3 Lessons for Perfecting Camp Cooking

July 14, 2022

Sequoia National Park, California. The first signs of evening spread across the sky and we are roughly thirty minutes away from our campsite. Heavy clouds gather above the treetops and cover what little sun is out. Rain begins to pitter patter against the top of our 4Runner. The sound reminds me of grains of rice falling into a metal pot. 

Every camper, no matter how novice or seasoned they are, has experienced some form of this story. And every camper will tell you that what separates a successful trip from an unmitigated disaster is the degree to which you plan for the unexpected. 

My family’s first camping trips began a little over ten years ago. We’d spend our weekends traveling up and down California, setting up camp everywhere – from Big Sur to Sierra Nevada to Death Valley. Our evolution from a family that camps to a Korean family that camps is primarily marked by one thing: how we prepare and eat food. 

Food, and by extension food prep, is the secret glue of camping. A warm, nourishing dinner after a full day of being challenged by the elements is essential. Good food can lift cranky spirits. Good food can make a trip memorable. 

Here are three lessons I’ve taken away from my experience camping and cooking with my family in the wild, as well as a simple recipe for Kimchi fried rice that we’ve made outdoors. 

Lesson 1: The Trip Begins Before You Leave

As we turn into our campsite, we go right to work. The rain is soft and intermittent. With our LED lanterns and headlights glowing, we separate into two groups: my father and sister begin setting up a shelter next to the tent while my mother and I unpack the cooler and get ready for dinner. 

  • Gameplan ahead. When scheduling your trip, be considerate of location and potential energy levels—and understand how much time and energy you have to cook. Are you on the road or at camp? Is anyone expecting a fire-roasted tilapia that takes an hour over indirect heat after an eight-mile hike? The answer is likely no. Plan around these factors. 
  • Divide and conquer. A healthy spread of responsibilities amongst your camping party not only maximizes the efficiency of the overall campsite but also gives everybody a chance to participate. Play to your campers’ strengths and weaknesses. Veterans of the outdoors can set up the tent and organize the area, while newbies can gather firewood and assist others. 
  • Choose meals that reuse ingredients and gear. Research recipes that only require one or two pans. Portable dual-burner stoves save tons of time and give outdoor chefs plenty of flexibility; cutting boards can double as charcuterie/snack boards; a multitool outfitted with a small paring knife, can opener, and corkscrew can replace multiple kitchen tools. Making a custom mix of spices (salt, pepper, maybe some gochugaru?) can season most savory dishes, while a bottle of agave nectar or honey can add a bit of sweetness to meals, drinks, and desserts. 

Lesson 2: Do Camp Cooking Your Way

We open the cooler to find sealed tupperware containers of sliced romaine leaves for ssam, soy-soaked eggs, and sweet roasted anchovies. Half a cup of sesame oil lives in a small glass jar. Our food choices aren’t what you’d typically imagine when you think of traditional camp fare, but what it does reflect is our kitchen at home. 

  • What is your chili dog? You set the menu, so feel empowered to choose ingredients and flavors that you find tasty and comforting. Consider “traditional” camp meals of hot dogs, chilis, and peanut butter sandwiches as suggestions, not requirements. What makes these dishes work when you’re outdoors? Chili, for instance, is warm and comforting (perfect for cold, windy nights); provides a nutritious balance of protein, fat, and carbs; and comes, conveniently, in a can or pouch. Think of other foods you enjoy that check those boxes and accommodate you and your group’s personal food preferences. Maybe a yellow Thai curry is more your speed, or perhaps a chana masala. Simple meals that feel like second nature are perfect for the outdoors. 

Lesson 3: Remember to Enjoy the Scenery

The clouds disperse as the night settles in. Stars introduce themselves above a crackling campfire. We nourish our bodies with spoonfuls of rice. The smell of roasted sesame and sauteed kimchi wafts through the ancient Sequoia trees. We feel at rest. 

Bringing a taste of home can make all the difference when you’re outdoors. It can comfort you when things go sideways.  The secret to “perfecting” camping and, by extension, camp cooking is recognizing that you can’t perfect an experience that is, by default, wild. Part of the fun is adapting to what we don’t expect – rolling with the unexpected. 

Things may go awry! But that’s OK. Thinking ahead and planning in advance encourages us to fully immerse into the unknown without it overwhelming us.

Kimchi-Fried Rice

This is a recipe adapted from a meal my family frequents when we go camping. Kimchi Fried Rice is the epitome of a last-day-on-the-trail meal. It’s a simple one-pot dish that is infinitely customizable with whatever ingredients you have leftover.

Yield: 3-4 servings

Total Time: 15 minutes

For the rice:

2 cups Kimchi
3 cups cooked Jasmine Rice
1 pound Kevin’s Natural Korean BBQ Style Beef
1 medium Onion
1 tablespoon Avocado Oil
Leftover veggies / protein

For the topping:

1 Green Onion, chopped
1 teaspoon  Roasted Sesame Seeds 
1 sheet Roasted Seaweed
2 teaspoons Sesame Oil (to taste)

Instructions

Roughly chop the kimchi and onion. 

Pre-heat a pot or wok on medium heat. Add in the avocado oil.

Once the oil starts shimmering, saute the onions and kimchi until the onions become translucent. 

Add leftover veggies or protein and saute for a minute until wilted/cooked through. 

Add the cooked rice and stir for 5 minutes. 

Remove from the heat and garnish with green onion, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and crushed seaweed. 

Serve right from the pot and garnish with scallions. 

This article is related to:

Cooking, Cooking Tips, Environment

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Jon Kim

Jonathan Kim is a writer and poet living in Southern California. He loves cheese and pickles.

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