Camp Cook Like a Pro With These Tips and Tricks

Plan ahead to make eating under the stars tasty and painless.

Your camp meals can go beyond hot dogs and canned soup, but you’ll need to do a little planning – and advance prep – to make that happen. “Spend a little time finding simple recipes,” says Sue Johansen-Mayoleth, a naturalist at Devil’s Lake State Park. “If you’ve been out hiking, you just want to come back and eat, you’re starving right away. You don’t want something that takes hours.”

What does easy look like? “For something like cheese quesadillas, you just need a cast-iron pan,” says Johansen-Mayoleth. And think about how ingredients can double up: That tortilla can double as a pizza crust, covered with sauce, prepared toppings and cheese.



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Photo by Kat Schleicher

Plan out the menu for each day. For meals that require prep, do as much as you can at home and pack the ingredients in containers that are ready to go. Pack salads in a large container with the dressing in another to add when ready. Dice vegetables, hard-boil some eggs.

A mix of veggies, potatoes and sausage, or even fish fillets, can be wrapped in individual-serving foil pockets for transit, then placed on the grill or next to the embers in the firepit.

Not all campfires are equal, depending on the fuel (hardwoods burn hotter), the size and the stage of burning (younger fires burn cooler). “Know your fire temperatures,” says Johansen-Mayoleth. “You can make baked potatoes [wrapped in foil], but on the coals or along the edges, not directly in the flames.” You should experiment with the first servings to be sure how fast it’s cooking. Spread coals/embers out for more even heat, and set pans on the firepit grill, not the wood or embers themselves. Or arrange some large rocks around the hot coals. This allows you to bring a pot closer to the heat for a faster boil.

Johanson-Mayoleth’s favorite campfire treat (after fully blackened marshmallows): Take an apple and singe the skin in the fire; peel it, then roll it in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. “Tastes like apple pie,” she says.

Photo by Kat Schleicher

The Tools

Your recipe dictates what implements you need to pack. Cast-iron may be heavy, but it’s also durable and partly nonstick if seasoned correctly beforehand. Teflon-treated cookware is a big no, as a hot fire will ruin the coating and even warp the pan. Hot dogs get by with a skewer or a branch foraged from the woods. But anything in a pan or pot will require a flipper, tongs, spoon or ladle. And an oven mitt, for sure.

A pot is great for stews, mac ’n’ cheese, oatmeal or pasta (which adds a strainer to the pack list), as well as instant meals and coffee. For the latter, pack a non-glass French press, AeroPress, or even a handy thermos/coffee press combo. 

If the wood fire is not your thing, camp stoves range from large double-burners to something as small as a single burner that screws directly to the top of a cooking gas canister. A small grill is also nice but complicates the packing puzzle.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s July Issue.

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