Camping starts out pretty doggone frugal.
No maid service. No rules about towels on the floor vs. hanging them up. No concierge or valet parking.
And no tipping the server or choosing to drink water so you don’t have to buy a drink at a restaurant.
Camping is all about bringing your own food, and it can be a nutritional disaster or a palate-pleasing delight, depending on how you choose to pack.
I firmly believe that one can eat very well while out in the woods. You’re not confined to hot dogs on sticks just because you’re living in a tent!
6 Tricks to Avoid High Prices and Low Nutrition
1. Make your own trail mixes.
Let the kids make their own baggies of trail mix for the trip. It’s a great way to have the kids pitch in without needing a ton of supervision, and since everyone picked their own ingredients and ratios, they’ll be happy to eat the trail mix once you’re out in the woods. Label plastic baggies with names. (Nuts don’t do very well overnight in reusable sandwich bags, which let too much air and moisture in.)
Tip: If you’re planning to use your trail mix on a genuine hike, use unsalted nuts so you don’t drink your weight in water – that you had to carry in. You might pack your Berkey sport bottle with the amazing filter that can handle river water in case you need to refill before you make it back to camp.
2. Pack a frugal picnic
For those picnics on the beach or a quick midday meal around camp that doesn’t need a fire, you can save a lot of money by avoiding the expensive lunchmeat – which usually has carcinogenic nitrites or other funky additives anyway.
Peanut butter and jelly is another classic, but for real lasting power and nourishment, I recommend egg salad. Use the best eggs you can afford, homemade mayo, mustard, salt and pepper. Mash together and call it lunch!
Packing pre-cut veggies (cut by you, not by the store where they charge a huge premium) and a homemade ranch dressing keeps the kids eating their 5 a day while you whip up the sandwiches, and a cold spelt salad is an equally frugal but more nutritious alternative to pasta salad to round out the packable meal. Bring unsquishable fruits like apples for a midafternoon snack.
These tips and recipes and much, much more are in the Family Camping Handbook, 2nd edition.
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3. Make homemade backpacking foods
If you’ve ever shopped for perfect foods for a hike, you probably had sticker shock. Dried fruit and dried meats like jerky are some of the most expensive items I run across, mostly because so much water is lost when something is dried out. Fruit and meat are on the expensive side anyway, so when they shrink when dried (like your favorite wool sweater), it looks like a little food for a lot of money.
Did you know you don’t need a dehydrator to make homemade beef jerky and delicious fruit rolls? An oven at 200F does just fine for both items. Follow the link to get the beef jerky recipe I love around here. The fruit rolls are in both Healthy Snacks to Go and the Family Camping Handbook.
Basic fruit rolls: puree fruit in a blender, pour onto parchment paper about 1/8″ thick, and bake on a cookie sheet in a 200F oven for 2-4 hours until completely dried out. Strawberry and applesauce ready to go into the oven shown below:
4. Find inexpensive bread
Between sandwiches and perhaps a pastured sausage grill-out, you’ll likely need bread and buns on a camping trip. I recommend either:
- Making your own bread and rolls
- Finding a reduced price bread store (How to understand whole grain labels)
I ran a series in the winter called Seeking the Perfect Homemade Whole Wheat Bread, and our family is a big fan of either of these recipes for hot dog or hamburger buns:
I particularly love how fast they are when the machine does all the work!
5. Resist the urge to fall back on hot dogs
It may be just a little more work to make real entrees over a campfire or grill, but if you want to eat well, it’s well worth it. If you only care about spending less, bring on the $1 package of hot dogs and cheapo white buns. I want you to eat well in the woods though, and I promise it will taste better than cheap dogs!
Foil packet dinners: There are so many dinners that can be wrapped in foil packets, prepared completely at home, then plopped into the coals or on a grate over the fire to cook. They’re hardly any more work than a hot dog on a stick that way, and ever so much more delicious. In The Family Camping Handbook, you’ll find recipes for:
- Farmer’s Market Sausage & Potato foil packets
- Fajita foil packets
- Italian chicken and rice
- Side dish in-season veggies
- If you don’t get to peek into the book, you can wrap just about anything from raw meat to cooked meat, potatoes, cooked rice, vegetables, and seasonings in a foil packet with a few pats of butter, wrap it well (doubled, usually) and cook it in the coals. Yum. Seriously.
Skillet meals: If you’ve got a cast iron skillet, you can do much better than the standard white pasta/commercial spaghetti sauce that a lot of frugalistas take camping. The newest recipe in the camping handbook is a chicken fajita skillet meal that is simply amazing. If you’ve got any one-skillet recipes for the home, it’s just a quick adaptation for the campfire. Eat that, Hamburger Helper! (Here’s my homemade hamburger helper, too!)
6. Pack Your cooler wisely
Throwing away food is a quick way to waste money, and you’ll end up throwing something away either during your trip or when you get home if you’re not smart about packing your cooler:
- Pack raw meats on the bottom – in the case of unfortunate leakage, you won’t contaminate all your food. Plus, the bottom of the cooler is the coldest, better for raw meat and food safety.
- Pack eggs on top in a sturdy carton, and keep them on top. No need to buy a special camping container for eggs, though.
- Keep your butter and cheese in hard-sided, waterproof plastic containers. Even a little water leaking through a bag of these foods renders them disgusting.
- Don’t pack too much! The probability that food in the cooler won’t come home edible is quite high, no matter how careful you are. Try to pack just the right amount of food whenever possible.
- Double bag onions and peppers (to keep the smell out of the cooler) and anything else you think is worthy (to keep the cooler water out of the food).
- Drain the water each time you add ice, which should always be before you run out of the previous load of ice.
- Frugal ice tip: Either bag up your own ice maker ice for a week before the trip if you have freezer space, or freeze a few plastic containers solidly with ice. They’ll stay frozen longer, and when they do thaw, you have some delicious ice water to drink on a hot day in the woods.
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