Camping trips are a great time to start new traditions while reveling in the old. Sleeping under a big, starry sky offers a “back to basics” kind of joy, a chance to connect and recharge unlike anything else.
American families first started camping for leisure at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth Centuries. This was around the time the first of the country’s national parks were established (Yosemite in 1890 and Glacier National Park in 1920). It was also around this time that train travel was connecting people to distant places like never before. And, oh yeah, the automobile was making its debut.
By the booming 1920s, more working Americans were enjoying their leisure time and driving cars. And this meant they camped! As the U.S. highway system and car culture flourished in the generations after that, we camped all the more!
Camping got many Americans out of cities and into some of the country’s most rugged, beautiful landscapes. It was great fun to map out a car trip and stop at local establishments along the way. And, of course, a big part of the whole camping experience was — and still is — food.
Many campers love the challenge and flavor of food prepared over an open fire, while others prefer to do the bulk of meal prep at home so they can have a free and easy time at camp. There is no right or wrong way to do it. A successful camping trip often involves a bit of both.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter how or what you cook. The point of sitting around a campfire is to have a great time. If you’re looking to travel back in time and tune in to your parents’ and grandparents’ camping experiences, there’s nothing like preparing and eating classic campsite fare like franks and beans and S’mores.
Without further ado, here are nine nostalgic camping recipes to enjoy after the hike and before the sing-along.
Looking for the Perfect Camping Menu? Start with These Classic Camping Recipes
1. Roasted Hot Dogs
For a memorable meal, consider splurging on the “good dogs,” whatever that means to you — perhaps a delicious vegan option, all-beef, or bun-length hot dogs. Make sure your buns are fresh, and voila. A plain hot dog with ketchup is delicious and satisfying, and might even conjure some fond memories of childhood camping trips.
After that hot dog gets red-hot, the sky’s the limit! Stack on sport peppers, relish, tomato, onion, and celery salt for a Chicago-style experience. Or top it with a hot, savory chili and cheese for a fun and filling meal. (We’ll talk more about chili below!) You can’t lose with hot dogs around a campfire. This is a fast, family-friendly favorite.
No one really knows who invented S’mores or why. The recipe is said to have first appeared in a 1927 publication called ‘Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts’ and is credited to Loretta Scott Crew. The shortened name of ‘S’more’ didn’t appear until around 1971, again in another Girl Scout publication.
Like the roasted hot dog, there’s not much to a S’more. It is recommended to roast your marshmallow to golden perfection over the glowing logs rather than directly above the flame. (Though, who hasn’t had to extinguish a flaming marshmallow now and then). Consider using one of those fancy weenie/marshmallow-roasting sticks mentioned above, or a plain stick will do. Finally, smash that marshmallow between two graham cracker squares and some chocolate.
Of course, if it’s raining or you’ve got a gas range or microwave in the RV, you can still successfully melt a marshmallow, and this snack will still be delicious.
Now, some campers are happy to simply melt that ‘mallow on a stick and enjoy that compact, crunchy, handheld treat. That is A-OK. But if you’d like to mix it up a little, try a twist on the classic with the following recipes.
You can place S’mores fixings in a cake cone, wrap the whole thing in aluminum foil, and warm it over a fire for a slightly cleaner but still tasty roasting experience. Banana boat S’mores are the same idea, except you’re wrapping the ingredients inside a banana. Try cooking up S’more nachos in an aluminum pan, or even assemble ‘S’mores in a bag’ like you would a walking taco (again, great taste, less mess).
You are limited only by your imagination with this one. Invent away!
We’re all familiar with that classic ‘at-camp’ scene in old movies (think The Parent Trap) where a family is sitting around the campfire dining on fresh trout or some other fresh or saltwater fish netted earlier in the day.
Well, why not catch your fish and eat it, too? You certainly won’t get a meal any fresher. And this one goes way back (we’re talking early man/caveman times).
There are a few ways to prepare fresh-caught fish over a campfire, cooktop, or grill.
