For both the first-time camper and the person that has camped thousands of times, there is nothing more enthralling than waking up in the morning in a tent surrounded by towering blue pines seemingly floating in a cold mist while the sounds of the waking woods travel aloft a frosty breeze. The sun is just beginning to add colors and shapes to the landscape around you and the other creatures are also beginning to stir, lightly crunching along pathways and exhaling a trail of steam with each breath. The first few minutes of the morning are simultaneously exhilarating and peaceful. The clean, crisp air heightens your senses so you can smell the rich soil and pine-covered forest floor as the sun heats it back to life, and the hushed tones of campers can be heard as they greet the day. All of the peace and pleasure of the morning leads campers to the fire, where breakfast is being warmed and water boils for coffee—that is, if the campers have packed the right tools.
Camping can be as great as you make it, but if you don’t prepare well for all possibilities, it can be an uncomfortable and unpleasant experience. Making a simple plan and packing list before heading out into nature for a few days can help you make the most of your camping trip, letting you spend more time enjoying the scenery and exploring and less time figuring out how to provide yourself basic necessities like food and shelter. Shelter is one of the easier parts of camping to improvise, but food requires a little more preparation and consideration. When planning for a successful adventure, you should 1. Make a plan for your activities and meals, and 2. Pack a dutch oven. A dutch oven is an essential part for a great outdoors experience and taking one on a camp trip ensures you’ll eat amazing food.
When planning, take time to run through a checklist of who, what, where, when, and how. Starting with who, consider who is going to camp with you. Will they have their own shelter and food or are they relying on your resources for the trip? What are the ages of your campmates? If you’re going to be responsible for others, do you know what types of gear they already have or if they have any specific food allergies? Also consider how comfortable your camp-companions are with nature in general—are they afraid of bugs? Do they know how to start a fire? Understanding who you’re camping with will help you prepare and pack for all possible situations.
Your packing list will be dependent on the type of camping you plan to do. If you are going to backpack into a glowing sandstone canyon or up into the misty pines you will have to consider that you’ll be carrying in your tools and shelter, including food and water. Water packs, or bladders that fit into backpacks, are the best option for those who have to carry in their water because they take up less room and don’t add the additional weight that comes with water jugs or bottles. Also consider that most backpacking destinations don’t include amenities afforded by campgrounds, like bathrooms or fire rings. Open fires are risky in the backcountry, so backpackers are often restricted to eating dehydrated meals or other dry goods. Backpacking isn’t solely a restrictive experience—it provides an open door to adventure-seekers looking for remote vistas away from busy parks or campgrounds. While backpacking can take you to unique landscapes, you may also want to consider camping in a maintained campground and going on day hikes to explore.
Car camping alleviates many challenges of backpacking. An all-terrain or four-wheeled vehicle can take you out to more primitive campsites, those that are outside of campgrounds and parks, but almost any car can take you to a national or state park where you’ll have a dedicated fire pit and space for your tent. Maintained campgrounds often provide potable water and bathrooms, as well as the convenience of picnic tables or covered areas to keep you dry or shaded. Car camping also affords other luxuries that can’t be enjoyed while backpacking, specifically in terms of cooking: first of all, you can pack in perishables using a cooler, and second, you can carry a dutch oven to cook over a fire.
Dutch oven cooking is really pleasant during the colder seasons—it gives you the opportunity to spend time under the stars with a roaring fire nearby and hot coals over which to warm your hands.The primary purpose of a dutch oven is to heat food evenly by transferring warmth from all directions and some even tell you how many coals are needed to bring it to specific temperatures. A Barebones dutch oven features a guide on the lid so you’ll know how to get your food to safe cooking temperatures without having to consult a cookbook or website. Cast iron construction also enables it to keep food warm long after the coals have been removed.
Taking along a single dutch oven will cover most of your cooking needs so you won’t have to include additional pots or pans. Because dutch ovens are generally deeper than most cooking pans and wider than most pots, you can use one to bake, boil, or fry. Using hot coals from either a wood fire or from charcoal, you can regulate the heat and cook a variety of camp meals. With this one piece of cookware, breakfast can be a hot oatmeal with blueberries and bananas or a savory eggs in purgatory. Lunches can be as simple as a heated chili or can go into the elaborate territory of aromatic wild salmon with orzotto. Dinner in a dutch oven can range from mustard-braised chicken thighs to a comforting sopa de lima. If you and your adventure buddies have a hankering for dessert, your dutch oven can help with that too, providing a perfect space to bake bread or a tasty fruit crisp.
The most important part of cooking with a cast iron dutch oven is the cleanup. Fortunately it’s also the easiest part—to clean it, you just rinse it with water and wipe out any remaining food (a steel cleaning mesh is helpful for baked-on bits), then reheat the dutch oven and wipe it with a neutral vegetable oil or shortening until your rag or napkins wipe clean. You never want to use soap on cast iron because it can strip the seasoning, which helps it remain non-stick without using chemicals like Teflon. (Not only will you benefit from cooking with cast iron by avoiding non-stick chemicals, you will help the environment by not adding dish soaps to the water runoff.) Once your dutch oven wipes clean, let it cool and store it in a dry place until you’re ready to cook again. If you’re camping in a tent, it might be best to store your cast iron inside your car to avoid drawing in animals and to prevent it from getting wet with morning dew.
If your guests aren’t partial to hot meals while roughing it for a weekend, you can also use a dutch oven to heat water and sanitize it for hand washing, for washing other dishes, or for making coffee. Next time you’re getting ready to head into the hills for a day or two, be sure to plan for your weekend getaway by considering who is going with you, what are you going to eat, where you are going, when you will be traveling, and how you will get there. Carefully planning your trip in advance means you’ll spend more time relaxing and exploring and less time solving problems. Remember to plan—and always pack a dutch oven.