How can we optimize our annual family camping trip?
August 22, 2014 7:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for your favorite schemes, gadgets, and systems which make camping with large groups easier and more fun. Things like "a different campsite hosts dinner every night" or "get lots of solar lanterns" or "color code all the tent parts." Our specific details are inside.

Every year we take about a week-long trip to our ancestral camp ground in Maine. It's about 200 miles from home and this year we had about 18 people at our max. Cooking, cleaning, and doing basically everything has become a hassle. My mom currently plans this trip and seems to enjoy it, but I would like to help her in any way that I can, especially since the planning will likely fall to me once she no longer has the energy.

The campground has showers and bathrooms, no RV hookups.

This year we rented a cottage nearby in order to deal with the cooking. That helped, but we had issues with transporting people back and forth, keeping people at the campsites well fed, food in the cooler going bad, and just general nastiness of food being left out because there was nowhere for it to go (no bears at this campground, thankfully).

Solutions I've thought of:
> getting another cottage which is much closer to the campground
> buying a class B RV to serve as a kitchen
> making a different campsite responsible for dinner each night
> using only compostable plates and silverware
> buying a solar cooler (sounds awesome, but do they work for long trips?)

We all have different eating requirements so that is also an issue. I would appreciate any thoughts from seasoned, but similarly wussy campers or people who love gadgets!
posted by chaiminda to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Our family camping trips usually top out at half that number of people and a long weekend, but I have some thoughts!

For optimal comfort, week-long means you need to make at least one, probably 2, trips into town to get milk, ice, and meat at the very least, and probably fruit and veg as well. I've never used a solar cooler.

I think each campsite being responsible for dinner one night is the way to go. Each campsite should also be responsible for their own breakfasts and lunches, and beverages. (In practice, most camping trips I've been on with a large number of people involves lots of sharing food around, but this ensures there's at least enough of it.) Putting the more organized/experienced people on the dinners later in the week will work better.

The campsite that does the cooking can also be responsible for cleanup. Make sure you have enough basins for doing the washing up, and bring more tea towels for drying than you think you need. Each campsite should bring their own plates, cutlery, etc (labelled if necessary).

Having one or two physical campsite(s) being "home base" seems to work better for us. We can carry over an extra picnic table so there's plenty of prep/eating room, and the major cooking and cleanup equipment stays in one place.

I'm a little leery of leaving food out at all--even if there aren't any bears, there are probably raccoons or other varmints around. We put stuff in the cars if there isn't enough secure storage for it.
posted by quaking fajita at 7:44 AM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Rent a catering trailer with a gas fridge. These are the things that get taken to film locations to feed 500 crew. Bring an event shelter and a couple of benches and make a staging location near a tap/drain for washing up. Hang lines for dish towel drying.

Break down the cooking requirements into
a) Menu planning
b) Project management
c) Shopping
d) Prep work like veg peeling
e) Actual cooking
f) Washing up, including the pans as well as individual plates and cutlery.

That makes it easier to share out responsibilities, for example, among skilled and non skilled volunteers.

Make sure the project manager person is good at delegating; ideally that person can be 100% project management and 0% anything else. This is how you avoid burning out that person and leaving them unwilling to ever join your camp again.

If you want to do a shared breakfast / lunch / snacks, you can make it a very simple cold buffet so that your volunteers can focus on getting one hot meal a day done right.
posted by emilyw at 7:55 AM on August 22, 2014

Make sure to have more coolers than you need, so that the coolers aren't packed to the brim; organize things and label, so that you don't have to open every cooler to find the thing you're looking for, because the more times you open it, the less cold it stays. Here are two links about how to arrange your food and ice for best long-term non-disgustingness.

I like the idea that the cook is only responsible for cleaning up the cooking dishes; every eater has his/her own plate, bowl, beverage vessel, and utensils, and can decide individually whether they want to do plasticware that they wash themselves, or bring paper goods.

