Real Camping Food Is Unglamorous, Easy, And Ugly

I'm a loyal subscriber to Bon Appetit. But I've come to accept that the magazine and others like it have a very different attitude towards camp food than I do. Planning my recent Memorial Day camping trip in southwest Montana, I clicked through a slideshow of beautiful campfire meals: red-wine marinated hanger steak, seared cod, pan-seared pork chops, bacon-wrapped trout.

I know nothing would make for a more perfect glamping-in-Montana Instagram than bacon-wrapped trout in a cast-iron pan over a campfire, but that just isn't how I roll in the great outdoors. A glossy food magazine's idea of camping food is often an urban fantasy viewed through the lens of an REI commercial. And so, as I exited that aspirational slideshow and made a note to pick up a box of Velveeta for the trip, I finally made my peace with camping food: it should be decidedly non-gourmet. Camping—the way I, my boyfriend, and our friends tend to do it—is already somewhat difficult and at times, uncomfortable. (Case in point: On that Memorial Day trip, one of our tent poles broke and was subsequently lost at the campsite, requiring us to create a splinted pole out of a stick and wire on our final, rainy night.) Of course, scenery, fresh air, and a blissful lack of cell service make up for slight discomforts, but like my sleeping bag and my hiking boots, I need my food to be dependable and sturdy. I need to know my food will work.

That means we have a few camping-trip standbys, at least when we're car camping. Backpack camping is a whole other ballgame, requiring a strategic evaluation of nutrient-to-volume merits and a distillation of cooking methods to their barest essentials. Camping with the benefit of a cooler and propane stove widens possibilities, but it still doesn't inspire me to attempt butter- poached shrimp with foraged morels in the wilderness. We always make Velveeta and hot dogs, a nostalgic and embarrassingly salty combo that takes us back to some of our earliest camping trips together in Arizona. A more recent discovery has been cans of creamed corn, which, when mixed with some veggies and maybe some cut-up chicken (see above), act as a pseudo-sauce to really tie the room together.

When I was trying to show off on a river-rafting trip we took early in our relationship, I prepared homemade pasta sauce and meatballs, then kept them frozen until we got to camp. That's me exerting myself when it comes to haute tent cuisine: I've prepped something nice ahead of time, but it's still basic enough that I know we can reheat it over a campfire if necessary. Every morning at camp, we eat breakfast burritos with jarred salsa. You'd think we'd get bored of it several days in a row, but when there's frost still clinging to your tent and gritty campfire coffee in your mug, you'd award every Michelin star on earth to the warm and fluffy egg burrito in your hands.

Just as camping is a reprieve from cell phones, emails, and the real-life crap we deal with everyday, it's also a reprieve from fussing over superficial details. I know I probably don't look especially put-together in the woods. (This is an understatement. On one of the especially drizzly parts of our last trip, I caught myself wearing Chaco sandals over Smartwool socks.) That translates to food, too: For me, camp food is a break from preparing inspired, exciting dinners. I enjoy that recipe research in my own home kitchen, but it's sort of a mental break to know that because dinner is a can of Spaghettios, I don't have to do anything until four minutes before I want to eat. It frees my mind up to take in the scenery or to worry about other details, like whether the four cans of bug spray I packed will be sufficient.

I'm no class warrior, though. (Well, at least not around the campfire.) I have nothing but admiration for people who can sear fish or grill perfect steaks—it's just usually more effort and risk than I'm willing to put in. I'd rather use that time to hike over a new ridge, or to read a great book under some rustling aspens, or to watch our dog play in a stream. I've also found that this time spent exploring can yield positive culinary results: On that most recent trip, we stumbled across young wild chives that—snip, snip—made our creamed-corn-chicken mush look and taste pretty fresh. And whoa, if you score wild morels or huckleberries, you've just hit the camp-dinner jackpot.

But there were no chance strawberries or ramps or fiddleheads last year as we readied dinner on our final night of a late-summer camping trip last year. It was Velveeta night, and I as I finished slopping spoonfuls of cheesy shells into my enamel bowl, I turned to watch a group of pronghorn cautiously move through the sagebrush at the edge of our camp. Twilight deepened, the stars twinkled, and these elegant mammals (the fastest land animals in North America) regarded me in total silence. I'm so grateful that I was able to stand still and stare back, experiencing a rare instance of true wonder. Thankfully, I didn't have to break the moment to stir a cast-iron risotto.