When most of us think of backpacking, we think of majestic mountains, lush forests, and birds singing over babbling streams, while the fresh smells of nature delight our senses. Not every image invoked is so pleasant, however. Many of us think of the lamentable prospect of hiking all day long, just to sit down to a freeze-dried package of what, we can only hope, was chicken at some point, served with bland white rice or beans. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be so! With a few simple tricks, we can turn the nightly “UGH!” into a resounding “Awwww yeah!” and make every backpacking adventure a culinary treat.
Choose Your Cooking Method
In the back-country, there are several cooking options available to us that suit our needs as backpackers.
- Campfire Cooking: Cooking with a campfire is my first choice, and it’s a great way to help you pack light. It can be tricky to get a fire going with all-natural materials, and of course fires may not be allowed during dry spells or in parks, but cooking over a campfire saves you the trouble of having to pack a backpacking stove and fuel. Often, all that is needed to cook over a campfire is a single pot and a book of matches.
- Backpacking Stoves: Traditional, lightweight backpacking stoves such as the whisper light are another great option and are wildly popular among backpackers. They allow you to cook over a stable burner, just like your stove at home. This makes the pan easier to handle and the heat easier to control. Many people feel this is worth the extra weight of the stove and fuel. The downside to these devices is they can be fickle and can sometimes require some frustrating tinkering to get them functional.
- The Latest System: The newest backpacking stove to hit the market is the space age “Jetboil” system. Not only is it lightweight, but its design makes boiling water easy. The downside to Jetboil, however, is that the systems are very pricey, and if you want to use a cooking method that doesn’t involve boiling, you have to buy additional specialized attachments such as the Jetboil frying pan, which further adds to the cost and bulk.
Choose Foods To Bring
If you’re like me, eating freeze dried, packaged foods for the entire trip is not the most appealing option. When we’re considering what to bring, many backpackers like to follow the “2 pounds of food a day” rule. This leads many people to believe that freeze dried foods are their only option. It is possible to craft much tastier meals, without going over the 2 lb mark. Here are some lightweight options to consider for your next backpacking trip:
- Dried Pasta: Pasta is great choice for any backpacking trip. A single pound of dried pasta can provide dinner for 2-3 nights per person and is very quick and easy to prepare. All you need is hot water! The great thing about pasta is you can add whatever you want to it. It can be as creative and tasty as you want it to be.
- Lentils/Beans: Beans are another great option. They’re lightweight when dried, and like pasta, only require some boiling water to prepare. They are great at sucking up flavors and are very filling.
- Rice: Although most people prepare it blandly, even rice can be flavorful when mixed with other ingredients.
- Onions: Dehydrated or powdered onions are a fantastic addition to any backpacking trip. They can be cooked and added to everything mentioned above for a surprising layer of flavor.
- Garlic: Again, you can bring powdered garlic, or dehydrate them before your trip, but personally, I bring fresh cloves. Not only will they protect you from vampires on your trip (especially if you are traveling near Forks, WA on the Olympic Peninsula:) but garlic is small, lightweight, and packs more flavor than almost anything else I can mention. It’s flexible and adds depth to just about any dish.
- Bouillon: Small, light, and compact. Bouillon is pure flavor in a cube. Better yet, order “Better Than Boullion” which is organic and, well, better than boullion. Anything you can cook in boiling water will taste even better when cooked in bouillon. Bouillon made into stock is useful for soups, sauces, and countless other applications.
- Pepper & Spices: Know your spices! Knowing what spices work together is the first step in bringing life to your food. Adding thyme, basil, and oregano to a dish will give it an Italian flair, while cumin, coriander, and chili powder will add some Mexican heat. Be creative!
- Oil: Bringing a small squeeze bottle filled with olive or canola oil is a necessity for cooking, where ever you are.
- Salt! In today’s society, there appears to be a lot of stigma around how much salt is in our food. Perhaps salt isn’t the healthiest thing in the world, but that doesn’t change the fact that the true difference between good food and great food is the amount of salt. What’s more, salt is critical to hydration, which is paramount while backpacking. Hydration is the balance between water and salt. If you don’t have enough salt, you will get “electrolyte sickness (PDF Download from Wilderness Medicine Training Center)” which feels like a migraine episode. Don’t be afraid of the salt shaker (or salt in a zip-lock bag:) while backpacking!
Cooking A Wholesome Meal
Try some of what we’ve discussed for yourself on your next backpacking trip. A fantastic example of an easy dish you can make with some of these ingredients is rice pilaf.
- 2 Cups white rice
- 1 Onion (diced)
- 3-4 Cloves of garlic (minced)
- 3-4 Cups chicken stock (4 cups boiling water mixed with the appropriate amount of bouillon)
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp dried parsley flakes
- Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the stock with the bouillon and set aside. Heat a pot over medium high heat or a camp fire with enough oil to cover the bottom. Add the onions and garlic to the pot along with the herbs and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent and the garlic is fragrant. Add the dry rice to the pan and keep cooking for another minute or so, allowing the rice to toast. Pour the stock into the pot and stir. Put a lid on the pot and boil for about 20 minutes until the stock has reduced and the rice is cooked and fluffy. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.
Charles Borrowman is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute of San Jose, California and a lead instructor with Wolf Camp and the Wolf College. He is running our Backcountry Gourmet Camp Cooking Classes throughout western Washington & Oregon in May, running the camp kitchen during our Backpacking into Wolf Country Outdoor Leadership Training Expedition in June, teaching during our Survival, Herbology, Tracking, Scout & Artisan Camps in July, and leading our Epic Fishing Camp in August.