Primal Camping Meals: Weekend “Car Camping” Edition

Most camp food is terrible or the opposite of Primal. Or both.

It’s either an expensive REI tetrapak full of wheat flour, dehydrated “meat,” and desiccated Crisco, a Dough Boy, or the entirely overrated s’more. I’ll get flak for that last one, but I don’t care. S’mores rarely live up to the hype past age 12.

Just because you’re living out of a tent doesn’t mean you have to settle for terrible, unhealthy, unappetizing food. If anything, you should be eating healthier when you camp. It feels corrosive to defile the sanctity and purity of the wild with processed junk food wrapped in plastic. You generate all this trash. Whole, Primal foods taste even better when you camp; packaged garbage somehow tastes even worse.

I’ll cover backpacking food in a future post, but car camping cookery is my specialty. That’s what I’ll cover today—the kind of weekend trip that allows for a sizable cooler, some extras flourishes, and more than a single cooking pot.  There’s nothing better than turning your campsite into a full-fledged camp kitchen, creating hearty meals whose scents permeate the grounds, arousing jealousy and any nearby wandering bears. There’s something about serving up dark chocolate chili and a nice Malbec while the family next to you nibbles PopTarts, heats up the $12 freeze-dried dinner from REI, and plays their 20th game of “War.”

What are my go-to car camping favorites?

Sometimes I’ll just do the basics: eggs, bacon, a piece of meat or fish, some grilled asparagus.

More often, I’ll turn to my favorites….

The Hobo Pack

The hobo pack harkens back to those ancient days when hobos, tramps, and vagabonds of all sorts would travel the dusty roads and endless railroads of classic America carrying heavy duty aluminum foil pouches of meat, taters, and vegetables.

The hobo pack is versatile and forgiving. Anything works, and almost anything will end up tasting damn good. Create a pouch with two layers of aluminum foil. Fill the pouch with meat and vegetables. Place pouch on coals.

Pot Roast—beef, onion, carrot, garlic, salt, pepper, a little red wine.

Salmon—salmon, lemon, broccoli, butternut squash, salt, avocado oil.

Whatever you do, pair your meats and vegetables well. Fish cooks quickly, so you’ll want to include vegetables that cook quickly, too. Beef chuck takes longer, so you’ll want something heartier, like sweet potatoes.

Buried Winter Squash

My absolute favorite winter squash is the honeynut squash. It looks like a butternut squash, only about 1/3 the size and a deep orange. The taste is phenomenal.

Get a nice bed of coals going. Bury your squash in the coals and hot ash. Cover it on all sides.

When they’re soft and tender all over, pull them out. Brush off most of the soot and slice lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds.

They’re good plain, with a little butter, or even a scoop of chevre (soft goat cheese) and salt.


First, make the harissa from this recipe. Set aside.

Heat up a dutch oven over the fire. Add olive oil, a few chopped garlic cloves, one chopped hot pepper, one chopped sweet pepper, and a tablespoon of ground cumin. Sub cayenne and sweet paprika if you don’t have fresh peppers. Cook until fragrant.

Add the harissa along with a can of crushed tomatoes (or the equivalent in fresh tomatoes, if you have access) and two teaspoons of tomato paste.

Reduce until thickened, salting to taste. When it tastes just right, make a few indentations in the sauce and crack an egg in each. I aim for at least 6 or 7 eggs.

Cover and cook until eggs are cooked to your desired doneness. I like the yolks runny. Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt, creme fraiche, sour cream, or labneh.

Pancakes with Camp Preserves

For the pancakes, I’ll either do these almond pancakes or these blueberry pancakes. One time, I even mixed some masa harina (lime-treated corn flour, the same stuff used in traditional tortillas) with an egg and a little coconut milk; turned out great. Any Primal pancake recipe you like will work.

For the camp preserves, just chop up whatever fruit you have. I’ve done mangoes, bananas, pears, and strawberries. I’ve done apples and pineapple with cinnamon. I’ve done blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. Every combination I’ve ever tried has worked. I just heat up a pan over the fire, add a little butter (seriously, not much), and throw in the chopped up fruit. Cook until soft, add a little water, mash, and reduce until you have thick camp preserves. Spoon over the pancakes.

Camp Chili

Every time I camp, I make a pot of this chili. I won’t expand on the recipe; you can just read the link. But there are a few ways to streamline the process.

Chop all the peppers and onions and garlic before hand.

