Back in the day my family vacation and my fathers’ summer time elk scouting was rolled into the same week. We would pack up the wagon and hit the road. Camp would be located after about three hours on back roads. We would set out our stuff and let dad and my older brother go for a hike in the morning. (I was too little at the time to go scouting) When they would get back my mom, sister and I would have a big breakfast ready. Well, we would try to have a breakfast ready.
What would normally happen is some catastrophe that involved the cooking equipment. Some pipe on the stove would break; we would run out of gas or maybe we just forgot the coffee. It was always some sort of camping travesty; it never worked out as planned.
To try and solve this problem my father started to do a little pre camping in the backyard. He would set up all the equipment and test it out before setting out on the vacation. His buddies would make fun of him and call him overly prepared – he just said he was being lazy in advance. Plus he knew my moms cooking ability or lack there of. Dad would fix what needed it, buy what he had to, and then he knew he would get a hot breakfast when he got back. (Honestly, I think mom just wanted to eat at the café in town.)
The pre camping taught me a great lesson that seems rudimentary – check your equipment before you go camping/hunting. Fast forward to the present and I find myself asking simple questions. Did the hole in the tent from last fall magically fix itself? Nope. Did I buy fuel for my burners? No, then why would I expect to have any now. When was the last time my sleeping bag got used? Christmas when my brother got drunk and slept on the couch. Get the gear out and give it a test, maybe even a wash.
The little details that make camping and hunting enjoyable need to be thought of before leaving or they will turn into big problems. (Kinda like the time we made it four hours up a logging road to find out we didn’t have any plates for my family of five. Nothing bonds a family like sharing a meal out of one pan…) To be honest, my wife does a better job than me with making sure we are prepared.
When testing the gear nothing gets me more ticked off than cooking equipment that is not working properly. In my case I have had a few of those fancy “grill-burner-griddle” contraptions over the years and none have truly impressed me. The griddles have hot spots and the grill is just a waste of space that gets everything messy. I like the idea of an all in one cook top but I am not sure I have used a functional one yet. Plus, those pictures of the perfectly cooked pancakes just piss me off. I am a chef and I can’t even come close to making those.
For most of my camp cooking I use, and don’t judge me now, is those little burners you see the omelet cooks at convention center using. The single burner propane cook tops. Last time I checked they are like $20 bucks at the Restaurant Supply store and like $35 bucks at the sporting goods store. I have four of them that make it camping with me. They stack into a tote with my utensils and I know as long as I have butane they are ready to cook some food. They are cheep, light, quick to pack and store well. Plus, clean up is a breeze.
Another great idea is to have a cleaning kit for all your cooking supplies. I use a rectangle Tupperware that my wife thinks the dog ate. I keep soap, a few shop towels, a sponge, paper towels and an old butter knife. The old knife is for scraping the sides of the pan in the morning.
Keeping cooking equipment clean and sanitary while camping is hard, but not impossible. Hands get muddy, that black stuff from the four-wheeler grips gets on your hands – it is part of the fun of camping. You don’t need to be clean to be a member of the group.
That said, look at the guy who is making dinner, and then look at his fingernails. Ask him if he washed his hands before cutting those onions. Then ask if he washed after he peed. You won’t want the answers. Somehow sanitation just seems to fly out the window while camping. Frankly, that is a dangerous proposition.
Food that is not handled right and is contaminated becomes a hazard to eat. If you are making sure to cool the deer meat hanging in camp then make sure you wash your hands after you gut him. Follow the basic rules of sanitation and no one should get the squirts during elk camp or the summer vacation.
I make double sure to do a little backyard camping with my backpacking equipment. When I am seven miles from the nearest road lord knows that I need my equipment to be working right. My boys also love to look at all my cool gear spread out on a tarp in the back yard. Take the time to clean it and store it properly and it will last a lot longer. The family will enjoy the time fidgeting with all the stuff and you can sleep better knowing that your belly will be full.
A cost saving favorite of mine is using the large box retailers for backpacking food. I buy the dehydrated chili mix and then take it home and vacuum pack it into smaller and manageable portions. Same with dehydrated hash browns. I do the math on the amount of water each one will take and write it on the side with a permanent marker. You can get a whole meal for a buck instead of six. It is a good deal.
To me backpacking food is for backpacking and that is it. Eating that stuff when I have access to a cooler and a truck seems like sacrilege. I hate it when I show up to deer camp and someone is eating dehydrated “chicken teriyaki”. Don’t get me wrong I have downed a couple hundred of those over the years but they are not what I consider food. They are fuel. Dehydrated food is simply calories that just so happen to have to pass over my tongue to get into my belly.
A few things can make dehy food a little bit more palatable. First I like to add actual protein to the dish. This past bear season I packed in a 12oz pack of country ribs off a wild hog I shot a few years back for dinner. I browned off the ribs very well and then added the dehydrated food (Chicken and Rice) to my pan along with the suggested amount of water. I turned off the heat and let it all sit for a while and then – like magic – we had real food. The meat had a little extra seasoning and gave the whole pot substance. I fed three people with just a little package of meat and a little Mountain House.
Getting the equipment out is also a surefire method for back yard adventure. Take the kids out and listen for frogs in the backyard. While it might not be the wilderness the family will enjoy the time and you will know that your equipment works.