The Best Camping Meals and Packing Checklist
Who is going camping this long weekend?! I could go camping forest of my life! (We like a good pun as much as we like camping).
Camping is a perfect way to connect to nature, and going on a mini low-cost vacation. While it has the potential to be inexpensive, we also wanted to share how it can be low-waste, by making sustainable choices for your camping meals and what you bring. During the pandemic, we have been lucky to have beautiful natural parks that we could explore, while our world and travel were uncertain. We found this to be the silver lining of a grim situation, having the freedom to enjoy the natural parks in Alberta that many come to visit!
So, in celebration of many new-found outdoor activities that have turned into life long favourites, we wanted to share some of our favourite tricks and tips for camping. We have a whole list of easy-to-make meals and snacks for your next camping adventure, that won’t leave you with a full bag of trash at the end of the day, or take extra energy to make. Everything from a protein-packed breakfast to around-the-campfire dessert - these food ideas will keep you full and fuelled for your outdoor camping adventures.
And, if you love reassurance that you have all the essentials, we have created a checklist for you while you get prepped for camping (one of the more time-consuming things about setting off on an overnight adventure). It always gives an ease of mind knowing you have everything you need before you leave!
Our checklist is both digital and downloadable, so you can share it online with the family, or print it off and put it on your fridge while you pack. We have also included a free gift - a PDF guide with everything mentioned in this blog, so you can print it off and bring it with you on your trip! This will help you keep track of and reduce the amount of trash you bring, making a pack in pack out camping experience incredibly easy!
Now… let’s follow the essential steps to planning a camping trip where you are fully prepared, and where you can confidently leave your campsite the way you found it.
1) PICK A SITE
What Campsites are Best?
Coming from Calgary, we have personally looked through the Alberta Parks camping site picker here, which will help you find established camping sites that you can reserve for your preferred dates. Their sites are managed and maintained, and some have some amenities such as washrooms, showers, firewood and maintained trails, which can make a stay more comfortable, depending on the experience you are looking for.
One of our favourite front country camping sites is Two Jack Lake in Banff, Alberta! It is so close to three beautiful lakes, surrounded by trees and mountains, and a quick drive (or bike ride) to the main town of Banff if you need to get anything you forgot during your stay. Plus, they always keep an eye out for bears in the area and give you a heads up!
Although provincial parks have great amenities, they also book up FAST! Another option is to camp on crown land, which is also called random camping. There is a great info sheet that covers how to safely camp on Alberta Crown land, including some important information like:
- Choose areas that minimize damage to vegetation
- Camp 30 metres (100 feet) away from water bodies to avoid nutrients and sediments impacting water quality.
- Keep your campsite clean, take all garbage with you – leave nothing behind.
- Avoid disposing of dish water in any waterbody as soap may harm fish and other aquatic species.
When choosing a spot for backcountry camping, some things to consider are:
Pick a spot with flat ground to pitch a tent, for a comfortable night's sleep.
A Shady Spot
Shade for some part of the day can keep your tent cool during summer camping trips. No shade? Hang a tarp above your tent, tying it to a couple trees to give you some shade (and rain protection!)
Camping near water may be beautiful, but may not be ideal due to bugs, increased numbers of animals and the risk of flooding. Camping out in a safe spot that looks like it has been camped in already is ideal, as this risks your impact on the surrounding wilderness.
The regulations in Alberta parks may change regularly, so check the current rules here. For those camping outside of Alberta, make sure to check out the restrictions and recommendations in the places you hope you camp on!
2) PLAN YOUR CAMPING MEALS
Making your own food is probably one of the most timely tasks to prepare for camping, but it is so extremely worth it. Planning delicious and nutritious camping meals and snacks are essential to having a successful camping experience. Food just tastes that much better when you are eating it in nature! So, how do we get from a half-empty fridge to a full camping cooler? Follow the tips below to plan, prepare and pack all of your food and camping meals in one day!
Make a camping meal plan
Sometimes, the planning is the hardest part. What won’t spoil? What will the whole family enjoy? What can I make with what I already have?
Starting with a list of successful camping meals that have worked in the past, and have worked for others is a great starting point. Also, thinking about favourite meals you have at home that can be duplicated on your trip. Bringing pre-cooked noodles and heating them up in a pot of sauce over the campfire? EASY!
To help guide the amount of needed meals, break down your days into meal times, using a list or our printable camping meal plan template below (found in our downloadable PDF!).
Our tip is to plan to eat the things that will go bad easier at the beginning of your trip! For example, on our list, we put the chili for the final night's dinner, as we can pack that frozen, both using it as a block of ice in the cooler and it will keep for the longest. But for pizza and tacos, some fresh ingredients and protein that you may want to put on may not be as fresh after a few days. Alternatively, if you also bring a frozen pizza, that may not keep as well as the chili when it thaws. You can always plan for the trip you want, if it’s more relaxed, or if you want to have more cooking time!
We love bringing baked goods while camping, and also our natural peanut butter because it doesn’t need to take up precious cooler space! Natural peanut butter makes for an easy and quick protein snack that doesn’t take up much room and can work as a spread on your pancakes, dip for fruit, and works deliciously with just a spoon!
Here is an example of our how to fill in our camping meal planner:
As you can see, our planner is filled with camping meals that can easily be pre-made or quickly assembled once on site.
