Camping Thanksgiving Dinner Outdoors
Celebrating holidays at a campground can make a memorable tradition for families with young kids. Many campgrounds even have special, child-friendly fall festival programming.
While cold-weather camping is of course possible with kids (especially in an RV), this post is for the families who live in warmer climates, where camping over the Thanksgiving holiday means crisp, cool autumn weather (and not piles of snow like some of our families up north are getting by November!)
I personally am conflicted about Thanksgiving. I have fond memories of Thanksgiving days growing up: eating delicious food, hanging out with cousins, and watching the parade on TV. But learning about the whitewashed history of Thanksgiving and the historical reality of colonialism and genocide make me reluctant to celebrate the holiday with much enthusiasm.
Several years ago, we decided to go camping over our kids’ Thanksgiving break, since our school district gives them the entire week off. We have never lived near family, and Thanksgiving has always been a bit boring with just our immediate family.
Neither I nor my partner find joy in cooking a big meal with only a few people to enjoy it, so opting to cook a quick and easy meal while outdoors was a great solution for us. Without the hustle and bustle of other people around, it also was a great time to read books and learn more about the indigenous communities that have lived—and continue to live—in our state of Texas.
Since we weren’t spending a lot of money on travel and fancy food, we also decided to use the saved funds to donate to indigenous-run nonprofit organizations in our state.
Camp kitchen setup
It’s best to have an adequate camp kitchen setup before you embark on cooking a large, multi-part meal. This does not have to include fancy, expensive equipment (but it can!)
Using old pots, pans, and utensils that have outlived their home kitchen life is a great way to save money and have dedicated “camping” cooking equipment. If you don’t have any at home, pick up a few cheap ones at a thrift store.
Just make sure they are sturdy enough to handle the high heat that comes with cooking over a fire or a camp stove.
As far as camp stoves go, having one with multiple burners (or a burner + a grill) is helpful for cooking multiple dishes at once, like this one from Camp Chef. If you can cook more things at once, it’s easier to enjoy a meal where all the components are hot at the same time.
This can be tricky while cooking outdoors, where low ambient temps means food cools faster and there’s no great option for a low-heat oven to keep other food warm.
While many established campgrounds have picnic tables, if you are dispersed camping, you may also want to bring along a few camping tables to cook and serve food on. Of course, if backpacking, you might just be cooking eating on the ground or a nearby rock!
Thanksgiving food when camping
Once you have the equipment ready to go, it’s time to prep the food. Here are some food options and other ideas for cooking up a “traditional” Thanksgiving meal on the trail or at a campground:
Turkey or ham
Meat might be one of the trickier foods to bring along for a camping trip, especially if you are backpacking and do not have access to a cooler.
If car camping, you can bring a cooler to keep pre-cooked meat slices cold until it’s time to eat. Depending on preferences, this could be lunch-meat turkey and ham slices. Most grocery stores around Thanksgiving also sell pre-cooked and pre-sliced turkey breasts and small hams, which are easy to throw in a cooler and bring out for dinner.
For the ambitious holiday backpackers, an option might be chicken packets that do not need to be refrigerated. Turkey jerky could be a lightweight and flavorful addition to a backpacking meal too. For a vegetarian option while car camping, try ToFurky or make these baked sweet potatoes with chickpeas over the fire.
Instant stuffing is a great backpacking or car camping meal even when it’s not Thanksgiving! It cooks up nice and fluffy with boiled water, which makes it ideal for backpackers. We like the Stovetop brand and it is easy to find, but Trader Joe’s also makes a great cornbread stuffing instant mix.
Another Thanksgiving staple side dish that is an easy one to make while camping is dehydrated potatoes, which are easy to find, cheap, and filling! We like the Idahoan brand, which cook up super simply with boiled water and do not need a lot of extra butter and salt.
If buying in the packets, make sure to bring enough: we usually eat 2-3 packets for our family of 5. Instant mashed potatoes are easy to find in almost every grocery store, and you can even purchase them in bulk at Costco.
If you don’t like instant mashed potatoes, another option available at Trader Joe’s is frozen mashed potatoes. You can put them in your cooler as an ice alternative to keep other things cold. You’ll just want to make sure they don’t get TOO thawed and mushy before you prepare them.
We used those on our last Thanksgiving camping meal, and they were delicious.
Bring along some shelf-stable boxes of turkey gravy, that is ready to eat once warmed, removing the prep work of cooking gravy over a finicky camp stove.
Sweet potatoes cook up beautifully in the coals of a campfire—top with butter and marshmallows for my personal favorite Southern-style Thanksgiving dish.
Cranberry sauce is easy to find in cans, but we love the refrigerated, fresh variety found at places like Trader Joe’s. Bonus: it comes in a plastic, reusable container that is easy to store back in the cooler if there are leftovers. If backpacking, you could even bring along dried cranberries to add that little kick of sweet and sour flavor to your meal.
We like to bring along pumpkin and pecan mini pies, which makes it easier to dole out to kids without the mess of slicing and the extra plates. You could buy these store-bought or make them homemade — just bake ahead of time and bring them along on the trip.
If it’s cold, a pumpkin-pie hot chocolate is a delicious and warming treat for post-dinner. You can make it homemade with real pumpkin puree, or bring along packets from Swiss Miss. If you are car camping, don’t forget to throw a can of whipped cream into the cooler!
With the pumpkin spice craze, you can also even find pumpkin-spiced marshmallows to roast over the fire or add to your hot drink. The pumpkin-spice possibilities are seemingly endless these days!
A New Thanksgiving Tradition
Whether you cook Thanksgiving dinner over the fire, on a camp stove, or as a one-bowl backpacking meal, you can make it an easy, stress-free way to enjoy some traditional flavors and dishes without a lot of extra work stuck indoors in a kitchen.
How to have Thanksgiving Dinner While Camping
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