The third packet of freeze-dried beef stroganoff convinced me that trekking through the wilderness wasn’t going to be quite as romantic as diehard backpackers had promised. At least in this version, by Mountain Home, the flavor of the dried mushrooms and reconstituted beef came through, but underneath them was the pervasive flavor and texture of powder. Powdered what? Who knew?
What was supposed to be a review of prepackaged camping food suddenly took a new turn: How can you go hiking without leaving your taste buds at home?
The recipes in most trail cookbooks — the ones that don’t include stewed squirrel and Dutch oven breads, that is — are certainly easy to execute: Mix five kinds of powders. Add water. Heat. Serve.
Unless you’re car camping, in which case you can feel free to pack porterhouses and duck confit — believe me, I’ve talked to cooks who have — preparing food while you’re on the trail requires a completely different set of guidelines than following the USDA food pyramid and watching your saturated fat intake.
Weight, weight, weight
One day, four days, two weeks: No matter how long you’re going to be camping, the weight of everything you’re putting in your rucksack is priority number one. It has to pack light, and pack tight. “Typically, I keep food to a pound and a half a day per person, maybe one pound a day if I’m traveling for a week or longer,” advises Larry Hiebert, a special events coordinator at REI Fremont. That’s the main reason dehydrated and freeze-dried foods are so popular with campers. Water and oil are like lead to a backpacker. H2O is the easiest thing to take out and put back in.
You can also save weight and space by investing in Ziploc bags and a permanent marker, portioning out meals, and rebagging prepackaged foods — just be sure to label and write prep instructions on every bag. Most camping-supply stores stock sealable plastic tubes for oils, nut butters, and honeys. Smaller bags or film canisters are good for spices and other small items.
But there’s another component to the weight issue: cooking fuel. In California especially, you can’t always cook over a fire. Even the most energy-efficient camp stoves require fuel canisters that add to your burden. The less time you spend cooking, the less fuel you need. Time
My Slow Food membership might be revoked just for saying this, but the other reason you’ll want to go for quick food is that you may not have the fuel — or energy — to cook at the end of a long day of hiking. Breakfast should be quick, lunch a no-heat meal you can nosh on the trail. One way to give yourself some extra cooking time and energy at night is to break out a cup of instant soup before starting in on the main course.
“Your diet when you’re camping is much higher in sugar, fat, and protein because you need the energy,” says Ingrid Wynden, who has been trekking for 25 years. “You’re not going to retain the weight, so you can afford to eat food that would be richer.” According to Dorcas S. Miller, author of Good Food for Camp and Trail, you should count on consuming seven hundred to a thousand calories extra per day — for an average-size man, that means a whopping 4,200 calories in all.
“Protein is sort of optional,” Hiebert opines, “because you’re not in the wilderness so long that lower-protein, higher-carbohydrate diets are going to harm you. Your body isn’t going to decline that rapidly.”
Here are a few suggestions on how to plan (exhaustively) ahead for varied, calorie-saturated, and somewhat flavorful meals on a weeklong backpack trip.
This is generally the easy meal: quick, hot, and filling. Boil a bunch of water, use half for coffee or tea, and whisk the rest into quick-cook cereal for a jolt of carbs and sugars to get you on the road.
Instant oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, and Cream of Rice taste like finer stuff when you add nuts and dried fruits, plumped in the hot water before being added to the grains. Dried cherries and almonds taste great with a little brown sugar, and the combination of dates, walnuts, and honey are made for each other. Another easy breakfast is a mug of atole, which has been fueling up Central Americans since Aztec days. Find bags of finely ground masa harina at Latin-American groceries (other versions include pinole, made with toasted corn, or champurrado, with chocolate). Whisk it into boiling water with some instant milk powder and a couple wedges of Mexican chocolate and stir for a couple of minutes until the porridge reaches the consistency of a thick shake.
