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Camping Co-op Style

Does the thought of camping trigger some good memories for you? I think of waking under tall pines on a rocky island in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA)—early morning sun filters through the tent walls; two blue jays are having a raucous conversation in the boughs overhead; a gentle splash might be a fish jumping, or a muskrat or otter sliding into the lake; the hissing noise in the background is our old camp stove heating water for morning coffee or tea.

A recent report from the Travel IndustryAssociation of America states that camping is the number one outdoor vacation activity in the country and one-third of adult Americans are campers. Those numbers are expected to increase since camping can be a relatively inexpensive way to vacation. State parks across the country offer campsites that often cost ten dollars per night or less; private campgrounds usually cost a bit more, but many offer amenities that rival fancy resorts. If your camping preferences are for serenity and wilderness you may have to go a bit farther afield, but more remote places like the BWCA, the Porcupine Mountains and high mountain trails still exist—you just have to work a little harder to get to them.

There are more styles of camping now than ever before. Tents range from simple lean-to tarps to multi-room family tents for a dozen people. Sleeping bags come in a wide array of sizes and weights and the thin foam sleeping pads of my memories have been replaced with new, cushier materials or adjustable air mattresses. It is becoming unusual to see the campers mounted in pickup-truck beds that were common in my youth, but the pop-up style camper is still a popular choice to pull behind a vehicle. And many vehicles are campers themselves, ranging from semi-truck size RVs to the optional camping package offered on the General Motors Aztec. In addition, many state parks rent cabins to make camping and the outdoors accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

The style of camping you choose will probably help determine how and what you cook. If you like to cruise the scenic route in an RV equipped with a full kitchen or stay in a cabin, cooking will be pretty straight-forward; if you are paddling through the BWCA you might carry a camp stove and fuel, but you may also choose to cook over an open fire; if backpacking the Appalachian Trail is more your style, chances are your stove will be ultra-light and your cooking as efficient as possible.

Over an open fire

Small campfires are a great backdrop for camping’s traditional ghost or bear stories; they work well for toasting marshmallows and keeping mosquitoes at bay, and no one would deny their romance, but when it comes to efficient camp cooking, the open fire often leaves much to be desired. Campfire cooking is slow and requires a fair bit of attention to yield food that is evenly cooked without being scorched. There are some things that are great cooked over, or in, the embers, but the open fire probably won’t be your primary camp cooking method. Whole potatoes and “hobo” meals wrapped in foil are good candidates for the embers or grate and cast iron Dutch ovens are great tools if you have the time to tend a slow fire. These pots were the original slow cookers—they have flat lids with a raised edge that allows coals to be piled on top of the oven as well as underneath and they can be used for stews, soups, slow-roasted meats, and baked goods. Dutch ovens can be used with the coals from a wood fire or with charcoal briquettes. If you like campfire cooking you will probably want to invest in a Dutch oven.

Another popular tool for frequent campfire cooks is the reflector oven. Reflector ovens, like Dutch ovens, date back to the mid-eighteenth century when home cooks who had a hearth but no oven first used them. Modern reflector ovens are lightweight and fold flat so they are easily carried even when backpacking. They work best with a flaming fire—the heat is reflected down onto the surface of the food and cooking times are adjusted by moving the pan in relation to the heat. Baked goods brown nicely on both top and bottom surfaces with a reflector oven and the reflector can also be used for casseroles, soups or stews. Regardless of the tools you use with your campfire, remember that all fires must be thoroughly doused at bedtime and when breaking camp and they require a good supply of dry wood—something that can be hard to find near popular campsites.

Modern conveniences

Camp stoves are a much faster way to boil water for beverages, oatmeal, pasta, rice or even beans. A stove will also give you better results with eggs, pancakes, or fish and heats the dishwater quickly too. Many camp stoves burn white gas or “Coleman” fuel, which is widely available; others burn propane, kerosene, butane or alcohol. Stoves are available in different sizes with single burners being the popular choice among those traveling light. Larger camp stoves commonly have two or three burners. Modern campers can choose from an assortment of camp appliances too. Hand-cranked blenders can whip up smoothies and 20 minutes of kicking around a soccer-ball style ice cream maker will have you scooping the coolest of camp treats! If you like gadgets that make a camp kitchen feel more like home you can pack in propane-fired appliances like toaster ovens, slow cookers, deep fryers, coffee makers and of course, portable grills!

