Camp Food Goes Gourmet

  • Heidelmeyer seals the beans in glass jars. Photo: Hal B. Klein

  • John Heidelmeyer chops a tomato for his camping stew. Photo: Hal B. Klein

July 13, 2013

Camping food doesn’t need to mean hot dogs, baked beans from a can, or dehydrated packets of soup. The campground can also be a place for gourmet dishes elevated by ingredients found right in the woods near your campsite.

John Heidelmeyer, a chef and carpenter, stirs a simmering pot of pinto beans in his Pittsburgh apartment. Roughly chopped bacon sizzles in the cast-iron frying pan on the next burner. He’s preparing for an upcoming camping trip; he’ll ride his bike for several days through the PA wilderness.

"Camping, hiking, you burn 4,000 calories in a day. You want a hearty meal that’s going to satisfy you," he says.

He adds that it’s time to leave processed food at home because, with just a little bit of work, campers can have full-flavored, healthy meals that are both tasty and thrifty.

"I’m doing the simplest thing, and it’s something I’ve done when I’m hard up for cash," he says as he chops a white onion for his stew. "I’ve just got a bunch of vegetables here with me from the farmers’ market, probably ten bucks worth of stuff. I’ve got a couple of ears of corn, a couple onions, one heirloom tomato, and some cheap bacon. And I’ve got a bag of beans. And all of that cooked nicely, cooked slowly, with some water and some chili powder or something, that’s a nice meal. That’s something that can sustain you for some time."

Delicious and nutritious camping food isn’t just limited to what you bring with you. Heidelmeyer says that—just about any time of the year except for deep winter—sustenance can be found right beside you on the trails and in the woods of western Pennsylvania. In the early spring there are nettles and wild greens that cook just like spinach. Now, as we hit the height of summer, the natural environment produces a veritable salad mix for hungry campers.

"Right now there’s purslane, there’s chickweed, there’s lambsquarters. There’s all kinds of stuff out there that you can get," Heidelmeyer says.

There’s also a parade of fruit. First there were mulberries, and now blueberries, raspberries and currants. And it won’t be too long before plum, peach, and nectarine trees are producing fruit. But Heidelmeyer’s prized finds are closer to the ground.

"You typically find pretty good mushrooms in the spring; it’s a great season for morels. Later on in the summer you’ll see big pom-pom mushrooms in meadows. It’s kind of like a giant white balloon—that’s a safe mushroom to forage because you can’t really mistake anything for it," he says.

However, for the inexperienced forager, there’s certainly a risk of getting sick—or worse—if you don’t know what you’re looking for. So you probably want to err on the side of caution, and, when in doubt, avoid anything you’re unsure about eating. There are a number of foraging books available with photos or illustrations so you can easily identify plants.

As Heidelmeyer pours his home-cooked stew into pint-sized glass jars, he says that once you begin to learn about the edible, natural world surrounding your campsite, you’ll truly be getting back to nature.

"I’ve always felt like if I go to the grocery store and buy stuff for burgers and bags of chips or whatever and stuff them in my saddlebags and take it with me, it’s not quite as rewarding an experience."

For Heidelmeyer, who also adds protein to his backpacking diet by fishing, the next step is to really get in touch with nature.

"I’m also a bow hunter. My eventual goal, which is maybe a little bit ridiculous, but maybe doable, too, is to ride out somewhere with my bike, take a hunting trip, bag a deer, and then subsist on that for a week or two," he says.