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Updated Jun 15, 2022 3:55 PM

You’ve had that long weekend blocked out on the calendar for months, and now that it’s finally here, it’s time to go shopping for your camping meals. But what’s on the menu? By the looks of Instagram and Pinterest, surf-and-turf foil packets and apple-blueberry cobbler in a dutch oven. Get ready to grind spices for elaborate curries or reinvent french toast for an open fire. So much for relaxing. If you’re like me, and you’d rather not prepare something more elaborate over a portable camp stove than you do in your home kitchen, then I’ve got the best camping meal shortcuts for you. 

Things to Consider When Buying Camping Meals

Preparation Time

It’s tempting to make big plans when you’re planning a camping menu—multiple courses, exotic flavors, cooking over the open fire. But if you’re new to car camping, it’s best to start small. Cooking outdoors can be a hassle. You have to haul in your water, try and keep your ingredients clean and sanitary, and make do with a much narrower range of utensils and cookware than you usually have. A good rule of thumb is to assume that anything more complicated than boiling water is going to take twice as long as you’re used to. 

Preparation Utensils

Nothing is more frustrating than realizing you forgot the tongs when those brats crisping over the open fire are ready to eat, and you have nothing to grab them with. As you’re purchasing food for your camping trip, start a list of the best camping utensils you’ll use to prepare each item so you can be sure your camping box has everything you need. 

Shelf-Stable Groceries

Unless you have an oversized cooler and are confident in your ice supply, choose shelf-stable groceries over those that require refrigeration when you’re out shopping. And don’t worry about the loss of flavor. The outdoors has a way of making the best camping meals, even ones that might have tasted a bit bland in your home kitchen, special enough for the moment. 

Salt

Food for the outdoors tends to be quite salty for good reason. Not only is salt the original preservative, it’s also important to replace electrolytes you sweat out when the temperatures rise. Unless you are on a low-salt diet, I’d let concerns about salt go just this once. 

Best Overall: Hot Dogs

Evaxo Kirkland

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Key Features

  • Preparation time: less than 10 minutes
  • Requires a roasting stick or tongs
  • Easy to pack

Why It Made the Cut

This is the quintessential camping meal for a reason: they’re easy to buy, highly customizable, and satisfying to cook over an open fire.

Pros

  • Kids and adults both love them
  • Pairs well with a wide variety of condiments

Cons

  • Vegetarian options just aren’t the same

Product Description

If I’m only camping for one night, then hot dogs are on the menu. Maybe I stick with frankfurters to make sure the kids are happy, or maybe I go big with specialty-made bratwurst or kielbasa. Maybe I even play it safe with precooked sausages (cooking over an open fire is not without its pitfalls). Paired with some nice buns—don’t skimp on these—an array of condiments from mustard to sauteed onions to ketchup, and the alchemy of a campfire, and you’ve got a truly satisfying meal for a night in the outdoors. To amp it up another notch, grill the bun over an open flame as well.

Best No Mess: Good To-Go Dehydrated Camping Meals

Good To-Go

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Key Features

  • Preparation time: 20 minutes
  • Requires boiling water
  • Vegan, vegetarian, and meat options

Why It Made the Cut

Good To-Go’s dehydrated meals cover a wide variety of options and did the best job of simulating a real meal in our best backpacking food test without the mess. 

Pros

  • Fast and easy to prepare
  • Numerous meal options

Cons

  • Expensive 
  • Fewer meat options than other dehydrated or freeze-dried meal brands

Product Description

Just-add-water meals have been a staple of backpackers for years, but they still have a reputation for unappetizing textures and cloying flavors among campers. However, the latest generation of freeze-dried and dehydrated meals, from companies like Backpackers Pantry, Mountain House, Peak Refuel, Heather’s Choice, and AlpineAire, have moved light years past the chili macs of the past. So if you just hate cooking of any kind when you’re camping—these make a better choice than snacking on chips and salsa all evening or picking up an MRE. 

Assistant Editor Sam Silverman tested many different dehydrated meals in her best backpacking food roundup, and the Good To-Go meals came out on top for flavor and texture. Her favorites were the Pad Thai, Cuban Rice Bowl, and Thai Curry—but watch the spice thermometer, as she reported that the versions at the maximum spice level can pack a serious punch. 

