a good balance between cost, cooking power, and size. If you're heading out with a bigger group you'll either want to use a couple of stoves or go with something like the Camp Chef Pro 60X Deluxe ($320). If neither feels right to you, our Best Camp Stoves guide includes more recommendations.

Primus Firestick Backpacking Stove$90 at Amazon$90 at Backcountry

Finding a good backpacking stove is trickier, because weight matters much more. In fact, ultralight hikers will argue that you don't even need a stove, just bring ready-to-eat food. But for the rest of us, a good, hot meal can really mark the difference between survival and actual fun. I've used and enjoyed the Primus Firestick ($90), which is perfect for two-person meals. 

If you're heading out solo, the Jetboil MiniMo ($155) is a perennial favorite. If your group is larger, my suggestion is to break food up into pairs, one stove for every two people. It's certainly possible to cook for more on a single backpacking stove, but I find it's more trouble than just bringing an extra, lightweight stove.

Trangia Alcohol Stove$20 at Amazon$15 at Trangia

Alcohol stoves are my favorite way to cook in the backcountry. The only reason this isn't my top pick is that many areas have banned alcohol stoves. Be sure to check the fire regulations in your favorite spots before you invest. You can make your own alcohol stove out of an empty soda can, but of all the burners I've tested, I like this Trangia Spirit burner the best. It's indestructible, super simple to use, lightweight, and totally silent. 

This stove is so light (7 ounces with windscreen) that it has a permanent home in my pack, and I even bring it on day hikes to make coffee or tea on the trail (hat tip to Erik Normark). This stove needs a windscreen, and unfortunately the Trangia triangle windscreen (the best windscreen) seems to be discontinued. You can either grab one off eBay UK (which is what I did) or try this one for $25 or this one for $20, both of which look pretty close to the Trangia version.

A Good Cooler

Yeti Tundra 45$325 at Amazon$325 at REI

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 couple of months and regularly get a solid week of cooling out of a single block of ice. Even bags of cube ice usually last three to four days in temps of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it gets hotter than that, performance drops (humidity will also make 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 whatever is available at your local store. Most other coolers are about equal when it comes to performance. Be sure to get something with plenty of room for your food and ice. Most cooler makers suggest a 2-to-1 ratio of ice to goods, but I'll confess I seldom manage that with a family of five camping for a week. In my testing, a 1-to-1 ratio is more realistic and still seems to keep my food plenty cold.  

No matter which cooler you get, store it properly. If you're in bear country, that usually means in a provided metal storage box. No matter where you are, keep your cooler out of the direct sun when possible, and make sure the lid stays tightly sealed. Open your food cooler as little as possible so that it retains the cold air inside it. One way to minimize airflow and make that ice last longer is to bring a separate cooler for drinks so you aren't constantly opening and closing your main cooler just to get another beverage. I also suggest making your own block ice if you have the freezer space.

A Camp Table

Alps Mountaineering Dining Table$130 at Target$160 at Amazon

If you're headed to a campground, you'll probably have access to a picnic table, which you can use to cook on, but that takes up eating space. If you've got a bigger group or won't have access to a picnic table, a good camp table is indispensable. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, I have not used a camp table I truly love that's still available for purchase. The best thing I have used lately is this table from Alps Mountaineering, which is reasonably stable and stows up nice and small, though it feels rather cheaply made.

Another option is the more affordable plastic folding table you'll find at most big box stores like Walmart. I've used this 4-foot Mainstays model ($40) while camping, and it did the job, though it warped over time; metal stoves will also slide around on it, so be careful when cooking.

Camp Cookware

Lodge Cast Iron Camp Dutch Oven (6-Quart)$65 at Amazon$65 at Walmart

You've got your food safely stowed on plenty of ice, your stove is set up on a table, and now it's time for the actual cooking. What do you cook with? To start, just bring some pans and cooking tools from home. I happen to cook almost entirely on cast iron, which is well suited to car camping because it's very durable and retains heat well. But it's very heavy. 

