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Rob's Thoughts on Trail Food

There are two schools of thought when it comes to trail cuisine. First, there are those who insist on being "backcountry" gourmets, and concocting ridiculous combinations of stuff in a never ending quest for a "truly gourmet dining experience." Then there are those who just want good, hearty, hot food, and plenty of it. Fortunately, both Chris and I fall into the second category. We are outcasts in the world of snobby backpackers for a couple of reasons:

  1. We aren't vegetarians.
  2. We like freeze-dried food.
  3. We don't like to pretend that we are home with real kitchen utensils when we are on the trail. We utilize only a few simple tools and rarely go beyond them. In our minds, pot + water + fire = dinner. Maybe we'll use a can opener some times. Mostly, we just eat the can.

When we plan our menus, we like to keep the following points in mind. First, we want food to be light. That usually means dried – whether we do it in my dehydrator, or we buy it that way. This is probably the main concern for us – far more important than taste and variety. Second, we don't want it to spoil. This usually means either well dried, or prepared and pre-packaged. Third, we look for ease of cooking. This means as few utensils and pots as possible. We hate to do the dishes at home where we have a dishwasher, and we hate it even more on the trail where we have to dig a hole away from camp, scrape out the food, and rinse the pots in cold water, all usually after dark. We'll avoid this at all costs.

So, what does this all mean? Well, We've found that there are two ways to satisfy these requirements. We can buy pre-packaged food, in the form of freeze-dried meals or MREs, or we can piece our own together from things that we buy at the supermarket. To be honest, we use both of these approaches, and which one we use more for any particular trip has more to do with how much cash we have prior to a trip, how much time we have to prepare and pack, and how lazy we are, than with anything else. Here is a description of the typical meals that we will bring on a normal trip:

MREs The main drawback to these meals is that they are heavy as hell. And they can be kind of bulky. The advantage is that they are completely self-contained, and they don't go bad for years. When we're backpacking, we usually avoid them due to the weight (however they are the perfect food for sea kayaking trips), unless we are packing in the really cold months, or we are expecting really bad weather. If that's the case, We'll usually throw in one or two, just in case we find ourselves starving, and the weather is too bad to light a stove to cook anything else. We have spent more than one rainy night inside a tent and had a decent dinner without the hassles of trying to light a stove in the rain.
Freeze-Dried Food We would have to say that these are the staples of our backpacking diet. We do this mostly for the convenience. Ounce for ounce, there is no more convenient food available. Most of these meals do not even require you to dirty a pot – you simply pour water into the bag they came in, rehydrate them, and eat. This is the most important thing for us. We are especially fond of some of the breakfast foods that are available. Nothing like reasonably good sausage patties and hash browns for breakfast without having to worry about spoilage.
Supermarket Food You might be surprised at the variety of backpacking things you can find in the supermarket. Most of the things suitable for backpacking use will be either dried (rice, pasta, fruits, soup mixes, etc) or in cans (vegetables, meats, etc). The American society's lust for convenience has certainly made the lives of hikers easier as well. Some of my favorite items are the varieties of "quick cook" rice and pasta dishes, soup, gravy, and sauce mixes, and small cans of meats. And, of course, don't forget Ramen noodles.

Meal Planning

Over the years, I've found that my meals seem to always take on the same form. Basically, everything starts with a base. This is usually a starch, either rice, pasta, or potatoes. Into this some form of meat or vegetable is mixed, and then a seasoning or sauce is added. As I plan different combinations, I keep the following things in mind: When choosing the base, I consider the weather and conditions we will be hiking in. For example, I tend to dehydrate very quickly – so, when the weather is warm out, I will opt for rice over potatoes or pasta, because rice absorbs that water it is cooked in. So, I get more water into my body than if I cooked noodles and poured the water off. In fact, since dehydration can be a problem all year around, I'd say I use rice as a base for 4 out of 5 meals (plus it keeps about a billion Chinese alive, so it's got to be good for you). My meat of choice is usually chicken. This is because it is readily available in a can, and I hate tuna. For most of my recipes, you could use tuna and it wouldn't make a difference. Other alternatives are dried beef (available in jars, but once opened it spoils quickly), really dried sausages like pepperoni (or Slim-Jims), or everyone's favorite, Spam. Finally, the sauce or seasoning is usually made up at the time of cooking. For the most part, I choose a rice dish that already has its own sauce, and then go from there. In my camp kitchen, we normally carry salt, pepper, garlic powder, hot sauce, and Italian seasoning. That pretty much works for everything.

Some of my favorite combinations include – Any variety of chicken flavored rice or noodle dish, a can of chicken, and some seasoning. A pot of stove-top stuffing, a can of turkey, and a pouch of turkey gravy. Spam and Triscuts. Anything wrapped in a tortilla. Mix these up with some freeze-dried meals, and you have a week's worth of food without much hassle or cleaning.

Resources

One of the hardest things about obtaining camping food is finding it. It seems that even outdoor specialty stores don't always have the best stock. Here are a few web resources that should hopefully put you on the right path. If you have any that we have missed, e-mail them to us at Webmasters@hike-nh.com and we will try and add them.

MREs MREs can be the hardest things to find -- since they are military surplus no one can guarantee a steady supply. As far as web resources go, the experts seem to be the Long Life Food Depot. Aside from the fact that they (and almost all freeze-dried / MRE food suppliers) cater to every survivalist crackpot out there, they seem to have a handle on the supply situation and provide more information, variety, and choice than anyone else.

Freeze Dried You are much more likely to find freeze dried food at your local outdoor store. There are three primary manufacturers that you are likely to run into in the store. Mountain House foods (owned by a company called Oregon Freeze Dry), Alpine Airefoods, and Backpacker's Pantry. Note that Alpine Aire does not sell directly from their website (and the site isn't that good to begin with). Also note that the Backpacker's Pantry site was still under construction as of 7/13/99.

Other One of the things that can make even the most bland meal into something great is the proper spices. I know you can find spices at the local supermarket, but if you are a serious cook (and I am at home) you only want the best. By far the best source I have ever found is a company called Penzey's from Wisconsin. They are small and are still getting the on-line ordering part of their website completed, but they are definately worth a look.

Good eating!

 

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Chris Oberg & Robert Havasy
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