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Thanksgiving is a pretty predictable holiday. Call it tradition, but sometimes that predictability means dried turkey, questionable Jell-O molds, and tense moments with loved ones. What if, instead, you shook up the menu and the venue and took advantage of that long weekend for a Thanksgiving camping trip?
Start a New Tradition with a Thanksgiving Camping Feast
You can find a cornucopia of campgrounds, state parks, and national parks that offer Thanksgiving buffets and special holiday meals. It can also be fun to pack in your own meal and do a potluck Thanksgiving of your own, incorporating some of your at-home Thanksgiving traditions. As long as you have the best backpack cooler and can start a fire, you can manage a spectacular woodland holiday.
We asked The Dyrt campers who have enjoyed Thanksgiving camping trips in the past for their top tips, tricks, and recipes for hosting a memorable and delicious outdoor feast.
Where to Host Your Own Thanksgiving Camping Celebration
First off, you’ll want to find a campsite or group camp that can accommodate the size of your party and provide all the amenities you need to prep the feast. For example, spots like The Appalachian Clubhouse in Great Smoky Mountains National Park or Milo McIver State Park have group facilities that can accommodate a crowd and even have counter space, big sinks with running water, and electricity. There isn’t a stove or cooktop at these locations (as is the case for most campgrounds, even with group amenities) meaning you’ll either need to pre-prepare dishes and bring along your crockpots or get ready to grill.
Others like Thielsen Forest Camp lack kitchen facilities, but would be great for car campers with cast iron cookware, thanks to their beautifully built stone stoves with fireboxes and griddles. If you want to cook everything on site, look for cabins in your area that have propane stoves included in their kitchens, like the Polk Cabin in Tongass National Forest, or ones that have fully finished kitchens with all the utensils, like Sulphur Springs Camp in Texas.
It goes without saying, of course, that the more specific your needs, the further in advance you should make your reservation. Popular campgrounds plus holidays can equal competition for the best spots.
What To Cook For Your Thanksgiving Camping Adventure
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Everyone has their own Thanksgiving necessities, of course, from seasonal pumpkin pies to regional favorites like oyster stuffing. And you shouldn’t have to skip the dishes you love just because you’re camping.
If you can’t figure out how to make a particular favorite in the woods, see if it’s something you can pre-make and pack in or partially prep and finish on site. Pies, twice-baked potatoes, and broccoli casserole, for example, are all great dishes to make ahead and bring along—especially if your party is potluck style.
Other dishes lend themselves beautifully to an outdoor kitchen—root vegetables are easily roasted in the coals of your campfire, meats can be grilled or smoked, and campfire mac and cheese is in a class by itself.
With a little planning, the biggest question won’t be what to make, but how to pack a cooler with all the delicious goodies you’ve prepared. We recommend something like the IceMule Pro XX which holds 40 liters of food or drink favorites, and keeps them cold for over 24 hours. You won’t have to worry about perishable ingredients, dishes, or leftovers—even if you don’t have access to a refrigerator.
Here’s how four campers from The Dyrt approached their Thanksgiving camping feasts:
Chanel C.’s Campfire Turkey Meatballs, Mashed Potatoes, and Sweet Potato S’mores
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The Dyrt camper Chanel C. says it’s an absolute “must” to have mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. To save time and fuel, though, she cooks the potatoes at home. When she arrives at camp, she peels off the skin and reboils them so they’re hot and ready to be mashed.
“I serve it with a side of foil-wrapped green beans (make a boat, add some evoo, salt & pepper, and some parmesan) and turkey meatballs + gravy. Again, to save time and fuel at camp, I pre-cook the turkey meatballs so that it keeps better and reheat it at camp. For gravy, I use McCormicks Turkey Gravy Mix. It’s easier than making from scratch at camp, and I just make it my own by adding mushrooms in the mix.”
For dessert, she says she loves “making a foil-wrapped sweet potato casserole over a fire pit grill! I top it off with marshmallows, semi-sweet dark chocolate chips, sea salt, and a light dusting of graham cracker crumbs—a homage to the s’more!”
Krista Z. Keeps Thanksgiving Camping Super Simple
The Dyrt camper Krista Z. embraces the simplest way to enjoy a turkey dinner on the trail— the Homestyle Turkey Dinner from Mountain House. The Mountain House meal includes turkey, stuffing, harvest vegetables and “familiar Thanksgiving spices.” It’s a Thanksgiving meal that’s simple and portable enough to take into the backcountry.
If you’re sticking closer to home, you can follow Krista’s lead and bring some side dishes to enjoy alongside your Mountain House main course. Krista plans to round out her menu with deviled eggs and cranberry sauce.
Throw in Mountain House’s Freeze Dried Apple Crisp and you’ll even have a substitute for grandma’s pie.
Melissa K.’s Smoky Campground Feast
The Dyrt camper Melissa K. hasn’t tried Thanksgiving camping yet, but hopes to one day. Nevertheless, she has some tried and true campground cooking techniques that would translate perfectly to a Thanksgiving feast.
“We’ve smoked a pork butt while camping and a turkey would be no different,” Melissa writes. “We hauled our smoker along but I imagine a Dutch oven could do it justice as well.” Whatever technique you use— whether it’s a smoker, a Dutch oven, a spit, etc.— bring along a meat thermometer. It’s lightweight, won’t take up much room, and will help you know when your bird is safe to eat.
In addition to smoked meats, Melissa recommends using a Dutch oven to slowly bake smokey barbecue beans. If you have leftovers, you can use that same oven to cook up a batch of potatoes or biscuits and turn the extra beans and meat into a delicious breakfast hash or an open-faced breakfast sandwich. It’ll put all those turkey sandwiches you’ve made from leftovers in the past to shame.
Shari G.’s Vegetarian Thanksgiving Camping Spread
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The Dyrt camper Shari G. and her husband, Hutch, have been vegetarians for over 20 years, so they’re no strangers to a Thanksgiving dinner sans turkey. “We don’t skip the special flavor, texture, variety, or protein just because we choose to go meatless,” says Shari. She prepares a drool-worthy spread with plant-based side dishes like roasted Brussels sprouts with grape tomatoes and balsamic reduction, mashed potatoes with cremini mushroom gravy, cornbread stuffing with dried cranberries and pecans, and apple pecan cobbler.
The prize winner of the holiday meal is her main dish—veggie stuffed wreath with soysauge. “This recipe was adapted from the Pampered Chef catalog in Fall/Winter 2000. What was once an experiment to get our family to try a vegetarian main dish for Thanksgiving, has become a hit among our family members! They now request the ‘veggie wreath’ every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most people don’t even realize it’s meatless and it reduces the need for rolls because they are already part of the wreath.”
Shari and Hutch live on the road full-time, so they’re seasoned campground cooks. They have a comprehensive list of camping kitchen hacks to help your next camp cooking adventure.