People who like to backpack or paddle through their trips usually carry cookware sets that nest together. These can be made of aluminum, stainless steel or even titanium; aluminum is the lightest to carry, but heats unevenly and can be easily dented. Stainless steel is a good choice for durability and even heating. Choose a set with lids that double as skillets and make sure to add some pot grippers to use as handles. Many nested sets are designed to carry bowls and cups or even a single burner stove inside. The most traditional camp cookware is good old-fashioned cast iron—it’s virtually indestructible, can be used with a stove or campfire, is efficient for a wide range of cooking temperatures and is inexpensive, though its weight is a drawback for backpackers. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet turns out the crispiest hash browns and ensures a nicely browned coating on the fish you pull from the lake.


In addition to cooking pots you will want at least a mug, bowl and spoon for each camper. Plates are nice, but add extra weight if you are backpacking. Metal bowls and cups can double as small cooking utensils if necessary. The camp kitchen should also include a large stirring spoon or two, a spatula, butter knife, sharp utility knife with a protective sheath or a folding knife, pot grippers, a few extra plastic zip-top bags, garbage bags, and matches—lots of them—stored in watertight containers. You might also appreciate a lightweight cutting board; our Housewares department offers Preserve cutting boards made from recycled materials in a variety of sizes or check out the Chop Chop flexible cutting surface sold on the gadget rack—this one rolls up, requiring minimal space in your pack. If you are car camping you might want to throw in a few re-usable, covered storage bowls too. Check out the covered Preserve bowls in Housewares for a recycled choice that won’t cause you worry about breakage. The stainless steel tiffin sets from To-Go-Ware could be usedto transport food, store any leftovers, or even as extra cookware.

Food evolution

Camping food has gone through as many changes as camping gear. Thoreau trekked into the Maine woods carrying hardtack, salt pork, coffee, sugar, rice, salt and cornmeal. When Teddy Roosevelt spent three months touring the Amazon in 1913, he took canned food—in 90 watertight containers! Sigrud Olson worked as a guide on the lakes between Minnesota and Canada in the 1930s and chose fresh foods almost exclusively. In more recent decades foil and plastic packets of freeze-dried food have been recommended for backpackers and others who want to travel lightly. These products had a bit of a “space-age” feel when they were first introduced since many consumers were not familiar with a wide range of dried foods. Originally the packets were a repackaging of the same kind of freeze-dried rations carried by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War.Today many campers have invested in coolers and even portable refrigerators to keep food and beverages fresh.

Dried foods

Backpackers and paddlers today often choose to create their own dried foods at home, rather than purchasing expensive dried meals that often have little flavor appeal. This can be a convenient tactic for car campers as well—since dried foods do not require refrigeration they can be used for the later days of a trip after fresh foods have been eaten. Food dehydrators are widely available, reasonably priced and easy to use. There are several good books that will guide you through making home-dried camp food—Lipsmackin’ Vegetarian Backpackin’ by Christine and Tim Conners and A Fork in the Trail by Laurie Ann March are good resources that are available through the local library system. Many authors recommend making double batches of your favorite meals and dehydrating the extra portion, a procedure that would ensure a supply of meals ready to go. If you decide to try drying your own food for camping be sure to start with quality ingredients, practice good kitchen hygiene to ensure safety and dry foods thoroughly for the best storage life. Measure foods before and after drying so you know how much water will be needed to rehydrate them and make sure dried foods are cooled thoroughly before packaging. If you are taking dried food, think about the kind of container you will use to reconstitute your meals. Many books and websites advocate rehydrating food in the same freezer-weight zip bag you packaged it in, but think carefully about this choice. Plastic storage bags are unstable at best when filled with liquid and if that liquid is boiling water the risk of burns, spills and melted plastic in your dinner becomes very real. For health, safety and more appetizing dinners consider rehydrating your food in a cook pot rather than a plastic bag.

Fresh foods

For all but the most rigid weight requirements, fresh food is the first choice of most happy, well-fed campers. Fresh food provides great taste and nutrition at the most reasonable cost; you might be surprised at some of the meals you can create al fresco.

Planning in advance

Before your camping adventure begins take some time to plan your meals and snacks. Think about:

  • The length of your trip—how many meals and snacks are needed. Add an extra meal or two in case of emergency.

  • How many people are you feeding? Vigorous outdoor activities like hiking, canoeing and swimming make campers hungry so you may want to plan for larger portions than you would at home, but avoid making leftovers that will be hard to store.

  • Are there any special diets that need to be considered?

  • Will you need to carry your food or are you paddling or car camping?

  • Can you take a cooler and block of ice?

  • Are you cooking on a stove or over a fire?

  • How much and what type of fuel do you need?

  • Do you need to carry water or purification tablets and a filter?

  • How will you protect your food from animals?