Another option is to mix a bowl of granola or muesli with water and instant milk powder (some health-food stores also carry instant soymilk). More ambitious cooks can make pancakes, which requires that you pack a skillet. Bring along preportioned mixes, or bag your own at home. But since pancakes require oil, syrup or honey, and extra fuel, they may not be a wise choice for longer voyages.
It’s easier to regulate your energy levels if you snack continually. “I eat six meals a day when I’m out there,” Wynden says. “I have at least one snack in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and usually a snack afterward.”
The easiest and most common trail snacks are dried fruits and nuts. Miller recommends packing about a half-cup of nuts and a half-cup of dried fruit per person per day. You can mix your own gorp — customizing your blend of nuts, fruits, coconut, and chocolate — or choose from several varieties at bulk-foods stores or places like Trader Joe’s. I have found that bagging each kind of fruit and nut separately, then bringing out one at a time, makes my life more exciting than chomping on trail mix mile after mile. And after two days of raisins, prunes, and apples, a few handfuls of expensive dried pineapple or cranberries taste as exquisite as a chocolate truffle. (Almost everyone I spoke to brings chocolate along for a snack.)
The dawn of the energy-bar era has given hikers another source of on-the-run sugar and protein. Matt Ritts, a supervisor at Any Mountain in Walnut Creek, makes a Costco run for a box of ’em before his trips. Another option is a powdered protein shake, which you can buy at any health-food store and blend with water in a lidded cup.
Most hikers I interviewed keep lunch simple. This might be where you want to add weight: Hard salamis and saucissons secs keep quite well. Jerky obviously was made for travel: If you’re looking for something fancier than what you find in the corner store, Fourth Street Meat Market in Berkeley makes its own.
Pete from Country Cheese in Berkeley points hikers to hard cheese such as Sonoma Dry Jack — I prefer an aged Manchego or Italian sheep’s milk cheese — or “anything with wax, like red-wax Gouda, Cheswick sharp cheddar, or Edam.” Then there’s the perennial campers’ favorite: ultrapasteurized, individually wrapped cubes of Laughing Cow. “You wouldn’t believe how good it tastes when you’re hiking,” says Carolyn Hodge, an avid backpacker.
Many campers pack crackers or rye crisps for lunch, making sure to keep them in the package and lay them near the top of the backpack. Pitas and tortillas fold up well, and won’t go stale for at least a couple of days. They’re perfect for wrapping around peanut butter and honey or instant hummus, which mixes up with cold water. (If your flatbread goes stale, toast it over the flames to make your own crackers.) Dinner
On the trail, dinner becomes your biggest meal. By nightfall, you should have reached your destination, and since you don’t have to get back up and go, you can stuff yourself with calories.
One option is to pack the freeze-dried meals you find in camping stores — my beef stroganoff adventure may have been a bust, but trial and error over the years has led Wynden, a vegetarian, to AlpineAire’s Mountain Chili, Santa Fe Black Beans and Rice, and Leonardo da Fettuccine.
Several campers advised me that with all the prepackaged, dehydrated meals, count on eating double portions. Wynden also noted that if you’re cooking at high altitudes, where water boils at a lower temperature, you won’t be able to pour in hot water and wait — you’ll have to boil the meals directly in the pot for five minutes or so, which has the added advantage of killing germs.
If you’re staying away from those foil packets, the best strategy is to plan meals around a starch such as rice or pasta. Mainstream and natural-foods stores now carry hundreds of lightweight, time-saver dishes that are easy to use as a starting point. These include
* Dehydrated soup mixes, from minestrone and cheddar broccoli to tortilla soup
* Rice and lentils in a cup (empty into Ziploc bags)
* Instant miso soup packets
* Pasta Parmesan
* Rice pilafs
* Instant refried beans
* Vegetarian chili
* Quick-cooking pastas, such as orzo or angel-hair pasta
* Quick-cook rice (both white and brown)
* Quick-cook couscous
* Split pulses for dal or soup
* Instant Cajun-style rice and beans
* Asian ramen (Korean brands are my favorite)
* The perennial standby, mac ‘n’ cheese.
