Whether your outdoor eating tastes are more Grizzly Adams or Gourmet on the Go, there are few better feelings than to step out into nature knowing that you carry all your culinary needs for the next few days on your back. But the trade-off between happy eating and a heavy backpack is one that takes a bit of careful preparation. So let us guide you through the essentials of planning your pack, planning your fire, and planning your cook, with some hearty backcountry recipes to reward you after a happy day’s hike…
Keep it simple with a stove, or go back to nature with a fire?
A first issue to consider is whether you want to take a fuel stove, or to really go back to nature and build campfires as you go. If you’re considering the latter, do check the campfire regulations for the area you are visiting – many designated areas in Colorado do permit campfires depending on the season. If you would like to build fires, and your route permits this, then you could consider packing a stove and cylinder as a backup, but of course there is a trade-off in weight and bulk.
There are a wide variety of compact stove types, from alcohol burners to solid tablet devices, but you’re probably most familiar with the cylinder stoves provided by the likes of Primus, Trangia, MSR and Jetboil. I use a Primus Express Spider, which I feel has two advantages over many cylinder stoves. The cylinder sits to one side of the stove, rather than being clamped beneath, which gives a lower center of gravity and more stability to your cook (the last thing you want is a boiling brew toppling over on your kit, or worse, your legs). Also, if you are heading to very cold or high altitude climes, the Spider has a reheat coil to deal with any liquefaction of the gas supply.
There are many good websites and YouTube channels to guide you through the ins and outs of building a campfire, but here are a few key points:
Preparation – before you try to strike a light, gather enough fuel. Have your kindling, whether tissue paper, cotton wool or something more natural, ready, then garner good piles of sticks (as dry as possible – look for dead standing wood) of different diameters – match thickness, pencil thickness, finger thickness and then larger logs to maintain a longer burn.
Making a flame – if you want to play the romantic traditionalist you can use a flint and steel, or even try bow-drilling (be warned, it’s exhausting); more realistically, you can use a fire-sparker; or be humdrum yet pragmatic and pack a lighter and matches.
Leaving no trace (or forest fire) behind you – the principle of leaving no mark on nature counts a thousand-fold when there is a fire risk. Do get some instruction on how to properly douse your fire – the ashes, the remaining partially-burned ‘dogs’, and the top layer of the ground itself, which can retain the fire’s heat for a remarkably long time after you’ve gone.
A backcountry cooking kit list:
- Stove and fuel cylinder
- Windshield (which may be supplied with the stove)
- Means of making a flame – see above, and take at least two types
- Billy-can and lid
- Frying pan and lightweight tongs (optional)
- Pot gripper
- Bushcraft knife – essential all-purpose item, including food preparation
- Cup, perhaps with integral lid
- Bowl – a shallow bowl acts as a bowl/plate hybrid
- Spoon or spork
- Condiments and seasonings
- Plastic bags for rubbish
- And if you want to wash up as you go, a scrubbing sponge, dishcloth and sieve for straining dishwater.
Some handy backcountry food tips:
Think about weight and longevity
Compact, high energy foods like chocolate and nuts cover the calorific basics. Many brands of the add-hot-water variety are available. But plenty of hearty home cooking can be added to your list. Think of the meals you enjoy making in your own kitchen, and think about how you can substitute ingredients for ones that are lighter or longer-lasting. Bring the most stable version of each food that you can, but take the minimum of packaging (a foil pack may substitute for a can; ingredients that you intend to cook together can be combined into one plastic bag, etc.)
Water is weight, so dehydrate as much as you can. Precooked, dehydrated meals supplied by the likes of Wayfayrer, Mountain House and AlpineAire are light and very simple to prepare. But you could also consider investing in a dehydrator, to adapt every favorite home recipe for the trail.
Treat yourself on day one
If you’re heading out for a few days, pack some heavier, more perishable luxuries that you can shift from bag to belly on day one. Pack fresh bread, vegetables, meat, perishable cheese, whatever you like to give yourself an indulgent first lunch and supper, then set out with a lighter, more durable food supply on the second morning.
