When you think about making food on a camping trip, you probably imagine cooking over a roaring fire. While the image of good friends eating hearty food around a firepit is iconic, there are also other ways to cook in the great outdoors — and it pays to know them, in case you can’t build a fire on your next adventure.
For your convenience, we’ve assembled a list of the best ways to cook while camping. This guide will tell you when to use each of these methods and give you helpful advice on how to master them.
Campfires: the Tried & True Method
Campfires are the most popular way to cook in the wilderness, and they’re one of humanity’s oldest methods of meal prep — short of just tearing raw meat off the bone like an animal. We’re guessing you don’t want salmonella, though, so let’s assume that’s not an option.
It’s also important to realize that there are numerous ways to cook with a campfire. You’re not limited to just skewering things and roasting them on the open flames! Moreover, cooking directly over fire can burn your food or cook it unevenly, making some meals unsafe.
Here are a few of our favourite ways to make use of the firepit at your next campground:
- Bring cast-iron cookware: cast iron is denser than other common metals used in kitchenware. As a result, cast iron pots and pans are better at retaining heat and more likely to distribute it evenly.
- Use a grill grate: these metal grids can be placed on top of a firepit and used for several purposes. It’s usually possible to cook meat by placing it directly on top since the metal will conduct heat and cook the food more evenly than an open flame. Grates can also support cookware — allowing you to do things like boil water without holding the pot yourself. They are typically made from stainless steel or cast-iron and have an enamel coating.
- Wrap with aluminum foil: wrapping protein and veggies with foil allows you to place them directly in the coals, resulting in evenly cooked food that you can eat right out of the package. There’s no short supply of recipes that use this method, and foil can be used to line cookware as well.
When Can’t You Use a Campfire to Cook?
There are a few different situations where using a campfire for cooking just isn’t possible. Be aware of them so you can have a few backup plans ready.
Most areas don’t allow campfires under certain environmental conditions. Restrictions tend to be most common during dry and windy conditions when forest fire risk is highest. Before setting off on your adventure, it’s always smart to check the list of fire bans for the province where you’ll be camping.
Even when fires are allowed, sometimes it’s impossible to start one. Rain may extinguish a flame before it can spread from the kindling to the tinder. Damp wood may not even light with fire all around it, so starting a fire in clear conditions can still be difficult if it has rained recently.
The Fire Won’t Grow
Cooking over a bonfire is much easier than cooking over a weak flame. It’s like the difference between a kitchen element set to “high” and one set to “minimum”. If your campfire keeps going out or isn’t getting large enough to cook efficiently, it’s best to explore alternatives — that is, unless you feel like waiting an hour to boil water.
Other Ways to Prepare Meals While Camping
If you can’t use a campfire for cooking, try using some of these methods instead:
Portable Stoves & Grills
Travel-friendly kitchen appliances make it easy to cook without an open flame — just make sure you have enough fuel or a power source nearby. Most portable grills and ranges are either electric or gas-powered, so you may want to pack spare cylinders or a small generator if you plan on using them.
Pre-Cook & Pack Food Before Leaving
Some meals taste better cold, especially if you go camping in warm weather. Try cooking rice or quinoa at home before leaving for your trip, and use it as the base for a filling and nutritious salad.
Eat No-Cook Foods
Some foods don’t need to be cooked at all! Sandwiches, cereal, cold cuts, and canned food are all easy to bring on a camping trip and can be enjoyed with practically no preparation beforehand. However, make sure you store them in a cooler so that their scent won’t attract wild animals.
Many Ways to Cook While Camping
Your campsite may not have all the conveniences of a modern kitchen, but it still offers plenty of ways for you to cook creatively. Campfires are much more versatile than most people think — and when you can’t build one, smart packing and a portable stove will ensure that you have other options.
When you get cold at home, the solution is normally pretty easy. Just crank up the thermostat, run a warm bath, or throw on one of your many cozy sweaters! But what are you supposed to do when you’re on a camping trip far away from luxuries like central heating, hot water, and a full wardrobe — run laps around the tent? Look, we support exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle, but trust us: there are better ways.
Chilling in the woods shouldn’t mean feeling chilly in the woods. Below, we’ve compiled some of the best tips and tools for keeping warm when you go camping.
See also: The ultimate guide on what to bring camping.
Keeping the Heat On (Yourself)
Before we dive into the list, it’s important to note that not all of these strategies involve creating warmth. Your body does a fair amount of that all by itself — the problems start when this thermal energy is needlessly lost. Some of our suggestions involve making heat with specific tools, but many of them are about helping you trap the heat you naturally produce and keep it in the spaces where it will be most useful to you during cold weather.
It can help to think about insulating yourself in much the same way you would insulate your house. The materials in question may be different, but the end goal is the same: prevent the heat from escaping into the outside air where it can disperse and leave you cold.
And Now: The Top 12 Ways to Keep Warm On Your Next Camping Trip
Without any further ado, here’s our list! Most of these can be accomplished with minimal financial strain, so incorporate as many as you can on your next journey and bask in the feeling of a job well done.