Mix all the spices together so you can just keep them in one container and add them in one fell swoop.

Oh, and in the last 10-15 minutes of cooking, drop in a bar of 85% or higher dark chocolate. The one that seems to work the best for me is Valrhona Le Noir 85%. If you can’t find it, any high-cacao content bar will work.

You can also transform the entire character of the dish by adding a tablespoon of cardamom pods with the other spices. That alone makes it almost curry-like. If you go this route, you can also get away with doing lamb instead of beef. Just be sure to strain out the cardamom pods before serving.

Lemon Onion Wings

The day before your trip, blend one large or two medium onions with the juice from 5 lemons and a couple tablespoons of fish sauce in a well-sealed baggy or tupperware container. This is your marinade.

The morning of, place 4-5 pounds of chicken wings in a reliable Ziploc bag and pour the marinade over. You’ll want this to marinate for at least a day, so having this for dinner that night works perfectly.

When you’re ready to cook, place a grill over the campfire. Lay out the wings on paper towels and wipe off most of the marinade. Some bits of lemony onion will remain. That’s fine.

Salt and pepper the wings all over. Place on grill.

Assuming you’ve allowed enough time for the marinade to penetrate, grilling these wings over open flame/hot coals caramelizes the onion-imbued skin. Turn frequently. You want char, but not burning. When you suspect they’re ready, remove the largest wing and cut it open. If it’s done and no pink remains, take the rest off.

Primal Chocolate Cake

Take a Japanese sweet potato—the ones with the purple skin and white flesh. Bury it in some coals and hot ash. If you like the charred flavor and prefer extra caramelization, throw it directly into the coals. If you like a more steamed tuber and wish to avoid charring, wrap it in foil.

Remove from coals after 30 minutes and give it a squeeze. If it’s soft, it’s done. If there are any hard spots, throw it back in for another 5-10 minutes.

Once it’s done, split it down the middle. Insert several squares of good dark chocolate. Sprinkle sea salt. Mash, eat. Primal chocolate cake.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of car camping food, but it’s a solid list of dishes I’ve found to be both doable/realistic and delicious. You’ll notice that the carb counts for many of these dishes are a bit higher than usual. That’s because when I camp, I’m usually very active—hiking, swimming, exploring, playing. You should be, too.

Now I’d love to hear from all the campers out there. What are your favorite Primal foods to cook in the great outdoors?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

TAGS:  cooking tips

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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19 thoughts on “Primal Camping Meals: Weekend “Car Camping” Edition”

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  1. Oh fun! We just went camping in the yukon with our kids a few weeks ago. We had a road trip grill, so a little easier with the food aspect. But, most of these would still work well. Thanks for the ideas, mark!

  2. I am not a camper…love being outdoors but also love a hot shower and comfy bed. But this food sounds pretty amazing…makes me want to visit someone’s campsite for dinner lol

  3. For those interested in extended backpacking trips, I recommend either paleo meals to go, or if keto get dehydrated cauliflower, broccoli, beef and chicken. Mix them together as you want in a bowl, add spices and some broth powder (I like lonolife – they come in packets or a larger container), add hot water and wait for it to re-hydrate. It is cheaper than the packaged meals and is much better for you. You could get really fancy and come up with tastier combinations I’m sure but this is simple and easy and doesn’t require buying a ton of items.
    For breakfast, you can find dehydrated eggs, or I often just have some instant coffee (used to bring a percolator with but the instant coffee takes up less space and if you get a decent one it tastes just as good) with either powdered MCT oil, or a keto powdered coffee creamer.
    Lunch for me is usually almond butter or coconut butter packets, homemade granola, or tuna or salmon pouches. I’ve searched everywhere for packets of mayonnaise made without vegetable oils and can’t find any so I go without during my trips.
    I normally don’t bring much for sweets with because chocolate melts and I figure this is a good time to reset my system and get away from all the sweets. If I do want something sweet at night, I make some chai tea with powdered coffee creamer or powdered coconut milk and a little stevia.
    And of course, if you are doing any fishing, you have to bring fish batter with. I normally pack coconut oil and avocado oil in old baby bottles (they are made not to leak so they work great for bringing oils with) and then bring a bag of homemade fish batter with. The batter stays on surprisingly well without doing the egg wash as long as you don’t dry the fish off.
    It has definitely been an adjustment for us going from bringing packaged meals, pancake mix and granola bars to the way we currently eat, but it has been well worth it because we feel so much better. It is no fun getting a migraine while in the wilderness because you ate something that didn’t agree with you, or being constipated and spending more time than necessary on the latrine with mosquito buzzing around you!

