This Year, Try Campsgiving: Everything You Need to Cook a Classic Holiday Meal in the Great Outdoors
Looking for a different approach to Thanksgiving? Take the big meal into the woods with these tips on how to combine camping and Thanksgiving.
For many, a classic Thanksgiving holiday is a big gathering with lots of family and friends at a beautifully decorated house. But between the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding large group get-togethers, it’s no surprise some people are looking for an alternative way to celebrate the holiday—something a bit smaller, a bit different. What better way to fulfill those requirements than by turning Thanksgiving into a camping trip?
Thanksgiving while camping, or what we’ll refer to as #Campsgiving, may seem a little far-fetched—but actually, both REI and the National Parks Service are encouraging people to #OptOutside this holiday. It’s a great way to experience the beauty of nature in the fall, forge fun new Thanksgiving memories, and celebrate the holiday without involving your entire extended family (if you’re so inclined). Of course, Campsgiving will require lots of planning around where you can camp, which camping gear you’ll need to bring, and so on. But more importantly: How do you make a Thanksgiving meal, which is normally prepared over several hours in a fully equipped kitchen, in the woods over a campfire?
The biggest thing to keep in mind is for your cooking appliances to be effectively limited to either a propane-powered stove-top or a fire, according to Jennifer Scism, co-founder and chef of Good To-Go, a backpacking food supplier. This means that any dishes traditionally done in an oven have to be approached a little differently. In order to get close to the effect of an oven, you’ll definitely want to bring along a good cast-iron Dutch oven.
“If you can have a really big fire, one side might have hot coals in a flame and the other side is not the red-hot coals but warm coals, so that you can set things into the coals or set coals on top of a Dutch oven,” she says.
The ability to cover a Dutch oven in coals allows you to somewhat replicate the heating capability of an oven. This lets you bake things in a sense—but don’t take it too far. It’s also important to note that many campsites across the West are under burn bans due to wildfire season, so be sure to check to rules before you plan a holiday trip and always take care when setting up your campfire.
Instead of the classic, casserole-type stuffing, Scism suggests combining croutons made out of old bread with fresh herbs and vegetables and then heating that in a pan with water and fat to create a dish reminiscent of stuffing.
“You could do a cornbread in a cast iron pan with a top on it, but you want to probably limit your baked options so that you’re not constantly making a giant fire and don’t have Dutch ovens shoved all over the place,” Scism says.
As for the main course, she doesn’t recommend going too traditional.
“I would not cook a whole turkey,” Scism says. “It would take way too long and the cavity space is too much weight. I would suggest you marinate a turkey breast in a brine, do a little bit of kosher salt or sea salt, with maybe a hint of molasses or even maple syrup. … Once you pull it out of the brine you want to cook it within the next half hour or so.”
Cooking with a fire can require a lot more guesswork than normal kitchen cooking, Scism cautions. You have less precise control over the heat, which makes cook times longer and more uncertain. For this reason, Scism recommended a dry run before the big day.
“Just getting a fire going, understanding how long it takes to get to where there are hot coals,” she says. “It takes two to three hours to actually get those good hot coals, so … start your fire early, have enough wood to make sure that it’ll keep going.”
It’s also important to make sure you’ve got the right tools. Besides the Dutch ovens, Scism says you should be sure to bring a thermometer to check your meat, a sharp knife, and a cutting board, of course. Plus something to move hot coals and pans, like tongs or a dry towel.
“If you have a wet towel, you’re going to burn yourself so always have dry towels at the ready. If your towel gets wet, even if you fold it several times over to grab something, the heat goes through the water and you get burned immediately,” she says.
Now you know all the tips and tools you need to have your own #Campsgiving. For those of you who want to try it but don’t feel like you have the right equipment to cook over a campfire, check out these items.
Finex 5-qt. Cast Iron Dutch Oven
When you’re cooking with a campfire, a Dutch oven is a must-have, and this 5-qt. version from Finex is a classic. The size allows the oven to hold impressive amounts of ingredients, making it a viable cooking vessel for all but the very largest of dishes, and the octagonal shape provides solid corners for pouring or venting and creates straight edges for easy spatula use. Plus, the spring handles cool quickly for easy transportation. In short, this oven is perfectly equipped to make in-the-fire cooking as easy as possible.
Camp Chef Pro 60X Two-Burner Stove
Sure, you can create a rudimentary stove with a grate over the fire, but this propane-powered stove from Camp Chef brings the experience much closer to what you have at home. This stove gives you a place to cook everything that requires a pan or a pot, creates more space in the fire for multiple Dutch ovens, and the two side-folding shelves give you nice elevated prep spaces. Plus, for those who want to take their outdoor cooking up a notch, the stove has a line of accessories that each use one of the burners, including a pizza-style oven, a grill box, and steel griddles. If you do plan on using this for your own #Campsgiving, make sure propane tanks are allowed at your campground.
BioLite CampStove Complete Cooking Kit
If you’re looking for a stove that’s a little more compact, this kit from BioLite is perfect. The stove runs off of wood or pellets and, as a bonus, features an internal battery that uses the energy from the fire to power a USB to charge your phone or other gadgets. The kit also includes a detachable grill top, a kettle, which the stove can fit inside for easy transport, and a flexible LED light for cooking in the dark. This set-up is much smaller and more compact, so any Campsgiving meal made with this will likely need to be smaller, and perhaps a bit intimate.
GSI Rakau Knife Set
Whenever or wherever you’re cooking, there are few things more important than a good knife. But maybe you don’t have a good way to transport your knives or you don’t want to take your really good knives into the woods. That’s where this knife set comes in. The set includes three quality wood-handled knives, a paring knife, a serrated knife, and a chef’s knife, and knife sheaths for each. The set also includes a bamboo cutting board, a knife sharpener, and a microfiber cleaning cloth, all of which can be easily stored and transported in the zip-up carrying case. With this set, you’ll be able to tackle outdoor prep with ease.
Cooking in the outdoors can require a lot of guesswork, so anything that adds a little bit of precision can be a real help. That’s where this thermometer comes in. It boasts an accuracy level of ±0.7°F and is equipped for use in the outdoors. The thermometer is waterproof, has a display that automatically lights up in low light, and can flip so that the reading is always the right way up. This compact little tool will make the challenge of cooking meat on an open flame all that much easier.
GSI Pinnacle Camper Cookset
Once you’ve got cooktops and prep tools, you still need things to cook in and eat on, and this set has you covered. It features four insulated mugs, and four plastic bowls and plates, all color-coded to help you avoid forgetting whose is whose. The set also includes two pots, a pan, two lids with build-in strainers, and a detachable carry handle, though there is only one of those so plan ahead so you don’t have to move multiple pots at the same time. Finally, all of the items fit inside each other for compact storage, and the carry bag for the whole set is treated so it can double as a camp basin.