15 Tips for Cooking Thanksgiving While Camping

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If you’re thinking about spending Thanksgiving around a campfire this year, we have some tips to make your outdoor turkey day a success!

A plate filled with meatballs, brussels sprouts, and sweet potatoes on a table surrounded by serving dishes

While many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving by cramming as many extended relatives as they can into a single room, some campers prefer to enjoy Thanksgiving in the expansive space of the great outdoors. We’ll let you judge which scenario sounds crazier.

We have cooked for large groups while camping before, and it has always been a blast. We even celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving one year while camping with friends in Banff National Park in Alberta.

But, Thanksgiving is no ordinary meal, and there are definitely some logistical challenges that come along with preparing a large group meal… at a campground…in late November.

So, if you’re thinking about bucking tradition (or starting a new tradition) and going camping for Thanksgiving this year, we hope that these tips help your meal come together without a hitch.

We’ve also included a bunch of great camp-friendly Thanksgiving recipes at the end of this post to help you start planning your menu!

Friends sitting around a campfire

If hosting Thanksgiving at a campground is totally out of the question for your family (which, honestly, is totally understandable) consider hosting an outdoors Friendsgiving. While you can’t choose your family, you can choose your friends – and hopefully, those friends like to camp as much as you do.

 

Tips for cooking Thanksgiving while camping

We cover a lot of general tips about shoulder-season camping in our Fall Camping guide, which is well worth checking out if you’re doing a Thanksgiving camping trip. But below we share the most important tips as they relate to hosting a Campsgiving.

Make a campground reservation

If you are planning on camping over Thanksgiving weekend, you will absolutely want to make a reservation. While campsites are generally easier to get after in the fall, Thanksgiving weekend is an exception. 

Many campgrounds start to close up for winter (reducing the available supply), while motivated long weekend campers are looking for the last big outing of the season (increasing the demand).

Packing and planning 

Of all the camping trips you do this year, this is not the one to forget something critical like the can opener! Make sure you have everything you need by using a checklist.

We have a great car camping checklist that we use for every trip we make. Download it, save it, print it out, and check off each item one at a time as you pack.

Check the Weather Forecast 

A day or two before your camping trip, check the forecast. If there’s even the slightest chance it might rain, you’re going to want to bring a pop-up canopy or rain tarp. You may even want to bring along a Weber grill to cook on, as rain and campfires don’t make for a good mix. 

If it’s going to be cold, bring extra wood to make sure you have enough firewood to keep the campfire going all day long. Additionally, if you’re cooking using a propane camp stove, bring extra fuel. You will use more fuel when it’s cold out than you did in the summer.

Keep Your Ambitions In Check

Everyone wants to swing for the fences on Thanksgiving, but even simple tasks can be more difficult when you are camping, so it’s best to temper your expectations.

We believe a simple, well-prepared meal is far more impressive than any high-stakes, high-production meal. So forget the elaborate plate settings, the deep-fried Turducken, and a baked-from-scratch apple pie. Keep it simple.

Michael holding a stuffed squash on a plate

Downplay the turkey, maximize the sides

Attempting to roast an entire turkey at a campsite is a fool’s folly. It’s a high-stakes endeavor at home, never mind at a campsite, where you will have far fewer tools to control the process. Besides, what are you going to do with all those leftovers? 

That’s why we suggest focusing on the sides, which have a much higher effort-to-reward ratio. 

Turkey can still be a part of the menu, but there are plenty of ways to incorporate it without subjecting yourself to the crucible of trying to cook a massive bird at a campsite. Check out our turkey & stuffing squash bowl or Thanksgiving meatballs

Prep What You Can At Home

While this might feel like cheating, the more you can do in the comfort of a home kitchen, the better your overall experience will be at the campsite. 

Pre-measure and pre-chop anything you can. If you’re marinating anything, get it started the night before. Baking a pumpkin pie? Do it in the oven at home and reheat at the campsite. Essentially, anything that can be done in advance, should be done in advance.

Read up on how to pack a cooler so you can safely transport all your prepped and pre-made dishes to your campsite.

Plan on Arriving Early 

It gets darker so much faster in late November than it did in the summer, so plan on arriving at your campsite as early as possible. And while it can be nice to hang out at the campsite after dark—especially if you have a cozy campfire, good lighting, and warm puffy jacket—you don’t want to be setting up in the dark. 

