Spend any time in the backcountry or the campground at your local state park, and you’ll quickly realize the importance of a good meal outdoors. You need the calories for hiking, and good food helps soothe the pain of a long day and turn that rained-out trip into an “at-least-we-ate-well” adventure.
Bringing the kitchen to the outdoors isn’t always as simple as it sounds. I’ve been a professional chef and have also guided quite a few groups through the wilderness, and in that time I discovered what every professional guide knows: Food makes or breaks the trip. Here, I’ve put together a menu of ideas, from the gear you’ll need to advice on meal planning. There’s something here for everyone, whether you’re new to camping or a seasoned tent slinger. Be sure to check out our other outdoor guides for more tips, including the Best Camping Gear and Best Tents.
Updated October 2023: We added the Firebox portable wood stove, the Cobb Premier Air grill as a portable oven, some more useful accessories like a saw and headlamp, and updated links and pricing throughout.
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The Basics: A Good Stove
For car camping, I recommend a two-burner stove. The size of the stove really depends on the size of your group. For five or fewer people, the best choice is this Coleman Classic 2-Burner propane camp stove. It strikes a good balance between cost, cooking power, and size. If you’re heading out with a bigger group, you’ll either want to use a couple of stoves or go with something like the Camp Chef Pro 60X Deluxe ($320). If neither feels right to you, our Best Camp Stoves guide offers more recommendations.
Finding a good backpacking stove is trickier, because weight matters much more. In fact, ultralight hikers will argue that you don’t even need a stove, just bring ready-to-eat food. But for the rest of us, a good hot meal can really make the difference between survival and actual fun. I’ve used and enjoyed the Primus Firestick ($90), which is perfect for two-person meals.
If you’re heading out solo, the Jetboil MiniMo ($155) is a perennial favorite. If your group is larger, my suggestion is to break food up into pairs, one stove for every two people. It’s certainly possible to cook for more on a single backpacking stove, but it’s more trouble than just bringing an extra lightweight stove.
Alcohol stoves are my favorite way to cook in the backcountry. The only reason this isn’t my top pick is that many areas have banned alcohol stoves. Be sure to check the fire regulations in your favorite spots before you invest. You can make your own alcohol stove out of an empty soda can, but of all the burners I’ve tested, I like this Trangia Spirit burner the best. It’s indestructible, super simple to use, lightweight, and totally silent.
This stove is so light (7 ounces with windscreen) that it has a permanent home in my pack, and I even bring it on day hikes to make coffee or tea on the trail (hat tip to Erik Normark). This stove needs a windscreen, and unfortunately the Trangia triangle windscreen (the best windscreen) seems to be discontinued. You can either grab one off eBay UK (which is what I did) or try this one for $25 or this one for $20, both of which look pretty close to the Trangia version.
I know I just recommended three different stoves, but really my favorite way to cook outdoors is over an open fire. Most developed campsites offer a fire ring that usually works well enough when paired with a dutch oven and grill grate of some kind. When there’s no fire ring, I turn to Snow Peak’s Takibi folding firepit ($350), which is very popular among WIRED staff. You’re paying a premium for the compactness and the stainless steel construction, but it’s worth it in my view.
When I head into the backcountry—if open flame fires are permitted—I turn to Firebox stoves. If you’re an ultralight backpacker, stop reading now. These stoves are not for you. But if you’re willing to carry a little extra weight to dine on a delicious grilled steak after a long day’s hike, this is the stove you’ve been looking for.
The G2 stove I recommend for most people is the original Firebox. Because I am feeding a family of five on the trail, I own the larger 8-panel version ($150), but functionally they work the same way—build a fire out of twigs and small branches and cook over it. Firebox inventor Steve Despain has a deservedly famous YouTube channel showcasing all the amazing food he cooks on a Firebox. The Firebox was actually the genesis of this guide, because it made me realize that what I really love to do in the backcountry—aside from relaxing and doing nothing—is cooking. Do you have to have a Firebox to make great backcountry meals? No, but it sure does make it easier. Just be sure to check and make sure open fires are OK where you’re camping.
An Outdoor Oven
Okay, you don’t need an outdoor oven to make great food camping, but it sure is nice. Cobb’s Premier Air (8/10, WIRED Recommends) is more than an oven—it’s a portable kitchen in a bag. Thanks to its Tetris-like stacking, the Cobb manages to get a roast rack, griddle, grill grid, frying pan, wok, and chicken stand into a package that barely reaches my knees. That gives you an extremely versatile cooker that can bake, roast, sauté, broil, and more. I’ve made everything from flatbread to peach galette to roast chicken on the Cobb, and all of it has been as easy as using an oven at home. As I noted in the review, it’s not my favorite for grilling, but for everything else I love the Cobb.
The Cobb is very efficient, which means it burns less fuel, and it’s pretty easy to clean provided you have access to water. The most ingenious part of the Cobb, which makes it perfect for camp cooking, is that it packs down nice and small and light.
A Good Cooler
The best cooler is the Yeti Tundra series. I wish the most expensive option wasn’t the best, but it is, and impressively so. I’ve been testing a Yeti Tundra 45 for a couple of months and regularly get a solid week of cooling out of a single block of ice. Even bags of cube ice usually last three to four days in temps of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it gets hotter than that, performance drops (humidity will also make the ice melt faster), but it’s still better than anything you’ll get from other coolers. Yetis aren’t cheap, but they’re nearly indestructible and outperform everything else we’ve tested.
If you don’t camp enough to justify the cost of a Yeti, just go with whatever is available at your local store. Most other coolers are about equal when it comes to performance. Be sure to get something with plenty of room for your food and ice. Most cooler makers suggest a 2:1 ratio of ice to goods, but I seldom manage that with a family of five camping for a week. In my testing, a 1:1 ratio is more realistic and still seems to keep my food plenty cold. If you need more help choosing a cooler, see our guide to the best coolers.