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My son is a Boy Scout. The saying is “boy-led, adult-managed.” This roughly means boys do all the work, but adults keep them safe. One weekend, I received a voicemail on my cell phone but didn’t notice and check it until around bedtime on Monday. My son was asked to teach the other Scouts about outdoor cooking in winter while camping as part of the Tuesday meeting – when he was already scheduled to be in a concert.
Since I didn’t want all the boys to suffer because of this, I did his work for him, but had a conversation with him and the Assistant Senior Patrol Leader (who didn’t confirm he could do this) to point out where it went wrong.
While you may not ever plan on doing winter camping, it’s still worth thinking about so you can be prepared if you had to.
The Basic Rule for Outdoor Cooking in Winter
The basic rule for wintertime camp cooking is: quick and easy to prepare (and clean up), but packs lots of healthy calories.
I mean if you really want to go all fancy and gourmet, you can. But as this is a preparedness site, our focus is on meals that provide plenty of nourishing calories for us to burn in survival situations where it’s also cold. We’ll elaborate on that as we talk about planning our menu next.
Decide how many meals you’ll need and then decide what those meals will be and when you’ll eat them. There are three keys to a winter menu:
- It should be warm.
- It should have lots of calories.
- Prep and cleanup should be fast and easy.
Warm is easy enough to understand. If your body or the air around it is cold, warm food helps keep it closer to the 98.6° of a healthy body. Cold food lowers your temperature.
That’s why it’s not a good idea to eat snow for fluids in a survival situation: You risk making your core body temperature dangerously low. If you melt it first, it’s warmer – and safer. Better still, boil it and have a hot drink like coffee, tea, or chocolate, if you have them on hand.
High calorie may not be as obvious, especially in a culture where we are always being told to watch our calories, cut calories, etc. The simple fact is that our body expends calories to keep itself warm when it’s cold outside. We need calories to burn to stay warm.
Quick and easy prep and cleanup
In addition, easy/fast-to-make foods are best so you don’t have to spend a lot of time outside of your shelter cooking and ensuring faster clean up.
Think about it this way: When it’s freezing outside, how long do you want to be outside with your hands in a dishpan full of water? Every pot/pan/utensil you can eliminate in cooking is one you eliminate in cleaning. One-pot dishes and foil-wrapped meals are terrific options!
Prepping the meals BEFORE you leave
Don’t start meal preparation on your campout. Anything you can do prior to leaving, do so. For example, cut everything you can before you ever leave. The principle is that if something needs to be done and you can do it in the comfort and warmth of your home, that’s where to do it!
Don’t forget to drink and stay hydrated.
The University of Minnesota-Duluth (where it gets VERY cold) recommends the following winter camping nutrition: 50% carbohydrates – breads and pastas; 30% fats and oils; and 20% protein. Your body converts carbohydrates into energy, and heat, very quickly and easily. The fats and oils allow you to produce body heat over a longer period of time. The protein helps with hunger and repairing damaged or stressed muscles.
These are fast-to-make, kid-friendly meals quite suitable for outdoor cooking in winter:
- Easy Mac or Ramen
- Hot dogs
- Most things in a Dutch oven
Choosing a fuel – and stove
There are a variety of fuels and stoves available, as discussed (briefly) below.
Whatever type of fuel you use, you’re going to need more of it in cold weather. If you only plan for a similar amount as you would use in summer, you could run out.
- Kerosene is inexpensive, isn’t explosive, and stores energy densely. However, it tends to be smoky and has a distinctive odor when it burns.
- Multi-fuel stoves do exactly what it sounds like: they can use multiple different fuels. The true advantage to these is that if you are traveling with another person who has their own stove fuel, it is possible to use some of theirs if needed.
- Propane comes in gas canisters and is readily available not just at camping stores but at places like Target and Walmart. The canister simply screws onto the stove or grill. Propane doesn’t become unusable until -44 degrees; most of us will probably avoid cooking outside in those temps if we can.
- White gas is an odorless, liquid petroleum-based fuel. It is also known as Naptha, camp fuel, or Coleman fuel, after the company that first popularized it. It is easy to find, packs a lot of energy in a small space, and can be used at any temperature. It is also explosive and potentially messy because it needs to be poured into the stove or another container, particularly for multi-fuel stoves.
- Wood is a traditional fuel but isn’t always available. If there is a lot of wood near where you might use the stove, including near your home (emergencies happen there too), then a stove that uses wood may a good choice.
Some camp stoves are multi-fuel, allowing you to choose whatever fuel you want, but others only use one fuel. Be sure to choose a stove that meets your need.
Here are three possible cooking options. You can review more off-grid cooking methods here.
My newest toy is a collapsible rocket stove. This is too heavy to use for backpacking, but rocket stoves in general are very efficient in their fuel use. In addition, you can add some insulation (dirt, for example) around the bottom on the inside of the stove to decrease your cook time a little bit more. Just be sure not to block the airflow or cover the fire.
I love a solar oven as much as the next prepper, but the farther north you are, the lower the angle of the sun’s rays in the winter – and the more time it takes to cook. If you want to put something in there and leave it in a sunny spot all day (assuming you can find one in the winter), that may work great for you. However, for most of us, a sun oven won’t be the first choice for winter cooking.
A campfire is the classic, of course, but it also takes time to get a good cooking fire going. You may also need coals, not a full-on campfire, for your cooking, which will require even longer. Dutch ovens almost always require coals, not a fire, but don’t require a lot of babysitting. That means the cook can go into a shelter while it cooks more easily. Food that is grilled or otherwise cooked directly over the fire needs constant tending, which means the cook(s) can’t go into a shelter.
Protecting your cooksite
Be smart about where you put your cook site. Here are some things to consider in your selection of the area:
- Conditions change as temperatures change. Damp leaves will quickly become dry leaves (tinder) and snow will be water once the fire starts, so be sure to clear the area around the campfire. As the day (or possibly night) warms up, other snow will melt. Don’t put a campfire where snow melt will flow over it, or leave a camp stove somewhere it can easily fall over as the ground under it thaws.
- Someone will need to stay near the fire to tend it. Pick a sheltered location so they aren’t freezing and the fire isn’t in danger of being blown out by wind. (Even if your stove uses propane, Naptha, or another fuel, there is a good chance it has a flame that can be blown out.) It is also important to finish cooking before sundown, if at all possible. Clean up is faster and easier in daylight.
- Find a way to insulate or generally shelter your cook site from the cold, wet, and wind. Life will be more pleasant for the cooks and help speed up cooking time by keeping the stove hotter, longer.
A Few Last Tips for Outdoor Cooking in Winter
- Food takes longer to cook in cold weather, so account for the additional time. Also, plan to use a lid.
- In freezing temps, pour water into a pot the night before. It will be easier to heat than from whatever plastic container it was in.
- Use an insulated cooler to keep food from freezing, unless of course, you want it frozen.
- Towels freeze. Use paper towels instead.
- Whoever washes dishes should wear gloves to protect their hands, especially if it’s windy.
What experiences have you had cooking outdoors in winter?
Parts of this are excerpted from Liz Long’s forthcoming book “Survival Skills for All Ages #3: 26 Outdoor and Wilderness Survival Skills”.
Originally published January 23, 2016; updated and revised by Team Survival Mom editors.