Eating Well While Camping Is Hard Work. It’s Also Genuinely Worth It

Every meal tastes better around the campfire, but cooking full, filling campsite meals often feels out of reach. It shouldn’t.

On a Wednesday morning in May in Joshua Tree National Park, while other campers were rushing off to hike or packing up their gear before the heat of the day, I got up and started a fire. By the time it caught, the sun had cleared the mountains, and temperatures were climbing fast. Sweat trickled down my neck. Time to make breakfast.

As the cast-iron pan heated over the fire, I julienned a pile of red peppers, sneaking one slice for every three or so I cut; after a couple days in the desert, they were too juicy to resist. A piri piri sauce made in advance went into the cast iron first, then the wealth of red peppers and eggplant and onion. The sun climbed higher. After the vegetables cooked down, next came a can of tomatoes. I sweated some more. Finally, my travel companion cracked four eggs into the sauce. After they set, we shared our breakfast, seated side by side on the half of the picnic table still in the shade. The meal had taken at least an hour to make; it had ruined any chance for a hike; I was very sweaty; and this campfire shakshuka, spicy and acidic and bright, was one of the best breakfasts I’d ever made. 

Every meal tastes better around the campfire, but for too long, that truism has led to low culinary stakes. The most typical American camping meal is a hot dog on a stick, followed by a marshmallow on a stick. Those of Scouting experience offer up hacks involving tin foil and/or paper bags, but these techniques’ appeal is in their ingenuity, not any resulting deliciousness. Whenever I went camping in the past, my attempts at cooking a full meal fell flat, and I ended up eating a lot of canned soup, peanut butter sandwiches, and dehydrated food packets meant for backpacking through a mountain wilderness, not driving my car to a campsite in Malibu. American outdoors culture is built around backpacking ideals, prizing the fast, the light, the portable, instead of the equally valid pleasures of setting up a cozy and well-stocked campsite as a base of exploration. I love camping, but my food situation always bummed me out. 

It turns out there is a way to eat well during camping — it just requires a lot of work. The key is prep. Lots and lots of prep. Plan out every recipe. Write grocery lists and adhere to them. Make every sauce, marinate every meat, mix up the spices and put cookie dough in the cooler pre-chilled. You want cocktails? Juice the limes, make the simple syrup, and portion out the booze (those tiny delightful bottles all your to-go cocktails came in are handy). This entire process will take a day. Maybe two.

Wait, wait, come back. I know. I KNOW. Camping is a nightmare of prep already. You have to dig out the sleeping pads and buy new bug spray and jam the cooler in the car. Why add a huge project just for the sake of an exceptionally nice breakfast? I see you reaching for the peanut butter and the can of split pea soup. But I promise, if you put in the work, you will not just eat well. You’ll work campfire magic.

Over those three days of camping in the California desert, everything we ate was the best thing we’d eaten thus far. The trip started with dinner: basically, a quick-cooked chili, but with chickpeas and numbing Sichuan peppercorns, with fluffy white rice cooked on a backpacking stove. We left a squash wrapped in foil to cook in the fire’s dying embers, and the next morning, the squash was tender and ready to serve as a bowl for chorizo and egg cooked over the same tiny backpacking stove, after our bigger stove refused to light (when camping, redundancy is your friend). At lunchtime, the heat of the day was too brutal for anything but a picnic of cheese and bread and olives. Dinner was steak on puffy naan bread, with a fire-blistered pepper and pineapple salsa and not one but two sauces to go alongside. With a couple of lime-ginger rum cocktails poured out of their many adorable bottles, we watched the stars come out in a dazed bliss. And to round things out, the shakshuka, not to mention a crunchy, sweet, salty snack mix we feasted on at all hours until an aggressive squirrel ripped the bag (RIP). It took two people a couple days to prep these meals; if you’re going to cook through these recipes while camping, you should do so with at least one other enthusiastic friend. (My favorite Japanese camping YouTuber has lots of recipes for solo camp cooking). 

It was a lot of work, but that’s kind of the whole point of camping. My girlfriend, who hates bugs, dirt, and leaving the house, roughly in that order, says every time she talks to me while I’m camping I sound miserable, but then I come home happy and refreshed and excited to head back out again as soon as possible. She’s started referring to camping as my enrichment pen. While I don’t love being compared to a cooped-up zoo tiger, I see her point. I may be (occasionally!) miserable while failing to start a fire or set up a tent, but I’m never depressed. 

In fact, the one time I was reliably sad while camping — at least before this trip — was mealtime. I would open my cooler only to discover the ice had melted too fast, or I’d root around in my cans trying to decide which disappointing soup to eat, or I’d try to make a far-too-elaborate meal that was ready about three hours later and not even that good. But when camping with what was basically an intricate meal kit box we had made ourselves, I started looking forward to meals, and enjoying the process. When everyone is taking turns flexing their skills and/or indecisively wondering what the next meal could possibly be, camp cooking is a shared victory every time, and the meal decisions have already been made. All you have to do is show up together with loaded-up coolers, light fires, and execute. Even doing the dishes feels a little triumphant.

After the shakshuka, my traveling companion left, and I spent a few days in the desert on my own. I had many moments of transcendence and much-needed contemplation, hiking alone through an ecosystem where cedars cling to the tops of jagged cliffs and Joshua trees hunch and stretch and bend, as far as the eye can see. Taking in the otherworldly glow of a cholla cactus garden at sunset, their spiky halos aflame. Driving into town to get gas and grabbing a strawberry shortcake ice cream bar, its outer coating a little soft, its flavors bright and childish, so blessedly sweet and cold. Turning camping into a massive cooking project isn’t only satisfying in the moment — it lifts many meals afterward into the realm where they belong, of minor miracles; the wonders of ice cream from convenience stores and vegetarian burgers from a walk-up window, and a stove at home you turn on with a dial, and a fridge full of good-looking things you can use to cook whatever you want. Until, a day or two later, you’ll find yourself fantasizing about that morning spent sweating over shakshuka, and start planning when you can go be hot and uncomfortable and happy again.

Dina Avila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.

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