  4. “Any idiot can be uncomfortable in the bush”

    I hunt with a crew and we spend 25-30 weekends per year in the bush. Coming out of the hills after being on your feet all day with nothing more in your stomach than coffee and a couple of snacks, and you want meat. And quickly. Steak, chops, sausages.

    Evening meals are different. Spit-roast or boiled pickled-pork. Camp-oven roasted veggies or a potato-bake.

    Evening meals are another matter

  5. If you are car camping, there is no reason not to eat as well or better than at home. If you’ve got a stove and a cooler, you are set. We camp a couple of times every summer with 15-25 people. Everybody takes turns doing a meal for the group, and we eat like royalty. A favorite is a Mexican buffet. Everyone from picky kids to vegans to groks can be happy. My meal this last time was shawarma chicken with grilled onions & peppers, a Greek-ish salad and lots of great garlicky sauces, with garlic pita for those that eat it. It’s pretty easy if you do lots of prep and even some pre-cooking at home. Sometimes bringing the meat pre-cooked and frozen works out great.

  6. Fantastic list! This makes me feel like I missed out this summer, will be using these recipes in the future, thanks! My favourite discovery for camp cooking this summer was omelette in a bag. 🙂

  7. I have never understood why people think camping food needs to be unhealthy. My absolute best meals are done in the woods over an open fire! All you need is a good cooler, and a good cast iron frying pan! As for backpacking, where storage is limited, you can always prep some easy, and shelf stable things at home.


    We have two boys, one is 5 and 1/2 years, the other is 15 months. Camping with very small kids ROCKS. They play hard outside all day, then beat each other with headlamps after dark, then pass out hard in the tent, creating instant date night with your spouse/partner and some wine by the fire. YES! (However, with the littlest one who is constantly chewing on rocks and trying to SET himself on fire, it does make me wonder how we survived the paleo days!)

    My favorite camping, or just to-go primal food, is meatballs with dipping sauce!

    Melissa Joulwan has a great section with oodles of meatball recipes in her book Well Fed 2. I like to pre-make meatballs and sauce. Then: while hiking with boys, these are taken out of the cooler and left in the car to warm.

    Get back from exploring, and you have the perfect finger food for little ones. Many meatball recipes can have veggies hidden inside!

    This past weekend, while car camping in Ouray, CO, we had Melissa’s Japanese Gyoza meatballs (pork, red cabbage, shitake mushrooms, and water chesnuts), dipped in a sauce of coconut aminos, fish sauce, sesame oil, scallions and chives. To die for!

    Meatballs. Try it. You can even make way ahead and freeze in batches, then throw in cooler as you head outta town!

    – HBomb

  9. Hobo meals – foil packets with thinly sliced veggies like carrots, quartered mushrooms, bell pepper slices and steak or fish. Simple but delicious.

  10. We camp a lot and eat just as well outdoors as we do at home! It does take a bit of prep, but often (when car/raft/boat camping) I will just empty out the contents of my fridge into a large cooler. I also bring avocado oil, ghee, some basic spices and we are totally set- once we’ve caught the salmon/trout/dollies for dinner. I’ve never tried buried squash or sweet potatoes, but I can’t wait to do so!

  11. Camping is of the best opportunities to fast. However, I like food too much so a 14 inch wok is my favorite for open air cooking. It works great over a rock ring fire. If in a location where wood fires are prohibited, I pack a marine propane tank and a banjo burner. I prep everything ahead of time and store in Chinese take out containers. Frozen meats keep everything else cool until use. Everything is served in the containers with wooden chopsticks. Very little waste.

  12. You can cook anything over a campfire that you can cook at home if you take some fresh ingredients and a few utensils along. I’m always amazed when we walk around a campground and see people eating lunchmeat sandwiches for dinner or grilling wieners and heating a can of beans.

    There can be so much more to campfire cooking if you put in a little effort and ingenuity. You can grill, fry, and bake almost anything with the help of a cast iron skillet, a Dutch oven, and a little kitchen foil. We’ve made some truly memorable meals, such as beef stew, pork chops, bbq chicken, steaks topped with herb butter, chili, just to name a few. Paleo side dishes are all pretty easy to grill or steam.

  13. These suggestions are great for car camping, but I don’t do too much of that anymore. I am really looking forward to the Backpacking edition of this article!

