Everything tastes better after a long hike in the great outdoors. In this culinary Twilight Zone, energy bars become a satisfying snack and soda crackers topped with hunks of cheese are capable of satiating most any outdoorsman’s appetite. Banal food tastes terrific, and that means most hikers leave well enough alone when an extra ounce of effort could push their camp dining experiences over the summit. Proper food preparation in the outdoors can make the amateur cook feel like a culinary genius.1
Cooking, from most backpackers’ perspectives, is strictly utilitarian. There are a few simple tips that every camp cook should keep in mind before the fancy stuff comes into play:
¥Find a nice flat surface sheltered from the wind and clear of brush.
¥Do not cook more food than you (or those who you will end up trying to coerce into dining with you) can eat. “Big spooning” is fun at first, but quickly leads to gastrointestinal trouble.
¥Packed food should contain minimal packaging and should be either non-perishable or slowly perishable.
¥Breakfast is best quick and hot, consisting of a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates.
¥Lunch is best broken down into small meals. Think frequent doses of complex carbohydrates throughout the day, so that the body has a constant source of energy.
¥Dinner should contain a majority of the day’s supply of fat and protein.
Unless eating like primitive man helps you to enhance your “oneness” with nature, taking the proper measures to improve your standard fare on the trail will raise the quality of your camping experience as a whole. Although the difficulty and duration of your trip will determine your space and weight constraints for food, almost any expedition leaves substantial latitude for creativity. A well-stocked spice kit is a must; it’s an easy way to add variety to the usual pasta and rice.2
While on the trail, you will not have all the accoutrements of a modern kitchen, but with a little flexibility, several courses can be made from a single, lidded pot and a small camp stove. Pack fresh fruit, vegetables and sharp cheeses in the middle of your pack, away from direct sunlight, where they will stay fresh for several days. The one redeeming thing about nippy New England winters is that cold temperatures can be exploited to carry tasty meat and dairy that would not stand a chance in summer. Foot Poobah Emma Ashburn ’04 emphasizes that good outdoor cooking “is a mix of equal parts patience, love and impressionable freshmen.”
And remember, while just about everything tastes good outdoors, be somewhat cautious about getting too ambitious or creative. If you botch a meal, it does not take long before hunger turns to fatigue, turns to delirium, turns into serious trouble for you and your camp mates. Running on the high of a great climb, you may not always use your best judgement about whether or not, for instance, chocolate pasta is a good idea. Always err on the side of caution. You will never hear more grumbling from friends then when you muck up dinner. Horrible feasts are rarely forgotten.
A good friend of mine still regards my failed fondue as the worst culinary disaster he has ever seen in the woods, and my Footies immortalized a birthday cake3 that I made on their trip in a ghost-written pamphlet entitled “Cooking for Idiots.”
When asked about outdoor dining disasters, Sebastian Meyer ’02 recalled one especially strenuous day of sea kayaking in the Alaskan wilderness. Meyer was responsible for suggesting the startlingly popular idea that the best way to combine simple and complex carbohydrates together in one pot would be in the form of chocolate pasta.
“It may sound good now–it certainly sounded good then. But it wasn’t good then, and it probably won’t be good the next time it sounds good,” Meyer said.
A good place to start for great back country favorites is the NOLS Cookery. You might be surprised to find recipes as enterprising as calzones and chocolate cheesecake. If you are not willing to invest in a special cookbook, standard cookbooks contain home-based recipes that can often be adapted for the trail.
To get you started, I would like to share one of my favorite recipes:
Middle Eastern Stew
1 cup couscous
1 eggplant, diced
2-3 garlic cloves
2 zucchini or 1 each zucchini and summer squash, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil and Feta cheese
8 oz can tomatoes or 8 sun-dried tomatoes
If using sun-dried tomatoes, rehydrate in four cups hot water for 10 minutes or until soft. Saute vegetables and garlic in olive oil; cover and simmer until done. Meanwhile, bring two cups water and vegetable broth to boil, add couscous and remove from heat. Wait five minutes allowing couscous to absorb all the water. Serve vegetables over couscous and sprinkle with feta cheese.
One last note: be cautious about transplanting these ideas into your own home. Instant black bean soup may be a big hit 50 miles from the nearest logging road, but I have noticed that it is less enticing when you are three blocks away from Atticus.
1 The stakes are generally higher. You should know that the inability to light a stove will likely undermine your authority. Ask Jude Joffe-Block ’04.
2 Your spice kit should contain salt, pepper, sugar, crushed red chili pepper, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, rosemary, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil, cilantro, and ginger.
3 It tasted more like mashed potatoes.
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