Gourmet camp food: Better dining under the stars

Authors encourage gourmet cooking for camping, backpacking

Tim and Christine Conners with their dog, Roxy
Photos courtesy of Christine Conners

At home or at a restaurant, people don’t settle for boring food. And when they pack up the family and head out to a campsite, Robin Donovan says, that shouldn’t change.

“I think a lot of people rely on the obvious, like a grilled piece of meat or a hot dog, and it’s just boring,” Donovan says. The San Francisco-based author runs the food blog Two Lazy Gourmets and recently released a new edition of her book Campfire Cuisine, a gourmet camping cookbook intended for car camping.

“Yeah, I mean, I think if you’re backpacking that’s one thing, if you have to carry all your food in,” she says. “But if you’re car camping, I don’t know why you’d resort to that stuff.”

Donovan’s not the only one opposed to bad camp food. And other cookbook authors say even long-distance backpackers can set their culinary sights higher.

“I mean people routinely, on long-distance hikes, they’re eating instant mashed potatoes,” says California author Linda Frederick Yaffe. “You can do better than that.”

In the last few years, cookbooks and other products have sprung up to elevate the dining experience under the stars, as gourmet camping food gradually gains traction among outdoorspeople. Donovan says she knows there may be some resistance among traditionalists, but she says it’s time for a change.

“There probably is tradition and people stick to their cheeseburger ramen soup,” she says. “Maybe they just need to make new traditions.”

Yaffe, who has written High Trail Cookery and Backpack Gourmet, has a basic rule of thumb — a “mantra,” she says — for backpackers: “Cook at home, not in the field.”

“I love to cook at home,” she says. “I’ve got a beautiful kitchen, I’ve got a deluxe food processor, I have nice hot water coming out of the tap — all those things I don’t have when I’m in the field.”

Yaffe swears by a dehydrator to help her keep her options open while she’s outdoors.

“It takes almost no fuel to reconstitute the meal,” she says. “You just bring the water level just over the food in the pot. No cooking in the field.”

Author Christine Conners is on board with drying food for backpacking as well.

“We call for drying a lot,” she says. “Once you’ve broken into the world of drying your food, you can recreate it on the trail. People are a little intimidated by that, but you can do it in bulk and make mass quantities of food that way.”

For Conners, who along with her husband Tim wrote the Scout’s Cookbook series and the Lipsmackin’ cookbook series, which includes installments on backpacking, vegetarian backpacking and car camping, the big reason to go gourmet is to look forward to eating on the trail.

The Conners’ bear can

“I think a lot of people don’t take into account necessarily the psychological component of looking forward to food,” she says. And she says people underestimate their hunger — and their need for calories — on the trail.

“Premade items that are available often lack a lot of calories,” Conners says. “If you look at the packages, they’ll say, ‘Serves 2.’ But then each serving is only 200 calories. That’s not enough for a backpacker.”

“Many people, they’re so hungry because they’re burning so many calories, they’re just craving food in a way we can’t really fathom from our homes,” she adds.

A dried spaghetti leather

Meanwhile, Donovan says she’s more familiar with the car-camping foodie set.

“If you want to put on your backpack and hike miles and miles out, it’s not the book for you,” she says of Campfire Cuisine. At the same time, she recognizes that the point of camping is not hovering around the camp kitchen all day.

“Nobody wants to spend the whole day cooking when they’re camping, so it has to be easy,” she says.

“I didn’t want it to be food that was only good for camping,” she adds.

Evidently, she succeeded.

“Somebody just posted on my Facebook page for the book that they’ve been using the book all summer, they really like the recipes — and they haven’t been camping yet this summer,” she says.

For car camping, Conners advocates for the Dutch oven for its simplicity.

“Unlike a grill or something with propane, all you need is coal,” she says. “You can put it by your fire or use traditional coals, and you can control the temperature of your oven. … We don’t take it backpacking but we love it. If you have a favorite cake, you can bake it, because there’s a specific coal count that nails it.”

The authors all have horror stories of bad camp food they’ve suffered through or seen others choking down. Yaffe says instant mashed potatoes are the “number one” bad dining decision on the trail.

“They’re not getting protein, vitamins, minerals, any of that stuff,” she says. “They’re not even getting the potato skins, it’s terrible.”

Conners says on the Appalachian Trail, near her current home in Georgia, hikers often start down the trail with a few bad ideas in their pack, and evidence piles up at huts on the trail.

“We started noticing they were loaded with food,” she says. “Giant jars of peanut butter, cans of chili, like why are people leaving all this food here? It occurred to us, people were bringing that food and realizing early on, especially with Amicalola Falls being gnarly, that that’s not going to work. Peanut butter’s great, but it has to come in a small jar. It’s just crazy.”

She says even other cookbooks sometimes make suggestions she doesn’t understand.

“A backpacking book calls for fresh blueberries,” she says. “I can’t even get those home from the store without them getting crushed.”

Conners says she and her husband didn’t start collecting recipes only from their experience on trails. While living in California near the Pacific Crest Trail, they took advantage of an opportunity to draw from many people’s experiences.

“We started taking in long-distance backpackers and started becoming fascinated with how they could go a week at a time without a resupply,” she says. As hikers stayed, she and her husband would ask them for recipes, making sure to give credit appropriately. Donovan, meanwhile, started through her own experience car camping.

“I was doing a lot of camping at the time and I just found that one of my favorite parts of camping was cooking really great food,” she says. “And I just noticed that a lot of other people were eating really awful-looking food, and I started researching other books on the topic and found most of them were really horrible, mixing ground beef with cream of mushroom soup, things like that.

“I just thought, somebody needs to, why not me?”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com