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Cooking and meal preparation

Everything you need to know about cooking and meal prep

Meal preparation and cooking is one of the delights of overnight bushwalking. There’s nothing more fun than taking your time to cook a delicious meal at the end of a long day walking.

Everyone will have their own preference when it comes to preparing and cooking in the bush depending on what they like to eat and how they like to cook. There are no right or wrong answers here, but what we hope to do is guide you through a couple of key ideas to think about finding ways to prepare and eat food in the bush easily. We hope that over time and with a bit of practice, you’re able to find a routine that works well for you. Enjoy!

Preparing and cooking food How to prepare and cook food in the bush

The key things that are different in the bush with preparing and cooking food compared to cooking at home is that you don’t have endless supplies of cutlery and crockery, a shop just around the corner to restock supplies, and you may find yourself preparing and cooking a meal in non-ideal conditions, be that you’re tired at the end of a long day, or there’s a thunderstorm overhead.

For some, adverse conditions are exciting and fun, while for others, it can be a bit stressful. Here are some ways that you can make preparing and cooking food a little easier, so your meals become just another enjoyable part of the camping experience.

For many meals, 90% of the effort is in meal preparation, rather than cooking and subtle adjustments to how you prepare food can make the cooking process far more streamlined and effective.

Here are some things to think about:

  • At home:
    • Remove excess packaging and recycle as much as you can e.g. take muesli bars out of the box.
    • Decant what you need e.g. If you plan to cook pasta one night, take exactly what you need for that meal rather than a whole 500g packet of pasta. Some people like to measure out exact quantities needed for specific meals and bag them separately into zip lock bags (be conscious though that you use a lot of additional plastic by doing this, so consider your environmental impact and seek ways to recycle and reuse ziploc bags after your trip).
    • Pre-mix ingredients that may be difficult to measure in the field (e.g. pancake mix with the correct ratio of flour/sugar etc) or just to make life easier (e.g. add milk powder to muesli mix).
  • Arriving at camp:
    • Designate the cooking area: find somewhere that the group can prepare and cook meals away from the tents. This could be next to the fireplace, or near a picnic seat, or a sheltered area behind a fallen tree. Think about somewhere that is sheltered from wind with enough room for everyone to move around easily and cook. Try to make sure that it is not right next to tents so that people can rest away from the social hub as well as preventing smoke and cooking fumes getting into tents.
    • Organise water: For most meals, cooking becomes a lot easier when there is water close to hand. Think about where your water supply is and whether you need to purify water in time for your meal. If there is a water supply away from camp, consider setting up a water station using a large water bladder (e.g. Sea to Summit 10L pack tap) where the whole group can easily grab water during the evening.
    • Soaking: Some ingredients like legumes or lentils cook far more quickly if they’ve been left to soak in water for a few hours before cooking. If you get into camp early, consider soaking these kinds of food items to speed up the cooking process later in the evening and save fuel.
  • Before cooking:
    • Keep all your cooking gear together: It can be easy to misplace cooking items, meaning that you’re constantly rummaging in your pack for cutlery, knife etc. Spend a few minutes organising your gear so that you’ve got everything you need. A small calico bag can be a great way of keeping billy, stove, cutlery and crockery organised.
    • Find all the food you need: as with cooking gear, spend time gathering all the food items you need including condiments, oil, salt and pepper as well as all the main ingredients.
    • Chop up what you need, only start cooking when you’re organised and ready to go. This saves turning your stove on and off multiple times, or grabbing billies in and out of the fire more often than necessary. Measure out quantities, chop up ingredients and line up everything so it’s ready to go when you start cooking.

Cooking on a stove and cooking on a fire are the two most common ways of preparing a hot meal on a bushwalk. Stoves are easier to use because you can generally make more subtle changes to the heat source, cook in almost any weather condition, and produce instant results. Campfire cooking is a slower process involving making a fire with good cooking coals and takes more skill to control the heat and cooking process. Stoves are best for beginner bushwalkers as they are reliable and easy to control. By comparison, campfire cooking relies on being able to start a fire, not always a given in wet weather or total fire-ban conditions, and so are more suitable for bushwalkers that are experienced walking in the conditions of that area.

Cooking on a stove
There are a lot of different types of stoves on the market, but the principles around cooking on a stove are essentially the same regardless of the model.

  • Setting up your stove:
    • Set up your stove in the open, never cook in a closed, poorly ventilated space. Stoves give off noxious gases which can build up in enclosed spaces such as closed tents and small caves, and there is a risk of Carbon monoxide poisoning if stoves are used without adequate ventilation. Even in poor weather conditions, cook in the open and consider other ways of appropriate rain protection (e.g. tree cover, open-air shelter such as a tin roof or high-pitched tarp). Also remember tent and clothes material can melt and burn quickly, keep flames and heat away from all synthetic material.
    • Set up your stove somewhere stable, in an area where it is unlikely to get kicked over or people trip up on. Stoves are inherently unstable, particularly when a pot of water is set up on top of the burning element, so there is a real risk of the stove falling over. Choose an area where the ground is as flat as possible, clear away any small rocks or sticks and position the stove in the centre. Test the stability of the stove by putting pot/billy on top of the stove.
    • Consider a raised surface for your stove: For those with back pain, you may find it easier to set up your stove on a raised surface such as a flat log or a table. This avoids excessive bending over and being at eye level is easier to monitor and manipulate food. If cooking at a table, it is best to not sit below the stove, many bushwalkers are burnt from spilling hot water from a table onto their lap.
    • Remove any flammable material around the stove. Check the area immediately surrounding the stove for flammable material and remove anything within approximately a metre of the stove that is a flammable risk.
  • Cooking on your stove:
    • Settle in, make yourself comfortable: cooking takes time, think about ways to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Consider using a piece of foam mat to sit on, or a raised seat such a log to save bending over a lot.
    • Always monitor your stove when alight: never leave your stove unmonitored, and warn people nearby that the stove is alight so they don’t accidentally walk into it or trip over it.
    • Watch out for hot metal: pots and billies tend to heat up quickly on a stove, including handles. Beware of burning your hands accidentally by touching something hot. Consider using spondonicles or other pot grippers to remove pots/billies safely.

