BACKPACKING MEAL PREPARATION
Most of us who seek out the backpacker’s life have read a million trail-cooking recipes, learned about the freezer bag method and had a myriad of experiences with backpacking meals. I’ve run the gamut myself, to the opposite extremes of mindlessly spooning Mountain House or Top Ramen into my mouth. It was either too much weight, too much pot-scrubbing, or just so unappealing.
So I set out to find a way to prepare true comfort food for the trail, not things that I would seldom eat at home, but truly favorite dishes that I love eating at my own kitchen table. But I needed to do it in a way that minimized food weight, packed a high calorie density, and required no pot-scrubbing at camp.
Going the dehydrated food route allows you to simply boil water and rehydrate food at camp. I would need to amp up the fat content to increase calorie density, while ensuring that the recipe could store after drying without going rancid. I needed to preserve the taste of the food.
I purchased an inexpensive dehydrator and started trying out my favorite home recipes in the dehydrator with various modifications. But finally the experiments yielded successes, food that made me say ‘YUM!!’, eat the whole thing and look forward to the next night.
Principles and methods for ultralight backpacking meals
• Use a dehydrator to remove the water from your food. That’s most of the weight without any contribution to calories.
• Choose comfort food recipes such as casseroles, stews and sauces that are thick and have strong flavors. Noodles, rice, mashed potatoes or polenta, even sauces and condiments that you would normally serve with the dish can be obtained in small one-serving packets or in instant form to be carried a separate zip-loc bag to complement the dish. Foods that depend on specific structure, textures or large pieces (veggies or meat) do not adapt well to the dehydrator.
• You don’t have to spend a lot of time or even do the cooking yourself. Double the recipe for a favorite dish and put half of it in the dehydrator overnight – the next morning it will likely be ready to put away for the trail. Or buy your favorite pre-made backpacking meal from the deli or freezer case at your local grocery, prepare it according to package directions, and convert it to backpacking food using these principles. The only requirement is that it must be a recipe that you love to eat.
• Pack your recipes with colorful, nutritious veggies. But limit the fiber – it’s weight without any calorie contribution.
• Vary the flavors in your different recipes so that your backpacking meals will keep their interest over an extended trip.
• After preparing the recipe in your kitchen, chop or puree the food to a uniform consistency, with small pieces. The smaller the pieces, the faster the food will rehydrate at camp. At first the pureed version may seem a bit strange (pureed enchiladas?) but the taste will be fabulous and familiar.
• Learn what components rehydrate quickly and which ones rehydrate more slowly. Trust me, no one wants to wait 30 minutes for a slow-to-rehydrate component of a dish to soften at camp after a long day on the trail. Some vegetables, grains, beans and tofu, in my experience, rehydrate very slowly or never. Replace them in your recipe with freeze-dried versions purchased online…freeze-dried foods rehydrate very quickly.
• Be careful with any fatty components – food with surface fat will go rancid quickly. Rinse fat off meat with hot water before dehydrating; limit fat use while cooking and bring a squeeze bottle of olive oil or butter to add back at camp.
• The closer you can get dehydrated sauces to a powder consistency, the more quickly your backpacking meal will be ready on the trail and the richer the sauce will taste when re-hydrated. Pulse the food in a food processor or blender after most of the liquid has evaporated. The chunkier components will not ‘powderize’ but the sauce components will.
• Measure the food into servings before you put it in the dehydrator. I eat 1.5-2C per serving, fully hydrated…always larger servings than I would eat at home. Add the volume of water to recreate the original serving volume.
• Spread the food thinly & uniformly over the dehydrator trays. Use the fruit leather tray for runny sauces, then the mesh tray for drier recipes. Foods dry faster on mesh trays. Can transfer from solid to mesh tray midway.
• Don’t scrimp on the drying time (usually overnight or longer). I have never found that food gets over-dried.
• At camp, use very hot water and buy or make a lightweight insulated ‘cozy’ to nestle your pot or Zip-loc bag in while the food inside rehydrates. Lock-Tite boxes are also useful to rehydrate food. Completely water tight, they allow you to add water at lunch time, shake to mix well and store in your pack till dinner.
I often carry dehydrated bean flakes with freeze-dried meat and veggies to eat with tortillas for some of my trail meals. Mary Janes Farm has fabulous and very tasty organic instant bean mixes, and Pack-It Gourmet offers a wide range of freeze dried components.
I also discovered ancillary benefits of preparing my own backpacking meals, chief among them being that I now generate very little trash to carry back out with me. At the end of a meal, the only trash I accumulate is a single Zip-loc bag, which can be rinsed and folded into another small bag to carry out. Another benefit is minimum fuel use (you just boil water), which means less fuel to carry with you. And joy of joys, no pot-scrubbing!!