If you want to go primitive, “Caveman Style” is the way to go, though it’s not without some effort. Score the fish skin crosswise into diamond shapes and stick the fish straight onto blazing hot coals or flames. Try to only flip it once so the coals make a charred skin that will peel right off. This technique works great with bigger fish like pike, and the bonus is that everyone can dig right into it and share. Season with a little salt and lemon, and you’re good to go.
If you have a bunch of smaller fish (or you don’t like the idea of tossing your lunch straight into the flames) and/or you love big flavor, you can’t go wrong with a shore lunch. With this method, you batter and fry fish in a cast iron skillet over a small fire or fresh, hot coals.
This method takes a bit more preparation up-front: fillet the fish and remove the skin, dust each fillet with a seasoning breading like a Shore Lunch, Panko, cornmeal, or even just salt and pepper. Pour some cooking oil into the pan and place it over the fire. When the oil starts to bubble, place the fillets in the skillet and fry until the bottom side is golden-brown, then flip. It usually only takes a few minutes per side. Serve with potato chips and a cold drink.
Fresh walleye, trout, or panfish are a mouth-watering treat with this classic recipe. In fact, it’s great motivation to catch more fish!
4. Hamburgers on the Grill
There’s nothing quite like the smell of grilled meat emanating from a campsite.
Consider hamburgers and cheeseburgers cousins to the roasted hot dog; they’re perfect for feeding family and friends outside and around a fire. They’re a great choice because the patties can be prepped ahead of time and frozen until the camping trip. Even if they’re not assembled ahead of time, burgers come together pretty quickly and make for a satisfying meal.
There are a few things to remember when making the perfect campfire burger. For example, if you’re cooking burgers over an open flame, you’re going to want to have selected meat with some fat. Luckily, ground beef with a higher fat content is typically priced a bit lower than leaner meats. Higher fat content (about 15 to 20 percent) also means a juicer, tastier burger.
After assembling your patties (be careful not to over-work them), keep it simple and season generously. Just some salt and pepper is perfect; it will heighten the flavor of the meat without taking anything away (the classic seasoning duo is also easy enough to keep in your camp kitchen).
Place the burger on your grill grate for a couple of minutes (depending on the thickness of your patty), rotate 180 degrees after a couple of minutes, and try to only flip it once.
After a taste of these burgers, the camping party is sure to settle into their sleeping bags with happy tummies.
5. Walking tacos
There are lots of great things about camping trips when you’re a kid. But one detail that stands out is that you get to do and eat things outside of the regular home routine.
Beef jerky for breakfast? Why not?! Eating the contents of a meal directly out of a chip bag with a little fork? Absolutely! May we bring to the fore of your memory Walking Tacos? They are delicious and filling, and the best part is — no plates or bowls are required!
So what is a “walking taco,” AKA “Frito pie? You take all the usual taco fixing of your choice — seasoned ground beef, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, hot sauce … you get the idea … and mix it around in a little snack bag of crunchy, salty Fritos.
The origins of this delicious, family-friendly concoction are vague, but New Mexicans say a woman named Teresa Hernandez created the dish Frito pie in the 1960s at a Santa Fe Woolworth store. Texans, meanwhile, claim that Daisy Doolin, the mother of the inventor of Fritos, is the one who thought of topping her son’s chip with chili, cheese, and onions some thirty years earlier.
Of course, just like any other recipe, you can change it up and make it your own; top the chips with vegetarian chili and cilantro, or use Doritos instead of Fritos. There are no rules with this fun, vintage recipe.
Are you even camping in Autumn if there’s no steaming hot bowl of chili waiting at the end of a long day?
Food historians speculate that chili originated in Texas-Mexico border towns and made its way north. In the 1880s, San Antonio’s downtown was famous for its Hispanic outdoor vendors dubbed “chili queens”, and Texas-style chili was a popular draw at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Expo.
Prepping chili can be as easy or involved as you’d like! For a camping trip, you can chop and prep all the ingredients ahead of time — fresh peppers, tomato, beans, meat if you’d like — and freeze. At the campsite, warm it up over a fire, and you’re all set!