Layer Up Early
If you’re waiting until it gets cold before putting on extra layers, you’re doing it wrong. Layering up keeps heat close to your body, but there’s not much it can do if that heat is already gone. As soon as you notice the weather starting to cool down in the evening, it’s best to throw on a sweater or jacket.
Pack Long Undies
Outerwear will only get you so far without underwear. The layers on the bottom are just as important as those on top, so consider long-johns or leggings made from merino wool or high-quality synthetics. They might look a little goofy, but who cares? They go under the rest of your clothes!
Oh, and one more thing: don’t forget wool socks. Cold feet can be a significant source of heat loss, so keep those toes toasty!
We’re going to level with you — we love blankets. Think of them like an extra layer, only more versatile; in addition to covering your body, they can be used to help insulate a tent or provide warmth for a small group of people.
Use the Right Size Tent
We tend to think bigger is better when we’re picking out tents — but that’s not always the case, especially when it comes to staying warm. The extra space inside a giant tent can indeed feel luxurious but remember: that’s also more air in which thermal energy can disperse. A tent with less room will keep any heat in the space more concentrated.
Consider a Tent Carpet
While we’re on the subject of tents, a fitted tent carpet can prevent you from losing heat through your tent’s floor. Don’t feel like buying one? No problem — just bring a throw rug or two from home and put them on top of the groundsheet. You can also spread out styrofoam mats beneath your sleeping bag for a bit of extra insulation (not to mention comfort).
Choose the Right Sleeping Bag
Speaking of sleeping bags, make sure you pack a good one. In general, you’ll want a sleeping bag that fits snugly and can zip up all the way to cover your head (also known as a mummy bag). A cheap sleeping bag or a thin one made only for summer camping will breathe too much, whereas a loose sleeping bag will let too much heat escape from the spaces between your body and the material from which it’s made.
Add a Sleeping Bag Liner
If you only have a summer sleeping bag available, you can improve its heat-retention capabilities by adding a liner to the interior. Silk liners are soft and good at trapping heat, but they can also be fragile. We recommend fleece if you toss and turn a great deal in your sleep.
Sleep with a Hot Water Bottle
Hot water already warms many of our homes, so why shouldn’t you use it to stay warm during a camping trip? As long as you have a hot water bottle that won’t leak and a way to heat water, this is a fantastic way to keep a sleeping bag cozy at night. We recommend warming the water up with a saucepan and portable stove, but you can even use the campfire!
Buy Disposable Heat Packs
Air-activated disposable heat packs are available from many grocery and home improvement stores. Leading brands last for hours and can raise temperatures between 38 and 55 degrees celsius when appropriately used. Many disposable heat packs are meant to be slipped inside gloves while working outside in cold weather, but variations exist for boots and socks.
Sleep Near Other People
You’ve all seen penguins huddle for warmth in nature documentaries, so this suggestion should come as no surprise. Heat naturally flows from hotter objects to cooler ones, so you’ll keep each other warm if you sleep in groups.
Be Active Before Bedtime
A little exercise before tucking in for the night will raise your body temperature, allowing more heat to be captured by your sleeping bag and clothing — as well as any other people who happen to be sleeping near you. Just… try not to sweat too much.
Eat Well & Sleep Full
They don’t call it “burning calories” for nothing, you know. When we eat, our body converts food into energy — and some of that energy gets released as heat while we sleep. The harder our body has to work to metabolize food, the more heat is produced, so fats, carbs, and sugar are your friends here. Who doesn’t need an excuse to eat chocolate before bedtime?
Stay Warm by Staying Smart
You don’t need to break the bank on fancy gear to stay comfortable in a cool campground. We make most of the heat we need all by ourselves — it’s just a matter of ensuring that heat stays close and having easy access to a few external sources. It’s worth investing in a few essential items, but simple household objects can do a lot of the work for you if you know how to use them. Keep this guide as close to you as your favourite pair of long-johns so that you can make sure your next outdoor excursion leaves you with that warm and fuzzy feeling.
When it comes to camping, the gear you take along can make or break the experience. Pack right, and you’ll be ready for any adventure — whether you’re hitting the beach in British Columbia or alpine hiking in Alberta. Forget too many essential items, though, and you could literally find yourself up a creek without a paddle.
Of course, remembering to pack everything you’ll need for your next trip into the wild can be tricky — so we’ve come to the rescue. Behold, our ultimate guide for what to bring along whenever you go camping!
See also: What to bring when camping in the rain.
Don’t Leave Home Without These Essential Items
We’ve split this list up into two different sections. This first one deals with the stuff you absolutely can’t afford to leave behind: things that pertain to safety and physical needs (like eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom). There are some other things you’ll probably want to have on hand as well to make sure your trip stays fun, but we’ll get to that in the next part of the article. For now, consider these items your top priority:
Clothing and Shelter
Sleeping under the stars can be very romantic — but only when it’s a choice. You don’t want to be staring up at the night sky because you forgot your tent. All conscientious campers need to pack weather-appropriate clothing, too. Here’s a checklist that’ll keep you warm and dry on your next trip:
- A tent: make sure it’s the right size for the number of people in your party, and that it can handle any weather you expect to encounter. If you’re not sure how to choose an appropriate tent, try MEC’s Find Your Tent quiz.