Put a little love into your backpacking meals and you will enhance both your backpacking experience and, over time, your calorie consumption. Get rid of the water weight, trash and cleanup. I predict that you will never go back.
Making whole meals with fresh food is possible in the backcounty. All you need is a little preparation time and a creative spirit. There are 2 ways to plan and prepare your meals. One strategy is a meal by meal basis. This method works well for shorter trips. For longer expeditions, a great way to plan your meals is through ration planning or the pantry method. I would recommend having a mix of both as you get better at planning.
There are many books and resources written about this topic. A great cookbook, NOLS Cookery written by Claudia Pearson, is a must read. This book will inspire you and help you understand that eating WELL in the backcountry is possible.
Frying pan. HUGE for the success of my meals. You can also bake with them! Check out www.frybake.com.
Stove you choose is important. The jet boils, and canister style stoves limit your ability to cook. I personally choose a MSR Whisperlite or Dragonfly which has great simmer capabilities.
Create a menu. How many people, how many stoves, how many pots per stove, how many days, and how many meals per day. Once you have a layout, get creative with meals. You are looking for meals that taste great and are fresh, quick to make, and weigh as little as possible. Meals that are high in fat and protein are the best!
Energy – Fats – burn long and slow, help to sustain your energy and keep you warm at night! Don’t forget the chocolate!
Proteins – the building blocks for your body. Necessary to sustain you. Also harder to break down but give you lasting energy.
Carbs – good sources of energy that burn quickly. These are used best in between your meals to sustain you for your next boost of fats and proteins.
Sugars – short quick burst of energy to help you get that tent up in the rain!
Although you can use instant rice, I precook long grain rice to add extra flavor to it and then dry it. Precooked and dried rice rehydrates well on the trail with minimal cooking. Cook each cup of rice in two and a half cups of beef, chicken or vegetable broth before you dry it. Spread cooked rice out on your covered dehydrator trays as best you can and dry at 125° for approximately five hours. Don’t worry if the rice is stuck together at first. After about two hours, pull apart the largest of the rice clumps that will still be moist. About ¾ of the way through the drying process, the rice will be dry enough to take up handfuls and squeeze and rub it against itself to break up the clumps. Some rice will remain stuck together at the end, but it separates when you rehydrate it on the trail.
Dehydrate Rice for Several Meals. I don’t dehydrate food for one meal only. I dry large batches of rice, vegetables, meats and sauces that I combine later into a variety of meals. Yield: One cup of rice makes about 3½ cups cooked before drying and that yields 1¾ to 2 cups dried. So, you can make two to four meals starting with a cup of rice depending on the size of your servings. Visit my website to learn more about using bread crumbs in ground beef to make it rehydrate much better than dried ground beef by itself. You will also find a tasty recipe for Mexican Beef andRice.
If you are drying any cooked vegetables around the time you are drying rice, use the water that you cooked the vegetables in to make the rice. Toss in a slice of a bouillon cube if it needs a bump in flavor.
10 BACKCOUNTRY KITCHEN ESSENTIALS
While my backcountry kitchen essentials gear list varies by the type of trip, time of year, number of people, and menu these are the ten essentials you’ll always find on my adventures.
1. A Heat Source and Fuel
My choice would always be the ultra reliable MSR Dragonfly. With simmer control and diffuser plates, enables all varieties of cooking including an Outback Oven. Others like the MSR Whisperlite but it doesn’t simmer as well as the Dragonfly. Other less reliable systems follow.
Your stove choice could be as simple as a homemade pop-can stove that uses denatured alcohol or methyl hydrate. These are best left for a weekend hike because the fuel weight can be greater than other stove types on longer trips or situations where there is more than one or two people. For mid-range trips some hikers choose to use a canister stove because the fuel is light. For longer trips a white gas or naphtha stove is good choice and it is a must have if you will be baking with an Outback Oven. Naphtha stoves are more reliable on trips where the weather will be below freezing—canisters can be troublesome in the cold. Another type of stove that is a great option if you are merely boiling water to rehydrate meals is a wood burning stove. There are many models out there and the only drawbacks are that tinder can be difficult to find above the tree line and that these little wood burning stoves make your pot very sooty. You may even opt for something like a Kelty Kettle which combines the stove with the kettle.
It is prudent to take an extra day of fuel in case of an emergency.