- Peanut Butter Oat Balls
- Banana bread
- Veggie scramble
- Granola + fruit
- Chia pudding
Lunch & Snacks:
- Sweet potatoes
Sweet Snacks & Dessert:
3) SHOP FOR YOUR CAMPING MEALS
Having a camping meal plan helps you map out what you will need to get from the grocery store, helping you buy only what you need and giving you an idea of when to go shopping. If you are prepping a lot, sometimes it’s best that you shop a couple days before, and prep the food a day before you leave (so you can freeze some), or the day of, so it stays fresh. Depending on time and other responsibilities of course!
Prep as much as you can ahead of time
Doing as much as you can at home will save you needing more supplies and time on the campsite. Cooking takes longer over the campfire or portable grill, as well as cleaning up dirty dishes. Wash and cut your fruits and veggies, pre-make salads and sauces and cook pasta or beans that you may need! Some things like making s’mores is a fun activity to do together on site, but having all the chopping done is a nice treat (especially when there are bugs flying all over).
Get Some Drinks
Opting out of buying cans and bottles is probably one of the most noticeable changes when setting off on a waste free camping trip, and realistically, can’t always be done. Great alternatives are: refilling beer growlers from local breweries, making your own juice and adult beverages to pack in reusable bottles, or buying bulk bottles instead of a ton of cans.
Plastic Free Sips
Instead of using bottled water, why not use the plastic free alternative around you - spring water! Bring a water filter with you, so you can use as much water as you may need on your trip without worrying about running out, or piling up bottle waste. You can also bring as much water as you have room for on your trip, and freeze water bottles for cooler ice that is drinkable once it melts!
Making your own soda at home with a SodaSteam can be a great alternative to create both custom cocktails and save waste and storage space! It’s transportable so you can also bring it with you on your adventure.
Wild Tea Kombucha is a Calgary-based business that offers cocktail-inspired brews, and they have growler refills!
To skip out on the plastic packaging, you can buy bulk beans and grind them yourself! Devil’s Head Roasting let’s you bring your own container to fill up at their roasterie (plus you get a discount when you do). Grind them up before your trip, and bring them with a french press, that just needs some hot water to make a couple delicious cuppa joe.
Loose leaf tea is a great waste-free alternative for your camping trip. And, you can use your french press to steep it! Or a reusable tea diffuser if you have one as well. When you are done, just dump your leaves in your compost bin. Some sites have some, or I bring an air sealable bin of our own to store in the car.
When no waste can’t be achieved, purchasing local in recyclable or refillable containers is your best bet. Some great Calgarian producers include:
- SunnyCider - they make cider with fruit that would have gone to waste. Delicious and gluten free. Someone also mentioned in the comments that they have a refillery for their cider, where you can fill with any bottle - and it’s cheaper!
- Partake - non-alcoholic beer with the same craft taste, brewed in Calgary!
What are your favourite low-waste drink options where you live?
4) GET PACKING & GO
Once the hard part of planning and food prepping is done, you can follow the below checklist as a guide to see what items you should bring to stay fully prepared and reduce your waste! It can also be found as a spreadsheet version here. And of course, don’t forget to bring your camping meals and well!
Talking about all this camping gear… are you looking at the list thinking about how much you don't have? Remember, you don't have to buy new! You can find just about anything and everything secondhand, or borrow camping equipment from friends and family to save money. There are also renting websites, kind of like AirBnB but for renting equipment. Here is a great one for Calgary! Also, some government managed campgrounds offer equipped camping, which includes a tent, camping stove, lantern, chairs, and kitchen gear so you don’t have to bring them. Here is a link to more information about booking equipped camping sites in Canada Parks!
Fitting it in
All this equipment may have you wondering, how can I fit that all in my car or RV?
When packing the car, start with a good foundation, and place the heavy items down first, and build up. Also, make the boxes and items you need more access to throughout the day (cooler, tools, toiletries) more accessible than the items that are used more rarely (propane, extra water, ect). You can also strategically pack things for when you will be arriving. For example, if you are getting to your campsite later in the night, you may want your lantern and tent to be easily reached!
When it comes to packing your camping meals in particular, here are some handy tips for organizing:
- Put the meals you planned to eat last at the bottom of you cooler, or food bag
- Put all condiments and spices together
- Try to bring a second cooler to store drinks, and freeze some before your trip when you can. Their condensation can get your food unnecessarily wet, and no one loves it when their food container gets cooler water in it!
5) ON SITE TIPS
Although food is compostable, do not throw it out on the ground. Even if it’s natural, always bring back what you brought out (including pet waste, cigarettes, and all food scraps)!
You should have next to 0 items of garbage if you follow this guide, but you may want to bring a small bin for waste just in case. You will likely have some compost and maybe recycling items, which can also be put in a sealable container and disposed of when you get home.
If you are looking for a fun and adventurous cooking experience, you can try making your food over the fire for times you want to give your propane tank a break. Fire safe iron skillet, dutch ovens or camping pots work great for over the campfire, and you can use scraps from home like paper or laundry lint for kindling!
If you’re using biodegradable soap, Leave No Trace Canada recommends using small amounts and doing so about 70 metres away from any bodies of water. Wash over a bin, and once you’re done, scatter soapy water broadly over your camping area, away from shorelines.
Clean messes with reusable cloths and toxic free, natural cleaning products.
One of the best things about camping is that nature is your home, but it’s easy to forget that toothpaste can contain toxic ingredients that may be harmful to wildlife. All natural toothpastes leave no toxic trace so you can spit freely (at least 200 feet away from any water source).
Wash your hands with water with some biodegradable soap, but make sure to do this away from water sources as well.
Anything we have missed? Add your suggestions to the comments below and we will add it to our guide. We hope you have a happy, and safe camping trip filled with lots of food and minimal impact on our environment!