So pack the car the night before and make an early start of it, because you will want to make the most of what precious few daylight hours you have.

Megan cooking at a picnic table. There is a camp scene and fall colors in the background

Setting Up & Getting Organized 

Resist the urge to jump right in and start cooking the moment you get to your site. Yes, you do want to get a jump on things early, but taking a few moments to get yourself set up can go a long way to reducing stress and chaos later. Here are some tips to help get organized and prep the space. 

Campfire

If you are planning on cooking over a campfire, get this started. The most frequent reason why our meals run late is that we underestimated how long it takes to get the fire built up and then burnt down to usable embers. We highly recommend using a combination of wood and charcoal to speed this process up. 

Establish your cooking area

Decide where you want your cooking area to be. In an ideal world, it’s great if that isn’t on the same picnic table you’re planning on using for serving everyone. A dedicated camp kitchen or even just an extra folding camp table can really expand your cooking space. 

Set the scene (and table)

Nearly every established campsite comes with a picnic table, which is ideal for serving about 8, maybe 10 people. A table cloth can go a long way to class up an otherwise weather-worn table. Pine cones can make a nice centerpiece. Tabletop lanterns (ideally that shoot light downwards) are nice for illumination. And if it’s going to be chilly out, a few blankets can make chilly bench seats feel really cozy. 

Tip: All the “setting the table” tasks are great “delegate to somebody else” work. 

Dishes

Make a plan for where dirty dishes are going to go. A big oversized plastic bin can double as a sink, or be sealed up and brought back home to be dealt with later.

Also, if there is any meal where you would be 100% justified in using compostable paper plates—this is it! Do it and save yourself a tremendous amount of post-dinner hassle.

Two people holding their hands over a campfire

Light Your Campsite 

The best way to prolong the magic into the evening is with a roaring campfire and plenty of lights. 

Campfire: Not only is having a campfire the best outdoor heat source, but it also provides that romantic, shimmering glow. 

Twinkle lights: These LED twinkle lights come on a long line and can be strung up between branches, in the top of a pop-up canopy, or wrapped around a tree. They do need to be plugged in, which we handle with our Jackery camping battery.

Battery-powered fairy lights: These fairy lights are great to have loosely strewn about the middle of the table. They are powered by AA batteries and give off a nice ambient light.

Lanterns: Lanterns are great, but you will want to find some way to hang them above where you are sitting. Otherwise, they will be shining light straight into your eyes. 

Headlamps: There is no substitute for the hands-free, directional, task lighting of a headlamp.  If you’re cooking or washing up dishes, a headlamp is ideal. 

Friends at a campsite one person is putting a log onto the campfire
Delegate tasks: While a few people prep the food, someone else can be in charge of keeping up the fire.

Don’t Try To “Host” Thanksgiving Dinner 

This was our biggest mistake during our first Thanksgiving camping trip. While you might want to play the role of host, it’s much better to get people involved!

Organizing a potluck-style Thanksgiving is a great way to distribute the responsibilities and is well worth a few group texts to sort out who is bringing what.

When you’re at the campsite, be sure to delegate tasks like cutting vegetables, splitting wood, tending to a pot, or making cocktails. 

Wherever you can, encourage crowd participation. People naturally want to help out while cooking, so let them be a part of the process!

Michael crouched next to a campfire stirring food in a Dutch oven

Start Cooking Early

When you’re outside, everything takes longer than expected. It’s an unfamiliar setting, the equipment is less than ideal, and everything is liable to be misplaced. Plus, now that the clocks have been rolled back, it starts getting darker (and colder) a whole lot faster than you’d expect.

So get the fire started early and give yourself plenty of daylight to start cooking. Use your weather app to determine the time of sunset in your location, and then plan out your meal accordingly.

Megan putting a lid on top of a green insulated bowl
Containers with lids–like this insulated bowl–will help keep your sides warm

How to Keep Your Food Warm

Attempting to serve a hot meal when the outside air is well below room temperature is a challenge. Everything cools much more rapidly than it would at home. Thankfully there are a few tricks you can employ to ensure everything is piping hot when the dinner bell rings. 

Keep Things Covered: Heat rises. Anything warm that is uncovered is losing a ton of heat right out the top. So whenever possible cover your cooked food with a lid or aluminum foil. 