2. Pots and What-not
You’ll need a container to boil water or cook in. This is entirely menu dependant and will depend on your style of cooking. There were lightweight backpacking trips where we took a simple kettle and merely boiled water. There are titanium pots on the market that are perfect for one person but if you are in a group you’ll want a larger and more traditional backpacking pot with a pot lifter. If you plan to do more than boil water the material that the pot is made out of comes into play. A non-stick surface is great for the gourmet types who want to actually cook. A frypan can be a great tool if you are the type that likes fare such as pancakes, pizza, or fry cookies. Coated/anodized aluminum is a great balance between weight and function as it conducts heat well. Titanium is best left for boiling water only as it tends to have hot spots and is not a good conductor. I’m not a big fan of stainless steel just because of the weight.
3. A Rehydration Container
I prefer Locktite plastic boxes. They are completely water tight so add water to your dehydrated meals at lunch, shake it up and throw in your pack. Check later to see if more water is needed. These boxes can be used for many other kitchen duties.
You could also use a pot, a wide-mouth water bottle or even freezer bags.
4. A Cozy
The use of a cozy is a great way to reduce fuel consumption and to aid in rehydration. By pouring boiling water in your rehydration container and putting it in a cozy you can often avoid having to reheat your meal. This will vary depending on the dish—with meat based fare you may still have to quickly reheat. It is a handy thing to have for multi-course meals too. You can purchase cozies specifically designed for water bottles, pots, and freezer bags or you can make your own out of Reflectix or insulated fabric.
5. A Vessel to Eat From
Some people like to eat from a Sierra cup and others a bowl. If you are rehydrating in a freezer bag you could even eat from that, however, you may find that a little cumbersome. Solo backpackers may choose to eat directly from their pot.
6. A Cup for Hot Beverages
If you are using a Sierra cup for your eating container you may not opt for a cup for hot beverages. That said, I prefer to pack one so I can enjoy my morning meal alongside a cup of coffee. To increase the practicality of a mug you could mark increments on the side and use it as a measuring device for rehydration. Insulated products are best.
7. Spork, Foons, and Cutlery
What you eat with seems to be a very individual thing. We’ve hiked with folks who prefer the simplicity of a spork or foon. Others like to have one of those little three-piece titanium sets that have a fork, knife, and spoon. Some like the full-size Lexan cutlery.
8. Personal Water Bottle
It is important to plan for each backpacker to use a personal water bottle. I suggest marking them in a way so you’ll know whose is whose. This will prevent illness from being passed around in the event that someone comes down with a cold or flu.
9. Water Treatment
This is a must in many regions to avoid nasties like giardia or cryptosporidium. There are several ways to treat your water. You can boil it but this can use a lot of fuel and leave drinking water tasting flat. Filters and two-part chemical treatments are available and can take anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes. Ultra violet lights like SteriPure kill everything and are the ultimate of simplicity. Water borne illness can ruin a trip pretty quickly.
10. A Tarp
It is rare that I get to go on a trip where there isn’t some sort of precipitation. A small tarp made of a lightweight material such as sil-nylon and that can be strung above where you are going to cook and eat is very helpful—it simply makes camp life a bit more bearable. This also keeps one from the temptation of eating in the shelter you’ll be sleeping in to be avoided in bear country.
I love to eat well whether I’m at home, at a restaurant or out in the woods. When I am on long treks, I have to be selective about my foods to keep weight and volume down. On short and especially on lowland hikes, where I can have a campfire, I splurge on weight to create famously decadent meals. Some of my hiking buddies have had the opportunity to experience my twice marinated steaks, while others, camp pizza. These are just a few ideas of great foods you might try.
There just isn’t anything like a real meal cooked over a real campfire. Your sense of smell and taste seem to be heightened by a good days hike, a cozy fire and fresh cooked food. There are limits to what you can make to be sure, but there is also a huge variety of foods that lend themselves to this type of cooking.
There are two basic tools you will need to begin when campfire cooking. One is a metal grate and the other is a small frying pan which really needs no further clarification. I always have a pot for boiling water or cooking in on short or multi-day hikes. The grate is about 9” square with 14” long handles to keep your hands away from the fire. It’s steel so it will rust over time. It has two halves that can close like a clamshell, that interlock to hold the two halves together. The grate gets dirty so keep in a large freezer bag to keep my pack clean. After each use, burn it clean in the fire. Coleman makes a similar grate.
Start with the basics like hot dogs and hamburgers. Take a little extra space in your pack for a few simple things that can add a lot to your mealtime pleasure. Take a hard sided Tupperware container to put your buns in so they don’t get crushed. Bring tiny sealable plastic containers like pill bottles to fill with ketchup and mustard or chopped onion or get some from a fast food restaurant in those little foil packets. I think you know the rest, cook and eat.
