If you’re anything like us, then you’re hunger levels hit will hit sky-high when you’re out in the great outdoors. Whether you’re hiking or just hanging out around camp, it’s important to keep those energy levels up, especially in cooler climates when you’re body needs that extra bit of fuel to keep warm.
But lugging around all that extra food-related gear can be a real chore, which is why some people make the decision to ditch the cooler and go for non-refrigerated foods instead. Plus, with careful planning, you might even be able to leave some of your cooking gear behind too.
Don’t get us wrong, we love a good meal that’s been tenderly cooked over the campfire for hours, but there’s something liberated about ditching the pots and pans and taking things a laid-back approach when you’re on holiday (or when you’re carrying your gear on your back).
That’s why here we’re looking at the best non-refrigerated camping foods. We’ll take a quick look at the kinds of foods we should be eating and which foods keep well and how to package them. Then, we’ll run through some ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and (possibly the most important meal of the day) snacks.
Generally, the same basic rules apply when camping as they do at home – you should be eating a balanced diet, avoid foods with too much processed sugar, and make sure that you’re getting plenty of vitamins and minerals. Having said that, when you’re out on the trail or leading an active lifestyle for the weekend, you’ll need more energy than usual. This means that you’ll need a higher calorie content than usual. You can get those extra calories by simply eating more foods, but there are some foods that are rich in fats and protein that won’t take up as much space in your pack that you might want to keep an eye open for, especially if you’re backpacking.
Before we delve into our meal plans, let’s have a little think about the kind of food we should be taking camping with us. It really all comes down to how well the foods will keep and how they’re packaged. So, let’s take a look at which foods keep well:
The easiest foods to take with you are ones that keep well as they are, without any fussing. This includes fruit and vegetables, but you’ll have to pick wisely, as some are worse than others.
Bananas are a great way to boost your calcium levels, and they’ll fill you up more than most other fruits (just make sure you’re careful how you pack them – no one likes a banana mush in their bag!). Plus, if you’re camping for a while, you can pick up some greener ones and let them do their thing throughout the trip so you’ve always got a ripe one to hand (the same goes for tomatoes and avocadoes!). Tougher fruits like apples aren’t quite so filling, but they’re a great option when space is limited as they’re less likely to get squashed in cramped bags!
Raw potatoes are hard to beat when it comes to evening meals. They’re full of carbs and fibers that’ll fill you up and give you energy, as well as vitamins and minerals. They’re also very versatile to cook with – you can have them fried, mashed, or boiled, depending on what pans you have. The easiest approach, however, is to simply wrap them in foil and throw them in a campfire!
They do require a stove though and, if you’re going stoveless, then you’ll be better off with veg like carrots that you can peel as and when you want them.
Some foods that might not keep well ordinarily can keep for ages when they’re dried.
Grains that only require some hot water (or milk) are fantastic for camping. They’ll keep for absolutely ages in their dried form, and you can cook them up as and when you need them, so you don’t have to think about refrigerating them at all. Our favorites for camping are oats and pasta, but some people go for noodles and rice too.
As a side note, if you’re going on a shorter trip, you can pre-cook your pasta at home and simply stir in some sauce (pesto anyone?) when you’re ready to eat to the following day – as long as you don’t mind eating cold pasta, you won’t need to take any cooking gear with you at all.
Dried fruits are also a fantastic option for backpackers with limited space in their packs as they retain the goodness of their more luscious forms, yet they become a fraction of the size.
But what about meat? We know that it provides us with heaps of energy, but it can also go bad easily and is notorious for giving people tummy bugs if not cooked and stored properly. Fortunately, dried meats are an excellent way to make sure you’re getting your protein fix on the trail. Beef jerky is a solid favorite among backpackers, and it’s calorie-dense too so it won’t gobble up all the space in your pack. Chorizo is another great meat to take camping and, although it’s a super tasty snack, it can make tonnes of campsite meals that bit more special too.
If space is really limited, but you can’t live without your morning tea or coffee, then powdered milk is a great shout – just add water and you’re good to go. It takes up way less room in your pack than liquid milk and is way lighter too. Plus, we definitely prefer porridge with our oats than plain hot water. Powdered milk is a key feature in another one of our favorite camping treats… pancakes mixture – simply add water and you can whip up a delicious breakfast in minutes.
There are some foods out there that might not last long once opened, but they’re fine to sit on a shelf in a store or in a cupboard at home for ages in their original packaging. This makes for great camping food, especially if you’re in a larger group, as you can take these supplies with you and pop them open as and when you need them (just makes sure you consume them in one or two sittings so they don’t go bad).
Tins and jars are the classic emergency food – people fill bunkers with these ‘just in case’ because they last so long. You can heat up tinned soups in seconds with a small stove and pot, and it’s a great way to warm you up in colder climates. You can also get loads of sauces in tins and jars that can make your meals that but more interesting (pre-made tomato sauce and pesto are our favorites). Tinned tuna is another way to make sure your protein levels are kept high, and you can even take a small jar of mayo with you too if you’re cooking en masse and will use it all in one go (alternatively, sachets are great if you’re camping solo). Peanut butter is fantastic too as it’s rich in healthy fats and several nutrients. Cans give you more choice when it comes to fruits too, and you can take fruits such as peaches that might squash easily in their ordinary form.
Bread is a tricky one as it goes stale very easily once opened. Fresh bread tends to go off quicker, but if you go for factory-made bread that’s shop-sealed it will last for a while in its packaging. If you’re in a big group, you’ll probably get through a whole loaf in one sitting, so it’s definitely worth taking some with you. In smaller groups, try to find half loaves or even packs of bagels – these are chewier anyway and don’t go stale as quickly (and if they go off a bit, you can always dry fry them in a pan and eat them toasted with some tasty toppings).
Finally… snacks. These last for ages on a shelf and so they can last for ages in your pack too. Nutty chocolate bars are good for a quick energy fix, store-bought muffins and cookies last a while in their original packing. Watch out for crisps though – we know they’re super tasty, but the bags can pop easily and they take up a lot of room in your pack yet don’t fill you up very much.
Finally, there are things you can prepare and bring from home, as long as you pack them carefully. Home-made flapjacks are a great energy-rich snack, and you can pop them in a Tupperware and they’ll keep for days. People tend to think cheese needs to be refrigerated at all times, but this isn’t true for hard cheese. A block of parmesan will keep for a few days if you keep it out of the sun and wrap it in newspaper and teatowel – perfect for pasta nights.
So, there’s some ingredients or you to think about, and here are some meal plans in case you need some more inspiration:
So, there you have it. We’ve been through what kind of foods keep well without a refrigerator, and given you some mealtime inspiration. Leaving a cooler behind frees up room for other bits of gear, and if you’re backpacking then you definitely don’t want to be crying one around with you. Some of these foods require just hot water, while others need pots and pans too – so make sure you think carefully about what to take with you. Prio planning might not be super fun, but it will save you time and effort on holiday so you can kick back and relax, which is what holidays are all about really.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.