“I just wanted a hot dog,” my partner said, assuring him that the diced potatoes only needed five more minutes before I could add a can of corned beef to make a delicious hash of campfire.
The potatoes were still crunchy. It was now dark enough that the lantern was on and the mosquitoes were out. Starting a campfire took longer than expected as amateur campers, but as a foodie, I wanted an over-the-top spread.
I’ve since streamlined the process, preparing as much at home and being realistic about how long it takes for the food to be ready, factoring in starting a fire and cleaning up.
Those who are camping experts probably already have their favorite dishes and tried-and-true methods, but for budding outdoor enthusiasts, here are some tips.
Everything will take longer than you think
Anytime you cook in an unfamiliar environment, you’re going to slow down because you’re not used to the setup.
Be aware that you will want to start a fire before the sun starts to set, especially if you are new to camping and you will likely need a few tries to get the fire going. (Pack plenty of matches or a pilot lighter.)
And it’s not just the cooking time, it’s also the cleaning.
Consider whether you will be supplying all your own water or if there will be a water source elsewhere and how far it is from the campsite.
Be sure to check the campground rules regarding proper gray water disposal.
Not all flames are the same
In addition to sanitation rules, check your campsite’s fire regulations before you arrive.
Bruce Peninsula National Park, for example, requires that you only use firewood from that region to prevent the spread of invasive pests and diseases.
Once a fire is started, you need the proper flame for what you are doing. If it cooks quickly, say a hot dog, you can just hold the skewer over the flame. (If using wooden skewers, soak them in water beforehand to prevent them from burning.)
If you are using a grate or grill, wait for the flames to drop slightly as they should never go over the grate otherwise the food will burn.
If you want to cook something slowly, such as potatoes wrapped in foil or a pot of stew, wait until the wood and embers turn white for consistent heat.
Prefab as many things as possible
Minimize the number of steps needed to cook at the campsite and plan every meal because not having enough food in the woods is no fun.
If I was going to make this campfire corned beef hash again, I would have pre-cooked the potatoes and corned beef at home and finished them over the stove for a few minutes to crisp them up.
Consider ready-to-eat meals
That doesn’t mean you’re reduced to peanut butter sandwiches – but if it makes you float, go for it.
You can set up a DIY packing station with containers of pre-washed and cut vegetables, spreads, cold meats and cheeses. Or, bring containers of roasted vegetables, hummus and baba ganoush to make a mezze spread.
Take advantage of all the flatbread options in the GTA for a meal without utensils: pitas from Adonis, tortillas from Maizal, barbari from Khorak supermarket or injera from Desta market, to name a few. Speaking of bread, I also recently learned of a brilliant update on Twitter: use croissants instead of hot dog buns.
There are also meat pies and sausage rolls (check out But ‘N’ Ben Scottish Bakery and High Street Fish and Chips); onigiri from grocery stores like T&T Supermarket and Galleria Supermarket, or smaller spots like J Town By The Sea or Sanko; and rolls from your local Chinese bakery (they will last a day or two).
Jerky is a classic camping snack, but consider heading to an Asian grocer like T&T which, in addition to beef, has a whole aisle of vegetarian and seafood jerky. Soy and spicy calamari are my favorites.
Food safety and storage
Black plastic take-out containers and deli cups are ideal for camping. They are stackable and washable and already come with writeable lids.
The black plastic containers are perfectly sized for individual meals, and their high sides prevent spills if you eat on your lap or on the floor.
Fill the aforementioned water bottles or plastic containers with ice for the cooler (cold cans of pop and beer also work). When the ice melts, the water can be used for washing and drinking.
Stack the cooler with the foods you are going to eat first to prevent cold air from escaping.
I advise against bringing raw meat. Especially if you’re not used to cooking over a fire and don’t bring a meat thermometer – it’s pretty nasty to use an outhouse when you don’t have food poisoning.
For beginners, pre-cook the meat or opt for thin cuts that cook quickly like skewers.
I keep an eye out for supermarket s’more kits that provide graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows in manageable portions. (They often go on sale in mid-summer.)
You can also try different cookie bases (Oreos are a popular option), chocolate bars (peanut butter cups and cookies and cream bars), and add fruit slices to balance out the taste of the processed snack.
If variety is what you want, head to Bulk Barn where you have a variety of cookies and chocolate bars to choose from, and you can buy just the amount you need.
Consider the others you camp with
Live your gourmet dreams, but while preparing elaborate campfire meals isn’t on everyone’s agenda, consider how much prepping, cooking, and cleanup can be accomplished after a full day of hiking and swimming.
Ask yourself if other people at your campsite are willing to accept your “Iron Chef” aspirations. Speaking from experience, an Instagram-worthy spread isn’t worth it when your camping buddy is giving you a killer look off-camera.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION