Good food means happy campers, tent mates, spouses, and kids. The variety of ingredients available for creating delicious meals for outdoor enthusiasts has quadrupled since I first started backpacking. Back in the day you had to do a significant amount of prep work in order to have a good, healthy, hardy, and satisfying meal. Now with a click of a button, you can order dried fruits, vegetables, meat, powdered hummus, dried refried beans, powdered cheese, eggs, and even peanut butter!
Even with the wide variety of dried ingredients available, preparing meals for backpacking still takes some time and commitment. Once you decide on your menu you will need to spend time calculating amounts and weights, order any specialized food, measure, and bag it. While it’s good to have an extra day’s worth of food you do not want to burden yourself with pounds of extra weight.
I am not going to write pages about nutrition. There are many great informative articles out there. I am going to mention briefly the basic functions of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. For a more complete understanding of backcountry nutrition check out the NOLS publication: Backcountry Nutrition by Mary Howley Ryan. NOLS Backcountry Nutrition
Carbohydrates are stored in your muscles (as glycogen) and used for energy. When you are working hard, such as backpacking, climbing, running, or involved in any physically demanding outdoor pursuit, your body needs extra carbs to burn as fuel. Carbohydrates are more readily available than fats or proteins and allow you to produce energy continually during your workout. Carbohydrates can be eaten with each meal, but you should have a steady source throughout the day.
Protein is important for muscle building (among many other things). If your carbohydrate level is low your body will burn protein as an alternative source. During any physically demanding activity we want to rely on a higher carb intake for energy. Protein intake is important during our rest periods in order to re-generate our muscles. Protein coupled with carbohydrates for breakfast will give you that muscle glycogen that you need for sustained energy.
Fats unlike carbs, which are used to stoke the energy fire, are slow burning. Your body needs fat for prolonged cardiovascular exercise. Fats are typically eaten in the evening with proteins. Although, a good chunk of cheese at lunch tastes pretty amazing.
Bulk Rationing vs. Menu Planning
There are two basic structures for planning your outdoor meals: Bulk rationing and Menu Planning. Both have their staunch followers and both have their place in outdoor cooking.
Bulk Rationing (best for extended travel) Developed by NOLS, it is the standard method for groups and trips longer than five days. Cook groups are given a variety of bulk foods and spices and decide what to cook. There is no set menu. Check out the NOLS Cookery by Claudia Pearson to learn more about the bulk rationing system and for some delicious menu ideas! NOLS Outdoor Cooking
Menu Planning (5 days or less) Specific menus planned and food pre-packaged by each meal for ease of use on the trail.
Here is a list of some of my favorite foods. I have not included specific recipes, but I have included links to recipes and some fantastic outdoor cookbooks.
Oatmeal (½ cup dry per serving) with the fixings (include powdered milk)
- With dried pears, walnuts, & brown sugar
- With dried peaches, almonds & brown sugar, flaked coconut & cinnamon
- With dried strawberries
- With dried cranberries, walnuts,
- With brown sugar, dried blueberries
Potato pancakes – The easiest method is to use dried mashed potatoes with spices and cheese added.
Bacon & eggs…(pre-cooked bacon bits & powdered eggs) Sometime I will buy eggs in a carton and freeze them. When I choose to do this I eat them on the first day. Super-lightweight, but aficionados will cringe at this suggestion.
Pancakes (extra pancakes can be saved and served with peanut butter for lunch)
Quinoa, couscous, or bulgar can replace oatmeal in any of the breakfast cereals.
Sunflower seeds, pecans, and sesame seeds make good additions to hot cereal as well.
- Summer sausage
- Turkey Jerky
- GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) any combination of nuts, seeds, dried fruit or chocolate that you would like.
- Tuna or chicken in foil packets
- Rice crackers
- Dried fruit
- Powdered hummus and crackers (powdered hummus is pretty good, though I always add extra spices)
- Powdered peanut butter & crackers
- Almond butter You can purchase almond and peanut butter in single serving packets. For a couple meals, this is a convenient way to go.
- Energy Bars
- With butter, shaky cheese & nutritional yeast
- With tuna or chicken (foil package), olive oil and spices
- With Sauteed mushrooms (the variety of dried mushrooms available is amazing), onions & butter
- With Thai peanut sauce (peanut butter, garlic, Tamari, salt, cayenne pepper)
Rice or quinoa
- With veggies and tempeh
- Dried refried beans
- Dried veggies
- Forged greens (know before you go)
Bannock with filling – Bannock is made from flour, milk powder, salt. You can add some brown sugar if you prefer. I mix the dry ingredients ahead of time and put them in a ziplock bag. In camp add water to make a dough. Roll them out out like a tortilla (but not as thin), add filling to one half, fold, pinch the edges and then fry on each side until brown. It is is little more time consuming to make. For years this was my go to meal. The filling combinations are endless, here are a few of my most common.
- Cheese & tuna
- Cheese & sausage
- Dried apples (reconstituted), brown sugar, nuts
- Dried apples (reconstituted) & cheese
Lentils – Lentils are quick cooking. Add your favorite spices and dried veggies.
Couscous – One of the easiest food to incorporate on the trail. Add boiling water and it re-constitutes in 10-15 minutes. With some dried veggies, dried meat and spices you can make an easy nutritious meal in no time.
Creative recipes for one bag meals and links to source ingredients
Three great cookbooks for Backpacking.
Some folks relax in the evening after a long day by cooking meals that involve some preparation such as cutting, mixing, rolling, or frying. Others prefer the quick boil in a bag method.
When I first got into backcountry pursuits I loved to cook. I would set up camp, and cut, stir fry, mix, bake. Sometimes taking a couple hours to cook, eat and clean.
As I have gotten older that has changed dramatically! I am a big fan of easy, one pot or one bag meals. But, as I mentioned earlier, good dried food is easier to source then it was years ago. If you prefer to do most the prep yourself you can dry just about anything at home, if not dried food is available at the push of a button.
Remember it’s always good to pack some special treats for those long hard or rainy days! When hiking with kids good food equals happy kids and an awesome experience!
As I sit here and finish this blog it is an icy cold April 16th. I can only fantasize about my wam weather exploits and plan for that next big adventure.
On Saturday April 21st North Star Adventures LLC will be doing an Outdoor Cooking Fundraiser for the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust. The weather is predicted to improve drastically. It is going to be in the 50’s and clear. Please join us for a day of great food and support a local land trust.Outdoor Culinary Arts