I grew up my whole life in Bloomington, and I never camped. My family was not the camping sort. Dad was a banker at US Bank who loved the outdoors, but that usually meant hunting and fishing. I went camping with a Girl Scout troop once, but that was in a barracks-style facility, and we spent most of the rainy weekend indoor making crafts. I married into a cabin on Burntside Lake in Ely. I have never technically camped in the BWCA or anywhere else, for that matter. I did go on many sailing adventures where we cooked in small spaces and had to rely on the chest refrigerator and a few ice blocks to get us by for a week on the open sea.
Then we got a 1972 Dodge Xplor Van, and my whole life changed. I felt the love for the open road, the diesel fumes,
and being on the road to nowhere (though I was always searching for internet access, if I am honest.) This was my first experience cooking in a van on the road or thinking about not accessing a store or having adequate refrigeration for 4-5 days.
What I can tell you is you get really clever. You freeze everything and multi-purpose the packets as ice packs. You make marinades and vinaigrettes in advance, and you simplify your recipes to dry seasoning and pre-made mixes, and you rely heavily on salt and pepper. We have upgraded the Dodge Xplor that crapped out on the road in Fruita, Colorado, to a Winnebago Paseo that we traded for our broken-down van and a sizeable cashier’s check.
Here are some of my camping essentials for car, tent, sailing, or camper cooking for a 4-5 day trip based on what we have learned and a few bonus recipes for the road.
Freeze the proteins
Every camping trip we have starts with steak and beans. We season the steaks and freeze them in a Ziploc bag. When it thaws out (about 6 hours), it is ready to cook on the grill or open fire. All the frozen proteins act like ice packs in our cooler. Another favorite for us is to freeze a pork tenderloin in a teriyaki marinade. This will last until day two and is thawed and cooled in your cooler. From here on out, it’s likely dried foods, cans, or bagged proteins like tuna or salmon. Always throw a dried salami in the mix. Dried Salami cubes can flavor breakfast hash or be mixed with beans for soup or rice for Jambalaya, and slices of salami can be pan-fried for a quick dinner protein.
Pre-made sauces and spice mixes all make for great camping seasonings
We generally travel with good all-season spice (Heathers Dirty Good Seasoning is excellent), and a meat lovers spice mix plus salt and pepper and a hot sauce like Cholula that now comes in single-serve packets that are easy to pack. I also throw in any soy sauce or mustard packets we have around from past take-out dinners – these are handy for making dressings or flavoring rice. This combination gets us seasoning for bean dishes, pasta dishes, rice dishes, and any meats we may have on the road. peanut butter packets, maple syrup, and a bottle of honey are also always in our cabin pantry.
Dry foods are your friends
Cereals and grains like granola, muesli, oatmeal, or Cream of Wheat are perfect breakfast foods on the road. You can carry a stash of dried cherries, raisins, mangos, or banana chips for flavoring. Flavored rice mixes, pasta, beans, and lentils are all staples for road cooking. Knorr makes some tasty pre-made rice and pasta mixes. Dried biscuit mix and pancake mix are also easy to prepare. Consider making extra biscuits or pancakes and smearing them with peanut butter for lunch or using the biscuits as sandwich bread for dried salami sandwiches. These hints of bread on a trail can be inexpensive and very satisfying.
A bit of fruit
Apples last forever and are great with packets of peanut butter as a snack, and lemons make their way into almost all my dishes, whether it’s the juice for a hint of acid to pep up a dish or the zest itself. Limes are also pretty easy to transport and can make a simple rice and corn dish go from ho-hum to oooh la la with a bit of spicy seasoning salt.
Potatoes and Garlic and Onions
While they aren’t light for hiking long distances, we typically always have a few Russet Potatoes on hand. You can make a meal out of a baked potato (with cheese) or chop and fry up potatoes with eggs, onions, almost anything. Potatoes are a versatile, uncrushable food that also has excellent nutrients on the road.
Snacks are important
Usually, there are many adventures like paddling, hiking, or bike riding on any camping trip. Keeping dried snack mixes, nuts, Triscuits, jerky, and fruit leathers on hand gives you quick energy boosts and helps you transition between meals, and gives you some emergency options if you can’t get a fire going or run out of propane for our stove.
Here are a few recipes we cooked on our most recent Van Trip to True North Base Camp in Crosby, Minnesota, where we Mountain Biked and Paddled the Cuyuna Regional Trails.
Pan-Fried Walleye and Potatoes
- 2 pieces fish (cut large filets in half for easier handling)
- Fish seasoning
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp Old Bay seasoning
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 Russett potato
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
- Heat your oil in a cast iron pan on the grill or your stove
- In a Ziploc bag, combine seasoning with the fish
- Shake in a bag
- Fry the fish pieces in batches until golden brown, about 3 minutes aside.
- Sprinkle with kosher salt and serve
For the potatoes:
- Start stovetop or campfire grill
- Pour vegetable oil into 12- inch cast iron skillet
- Slice potatoes into ¼ inch slices.
- Toss the potato with oil, salt, and pepper and mix well.
- Carefully place potatoes in the skillet on the grill (they spatter) and move the pan to the medium heat side of the grill.
- Stir every 5 minutes or so and occasionally rotate the pan between the hot and medium sides.
- Potatoes will fry for about 30 minutes and should be nicely brown and fork-tender with plenty of crispy edges and bits.
Dry Salami Breakfast Hash
- 2 Tbsp Cooking Oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 Russett Potato cut into one-inch cubes
- 1 cup dried salami diced into 1/2 inch cubes
- Salt and Pepper
- All-purpose seasoning
- Heat Cooking oil.
- Add the potatoes to the pan. Cook, frequently stirring, for 10 minutes. Add the Salami pieces to the pan with the potatoes and cook 10-15 minutes more until brown and crisp. Finish with
- Salt and pepper and add hot sauce if you like. You can serve a fried egg cooked in butter right on top of the hash.