Best for Kids: Annie’s Shells and White Cheddar Mac and Cheese

Annie’s

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Key Features

  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Requires a pot
  • Vegetarian (but easy to add meat if desired)

Why It Made the Cut

I promise that mac and cheese has never tasted so good as when you take it on a camping trip. Plus, your kids will love you for it. 

Pros

  • Cheesy and delicious
  • Comes together in minutes
  • Easy cleanup 

Cons

  • Other adults might raise an eyebrow (but wait until they try it)

Product Description

While mac and cheese might be the dinner of last-resort at home, on a camping trip, that fresh forest smell and cool evening air transforms it into something else entirely. The steam tumbling off the pot and the cheese glistening in the evening light just smells like perfection. Your kids will love you, and you will love you, too. Plus, there’s only one pot to clean when you’re washing up. 

While the original Kraft pulls at the heart strings, I’m partial to the Annie’s Shells and White Cheddar Mac Cheese. If you’re looking to elevate the humble mac and cheese into something that adults can feel good about eating, there are plenty of ways to dress it up. Add a tuna packet for tuna mac and cheese, or some chili seasoning for chili mac and cheese. Other favorite add-ons include chicken, truffle oil, tomatoes, bacon, and of course, more cheese. 

Best Soup: Pacific Organic Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup

Pacific Foods

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Key Features

  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Requires a pot
  • Vegetarian

Why It Made the Cut

This slight spin on a classic tomato soup is great for warming up as the evening chill sets in, and it pairs perfectly with some grilled cheese.

Pros

  • Shelf stable
  • Nutritious
  • Kid friendly

Cons

  • Not a stand-alone meal

Product Description

Shelf-stable soup has been a staple of car campers for decades, and it’s still a perfect choice for your next camping trip. One of my favorites is this red pepper and tomato soup from Pacific, which puts a pleasant spin on the classic tomato soup. This also provides a great way to incorporate veggies into your diet when you’re starting to run low on produce around day four. 

If I had one complaint it’s that even though a steaming bowl of soup is sometimes all I want when the temps drop, these soups rarely pack enough calories as a stand alone meal. Fortunately, a slab of bread or a grilled cheese sandwich can turn this into a complete meal. 

Best Change of Pace: Tasty Bites Variety Pack

Tasty Bites

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Key Features

  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Requires a pot with warm water
  • Vegan, vegetarian, and meat options

Why It Made the Cut

After a few days of standard camping fare, I start to crave something different, and that’s when I break out the Tasty Bites. 

Pros

  • A wide variety of flavors and spice levels for every palate
  • Can be eaten cold in a pinch
  • Works great for family-style dining
  • Easy cleanup

Cons

  • Vegetarian and vegan options only 

Product Description

Camp for long enough and you can expect to hit a wall. Maybe you’re tired from adventuring, maybe you just don’t want to cook anymore. Either way, you’re done roasting dogs over a fire. For those afternoons, pack a variety of Tasty Bites, some instant rice, naan bread or pita, maybe even a couple of chutneys, and get ready to feast in ten minutes or less. 

The best part? You can warm the food without ever dirtying a dish. Simply place the sealed pouch directly into a pot of water warming on the stove. After a few minutes, take out the pouch, unseal, and enjoy. 

Best Veggie: Corn on the Cob

Wal-Mart

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Key Features

  • Preparation time: 15 minutes
  • Requires a grill or pot (can also be eaten raw)
  • Vegetarian

Why It Made the Cut

There are so many different ways to prepare corn-on-the-cob outdoors that it’s a no-brainer for camping. You can grill it over an open fire, boil it in water on your camping stove, or even eat it raw in a salad.

Pros

  • Easy to prepare
  • Dress it up or eat it plain

Cons

  • Can get stuck in your teeth (bring your floss)
  • Cobs can take up a lot of space in your trash when you pack out

Product Description

I almost never eat corn on the cob at home, but it’s always the first thing in my cart at the produce section when I’m shopping for a car camping trip. And I especially love wrapping in tin foil with butter and chipotle powder and salt. But you know what’s great about corn? I can forget any of those things and still end up with a delicious result. No tin foil? Go ahead and boil it on the stove. No pot? Slice it off the cob and add it to the salad. No salad? Eat it raw off the cob. You really can’t lose. 