Be sure to consider which foods you like to eat, too. Things that don’t appeal to you at home usually aren’t any more appetizing when you are camping.

Quick and easy

For some campers, a quick stop at the convenience store nearest their tent constitutes all the shopping they want to do. Stocking the camp kitchen with chips, soda, candy, hot dogs and a box of doughnuts for breakfast can be seen as casual culinary heaven, but it is also a nutritional nightmare and gets monotonous quickly. Better to take a walk through the Co-op and load some goodness into your food pack. You can still go the route of chips and hot dogs if you want, but you will be skipping the preservatives and other additives you’d find in the convenience store versions. We can help add variety and nutrition to your camping food and still give you a helping of quick convenience if that’s your goal and for campers who are willing to do some actual cooking, we have a wide range of options.

If “instant” food is your goal and you are planning a quick overnight trip that includes a cooler or mini-fridge you might want to start your menu planning in the Deli. Pick out some sturdy salads, thin-sliced sandwich meat or pre-made sandwiches and maybe some soup to reheat, and go! On your way to the cash register detour past the Juice Bar and grab a bottle of freshly extracted juice, some of our home baked muffins or a few Gotham bagels for breakfast; breeze down Aisle 4 and choose a Justin’s individually packed nut butter to squeeze onto your bagels.

If you want to be a little more active in your camp kitchen or if you are packing for a few days, more choices are open to you.

Fruits and vegetables

Many fresh vegetables and fruits are sturdy enough to go camping without refrigeration. Head over to Produce and pick out some spuds—they can be roasted whole in the coals, sliced into foil packs to toss onto the grill or in the embers or shredded or diced into the cast iron skillet you packed and fried up for breakfast. Toss in a few small onions and some garlic too; they will meld nicely with the potatoes and lots of other things. Carrots, radishes and cabbage are pretty indestructible too and can be eaten raw or cooked; mix them together with a bit of oil, vinegar and seasonings and you’ve got camp coleslaw and any or all of them can be added to the foil packets of potatoes. Don’t worry about peeling organic root vegetables, just scrub well before using. Mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and cucumbers will travel too, but pack these more carefully and plan to use them in the first few days. When you are ready to cook, cut dense root vegetables into small pieces to speed cooking time and save fuel. For longer trips you will want to include some dried mushrooms, tomatoes and chilies. You will find the dried mushrooms in the Produce department and the tomatoes and chilies in Aisle 3; be sure to add a bag of the dried veggie mix found in the Bulk aisle too.

Apples and citrus fruit will keep for several days without refrigeration; melons can be packed along easily and chilled in any nearby body of water if you choose. Soft fruits like peaches, apricots and berries should be packed carefully and enjoyed in the first day or two of your trip. Grapes are a refreshing choice, too. For a wider selection of fruit options, check out the dried choices available in the Willy Pack section of the Bulk aisle.

Bulk foods

The Bulk aisle is a great source for quick-cooking camp foods. In addition to dried fruits and vegetables, savvy campers pack a selection of nuts, trail mix and granola forsnacking or fast trail lunches. Quinoa flakes, basmati rice and bulgur all cook quickly and can be eaten as hot cereal for breakfast, or used to add substance to a main meal. Pick up some dried refried beans, hummus, lentil or curried split pea soup mix to enjoy with your grains, or grab some red lentils or split moong dahl and add some vegetables to make your own quick curry. Get some milk powder while you are in the Bulk aisle—you can add it to your cereal or enrich a main dish and it’s a must if you plan to take some homemade cocoa mix on your trip. Don’t forget to include some freshly ground peanut or almond butter and fill small plastic bottles with olive oil and maple syrup.

Packaged food

The Packaged Grocery aisles are filled with wholesome and easy foods for your camping experience. You will want to take some sturdy crackers that you can slather with nut butter or hummus—Ryvita, Wasa and Doctor Kracker all work well. Other crackers may be more prone to breakage, but they will still taste good. Tortillas, pita and bagels are other good bread replacements that will pack easily and keep for a few days.

The International Foods aisle has many great choices for camping. There is an assortment of pilaf and couscous mixes that are quick to fix and can be augmented with meat, cheese, tofu, beans or vegetables. Polenta in a vacuum tube can become part of any meal—try brushing it with a bit of oil before grilling over coals or in a skillet, then top it with grilled or sauteed vegetables, mixed with tuna or tofu if you like, and a drizzle of marinara sauce. Or top polenta slices with chili or stew or serve with maple syrup and dried fruit for a quick breakfast. Rice noodles and ramen noodles are well suited to camping, needing only to be soaked in hot water before using; add some vegetables, protein if you like, and a curry sauce to liven up your camp dinner. While you are searching the International Foods aisle, consider picking up a jar of ghee to replace butter or oil in your camp kitchen. This cooking oil is a soft solid at room temperature, so it is easy to pack and carry and keeps well; ghee, stored at ambient air temperatures, has been the cooking oil of choice in much of the Indian subcontinent for hundreds of years.