Cast Iron Cookware/Serveware: Cast iron skillets and pots do a great job of retaining heat. They are great for cooking over a campfire or camp stove.  And if placed on an insulated trivet they also make great serving dishes–all while keeping the food warm for an extended period of time. 

Campfire backburner: If you have a campfire with an adjustable grill grate (standard at many campgrounds), the best way to keep things warm is to create a low heat, warming zone. This is a great place to “hold” items while other parts of the meal are finished. 

Insulated Drinkware: Want to enjoy a warm hot toddy? Or perhaps some mulled wine? The best way to keep your warm beverage warm is with insulated drinkware

Insulated bowls: While these might be a little spendy to be used for everyone’s place setting, these insulated bowls from Hydroflask are incredible. We find them to be particularly useful as serving dishes. They come with a sealable lid that really traps the heat. 

Use an extra cooler to keep things warm: A cooler is just a big insulated box and will keep things warm just as well as it keeps things cold. Fill up a few Nalgene bottles with boiling water (or any other sealable container that can handle hot water) and place them in a cooler instead of ice. 

Michael holding a mug and warming his hands over a campfire

Warm Drinks Are The Best Appetizers

This works for both indoor and outdoor Thanksgiving. Whether it’s hot chocolate, mulled wine, hot apple cider, a hot toddy, or spiked pumpkin chai, sipping on a warm drink is a great way to get into the holiday spirit while staying warm. We’d suggest preparing a big pot like a party punch bowl and just let it simmer over the fire.

Megan carrying a Dutch oven full of apple cobbler

Easy To Assemble Dessert

After cooking an entire meal outside, attempting to prepare an elaborate dessert requires an absolutely herculean effort. The best option is to make your dessert ahead of time and just reheat it at the campsite.

But if you’re set on making something on location, we have a few easy to assemble desserts you can try. A no-bake crisp is great if you’re using a camp stove, or if you have a Dutch oven and already have a campfire going, you can try this pretty easy, mostly hands-off Dutch Oven Apple Cobbler.

Have A Plan For Dishwashing & Leftovers 

Cooking for a group can be stressful enough, never mind worrying about the pile of dishes you need to wash in the dark after it’s all said and done.

Bring resealable containers for leftovers

One of the best parts of Thanksgiving at home is all the leftovers, but if you don’t have anywhere to store them, camping leftovers can be a major hassle. So think ahead and pack some extra containers that you can store in your cooler. Bring along your pie iron and you can make leftovers pie iron sandwiches for lunch the next day!

Make a plan to handle dishwashing

Even if you did yourself a massive solid by using compostable paper plates for dishware, you will still need to deal with all the serving dishes, silverware, and cookware. Below is a good order of operations to follow. 

  • Wipe or scrape all solid food scraps into the trash. By using a few sacrificial paper towels here you can save yourself a lot of mess later. 
  • Explore if your campsite has a dishwashing station. Many don’t, but if it does. Use it! It’s going to be the best option by far. 
  • Recruit or conscript “volunteers”—unpleasant tasks are always more enjoyable when shared with others. 
  • If no dishwashing station is present, heat up a large pot of water over the stove or campfire. Not only does using warm water make cleaning up much easier, but it adds a slight bit of enjoyment to an undesirable task. 
  • You will need two large basins: a washbasin, and a rinse basin. Fill up both a quarter of the way with boiling water and cut with cold water until it’s tolerable to have your hands in it (but keep it as hot as possible). Use biodegradable soap for the wash basin.
  • Somebody washes, somebody rinses, and somebody dries (or you can air dry with a rack). This keeps things moving and makes the most of the rapidly cooling hot water. 
  • When complete, investigate if there is a waste-water basin at your campground. If not, pour the dirty wash water through a mesh strainer into the rinse basin—separating all solids and dumping them in the trash. 
  • Broadcast—aka fling—your greywater across as broad an area as possible. Staying at least 200 ft away from natural water sources like a river or lake. 

Sample Camping Thanksgiving Menus

Below we have included three different Thanksgiving menu options, each one is tailored for group size, style of camping, and ambition level. 

Sample Menu #1: The Whole Kit & Caboodle 

This menu is great for a group of four (or two with leftovers!) and features basically all the flavors that you’d expect out of a classic Thanksgiving feast.