Cooking corn on the cob over an open fire is an easy camp meal.
Corn on the cob’s versatility makes it a no-brainer for the camping meal list. Laura Lancaster

Best Store: Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s

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Key Features

  • As many calories as you want
  • Requires an open mind and sense of fun
  • Vegan, vegetarian, and meat options

Why It Made the Cut

Get everything you need to go car camping without walking around a store the size of an airport hanger. 

Pros

  • Plenty of shelf-stable options
  • Great variety for snacks and trail mix
  • Good selection of dried fruits and vegetables
  • Smaller store is easier to navigate than other chains

Cons

  • Products turn over often, so your favorite new dish might not be there next time
  • Produce shelf life can be hit or miss

Product Description

When I’m short on shopping time (which is most of the time), then I know I’m headed to Trader Joe’s. Their stores are small enough that I won’t knock off a two-mile hike just going back and forth between the aisles. And their selection of snacks is second to none (don’t sleep on that shelf above the frozen foods). Plus, any time I hit Trader Joe’s I know that I’ll find a couple of items that will surprise the other campers in my group.

If I had one gripe, it’s that their produce selection doesn’t last as long as others. Avoid the raspberries and salad bags—they won’t last past the first day. But you weren’t planning to eat all that many salads while car camping, anyway, were you? 

FAQs

Q: How do you plan meals for camping?

When I was a kid, my mom used to put together elaborate meal plans for two-week-long camping that included everything from what we would drink at lunchtime to a unique dessert for each night. I don’t have time for that. When I started car camping, I took a straight-forward approach: simply overbuy nonperishable, high-calorie items. That way, if you start to run a bit lean on the last few days you won’t have to bail early. Then the worst case scenario is that your pantry is stocked with snacks for the next couple of weeks. Over time, you’ll get better at guesstimating how much you need based on the fullness of your cart. This is car camping—it’s supposed to be relaxing. Don’t overthink it. 

Q: How do you eat healthy when camping?

Eating healthy fruits and vegetables doesn’t necessarily translate well to the varied temperatures of the outdoors when you’re camping. But there are options that hold well without refrigeration and provide enough variety to keep you going for four or five days. Beefsteak, tomatoes, avocados, and bananas, will last for at least a day, possibly two, while bell peppers, citrus, and cucumber can extend for as long as three or even four days. Getting to day five and beyond with fruits and vegetables can be tough, and you can always break things up with a quick run to the store for a resupply. But if the weather is cool, go with apples, carrots, and onions.

Q: How do vegans eat while camping?

If you’re meal-planning for a vegan for your next camping trip, don’t despair. Most of the meals outlined in the above translate well to vegans, including Tasty Bites and Good To-Go dehydrated meals. There are also a number of meat substitutes available from brands such as Impossible Burgers, Field Roast, and Tofurky. While the latter two need to be warmed up more than cooked, they typically require some refrigeration, so leave extra space in the cooler for them (Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger products can be prepared in a similar matter to other meat products, although vegans will probably appreciate it if you keep the juices separate). The same goes for cheese, although it’s worth checking with whoever you are meal planning for before purchasing, as vegan cheeses can have significant texture issues—consider jackfruit as an alternate option instead, which has grown in popularity.

Making a camp meal.
Camping meals can be as minimal or elaborate as you like. Laura Lancaster

Methodology

I love to backpack and car camp but since having a kid, I barely have enough time to pack properly, let alone plan an elaborate meal list, purchase all the ingredients, and then carefully pack them and the best camping dishes up. And if I’m being honest, I don’t want to spend all that much time at camp preparing a banquet. I’d rather spend most of my time hiking, wildlife watching, or kicking it by the fire with a drink. As a result, I’ve developed a pretty fast in-and-out routine that gets me the best camping meals to feed my family for up to a week of car camping and without the hassle of a lot of meal prep at the campground. Maybe someday I’ll have enough time to actually plan one of those elaborate-style banquets that I see on social media, but if I do, I’ll just make my trip longer. 

Final Thoughts

There’s no shame in heading out to the grocery store the evening before (or even the morning of) to purchase the best camping meals for your week-long summer car camp. These easy meal ideas can be used to help plot out your shopping list, with plenty of space for all those impulse purchases you’re sure to make along the way. Remember, don’t sweat it. You’re going to have a great time.