Spice is nice (and pretty light)
Pack whatever condiments you like to add some zest to your campfire cooking. Dried herbs and spices are very light, and ketchup, mustard, chilli or soy sauce can be brought in packets or small leakproof bottles (outdoor suppliers sell sets of small bottles and containers)
Leave no trace
Take enough plastic bags to stow all your rubbish and leave no trace behind bar your footprints.
Live off the land as far as is safe (and legal)
The more intrepid traveler will seek to supplement their supplies with freshly foraged plants and freshly caught fish and even game. But be safe – if in doubt about that plant, leave it alone. It can take a long time for emergency services to locate you out there, let alone reach you. And unless you have had proper instruction, my advice is to leave all mushrooms well alone. Check the laws of the area you are traveling to if you intend to fish or hunt.
Cheese makes everything better
Hard cheese like Parmesan or pecorino may not seem super-light, but it will last several days without refrigeration and will add fun to just about any meal. And the further you carry it, the more flavorsome it will become!
Some Tasty Trek Recipes
Chocolate Banana Oatmeal
- 1/3 cup instant oatmeal
- 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoon brown sugar
- 2 tablespoon powdered milk
- 1/4 cup freeze-dried bananas
- Chocolate cookies, crumbled (optional)
At home: Combine all but the cookies into a zip-lock bag. If you are bringing the cookies, pack them separately.
On the trail: Bring 1 cup of water to a boil, add the oatmeal mix and stir. Simmer until the oatmeal is cooked through. Serve topped with the cookies. Makes 1 serving.
- 1 3/4 cup instant mashed potatoes
- 1/2 cup freeze-dried eggs with bacon
- 1 1/2 cup water
- 1 tablespoon dry milk
- Cheddar cheese (optional)
At home: Combine all dry ingredients in a zip-lock bag.
On the trail: Heat water in pot. Add to freezer bag and stir. Let sit for 5 minutes. Makes 1 serving.
Thai Beef Wraps (if you have a dehydrator)
- 1 pound lean beef or venison
- 1-2 sweet bell peppers, chopped
- 2 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
- 3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon chipotle pepper (1/2 teaspoon for those sensitive to spices)
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- 2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- 3 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
- 2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
Cook meat, drain very well. Add peppers, garlic and ginger, cook until peppers are soft. Meanwhile, whisk together all other ingredients to create a stiff sauce, and then add to beef mixture when peppers are a little soft. Dry in a dehydrator at 135° on parchment lined trays (approx 10 hours). Mixture will not be thoroughly dried due to sesame oil and fatty peanut butter, but, if dried properly and then stored in freezer, should last for up to a week. Serve over pitas, bagels or tortillas in camp.
- 1 8-ounce package angel hair pasta
- 1 6-ounce can or packet of tuna in oil
- 8 dried tomatoes, sliced
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
At home: Mix the basil, oregano, Parmesan cheese and garlic powder in a zip-lock bag. Store other items separately.
On the trail: Soak tomatoes in 4 cups of water for 10 minutes or until rehydrated. Remove the tomatoes from water and bring to a boil. Break the angel hair pasta in half and add to the boiling water. Cook pasta until done, drain water. Leave noodles in the pot and add tuna, tomatoes, and contents of the cheese and spice bag. Stir well. Makes 2 servings.
Blueberry Rice Cake
- 3 cups sweet rice flour
- 1 1⁄4 cups sugar
- 1 1⁄3 cups dried blueberries
- 3 eggs
- 3⁄4 cup canola oil
- 1 1⁄2 cups water
Preparation at home:
Preheat oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, then add the canola oil and water. Next, combine the dry ingredients with the wet and mix again. Pour into 24 greased muffin holes. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. A knife poked into the middle should come out clean.
On The Go Strawberry Cheesecake
- 9 full graham crackers
- 5 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- a pinch of salt
- 8 ounces cream cheese
- 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/2 pound strawberries, chopped
Use something heavy like a rolling pin or can to crush graham crackers in a zip top bag. Combine graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, sugar and salt in a small bowl. Mix well.
Beat cream cheese, condensed milk, lemon zest and lemon juice until smooth and creamy.
Using small spoons, layer half each of graham cracker crumb mixture, cream cheese mixture, and strawberries in small jars. Repeat layers. Cover jars and place in a cooler until completely chilled.
Andrew Murray 2015