Sample Menu #2: Mellow Thanksgiving for Two

If you’ve escaped the big family meal for a relaxing weekend with your partner or a friend, here’s a simplified menu for two. We’ve included both a turkey and a vegetarian main for you to choose from.

–OR–

Overhead view of a bowl of acorn squash risotto

Squash & Mushroom Risotto (vegetarian main option)

Sample Menu #3: Miles from Anywhere

Brave enough to try a Thanksgiving backpacking trip? If so, here’s a lightweight backpacking Thanksgiving feast!

Other Thanksgiving-inspired recipes

 

This post was first published on 11/12/2015 and was updated in 2021 to include additional recipes.

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14 Comments

  1. Haven’t been Thanksgiving camping yet but are getting prepared. Last year, we bought a Rocket Roaster and tried it out by cooking about a 12 pound turkey using charcoal and it only took about 2 1/2 hours and it came out great. For our large family, if I can get them to go Thanksgiving camping, we could buy a second roaster and get 2-12 pound birds and be set.

    1. That’s awesome! Never heard of the Rocket Roaster, but it sure would be impressive to road a whole turkey over the campfire.

      Hope you have a great holiday this year!

  2. I love this post, I could have used these tips 3 years ago! My boyfriend and I celebrated Thanksgiving that year while we were on a road trip in Australia. With no turkey, no pumpkin stuff, or other “typical” Thanksgiving items… we made do with what we had access to. Rotisserie chicken, instant mashed potatoes and gravy, a can of mixed veggies, some pre-made rolls, and for desert banana bread and orange juice (big splurges!). We settled on a spot to eat and it turned out to be so buggy!! So instead of packing everything up and moving spots we set-up our “table” under a mosquito net and started dinner. It was by far the most unique Thanksgiving I have had but also one of my most special ones. We took the time to go back and forth and say what we were thankful for. It was really unforgettable. I think what helped me most that day was to not get worried about things you are “supposed” to have on Thanksgiving, just be happy and grateful for what you have access to! Even if it is something you might not typically eat, any meal can be a Thanksgiving meal! Also, be sure to pick a spot with less bugs than we did… haha

    1. What a special experience for you and your boyfriend! It’s so important to stop and take time to remember what’s important… not the food or the party, but sharing a moment with a loved one, even if it’s a buggy moment! (or cold and rainy in our case) Thanks for sharing!

  3. Perfect! My girlfriend and I are going to be yurt camping at Ridgway State Park in CO for Thanksgiving! I plan on doing a bunch of sides, some thick sliced already cooked turkey breast, and bootleg-smoking a couple turkey legs. Perfect post! Thanks!

    1. Yurt camping sounds like the perfect way to spend Thanksgiving! I bet that smoked turkey will be awesome. Have a great trip!

  4. For years we have celebrated Thanksgiving outdoors. I cook turkey in a modified canning pot. After punching holes about an inch from the bottom of the pot, simply layer charcoal on the bottom and place tinfoil wrapped turkey, neck down on top of charcoal. Even a large turkey that protrudes way over the top of the ‘cooker’ will cook. Test with thermometer. Usually take as long as in a traditional oven.

  5. Sean Spence says:

    Hi,
    This video shows a great, easy way to cook a turkey while camping

    https://youtu.be/dylY–LmvP8

    We have used it several times for group camping trips. Give it a go. Every thing you need stores flat in a leaf bag. You can put it below all your normally packed camping equipment .

  6. We have celebrated “Vansgiving” the last couple of years. We invite our local van community and a spot out in the woods, everyone brings one or two dishes and one couple even brought their deep fryer and mini smoker for the turkey! It turns out great every year! I do agree to prepare as much as possible before you arrive and simplify recipes especially with no access to an oven. It is my favorite tradition. I wrote about last year’s gathering on our blog: https://vanwives.wordpress.com

    1. That sounds like a great event, Liz! It’s so nice to be able to spread the food prep among a bunch of different people. I think everyone is a little more relaxed since it all comes together a little easier and it feels sooo much less like a “high stakes” event.

      Smoked turkey is the best! We had a smoked vs deep-fried turkey cook-off last year, and while the crispy skin of the deep-fried turkey was no contest, the flavor of the smoked turkey couldn’t be beat.

      Hope you have a wonderful Vansgiving this year!

      -Megan

  7. I love these recipes! My boyfriend and I sold our house and moved into our rv 2 years ago and these are great for the rv life! Thank you 🙂