My family camped a lot when I was little so my dad had a carefully inventoried set of boxes that stayed in the garage to be deployed whenever we went. One was full of useful campsite objects and tools, another specifically for food-prep (pots/pans, dishwashing setup, etc) and a set of hanging shelves that the non-persishable food stuff went on (salt/pepper, ketchup, bread, marshmalllows, etc). It was kid of like this, but homemade (think 1/4" plywood sheets, with canvas walls stapled to the edges, and a rope hanger). If you're working on a bigger scale than that can handle, consider bringing some kind of folding shelves for food storage.
posted by aimedwander at 7:59 AM on August 22, 2014

Rather than having a different campsite do dinner every night, I would rent one site and turn it into a large community kitchen. Put a giant tarp over it (like, a seriously giant tarp that covers the whole site) and set up storage, cooking, eating, and dishwashing stations. Set these up in a logical order, Storage --> Cooking --> Eating --> Washing. Move picnic tables from other sites to this one.

Learn how to tie a tautline hitch. It is the single greatest knot in the world for camping and will turn you into a tarp hanging NINJA. It is also amazingly easy to learn. The bowline is also handy to know. Those two will get you through most camping knot needs.

Storage should be the best coolers you have, with a block or two of ice in each one. Blocks last a lot longer than bags of cubes. Dry goods should be in Rubbermaid bins duct tape closed or stored in a car overnight. Maybe organize them so you have separate bins and coolers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Have a pantry bin for "anytime" snacks.

Cooking: Have 2-3 Coleman type 2-burner stoves and enough large pots and pans for the group. These should be on a single picnic table with enough "counter" space around them to work with. Another table can be used as prep. Make sure your stoves are on stable platforms because nothing is scarier than a white-gas or propane stove falling over and turning into a fireball.

If there's a firepit it can be fun to do burgers and dogs (or even salmon) over a fire, but most cooking is easier on stoves.

For different eating requirements you can either do a couple different meals or do things like taco bars where everyone can customize their meals to their liking.

As soon as you're done cooking fill your largest pot(s) with water and get them boiling to use for dishwashing.

Eating: Self explanatory. Have condiments available, including hot sauces.

Dishwashing: Rubbermaid bins can be used for sinks. One for washing, one for rinsing. Use a towel or something as a drying rack. Use the previously boiled water for washing. Have a few green scrubby pads and some towels handy. Dish soap, of course. The same bins used for sinks can be used to pack up the cooking supplies for the ride home.

Have a signup sheet for chores. Everyone over, say, age 13 signs up for two chores per day. Dinner prep, cooking, cleaning, hauling firewood, getting water, restocking food, etc. Maybe have some chores for the younger kids like s'more prepping, marshmallow stick finding, and stacking wood. With a signup sheet people will naturally pick things they're comfortable with. People who don't like to cook will sign up for clean-up, early risers will sign up for breakfast, etc. I've done a lot of group camping/lodging trips and the sign-up always works itself out.

Using paper plates and silverware saves time doing dishes but it also results in a LOT of trash for that many people. That's up to you, but I think rotating dishwashing duties would be better. Another way of doing it is that cooking stuff is handled by the community but every individual is responsible for their own plate, bowl, cup, and silverwear. Some people will lick theirs clean, others will wash. It's up to them.

Organization and cleanliness is key. Once the dishes are clean, organize them for the next day, putting the pots and pans back near the stoves. Re-organize the storage bins, drain the water out of the coolers, and replenish your ice.

Do not underestimate need for great coffee. It's tempting to do instant when you're camping but if you serve up a great cup of fresh-ground coffee you will be a hero. A french press or two is a nice way to do camp coffee. Bonus points if you have a grinder. I have a hand-crank grinder I take car camping but it's for single servings. I'm sure you could find a bigger one, or make bean grinding one of the kid's chores.

Tarps or shelters over eating and cooking areas can mean the difference between rain ruining everyone's fun and rain being a minor nuisance.

