“What’s for dinner?” I asked my van-dwelling friend while we set up camp in the desert around Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas.
“I don’t know,” he responded while brandishing an armful of highly processed boxed dinners, canned beans, and a half-eaten package of deli ham.
I balked, and he noticed.
“I’ll cook us dinner tonight,” I offered, and began digging through my cooler exploding with fresh kale, cheese, hummus, and those tiny cherry-sized tomatoes that burst seeds into your mouth.
Camping culture has created this notion that when we’re out in the backcountry, we have to survive on dehydrated meals and granola bars. For many years, I fell victim to this notion too—that my healthy eating habits had to go on hold when I hit the road. There was no room for quinoa salads or breakfast veggie wraps while traveling. I ate gas station burritos, lukewarm string cheese, and more packets of instant rice with canned beans than I’d like to recall.
Last summer, I packed up my car for a four-month solo road trip around the West Coast. I paid my rent to national forest campgrounds while visiting nine states from New Mexico to Washington. It was one of those change-your-life summers—and it also taught me about how to eat well on the road. It’s easy. It’s, too easy. It’s “how did I not realize this sooner?” easy. Here are a few of my favorite tips and tricks for eating healthy on the road:
Load up on veggies
Open up my cooler, and you’ll find a pile of vegetables spilling in every direction. Fresh vegetables—and fruit!—is the first thing on my edible packing list. Produce (and fresh ingredients) that keeps well on the road includes: apples, carrots, kale, hummus, cauliflower, feta cheese, cucumbers, corn on the cob, garlic, melons, and citrus. Slightly more delicate, but totally doable: tomatoes, avocado, bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, broccoli, onion, and banana.
Bring a no-prep vessel for all that veggie goodness
Whether it’s tortillas, a loaf of sliced bread, gluten-free bagels, or english muffins, you need a tasty, sturdy receptacle to transport each bite into your mouth unit. For fancier dinners or a little extra heartiness, prepare a batch of quinoa, brown rice, or pasta before heading out, and bring it in containers to divvy up and reheat.
Always bring the sauce
Game changer. Having a tasty dressing or sauce takes your backcountry cuisine from “oh that’s nice and healthy” to “hurry up and get that in my pie hole.” My go-tos are balsamic glaze, spicy brown mustard, and the carrot miso dressing from Whole Foods.
Embrace the can
Food that comes canned isn’t always the enemy. I travel with a stash of organic beans, corn, vegetarian chili, and artichoke hearts. Tip: Seek out no-salt-added or low sodium canned goods to keep it on the less-unhealthy side. Your food will be better freshly seasoned anyway.
Build a go-to box of staples
I keep a milk crate stacked with all the basics I’ll need on every trip. A small container of coconut oil, sea salt, a little pepper grinder, and hot sauce. I also store a wooden cutting board, knife, utensils, reusable cups, bowls + plates, and a few leftover containers in the crate too. It probably has a few packets of instant mashed potatoes and ramen in there too, in case of emergencies.
PS: It’s okay to treat yourself, too
Eating well doesn’t just mean avocado scrambles in your hatchback and tossing backcountry salads. One of my favorite ways to experience a place is by its food. I love stopping in local bakeries, at fresh farmers’ markets, and all those little hole-in-wall, mom and pop style shops you find while adventuring. An occasional cinnamon roll never hurt nobody. Plus, if you’ve spent your day crushing outside, you deserve dessert.
You can eat just as healthily as you do at home, even when your kitchen is just a bare patch of desert and a semi-flat rock. All it takes is a little preparation, and if possible, a cooler. Stepping up my outdoor eating game has brought my road trip experience to a new level, and now I don’t dread that “belly full of Cheetos and freeze-dried grub” feeling when I go camping.