As with anything, you need to be cautious when cooking with fire. Don’t get overcome with smoke and fall in the fire. Keep hands and feet clear of fire and watch for flying sparks. The grate gets very hot so don’t touch it where it is hot. Simply be smart and safe.
With autumn, apple trees in local orchards are laden with fruit. Apples are a great food for the backcountry. Apples are a great source of antioxidants in the form of polyphenols. They, like many other fruits, are also a good source of fiber and packed full of vitamins. The skin on apples is very nutritious and vitamin laden.
Apple Varieties. Fuji, Gala, Red Delicious, Cripps Pink, and Honey Crisp are apples that are perfect for eating. Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, and Braeburn can are wonderful in baked applications but also make a good eating apple. Granny Smith are nice and tart, Golden Delicious are sweet and Braeburn are sweet-tart and have a very slight spice to them.
Buying Apples. Prefer an orchard or a local farmers market. It gives me the chance to get the best apples at that time. The farm staff will direct you to what is ready to be picked. I also try to buy organic. The reason for this is because of the high nutrient content in the skin. I’m not quite so picky with fruit that I’m peeling anyway. Check the apples for bruising and cuts in the skin.
Storage. Keep them in the fridge crisper drawer or cold cellar until you are ready to prepare them.
To make your own, slice the apples ¼-inch thick. If you choose to leave the skins on it is best to use organic, pesticide-free fruit. Dip the slices in a solution of Fruit Fresh or a mixture of 1 part lemon or lime juice and 3 parts water. Separate the slices to ensure that both sides get treated with the mixture. Dehydrate on screen-lined dehydrator trays at 120°F for 6 to 8 hours or until leathery. To check if they are done just tear a piece and there should not be beads of moisture but the apples should be pliable. A cup of dried apples will expand by about ¼ cup upon rehydration.
You can use dried apples in hot cereals, pancakes, stuffed French toast, granola, energy bars, wraps, baking, trail mix, or simply as something to munch on while you hike. You can also place a few rehydrated apple slices between two oatmeal cookies and drizzle a little bit of caramel sauce over top for a quick and yummy dessert. Rehydrated apples that have been heated in your pot with a bit of maple syrup and some walnut pieces can be a wonderful topping for a pancake or sweet biscuit. This can be for a decadent breakfast or a dessert, depending on your preferences.
Dried apples should be stored in a cool, dry place, away from light. They will keep for 8 months.
Apple crisps are somewhat similar to apple chips but they aren’t fried. To make apple crisps take 6 Royal Gala or Granny Smith apples, core and slice them into rings, with the skins on, 3/16 to ¼-inch thick. Place them in a mixture of 3 tablespoons of lemon juice to 1½ cups water. Separate the slices to ensure that both sides get treated with the mixture. Drain the apples and pat off any moisture with a paper towel or clean tea towel. Place on lined dehydrator trays and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon. Dry the apples at 135°F for 8 to 10 hours, until they are crispy like chips. Let cool and pack in a sturdy airtight container.
Apples are wonderful in savory dishes as well. I often use dried apples in coleslaw and other trail salads, in a wrap with chicken, or I use fresh apples in recipes like this one and then dehydrate the whole dish.
Apple Crumble 2–3 servings
Use an Outback Oven or Bakepacker or fry-bake pan. Sometimes we mix up a little Nido to pour over the top before serving.
1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup brown sugar
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 ½–2 cups dried apples
2 tablespoons butter
At Home: Mix flour and rolled oats together and place in a ziplock bag. Put brown sugar and salt in another smaller ziplock bag. Place 1 tablespoon of white sugar in a piece of plastic wrap and put it inside the brown sugar bag. Put the dried apples in another bag. Then place all the small bags of ingredients inside the bag containing the flour. Pack the butter with any other butter you are taking on your trip.
At Camp: Cover the apples with boiling water. Let sit until rehydrated and then drain and set aside. Line the bottom and sides of a pot or pan with parchment paper. Place the rehydrated fruit in the bottom of the pot and sprinkle it with the white sugar. Add 2 tablespoons butter to the ziplock bag containing the brown sugar mixture, and knead until the sugar mixture and butter are creamed. Blend in flour and rolled oats. Sprinkle over the fruit mixture. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until the top is golden. Allow to cool slightly and serve.
If you will be having a campfire or are car camping, have each person pack in a fresh apple and a small piece of foil. Cut the apple in half, remove the core, put a little butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar in the channels where the core was, put the two halves back together and wrap tightly in foil. Place the foil wrapped apple in the hot campfire coals and bake until the apple is tender.