Most of all, have fun and don't be afraid to just go out for breakfast or pizza occasionally.
posted by bondcliff at 8:00 AM on August 22, 2014 [13 favorites]

If you don't do a rotating host, at least have a duty-roster, where somebody is cook's helper and somebody is dishwasher for every shared meal.
posted by aimedwander at 8:01 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bondcliff has a good list.

When I go on a big camping outing, I have a camp kitchen--as in, a piece of camping furniture--with a couple of sink basins, drying rack, etc. In theory it has its own water-supply mechanism, but it's pretty useless. What I use instead is a couple of 2-gallon pressure sprayers, one with soapy water, one with plain water. The pressure sprayers totally changed cleanup for me. You could get away with a folding table and a couple of bus bins for sink basins.

I like to eat well when I'm camping, but I don't especially like to cook while camping (and for various reasons, it's not always practical for me to even try), so I do a lot of food prep ahead of time. I make up cold food (like pasta salad) and pack that in containers with snap-lock lids. This keeps meltwater in the cooler from intruding. Food to be eaten hot goes into vacuum bags, which have totally changed the way I eat when camping. All that stuff gets prepped in advance and frozen. When it's time to eat, just boil the bag. Minimum cleanup, stays good longer. You can do all kinds of food this way. Beat some eggs, throw in some grated cheese or whatever, bag them and freeze them. Instant omelets at your campsite.
posted by adamrice at 8:21 AM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Bring some dry ice and have your biggest cooler be the freezer. You can have ice cream!

Also freeze some cold drinks (bottled water, etc.) so that until you consume them, they're serving as ice for the other stuff in the cooler.

As for coffee, I use this coffee press, it's indestructible and keeps coffee hot for four-five hours.

Counterintuitively, camping is easier the more people you have, because no one person is doing all the work.

I go on a camping trip each year with a group of about 160 people and while the organizational meetings are pretty much year round, the weekend itself goes off really smoothly with minimal effort on any one person's part.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:35 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Each campsite has one night of dinner duty.

Paper plates can be tossed onto the campfire. No trash!
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:59 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

What I use instead is a couple of 2-gallon pressure sprayers, one with soapy water, one with plain water. posted by adamrice at 11:21 AM on August 22 [1 favorite +] [!]


Bigger coolers and block ice. I typically freeze a couple of 2 liter pop bottles (WATER). These can last three days in a well packed cooler. And no messy water runoff. Anything that can be frozen before it goes into the cooler is; Meats, pasta sauce, whatever.
posted by Gungho at 9:06 AM on August 22, 2014

I just freeze ice into 2 large flat tupperware containers to make a large ice block for the bottom of each cooler. They take a long time to freeze, but also take several days to melt. They are just slightly smaller than the bottom of my cooler, and about 4" deep. Bonus is that if our power ever goes out, I will still have a cold freezer to keep some of my meat fresh, since I leave them in my basement freezer all year round.
posted by photoexplorer at 9:49 AM on August 22, 2014

I make the concentrated sangria base at home and just carry the wine and champagne/soda water to the campground - saves space, time and mess. (If you aren't camping with sangria, then I'm not sure I'll be much help.)

Also, the girl scout trick of having everyone manage their own dishes/plates/silverware is really useful. Everything needs to be burnable fire kindling or people need to keep track of their own.
posted by 26.2 at 9:51 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yup yup yup to individual dishes. We each have a mess kit and dunk bag and each person is responsible for it. The mess kit has a bowl, plate, mug, fork, spoon, and knife, preferably in a distinctive color. The dunk bag is a mesh bag you put everything in to dry (not my photo).

People would have to come with their mess kits and dunk bags, unless you wanted to buy them as gifts and hand them out to everyone (or have a stash used each year at this event).

You can get the dunk bags at sports stores for $5, or a Girl Scouts store if there's one near you for $2.50. Or you can just use a lingerie bag. Here's an example -- I don't like the disheware because it's plastic, but you get the idea. I like enameled metal.

It works really well with big Girl Scout encamporees. I'm gradually getting my family on board with this.