For an even easier approach, heat and enjoy a good canned chili. Don’t forget to top your chili with things like diced onion, Fritos, jalapenos, cheese, green onion … whatever you wish! Chili is healthy, filling, and feeds a crew. You can even customize the spice factor — either while you assemble it or by adding a healthy dose of hot sauce to individual servings.
If there’s any chili left over, why not serve it with your bacon and eggs — and some cheese — in the morning?
7. Campfire popcorn
While S’mores might be the first classic camping snack that springs to mind, Jiffy Pop comes in at a close second. The self-contained popcorn contraption first hit the scene in 1959. More than a snack, shaking the aluminum pan over an open flame and watching it slowly expand, like a genie emerging from a bottle, is an experience. Lots of campers fondly recall the fun process and yummy taste of Jiffy Pop from their childhoods.
Today, the name-brand stuff can be tricky to find in stores. Luckily, it’s not hard to recreate the “popcorn magic’ with just a few simple tools and ingredients.
If you want to have a popcorn party at the campsite, you can also use an aluminum pie plate or roasting pan (for a larger serving). Add your popcorn seeds and cooking oil of choice to the pan, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Place over indirect heat and (this is important) keep shaking and moving the kernels around.
It’s fun to hear the pops, and once the pops stop, just remove from the heat and (ceremoniously) slice open the top layer of foil. Along with a rush of steam will be the heavenly smell of freshly popped popcorn. Season and enjoy!
8. Foil packets
The first rule of camping meals is: When in doubt, wrap it in foil.
“Tin foil packs,” “Hobo dinner foil packet meals,” or “Hobo packs” are a camping institution. The Boy Scouts are credited with bringing this one to our collective conscience. True, this is more of a methodology than a recipe, but when you start simply by making the packs with classic ingredients, you’ll realize the limitless possibilities inherent to this fun and tasty cooking strategy.
What is a classic “Hobo pack,” you might ask? It would be something like thinly sliced potatoes, onion, and sausage or bacon. Maybe ground beef, potatoes, carrots, and ketchup. You get the gist. The key is to slice potatoes and veggies small so they cook quickly. Keep all the ingredients somewhat uniform.
Season everything well, and add a fat like oil and/or butter. The juices from the meat, veggies, potatoes, and spices mingle and cook together. The result is so delicious you’ll want to see how many more variations you can invent!
After your first few forays into foil packs, you might want to stretch your mind and try out foil packet desserts (apple crisp, peach crumble, S’mores) or packet breakfasts with eggs, sausage, and potatoes.
It’s hard to decide what’s more satisfying with Hobo packs: the delicious ingredient combos or the super simple cleanup.
9. Franks and beans
You’ll feel like a cowboy or cowgirl sitting around a fire dining on ‘ol Franks and Beans (or as some say, “Pork and Beans” or even “Beanie Weenies”). Yes, you can pop open a can, heat, and enjoy. There are also some fantastic, flavorful recipes out there that will allow you to kick things up a notch.
Fun fact: Baked beans were one of the country’s very first canned convenience foods, dating all the way back to Civil War times. Once someone decided to add hot dogs to the beans, all bets were off — and a delicious, cast-iron-friendly camping staple was born.
Some people like to add bacon to the mix, and yummy add-ins include barbeque sauce, bell peppers, maple syrup, and brown sugar. When you assemble your Beanie Weenies at home, you can better control the sodium, sugar, and flavor profile of the dish.
If it’s been a minute since you dipped your spork into some franks and beans, why not rediscover it anew? Be brave, be bold, embrace the beans!
Camping has been a favorite pastime in the U.S. for generations.
Still today, Americans flock to national, state, and county parks looking to disconnect from everyday stressors and reconnect with nature and each other. We pack up and take to the road the explore this vast country. We play, sleep, and eat outdoors. And oh, the yummy things we can eat!
Timeless recipes like these often become traditions for good reason: they are easy, delicious, and fun to make.
So keep your peanut butter-honey tortillas in the rotation and your rehydrated chicken tikka masala packs. But be sure to keep a few of these old-fashioned favorites on the list for a taste of nostalgia with your meal.
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