A Complete Guide to Wintertime Campsite Cooking

wintertime cookingMy son is a Boy Scout. The saying is “boy led, adult managed.” This roughly means boys do all the work, but adults keep them safe. I received a voicemail sometime over the weekend on my cell phone but didn’t notice and check it until around bedtime on Monday. He was asked to teach the other Scouts about wintertime cooking for outdoor camping as part of the Tuesday meeting – when he was already scheduled to be in a concert.

Since I don’t want all the boys to suffer because of this, I’m going to do his work for him, but have a conversation with him and the Assistant Senior Patrol Leader (who didn’t confirm he could do this) to point out where it went wrong.

You may not ever plan on doing winter camping, but it’s still worth thinking about so you can be prepared if you have to. The basic rule: quick and easy to prepare (and clean up), but packs lots of healthy calories.

Winter menu planning

The two keys are that it should be warm and have lots of calories. Warm is easy enough to understand. If your body or the air around it are cold, warm food helps keep it closer to the 98.6 of a healthy body. Cold food lowers your temperature. That’s why it’s not a good idea to eat snow for fluids in a survival situation: You risk making your core body temperature dangerously low. If you melt it first, it’s warmer – and safer. Better still, boil it and have a hot drink like coffee, tea, or chocolate, if you have them on hand.

High calorie may not be as obvious, especially in a culture where we are always being told to watch our calories, cut calories, etc. The simple fact is that our body expends calories to keep itself warm when it’s cold outside. We need calories to burn to stay warm.

In addition, easy / fast to make foods are best so you don’t have to spend a lot of time outside of your shelter cooking, and to ensure faster clean up. Think about it this way: When it’s freezing outside, how long do you want to be outside with your hands in a dishpan full of water? Every pot / pan / utensil you can eliminate in cooking is one you eliminate in cleaning.

Don’t start meal preparation on your campout. Cut everything you can before you ever leave. If something needs done and you can do it in the comfort and warmth of your home, do so!

Specific foods

Don’t forget to drink and stay hydrated.

Camping Road Trip recommends 50% carbohydrates – breads, pastas, 30% fats and oils, and 20% protein. Your body converts carbohydrates into energy, and heat, very quickly and easily. The fats and oils allow you to produce body heat over a longer period of time. The protein helps with hunger and repairing damaged or stressed muscles.

These are fast to make, kid-friendly meals:

  • Chili
  • Easy Mac or Ramen
  • Hot dogs
  • Most things in a Dutch oven
  • Spaghetti
  • Oatmeal

Choosing a fuel – and stove

There are a variety of fuels available, as discussed (briefly) below. For winter camping, white fuel (also known as Naptha, camp fuel, or Coleman fuel) is a great choice because, unlike propane, it is usable below freezing, but it does need treated with caution. Wood is another great choice, as long as you are somewhere wood is readily available. Some camp stoves are multi-fuel, allowing you to choose whatever fuel you want, but others only use one fuel. Be sure to choose a stove that meets your need.

Choosing a fuel

Kerosene is inexpensive, isn’t explosive, and stores energy densely. However, it tends to be smoky and have a distinctive odor when it burns.

Multi-fuel stoves do exactly what it sounds like: they can use multiple different fuels. The true advantage to theses is that if you are traveling with another person who has their own stove fuel, it is possible to use some of theirs, if needed.

Propane comes in gas canisters and is readily available not just at camping stores but at places like Target and Walmart. The canister simply screws onto the stove or grill. Simple as they are to use, the gas isn’t usable below freezing.

White gas is an odorless, liquid petroleum-based fuel. It is also known as Naptha, camp fuel, or Coleman fuel, after the company that first popularized it. It is easy to find, packs a lot of energy in a small space, and can be used at any temperature. It is also explosive and potentially messy because it needs to be poured into the stove or another container, particularly for multi-fuel stoves.

Wood is a traditional fuel but isn’t always available. If there is a lot of wood near where you might use the stove, including near your home (emergencies happen there too), then a stove that uses wood may a good choice.

Choosing a stove

My newest toy is a collapsible rocket stove (review forthcoming). This is too heavy to use for backbacking, but rocket stoves in general are very efficient in their fuel use. In addition, you can add some insulation (dirt, for example) around the bottom on the inside of the stove to decrease your cook time a little bit more, just be sure not to block the air flow or cover the fire.

I love a solar oven as much as the next prepper, but the farther north you are, the lower the angle of the sun’s rays in the winter – and the more time it takes to cook. If you want to put something in there and leave it in a sunny spot all day (assuming you can find one in the winter), that may work great for you, but for most of us, a sun oven won’t be the first choice for winter cooking.

A campfire is the classic, of course, but it also takes time to get a good cooking fire going and you may need coals, not a full-on campfire, for your cooking, which will require even longer. Dutch ovens almost always require coals, not a fire, but don’t require a lot of babysitting. That means the cook can go into a shelter while it cooks more easily. Food that is grilled or otherwise cooked directly over the fire needs constant tending, which means the cook(s) can’t go into a shelter.

Protecting your cooksite

Be smart about where you put your cook site. Damp leaves will quickly become dry leaves (tinder) and snow will be water once the fire starts, so be sure to clear the area around the campfire. As the day (or possibly night) warms up, other snow will melt. Don’t put a campfire where snow melt will flow over it, or leave a campstove somewhere it can easily fall over as the ground under it thaws.

Someone will need to stay near the fire to tend it. Pick a sheltered location so they aren’t freezing and the fire isn’t in danger of being blown out by wind. (Even if your stove uses propane, Naptha, or another fuel, there is a good chance it has a flame that can be blown out.) It is also important to finish cooking before sundown, if at all possible, to make clean up faster and easier.

Finding a way to insulate or generally shelter your cook site from the cold, wet, and wind will also both make life more pleasant for the cooks and help speed up cooking time by keeping the stove hotter, longer.

Parts of this are excerpted from Liz Long’s forthcoming book “Survival Skills for All Ages #3: 26 Outdoor and Wilderness Survival Skills”. 

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