If you don't want to bring your nice pans from home, another option is to head over to your local thrift store and grab a few cheap skillets you don't mind banging around in camp. But if you're looking to take your camp cooking to the next level, consider a dutch oven. Dutch oven cooking 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 model with a flat lid. The lid can double as a griddle. 

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

The Lodge 6-quart is a good size for meals serving up to five people. If your group is larger, I suggest the 8-quart deep dutch oven ($80). Not only is it bigger in circumfrance, it's about 2 inches deeper as well. That's deep enough to roast a whole chicken if you're so inclined. I've been using this one lately to bake bread over an open fire, which turns out to be quite a hit with a hungry crowd of campers.

Useful Accessories

While the above covers the basics of building your own perfect camp kitchen, I've found that there are some other things that go a long way to making camp life easier.

First Aid Kit: Accidents happen, and nothing ruins a camping trip like losing a pint of blood. Be careful with those knives and make sure you have a good, basic first aid kit. You can grab a premade kit like this ($15, REI), which is better than nothing, but we suggest building out your own. In fact, we have a whole guide: How to Build Your Own First Aid Kit.A Good Hatchet: While I do suggest a stove for most people, cooking over an open fire is also an option. It's tricky, and a good way to ruin a meal when you first try it (practice at home), but nothing beats bacon fried over a flame. To build a good cooking fire you're going to need to split some wood. My favorite hatchet has been discontinued, but this Coleman Camp Axe ($12) will get the job done. Fire Starter: If you're camping with kids, get a ferro rod. I like this compact model ($12, Amazon). Your kids will love starting a fire with one of these, though it does take some practice. If you want to make it easier, bring along a fire starter. You can buy something from any camping store, but I've always made my own by putting some Vaseline on a cotton ball. It can be messy, but nothing lights up a child's eyes like the first time they make a fire from a spark. YouTube is full of tips if you haven't done this yourself.Meal Planning

Cooking in the campground or the backcountry can be as simple or as fancy as you like. Whether you're into hot dogs on skewers or alderwood-smoked trout with radishes and herb aioli, there are a few things to keep in mind when planning your camping meals.

Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

GearThe Best Lubes for Every Occasion

Jaina Grey

GearThe iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

Julian Chokkattu

Gear11 Great Deals on Sex Toys, Breast Pumps, and Smart Lights

Jaina Grey

Keep It Simple. At the end of a long day hiking on the lake shore, no one feels like cooking or eating a fancy meal. Be realistic about what you're actually going to want to do. I suggest keeping it simple on days with lots of other activities planned. That's when the burgers and hot dogs are a good idea. Save the fancy meals for a day when not much else is planned.Keep It Organized: Packing a cooler is something of an art form, but I find the best method is to think in terms of meals and keep each meal together inside the cooler as best I can.Marinate Ahead of Time: The biggest pain about camp cooking is doing dishes, so the less you have to do, the better. Make your marinades ahead of time and put your proteins in before you leave (the exception would be acid-heavy marinades, which will cook your food if you leave it in too long). Generally though, the more you can do ahead of time, the better.Consider the Freezer Section: Sure, freshly cut sweet potato fries would probably be “better.” So would homemade meatballs, but some precut fries and a bag of ready-to-go meatballs are an easy meal where you don't have to do much. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, it has some particularly tasty camping-friendly freezer meals.Think of the Children: Nothing ruins a camping trip like a screaming hungry child. Little ones tend to have higher caloric needs when they're running around outside all day. Don't forget the snacks. We've got a few recommendations in our Hiking 101 guide.

If this guide makes camp cooking seem daunting, fear not, it's really not that bad. It's not that different than cooking indoors. Armed with these tools and tips, you should be well on your way to creating some happy, well-fed campers, and most important, good memories. 

Related Articles

Latest Articles