We’re going to be talking about real food in this blog. Sure, pre-packaged backcountry fare has come a long way since Tang and Spam in a can. Even freeze-dried “astronaut” foods have evolved into much more palatable varieties in recent years, which on fast-and-light endeavors serve to provide us with compact calories based on our favorite ethnic dishes.
But most of the time, we’re in the backcountry to enjoy ourselves to the fullest, and I can think of no better reward after reaching those high mountain lakes than a great meal with fresh ingredients. After all, a well-fed camper is a happy camper.
What Makes Good Backcountry Fare?
No matter the culinary endeavor, you still have to carry all of your food on your back, so keep it simple. The real trick is to strategically add some flare to each meal. Small things add interest and freshness to an otherwise simple meal – like a zuccini, a handful of snap peas, shredded cheese, garnishes like cilantro and lime, or your favorite spices. Not only that, but on longer trips these add-ins can help sustain energy levels through balanced menu-planning. Think about how you can add these types of ingredients to backpacking staples like pasta, rice or refried beans.
Planning & Packing Tips
Plan the kitchen first. Knowing the cooking implements you will be carrying will help you plan meals more efficiently and ensure that the kitchen (and thus your backpack) stays small. Will you have just one pot? Maybe a small frying pan? Will you carry a chef’s knife, or just a pocket knife? Consider bringing more kitchen items if you are traveling with friends – and spread the love, of course.
Think about what time of day you will arrive to camp and how much water will be available. Then plan the menu around the days so that the one-pot meals are on the long hiking days and the messy meals are easy to clean up.
Re-package everything. Ziplock bags are your friend. Maybe you want black beans but not a whole can? No problem. Your rice comes in a box with 8 oz more than you need? No problem. Bag it up. This also helps to minimize wasteful packaging that you will have to haul in and out of the backcountry. For leafy greens, throwing half of a paper towel in the ziplock to absorb moisture will keep your greens from rotting.
Know your stove. Not all stoves are created equal. Some are exceptional at boiling water and not much else. Others have features for simmering or handling large pots and frying pans.
Time to Shop
Base: Dehydrated grains like pasta, rice, rice noodles and egg noodles. Or perhaps refried beans or (my favorite) sweet potatoes. Polenta and quinoa are great, but they take a little more time and water, so plan for that.
Get saucy: Sometimes a good sauce is all it takes to spice up a dish. Consider pre-making sauces and then carrying them in a small, water-tight container (Nalgene makes all sorts of small containers for backpacking).
Dairy: Cheeses do exceptionally well in the backcountry. Use soft cheeses, shredded cheese or sliced cheese in the first day or two. They don’t do well in the heat. Hard cheeses and block cheese does very well buried in your pack for up to a week. Try to avoid the cheap cheeses made of oil. They will look pretty gross after getting warm, even if they are still edible.
Meats: Salmon is easy to find in your grocery store and the vacuum-sealed steaks are a killer addition to rice and pasta dishes. No need to get a whole steak for each person – one small steak can add pizzaz to 2-3 bowls. Tuna in a pouch works the same way. Pepperoni and salami are great, too.
Veggies: Here’s where you can have the most fun. Throw in some of your favorite veggies in small quantities to add color and texture to a dish. It will look, feel and taste more delicious. Items like spinach, avocado, sweet peppers, broccoli tips, snap peas and chives are my personal favorites. Onion and garlic are staples, too, just like at home.
Consider how long ingredients will last. Spinach is good for only a day or two, while block cheeses will easily last for a week. Some items travel better than others – bananas love to get smooshed over everything else, while avocados are very happy within your drinking mug. A bear canister helps even the playing field if you are carrying one.
Finally, consider which items might last longer if they stay cool. Organize them together and ensure they stay in the shade. Again, a bear can helps and you can even designate a “refrigerator can” if you are in a larger group.
Psych Yourself Out!
A final pro-tip from my colleague Ian Elman at Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, renowned for his “Backcountry Gourmet” meal planning: Play the psychology card by making it seem like there’s a lot of food, even if there isn’t a lot by front-country standards. Try these tricks:
- Cut fruit like apples and oranges into thin slices instead of large chunks. Sure, maybe the four people in your group each receive a quarter of an apple, but you get the excitement of repeatedly picking up piece after piece of apple. So much apple! This also works with cheese, avocado…
- Pasta works in the same way – bring rotini instead of spaghetti. It may take up more space in your bear can, but it will also take up more space in your bowl. So much pasta!
- Arrange ingredients on separate plates. Making hummus and veggie wraps for lunch? How about burritos for dinner? Try gathering the plates or bowls of your comrades and laying out all the ingredients separately, buffet-style. Everyone grabs a tortilla and goes down the buffet line. So much food! And it’s fun to build your own wrap.