A granola bar and cup of instant coffee might be an easy way to start a day of camping, but it's not nearly as tasty as a stack of warm, fluffy pancakes, breakfast burritos and freshly brewed espresso.
You don't need a tricked-out kitchen to have real food in primitive surroundings. New and improved options in outdoor cooking equipment mean campers, backpackers, hunters and hikers can fix meals as delicious and varied as what they make at home.
While part of the fun of camping is leaving the trappings of home behind, getting away from it all doesn't have to mean hot dogs thrown on a grill and marshmallows roasted on a stick over a campfire.
“Eating good food is one of life's true pleasures. And just because you're camping doesn't mean you have to survive on simple food,” said Chuck Smock, spokesman for Cabela's, the Sidney, Neb.-based outdoor recreation retailer.
Omahan Shad Kuhn agrees. His campsite fare includes corn relish and chicken satay, among other things.
“I like satay. It's on a stick, easy to eat and adds variety to a camp meal,” he said.
As interest in cooking grows — thanks in part to the popularity of cooking shows, food blogs and culinary classes — many outdoor enthusiasts want to bring a mini version of their kitchen to the campground.
Manufacturers are producing a wide variety of specialized products for campsite cooking. Recent improvements have resulted in items that are lightweight and designed with space-saving features, so they're easy to pack and carry.
And you have a lot more options, including handheld toasters, cookware sets, waffle irons, foldable utensils and camp stoves and grills with multiple attachments and accessories.
One of the most versatile items is a Dutch oven, which can be used to braise, boil, roast, fry and bake all types of dishes, from stews and stroganoff to cobblers and casseroles.
These heavy cast-iron pots with lids have been around forever, but newer versions are crafted from lightweight yet durable anodized aluminum. Some are sold in sets with a smaller Dutch oven that fits inside a large one, complete with a carrying case.
They also look different.
Avid camper Scott Drawbaugh, a former Omahan who is director of merchandising for Lenexa, Kan.-based Westlake Hardware, said some Dutch ovens have gone from rough- and rustic-looking to sleek and stylish with enamel-coated exteriors in a variety of colors.
But the camp stove is the item that's evolved the most, Drawbaugh said. Gone are the days of using a rusty grate over an open fire or a heavy kerosene camp stove. Today's versions are lightweight, portable (some feature a carrying case), smaller and more fuel-efficient.
“They're compact, they fold up, they have handles,” he said. “They're easy to set up and use, and there are so many accessories now you can get for those.”
A set of cookware is another camp essential. Many feature multiple-sized pots with locking, folding handles, a cutting board and frying pan. Some have a stuff sack that holds all the items and doubles as a sink.
Cooksets start at about $50 and can run upward of $120 depending on the brand, material and size. You can find them at several area retailers, including Canfield's, Dick's Sporting Goods, Bass Pro Shops, Backwoods and Cabela's.
Smock, the Cabela's spokesman, said several of the store's most popular camp-cooking products — including the Camp Chef Outdoor Camp Oven, which looks like a mini kitchen stove with two burners and an oven — can be used not only when camping, but also for tailgating, picnics in the park and other places where ground fires aren't permitted.
While people who go car camping can fill their backseats and trunks with tons of equipment without worrying too much about size and weight, those factors become an issue when you're lugging a backpack filled with gear up a mountain.
Cooking supplies for hikers who hoof it for miles to camp in remote areas also are becoming more and more lightweight and streamlined, said Dave Stoltenberg, operations manager at Backwoods near 78th and Cass Streets.
Several companies make ultra-light, compact camp-cookware sets featuring plates, insulated mugs and nonstick pots with strainer lids in a space-saving, nesting design, so they're ideal for backcountry outings.
To boil water and cook meals, there are lightweight canister-fuel stoves (Jetboil and MSR are two widely available brands) that fold up and weigh only a few ounces. For campers craving a caffeine fix, companies such as GSI Outdoors offer portable coffee and espresso makers that can brew piping-hot beverages in about 90 seconds.
“That's for when you can't leave your Starbucks behind,” Stoltenberg said.
Outdoor enthusiast Ben Bates of Omaha goes on about 10 backpacking trips a year to Colorado and Wyoming. He brings trail mix, energy bars, instant noodles and other lightweight, nonperishable items.
Dinner is usually a freeze-dried meal (just add boiling water). His favorites include fettuccine Alfredo and chicken and rice from a company called Backpacker's Pantry. He said the meals are so good, “I would honestly eat their food at my house.”
Even so, Bates has some updated camp-cooking gear, including collapsible bowls that crumple into a ball, a super-light titanium spork, pots and pans that nest inside each other, and a Whisperlite backpacking stove.
“It folds up into basically nothing,” said Bates, an employee at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Outdoor Venture Center. The group hosts workshops and overnight trips that cover outdoor basics, including operating camp stoves, storing food and cooking meals. The OVC's next Backpacking and Orienteering Basics session is Aug. 23.
Both Kuhn and Drawbaugh recommend doing prep work for meals ahead of time.
Kuhn whips up a satay marinade using soy sauce, olive oil, garlic, scallions, cilantro, peanut butter, hot sauce, lime juice, ground ginger, salt and pepper. After marinading chicken thighs for a couple hours, he slices them into strips and threads the meat onto bamboo skewers, then cooks them for 15-20 minutes.
While his camp cuisine may be a little gourmet, he sticks to the basics when it comes to equipment.
“I try to use what is available such as a fire pit or indirect cooking by the campfire,” he said.
At home before a camping trip, Drawbaugh chops vegetables, marinates meat in resealable plastic bags, and assembles casseroles in disposable aluminum pans that can go straight on the grill at the campsite.
Though he and his family have a camper with a full kitchen, they prefer to cook on a portable gas grill because they like the fresh air, easier cleanup and company of fellow campers.
Some of his favorite camp cuisine includes barbecued ribs, smoked turkey, grilled vegetables and pizza. A store-bought pizza dough crust goes on a pizza stone that's been preheated on the grill. He then adds sauce, cheese and other toppings.
“You can really do some gourmet things,” he said. “There's really nothing I can't make.”