Many natural-foods stores also stock bulk bins of just-add-water falafel mixes, veggie burgers, split-lentil soups, and black beans.
As for protein, the best invention for campers just might be the new shelf-stable vacuum-packed foil pouches of tuna, salmon, chicken, and ham. The pouches weigh as little as three ounces, making them easy for weekend hikers to stock up on and for hardcore trekkers to bring along for special occasions. For day one and two, a smoked sausage such as linguica or kielbasa will keep for a while outside the refrigerator. If you’ve brought along dried salami for lunch, sparing a couple slices to add to a stew will add richness, though the cooked sausage may no longer be particularly edible. Chinese dried sausages, lap chong, keep just about forever, and add a wonderful five-spice flavor to rice. Vegetarians may want to pack in a bag of textured vegetable soy protein, which doesn’t add much flavor but can up the protein content of stews and rice dishes.
Vegetables are the trickiest element of the camp meal. For two-to-four-day trips, you can chop up and bag heartier vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, onions, and carrots for sautéeing or adding to stews. But fresh fruits and veggies are simply too heavy and low-calorie to justify packing in for longer trips. REI and other camping stores sell freeze-dried carrots, peas, and corn, which are easy to chuck into anything you’re cooking. In addition, most grocery stores carry dehydrated onions, green peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes. Ritts, like many lifelong backpackers, has invested in a dehydrator to dry vegetables, soups, and fruits.
A few other things you may want to put in the pack: Butter (or margarine) won’t go rancid for several days (although it will melt in a hot pack), and if you’re avoiding prepackaged meals, small containers of olive oil for frying and Asian sesame oil may prove worth the weight. Small amounts of spices, herbs, and other flavor-enhancing dried ingredients can make all the difference. Pack up a flavor kit that includes some of the following:
* Salt and pepper
* White and brown sugar
* Garlic powder or freeze-dried garlic (Trader Joe’s)
* Curry powder, Japanese curry cubes, or your own masalas
* Cumin, coriander, or paprika (or smoky Spanish pimenton)
* Dried chipotles or other chile peppers, or chile flakes
* Thyme, sage, and oregano, or Italian seasoning mix
* Sweet spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, or a blend
* Bouillon cubes or vegetable bouillon packets
* Porcini powder and dried mushrooms
* Sun-dried tomatoes
* Tiny dried shrimp
* Salt-packed capers
* Tubes of Italian tomato paste (Gia makes a tomato-garlic paste that I added to everything)
* Small container of grated Parmesan cheese, though not the Kraft stuff
* Small knob of fresh ginger.
Here are a few dishes you can make from scratch:
* Cook split-lentil dal with curry powder, chile flakes, and freeze-dried garlic, served with minute rice.
* Make “jambalaya” starting from a base of quick-cook Spanish rice pilaf, amped up with dehydrated onions and peppers, a packet of chicken, tomato-garlic paste, chile flakes, and dried shrimp.
* Boil angel-hair pasta along with sun-dried tomatoes (to plump them up); toss the cooked pasta and sun-drieds with olive oil, freeze-dried garlic, tuna packet, and capers. Top with Parmesan.
* Boil instant couscous with raisins, almonds, chicken or TVP, and a little curry powder.
* Flavor a split-lentil and bulgur soup with dried porcinis, a vegetable bouillon cube, dehydrated onions and carrots, bay leaf, and thyme.
* Crack white rice with a rolling pin so it cooks more quickly, and boil to make congee (Cantonese rice porridge), adding sliced ginger, lap chong, dried green onions, and a little sesame oil.
And don’t forget that hunger and exhaustion are the most powerful seasonings. Something strange happened during my two-day test hike in Mendocino County. Maybe it was the linguica I slipped into my instant rice pilaf; maybe it was my new best friend, tomato-garlic paste; or maybe it was the view of the mist flowing in from the ocean to obscure the hills just as they darkened from periwinkle to indigo. But I ate. And ate. And ate. Wynden’s number-one bit of cooking advice suddenly rang true: “Everything tastes better out there.”n