- Versatile clothing: you probably can’t take your whole wardrobe on a camping trip (unless you have a really big vehicle), so it’s best to opt for clothing that can handle a wide range of temperatures. If you can afford merino wool, it’s always a smart choice for base layers — it’s a warm, lightweight material that breathes easily and insulates even when wet, which makes it perfect for both physical activities and staying cozy in the cold.
- Rain-proof outerwear: into every life, a little rain must fall… and if it happens while you’re camping, you’d best be prepared! Bring a lightweight waterproof (not water “resistant”) jacket on every camping trip, and consider waterproof bags for any items you want to keep dry.
- Proper footwear: don’t take those brand new Nike kicks on a muddy mountain trail — you’ll regret it, we promise. When it comes to footwear, remember: function always comes before form. Look for durable, weatherproof shoes with excellent traction and good support so that you can scamper up slopes and abscond from animals if you need to beat a hasty retreat.
Food and Cooking Supplies
Food is just as important as shelter, so be sure to consider your consumable goods when planning your journey and save room for the following:
- Firestarters and tools: you’ll probably want to start a fire at some point during the trip, so make sure you bring a means to do so. Matches are the most basic tool for this task, but you can also bring flint and steel or a cigarette lighter. Magnesium firestarters exist too — but make sure that if your firestarter needs fuel you check it before leaving. It’s also a good idea to bring a backup, just in case your first one gets ruined or fails. Don’t forget to bring a sturdy and good quality axe for your wood cutting needs.
- Cooking appliances: building a fire isn’t the only way to prepare food in the wilderness. Portable ranges and hot plates are an option too — as long as you have extra propane tanks or a source of electricity nearby.
- Dry and/or canned goods: as a general rule, you don’t want to bring delicate things camping. When it comes to food, that’s especially true — if it can easily be crushed or spilled, leave it at home. Dry goods like jerky, granola, and nuts are your best friends here, along with canned protein and vegetables. Oh, and if you’re building a fire, don’t forget the ingredients for s’mores!
- Canteens and water filters: eating is important, but so is drinking — and your body can go longer without food than it can without water. The best move is to fill your canteens with fresh water before you leave so that you won’t have to purify it in the wild, but if you run out it’s good to have filters or purification tablets at the ready.
- Garbage bags: whatever you pack in, you must pack out. Respecting the environment you’re in means it’ll be waiting for you when you come back!
Personal Hygiene Products
We’re not saying you should be scared of a little grime, but there’s also no point in getting filthier than necessary. How do you use the bathroom when there’s no bathroom in sight? Start by bringing these:
- Toilet paper: no, you can’t just use leaves. Don’t believe us? Try it at home first, and let us know how it goes — we’ll wait. You can also purchase AMAZING biodegradable wipes that are good for a mini-bath and TP. Great for your bottom and the environment.
- Soap: germs travel the same way in nature as they do in towns and cities. Soap and hand sanitizer will prevent you from contaminating your food, spreading illness, and smelling bad.
- Toothbrushes and toothpaste: bad breath can ruin anything, even the unparalleled majesty of nature. Why risk it?
Expect the unexpected when you venture into nature. Taking these items along will help protect you from the scary stuff:
- A pocket knife: need to make kindling from a branch? Sharpen a stick to use as a replacement tent-peg? Open a can? Screw an appliance back together? Hunt a small animal? A good utility knife can do all that, and more. Don’t leave home without it.
- Maps, compasses, or GPS systems: don’t count on Google Maps when you’re out in areas with patchy service. Make sure you’re taking along something that can tell you where you are if you get lost.
- Flashlights and headlamps: fire is bright, but it sure doesn’t travel easily (especially in a forest). Taking along a portable light source will help you find your way in the dark, whether you’re making your way back to camp from a hike or going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
- Bear spray: better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. ‘Nuff said. While we are at it, don’t forget the bug spray.
Don’t Forget the Fun Stuff
We’ve covered the really important things, but if you want to enjoy your camping trip to the fullest possible extent then you might want to save room for a few of these creature comforts:
- Sporting equipment: if you’re going camping in an area that lends itself to certain activities, make sure to pack the appropriate gear — inflatable rafts and swimsuits for campgrounds near water, cross-country skis and poles for winter camping in snowy woods, etc.
- Toys and games: there’s often as much fun to be had in the tent as there is on the trail. Packing a deck of cards and some board games can be a great way to stay entertained when the weather gets rough, and a stuffed animal or two can keep a toddler from getting scared at night when you’re camping as a family.
- Books: it’s so hard to find time to read these days. Why not take advantage of the solitude that nature offers? A thick volume or two can help pass the time when it’s raining, and it feels very rugged to sit on top of a mountain and read Hemmingway. Trust us.
Respect Nature and Nature Will Respect You
People who prepare for their camping trips normally have a blast. If you pack the right items, you’ll spend the entire experience warm, well-fed, and well-protected. Refer to this list often as you’re packing for your next excursion, so that you and your party can face the elements with confidence.