Meat, poultry and tofu

Meat and poultry can be taken on your trip with some care; cut, portion and repackage it a couple of days in advance and freeze rock solid. If you are packing it, frozen solid, into a cooler with a block of ice it should be good for two to three days; frozen meat or poultry packed in a backpack should be used the first night out. Old-fashioned salt cured bacon and ham and hard, cured sausages were traditional camp favorites in the past, but are difficult to find now. Do not expect the bacon and hams commonly available today to keep safely without refrigeration. Dried jerky is a popular choice among camping carnivores. Throw in a couple cans of tuna or salmon or sardines packed in olive oil for variety that will last indefinitely. Another good choice for protein is Mori-Nu tofu—its aseptic packaging needs no refrigeration and is compact to carry. Tofu can be added to main dishes, seasoned for sandwiches, scrambled for breakfast or blended into a delicious dessert—just add Mori-Nu Mates pudding mix to tofu in a wide mouth container or heavy zip bag and stir and shake until completely mixed.

Aseptic packaging is a real boon for campers—lightweight, but sturdy packaging surrounds foods that often were considered too perishable to travel. In addition to tofu the Co-op stocks several varieties of soup and broth in aseptic packaging, as well as Pomi chopped or strained tomatoes, and juices, non-dairy milk and Organic Valley cows’ milk.


Eggs and cheese are great for camping, too. Eggs will keep several days at moderate temperatures and aresturdier than you might think. Gruyere, Cheddar, Parmesan and traditional provolone are a few low-moisture cheeses that keep well; after several days you may need to trim a bit of mold. Avoid cheese with a high moisture content like Brie, Camembert, mozzarella and cream cheese.


Be sure to pack some favorite seasonings to energize your camp meals. In addition to salt and pepper you may want garlic or onion granules, chili powder, Italian herbs, curry powder or seasoned salt or herb mixtures like Spike, Trocomare, or Herbamare; find them all in the Bulk aisle. One neat way to carry seasonings is to pick up a multi-compartment pillbox at your pharmacy; these are available in various configurations and keep seasonings separated and sealed, but do tape the box closed to avoid accidental spills.


Don’t forget beverages for your trip—itcan be easy for your body to become dehydrated when you are working or playing hard. You will want to take water purification tablets or a filter if you are camping in the wild to ensure safe water for drinking and cooking. Campers always welcome hot beverages—whether used to warm a chilly morning, provide comfort in the rain or as a nightcap, a hot drink just hits the spot sometimes. We have a great assortment of teas and herbal beverages, both loose and individually bagged, as well as coffee in bean or instant form. For caffeine-free sipping try a barley-based coffee substitute if herbal tea doesn’t appeal. And don’t forget hot cocoa; this beverage is almost universally loved by campers of all ages. We have premixed instant cocoa for your convenience or all the ingredients to make your own mix; you will find a recipe for homemade cocoa mix in this issue of the Reader. Instant miso soup packets are another warm, healthy beverage choice for any time of day.


The Health and Wellness department should be included in your camp shopping. Look for sunscreen and insect repellent as well as soaps that are safe for the environment. Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap concentrates can be used for bodies and hair, but also work fine when it comes to washing dishes or sweaty socks. No matter what you are washing, when in wild places be sure to use any soap well away from lakes or streams and dispose of used washing or dish water at least 200 feet from your campsite and any natural water source, farther if bears may be in the area. Toss used water in a wide arc rather than just dumping it in one spot, to further reduce any environmental impact.

Preparing and packaging

To reduce the weight and size of your food pack you will want to repackage many of the things you buy in zip-top bags. If you purchase a Near East pilaf mix for example, leave the box at home and take only the inner bag and preparation instructions packed in a zip-top bag. Remove excess air from the zip bag before you seal it to make the package as small as possible. Some campers like to pack all the day’s meals into one large zip-bag; others pack them by the meal—all breakfasts, lunches or dinners together. Use freezer-weight bags for repackaging and bring them home with you; they can be washed, dried and reused several times.

Have fun!

Enjoy nature’s beauty along with your meals wherever your summer camping trip may take you and don’t forget to clean your campsite before leaving—as the saying goes: “take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.”