A recent outing with the scouts highlighted the steep learning curve in outdoor cooking, and emphasized the need to show scouts creative options early in their career, rather than later. I recall my own regret at relying for so many years on the wonders of Mountain House and Lipton soups, until someone finally revealed that stir fry was doable the first night out, and buttered pancakes were always an option. Every backpack trip soon became a competition to see who could create the best, most envied meal. Following are a few considerations to improve your backcountry gastronomic experience.
Hiking is vigorous exercise that requires fuel from a balanced intake of carbs, protein, and fat. Complex carbs (pasta, wheat, oatmeal) provide better, longer-lasting energy than simple sugars (candy bars). Protein from nuts or jerky help rebuild muscle tissue, and fats provide a store of energy to draw on. Distance hiker Andrew Skurka prefers foods with a higher “caloric density“, and he packs more fat (240 calories per ounce) than carbs or protein (100 calories per ounce). Clif Bars or similar, trail mix, jerky, beans, pasta, quinoa, powdered milk and cheese, olive oil, or dried meat and fruits are good options.
The amount of available space is a big consideration, especially when lightweight packing, or when bear canisters are required. Tied to volume is the amount of food required to meet nutritional intake needs for each day of hiking. A base guideline is 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day, for 1.5 to 2 pounds of food at 125 calories/oz (yes, there’s a science to this!!). Plan on carrying up to 10 pounds per person for a 5 day trip. You might splurge on real cheese, eggs, pancake mix, smoked or foil salmon, or frozen meats on short trips where you can bear bag food (and are willing to carry the extra weight), and save the re-hydration meals and caloric-dense foods for longer trips or where everything has to stuff into a bear canister.
Available cooking equipment and fuel capacity will dictate your menu to a large degree. REI has a good article on stoves that estimates an 8 oz canister of fuel will boil about 15 quarts of water. That’s five days with one pot boiled per meal, but lifespan drops quickly when more hot water’s needed for cleanup or the stove is shared in a larger group. With longer trips or larger groups, you either carry more fuel, plan no-cook/no-clean meals, or check on fire restrictions and trust your campsites will have established campfire rings and sufficient fuel (Leave No Trace discourages campfires). Freezer bag meals are a good method that limits water requirements and cleanup, and some dutch oven recipes are possible with a pie pan oven over a fire.
Walk the aisles of a supermarket, or peruse your own cabinets, and you’ll likely find food items that can be repackaged to save weight and reduce volume. Move the contents over to Ziploc bags, and write the recipe on the outside. If the recipe calls for milk or butter, add the necessary amount of the powdered version to the Ziploc. Toss in your favorite seasonings while you’re at it! When oil is needed, use small plastic containers available at REI. Some items come in larger quantities for more servings, so repackage to the ideal serving size for your crew. At a minimum, repack your Mountain House in Ziploc to save weight and space.
Kick it up a notch
Some quick research on Google will reveal abundant ideas for gourmet backpacking meals, at least when compared to Mountain House. If you’re a Scout leader, challenge your kids to explore and experiment with greater variety, and better taste. Good tasting food they enjoy will get eaten, while poor quality food won’t, and they’ll be hiking on an empty tank. Then you won’t have any fun!
Here are a few good sites to start with:
- The NOLS Cooking Show