Another Girl Scout idea: have a Kaper Chart. This is a list of all the jobs that need to be done at each meal, so you know what you're supposed to do and when you can sit down with your feet up guilt-free (and also this would make sure it isn't the women who do all the work). For my troop the Kapers are:
- Fire starter
- Cooks
- Hostess (makes the table look nice, basically)
- Clean up (washes everything that's used communally, including the stuff used for cooking; individuals do their own dishes).
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:13 AM on August 22, 2014

Rather than separate coolers for different meals, I'd recommend you have separate coolers for different *days.* Put extra-big blocks of ice and big frozen things in the Thursday cooler and don't go opening it on Monday (except maybe to check on the ice). Alternately or additionally keep things that REALLY need the cooler (meat, fresh dairy) from things that are nice to have cold (cheese, beer).

And if there's a river you might be able to use it to chill down the beverages without a lot of extra ice.
posted by mskyle at 10:41 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is all amazing advice! We have totally been Doing Coolers Wrong and I had no idea. Clearly I should have stuck with the Girl Scouts a little longer...
posted by chaiminda at 11:11 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

general nastiness of food being left out because there was nowhere for it to go

So, you have your coolers taken care of, now what about the food not going in coolers? We bring plastic tubs along with us when we camp. One holds cupboard food/snacks and the other holds dishes, towels, games, etc. I personally hate sweaty bread, so I make sure that bags of rolls or buns are not set out in the sun or heat. Keep them in the tub until you are dishing up. We never use real plates or bowls, paper all the time. We do use real forks and knives, as they are easy to clean.
posted by soelo at 11:20 AM on August 22, 2014

You can actually get coolers that really do keep stuff cool for a week- we got ours at Costco and found that the label boasted of its capabilities accurately. They are both bigger and better insulated than the standard Coleman. Ours has a neat extendable handle and wheels, which is great.

Seconding the block ice. We use 2-liter bottles and Costco nut containers. It lasts much longer than bagged ice cubes and there's no gross watery mess.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:47 AM on August 22, 2014

If you are cooling something for a long time, get dry ice. It will last for a very long time, and is available at most grocery stores. Be careful if you use it for any food items you need immediately, as it may be frozen solid.
posted by Diddly at 11:57 AM on August 22, 2014

Our trips have been as many as 16 people, usually four core couples plus various kids and guests. The group grows and shrinks according to staggered arrivals and departures.

There's some excellent advice above, and bondcliff has been very thorough and spot on.

For planning we've found that a Facebook group is helpful. I also host a shared Google doc meal spreadsheet. We keep each other apprised of our schedules so we know how many people to prepare for. People can claim meals and post their menu so that we don't have a lot of duplicates. Signing up for meal clean-up could work, too, but we usually just wing it. The people who cooked the meal are exempted from clean-up. Each couple brings the food for the meals they are preparing. Our biggest challenge is usually fitting all the coolers and food (and beer!) in the bear boxes.

We leave day after tomorrow for a week at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Can't wait!
posted by rekrap at 12:30 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have many tarps and lines to hang them with. Got caught in some nasty rain and hail in Tahoe a week ago, and was jealous of the large group near me who had table, kitchen area, and everything else covered. (They brought us rice and samosas, too, as I had to abandon the fire and eat in the car... thank you again, whoever you were.)
posted by bashos_frog at 1:25 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Army trick: sandwiches are easy to make and you can get really creative. Nutella, peanut (and other nuts) butter, Lotus Biscoff Spread (heavenly), etc. Bread in a sealed nylon bag can last a few days. Each campsite gets a few spreads and loaves of bread and you've pretty much dealt with lunch/snacks. Can be supplemented by going to town to get fresh veggies every few days.
posted by alon at 1:44 PM on August 22, 2014

Another Girl Scout thing: only one cooked meal per day. Breakfast can be hard boiled eggs, bagels, muffins, cereal, fruit. Lunch is sandwiches or similar. Dinner is the hot meal.

Or maybe breakfast one day is scrambled eggs and pancakes and oatmeal -- the hot meal -- and dinner is takeout pizza from some nearby town.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:56 PM on August 22, 2014

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