If you’re thinking about spending Thanksgiving around a campfire this year, we have some tips to make your outdoor turkey day a success!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Maple Grilled Tempeh (vegan)
- Cast Iron Butternut Squash
- Dutch Oven Mac & Cheese
- Apple Fennel Stuffing
- Ginger Apple Cider
This post was first published on 11/12/2015 and was updated in 2021 to include additional recipes.