5 Tips for Backcountry Cooking with Style (Part I)

For many, planning the menu for a backcountry excursion can be the most daunting part of the trip.  Especially if there’s family involved, it’s your mother-in-law’s 60th, and you’re celebrating by hiking to the bottom of Grand Canyon for three days–but that’s a different story entirely.  Baking a birthday cake on a single-burner camp stove takes a little ingenuity but it’s totally possible–but we’ll get to that in part two of this post.

First, we’ll cover the basics of how to get started on putting a menu together for a backpacking trip.  I’m willing to bet many folks probably think it all has to be dehydrated, freeze-dried everything, military-issue MRE’s, or canned beans and franks over the fire for backcountry fare.  Either that or lots of peanut butter and about a million pounds of trail mix–but it doesn’t have to be that way.

It all depends on how long you’re out for and how much you’re willing to carry.  If you’re going ultra-light, then freeze-dried it is.  As a guide, I’m usually trying to impress clients; so I like to add in a few key fresh ingredients to really make a meal pop.  Here are five things to consider:

 Get Your Base Quantities Right

At the very least you’ll want to make sure that you have enough food for everyone in your group.  You’ll be burning a lot of calories on the trail everyday, and you’ll need the energy to get where you’re going.  If anything goes haywire with the other items you add to the dish, at least no one will go hungry.  I usually go with 4-6 dry ounces of my base per person, per meal as a starting point.  Rice, lentils, quinoa, cous-cous, and pasta are all great choices.  Then I start thinking about adding proteins and how to dress it up on top of that.

Keep it Fresh

Using dehydrated foods helps cut down on weight and volume in your pack, and they certainly have their place in backcountry dinners.  But, being able to include something fresh goes a long way to making something appetizing from what otherwise might have been rice-and-bean mush.  It just takes knowing what to use.  Fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary keep really well, hardly take up any space, are light, and add a really nice touch to many savory dishes.  Although it’s easy to carry dehydrated garlic, I really like to use the fresh stuff in the field which adds some punch to the flavor without adding a ton of bulk to my pack.  Hearty greens like kale and chard will keep for a surprising amount of time if it’s packed right–dry and wrap the leaves in a paper towel and they’ll keep in your pack for almost a week in cool weather.  Carrots, cucumber, and zucchini also hold up pretty well.

Spice it Up

In the meal planning arch of factors discussed here, the keystone is having a good spice kit.  I typically pack in 2oz. containers a piece of my favorites and I’m not shy about using them!  Plenty of good old salt and pepper is a must, but I’ll also throw in stuff like smoked paprika, cumin, and tamari for something a little different.  I also bring an ounce or two of olive or sesame oil per meal for a group of four.  I might also use cashews or slivered almonds to top off a meal with a crunch.  Combine these with the fresh herbs and garlic and you’re trail-mates mouths will be watering in no time.

Pack It In, Pack It Out

Most of us know that whenever we head into wild places that we should carry all of our trash and food scraps out with us.  Paring down and eliminating unnecessary labels and packaging can reduce bulk and the amount of waste we’ll have to cart around with us for the duration of the trip, which is always a plus.  But, repacking food can also make us much more efficient in our outdoor kitchens that frankly can get super disorganized as soon as everything goes into everyone’s packs and then piled up in camp.  Splitting up ingredients and packing them together with their corresponding meals will prevent using too much for one meal that should’ve been saved for another later on.  Plus it will also save time at the end of a long day when hunger is high and brain function is low!

Bring Your Beverage of Choice

Whether it’s morning or night having something tasty to sip on is an easy pleasure to add to the experience.  Instant coffee has come a long way, but I’ll almost always opt to bring some deep dark roast or espresso with me in the field.  I worked with a guy a few years ago who introduced me to Turkish coffee, and I got in the habit of packing a brass ibrik with me for a while.  One of my favorite things in the whole world is sleeping under the stars with the stove next to me so I can sip my coffee from inside my sleeping bag without having to get out in the morning to make it.  As alluded to in another post, I still kind of want one of these hand-pump mini espresso makers.  In the evening I’ve found it nice to add a little bourbon to chamomile tea with lemon for a hot toddy; or for a big group sometimes I’ll bring a boxed wine without the box.  I know, that sounds super classy…but it does the trick.  Pack the bladder in a drybag just in case the spout leaks–I’ve had pretty good luck so far.  I still haven’t figured out a good way to get ice to last long enough to be useful, but if you plan you’re trip along a cold-running creek you can drop a can or two of your favorite fuzzy drink in there upon arrival, and it should be cool by after-dinner time.  Or, you could plan a winter trek or glacier crossing in which case ice wouldn’t be an issue-but that too is whole different story.

Check back in for the next part of this post for more on stoves, fuel, and gear, as well as tips and techniques for not burning the bacon so to speak–or baking that birthday cake!


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