An experienced camper shares tips on food prep and cooking with limited amenities.
Last weekend, I had to feed seven people for two days in a tiny off-grid cabin using a double-burner Coleman camp stove and a fire pit. The cabin did have a solar-powered refrigerator and running water in the kitchen sink, which made things easier, but the menu plan still required a degree of forethought that I wouldn’t usually give it when cooking at home.
Because I stay at this cabin frequently (it belongs to my parents) and do numerous camping and canoe trips every year with my husband and children, I’ve become somewhat accustomed to these slightly complicated cooking arrangements. And because I love cooking more than my husband does, the job usually falls to me. I do not mind this, especially if it means he’s hanging out with the kids elsewhere.
On this particular weekend, friends were visiting us at the cabin, so I felt a certain self-imposed pressure not only to feed us but to feed us well. In order to impress them with my backwoods cooking skills, I drew on my years of both failed and successful camp cooking experiences to ensure ours was a gourmet type of weekend. What follows is my advice for ensuring a feast while roughing it in a cabin in the bush.
1. Plan Out the Entire Menu
Sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and figure out what every single meal will be. This is important when you’re going somewhere that’s far from amenities; you won’t have a grocery store or restaurant nearby in case of emergency hunger, so take the time to picture each meal, including snacks.
My main menu included herb-marinated vegetable and halloumi skewers, quinoa salad with black beans and mango, spicy Napa cabbage slaw, Moroccan chickpea-lentil soup with a cheese plate, and blueberry buttermilk pancakes with breakfast sausages.
2. Do a Ton of Advance Prep
Anything that can be done ahead of time should be done. On the morning of our departure, I spent four hours in my home kitchen making everything that would keep for a couple of days. Every salad component was made, vegetables washed and chopped, dressings and sauces premixed and poured into jars, and meats and cheeses precut for easy marinating.
3. Label with Detail
Don’t assume you’ll remember what something is, especially when a couple of days (and a few cocktails) have gone by. Use a permanent marker and some masking tape to label everything you pack, saying which recipe it belongs to.
4. Take Pictures of Recipes
The components of a recipe aren’t useful if you don’t remember how they go together. Don’t forget to take along the cookbook you’re using or snap a picture or screenshot of the recipe you’re using for offline reference.
5. Take Containers or Bags for Leftovers
I don’t mind transporting food in heavy glass jars and food storage containers because I can use them for leftovers later on. Make sure you have storage options because there are few things as annoying as storing uneaten food in a pot overnight, and then needing to use that pot in the morning with nowhere to put the leftovers. Can you tell I’ve been there before? Plan ahead! And if you don’t have access to a fridge, solid containers keep leftovers better protected in a wet cooler.
6. Pack Basic Ingredients
No matter how much prep you’ve done and how certain you are that every recipe will be perfect, it’s still smart to pack some essential ingredients and kitchenware items. For me, that includes olive oil, butter, vinegar, salt, pepper grinder, cream, ground coffee, chef’s knife.
If you’re unfamiliar with the cabin or other place you’re visiting, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw in a cutting board, cast iron fry pan, and a portable coffee maker of some kind. Other related items that I recommend include a clean dishcloth, tea towel, liquid soap, and tablecloth.
It’s smart to pack an emergency meal, too, in case something happens to mess up your original meal plan. Take along dried pasta and a jar of sauce, a carton of pre-made chili, or a packet of dried soup mix with crackers—anything that will ensure you don’t have to go to bed with an empty stomach.
7. You’ll Always Need More Treats
I’ve only recently acknowledged just how badly I crave treats when I’m in the bush and how ravenous my kids get—and I am 100% OK with it. There’s something about being outside that makes us all want to nibble and snack in ways we never do at home. So now I make a point of packing far more treats than I ever expect us to eat, and inevitably we polish them all off. Potato chips and margaritas on the dock, candy and s’mores around a campfire, and late-night wine and popcorn with a board game have all become appealing rituals.
8. Know Your Water Situation
Figure out ahead of time whether there’s drinking water on site or if you need to haul it in from outside. If so, make sure you have a large container in which to transport the water or a filtration system that will let you filter tap, lake, or stream water.