  14. Please tell my Masa Harina is now Primal! That would be exciting.

  15. I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to eat mostly non-primal garbage or overly processed foods while camping because I dig through dumpsters to collect empties at a campground and there’s plenty of evidence of people mostly living on bad, or at the best, not good conventional foods. Sometimes I’ll open a garbage bag and approve of what I see – especially if they’ve thrown out something that’s still good and clean. Got a just opened jar of instant coffee there recently and some free run eggs and cheese, for example. There was even a pinch of “greens”, woohoo, which made a nice little stress relieving break because digging through like a hundred filthy garbage bags gets annoying. Unsuspected finds that like are enjoyable. Once I even took a garbage bag out that I thought contained some empty wine bottles. There were a few full bottles! People throw out all sorts of good supplies sometimes too like barbecue lighters and tarps for example – that’s where I got my tarps. I’ve been a scavenger for years.
    I’ve been camping for a while, just under a tarp and wrapped up in a blanket to ward off mosquitoes (hate those things and no matter how many you kill, there are always more) around a month or so maybe. Kind of unfortunate about the swarms and that it rains like a third of the time but I prefer it to city living.
    Due to lack of money I try to get to get the choicest food bank and dumpster food.
    Food bank, since you get to pick what you take: canned salmon, sardines, and some tuna and other meat like corned beef. Eggs. Instant coffee, teas. Fresh produce. There’s a limit to how much you can take of some foods each time you’re there but you can go once a week until all your “shopping points” are used so I find it useful to go often so that I can max out the amount of the better foods with limits.
    Dumpsters: anything I find that’s decent, especially meat, some is natural though it’s often too salty and high in preservatives (bacon, ham etc.) for me to feel like I can eat too much at once. I’ve still had some feasts on that stuff. I’ll barbecue a bunch, eating as I cook until I’m full, though usually all of a sudden I just feel like I better not eat anymore even if I haven’t gotten full yet, though if that’s about all I have and I don’t want to waste it after opening I’ll try to eat as much as I can until I’m quite sick of it. Usually I stay quite full though. I’ve had surplus food lately, sometimes until I feel uncomfortable. I got caught using a barbecue behind a store recently and they called the cops on me and banned me. I had taken the risk of using it during the day, which would normally be fine because there tends to never be anyone back there, but no such luck that day, someone noticed. To avoid sounding like I’m making some sort of confession to criminal activity, I won’t say that I’ve still been using it ever since, at wiser times. Like I care. Some of the other foods I regularly take are fruit, vegetables that conveniently include pre-made salads, and dairy. I leave a lot of stuff. Sometimes there’s too much of the good stuff for me to reasonably take and sometimes there’s stuff I’d rather not take like processed junk. I’ve snacked on a bit of that here and there but if I can stay primal, I generally will.
    I guess I basically eat the same stuff when I’m camping that I’d eat at other times.
    I cook at a drop-in center sometimes. Just remembered I’m carrying a tube of ground beef from yesterday so I better get there soon to fry that with a medley of herbs from their spice rack. When I do that I wrap it in foil later for storage and convenience carrying around, plus it stays warm for a while.

    1. And wouldn’t you know it, I go there earlier today and there’s someone else salvaging stuff, an older guy who says he camps out there 5 months a year. I saw him take a tarp out with another already on the ground so I asked if he was scavenging and if he takes the empties (yes) and we just talked briefly during which he told me that people throw out all sorts of tarps and stuff. Since he got there first I said I won’t take anything from there today. That’s my idea of a rule in those situations: first come, first serve.
      The bins had been dumped recently (yesterday, he said) so it probably wouldn’t have been all that profitable anyway. I went to the other part of the park and found something like a dollar’s worth. I guess that’s not to be complained about. The weighted bike ride (I carry all my valuable stuff, kind of heavy today), which included going uphill both ways for part of it must have been good for me.

    2. I feel like adding that what some of these people who think they’re camping are doing is not really camping, in my opinion.
      Hypothetical “camper”:
      Let’s go “camping”! We’ll go in our big high-tech trailer, basically a house on wheels with all the amenities of civilization, [pay to!!!] rent a little plot separated from the next one by a thin line of trees so it’s basically like a suburban backyard, sit around doing nothing, and watch satellite TV.
      You call that camping?

  16. “S’mores rarely live up to the hype past age 12.”

    I’m 49. After reading this, I just couldn’t take the rest of this article seriously.