    Cooking on a campfire
    There are some incredibly delicious meals that you can make on a campfire, as well as more simple meals involving just boiling water in a billy. Campfire cooking takes a bit more effort and time than stove cooking, but does produce great results when done well!

    • Choosing a campfire location:
      • Determine if it is safe to light a campfire. Follow Leave No Trace principles and never light a campfire if there is a total fire ban.
      • Select a location for your campfire away from the tents where you can easily access the fireplace. Reuse an existing fire-ring if present, or select an open location away from flammable material.
    • Preparing the campfire for cooking:
      • Light your fire ahead of time. You need campfire coals for cooking on, and these take time to develop. Plan ahead by thinking through when you want to eat, how low it takes for the coals to develop and how long your meal will take to cook.
      • Build the fire to promote coal development: get larger sticks and logs onto the fire early on so they can start to burn well. In wet conditions, place these larger logs around the side of the fire to start drying them out.
      • Preparing the coals: Once enough coals have developed and you’re ready for cooking, spread them out to create an even surface suitable for pot, camp oven etc.
    • Cooking: The two main methods for cooking on a campfire with coals are using a billy (or camp oven) or using tin foil. A more simple method is to use a stick to spear the food and cook it over the flames (works well for things like sausages, marshmallows and toast).
      • Using a billy or camp oven: Place ingredients into billy or camp oven and place it on the coals. Take care to balance the billy on evenly spread coals so that it doesn’t tip over by accident. For a camp oven, use two sticks, or a large wedge of bark to place coals onto the lid of the camp oven. Since coals can be hot and may cook unevenly if one side of the billy/oven is closer to flames, take care to check food regularly and rotate the billy/oven. Here’s a dummy’s guide to using a camp oven to cook a roast.
      • Using tin foil: wrap food with a little oil in tin foil (vegetables work really well). Place tin foil into fire. Select a location where the tin foil is sitting close to coals. You will probably have to rotate the foil packages regularly to promote even cooking. Remove and unwrap to eat when ready. Take care to pull out all tin foil from the fire afterwards as it is rubbish that does not burn.
      • Using a stick: Find a long stick with a pointy end. Stick food on the end. Place stick close to coals on the fire and rotate regularly until cooked.
    • Afterwards: Leave No Trace and clean up appropriately.

Cleaning up How to make sure you leave no trace from cooking

Leave no Trace is about following a set of principles to minimise your impact when bushwalking. For food consumption and meal preparation, Leave No Trace comes into play when disposing of uneaten food and washing up and cleaning, as well as carrying out all food-associated rubbish. It’s worth thinking about foods that have minimal waste and are not messy to clean up when planning and preparing your food for a bushwalk.

Uneaten food is a problem in the bush. If you leave it out, animals will get it. If you bury it, animals will get it. Part of Leaving no Trace means not disrupting animal’s natural food habits nor getting them accustomed to eating human foods, so it’s important to prevent animals from eating food scraps. The best way to avoid leftover food it to cater appropriately, and have containers that you can use to carry leftovers out (or eat at subsequent meals). If you must, dispose of leftover foods by throwing in the fire and burning completely. If a fire is not an option, bury food in a deep hole (minimum 15 cm) away from water sources and cover completely.

Billies, pots, cutlery, bowls, cups and so on must be washed away from water sources to prevent contamination. Fill up dishes with water and use grains of sand to rub the surface and remove food waste. Never use soap or detergent in the bush, just use water and sand/soil. Dispose of dirty washing water by throwing it over soil or vegetation.

Now we’ve gone through the details, here are some ideas for meals on a bushwalk, and the quadrant approach.

Storing food How to keep food safe

It’s really nice to be able to carry some fresh food on a bushwalking trip, but it can be challenging to keep it fresh and safe. Here are some tips:

  • Be selective about what kinds of meat you carry: Some meats, such as salami or beef jerky last a long time out of refrigeration and work well for bushwalking trips. Some bushwalkers take a frozen piece of meat out with them on the first day, let it defrost during the day and cook it the first night.
  • Vacuum-seal foods: This can preserve the life of vegetables and meat safely for significant periods of time (even years). Here’s an example on how.
  • Wrap cheese in muslin: Muslin stops cheese sweating and will allow it to last much longer out of a fridge. Remove plastic packaging and wrap cheese block in muslin before leaving home.
  • Avoid food getting squashed! No surprises here, be gentle and careful with your food, and it will last far longer! Store delicate items such as tomatoes in a billy or lightweight plastic container. Mesh pockets on backpacks make excellent storage for a loaf of bread.