Good food’s worth the extra weight on long treks in the backcountry

  • By Jan Roberts-Dominguez Herald Columnist
  • Tuesday, July 31, 2012 10:04pm
  • Life

When planning meals for a three-day, 16-mile hike into the high country, most people think in terms of ounces, not 2-pound Porterhouse steaks.

Seasoned backpackers are trained to scrutinize every bit of gear that they’ll be lugging through the wilderness, trimming away superfluous packaging: squirting 2.2 days worth of sunscreen and body lotion into itsy- bitsy bottles; rationing the crackers and instant cocoa pouches— “Whadda-ya mean, you want two hot chocolates after dinner? This isn’t Club Med, you know.” — forsaking the down pillow for a rolled-up fleece jacket.

So when my hiking partner suggested that we pack for a barbecue on our first night out, I just laughed.

But he wasn’t kidding. At the time — a very long time ago — we were both working for a luxury hotel. This fellow was chummy with the chef.

“I’ll have Chuck order a good steak and freeze it for us,” he said. “It’ll be fun.

“By the time we reach camp it will be thawed enough to grill.”

Which, of course, meant bringing along a grill. And charcoal. And starter fluid. And wine. And fresh vegetables. And potatoes for baking.

I don’t even want to tell you how much our packs weighed. It was too embarrassing. Particularly when we had to fess up to other hikers along the trail that we were just on a two-day trek.

But my friend was right about one thing: After eight miles and several hours, the steak was almost completely thawed. It had also kept the bottle of Champagne that the chef had tucked in for good measure — three more pounds of unnecessary baggage — nicely chilled.

It was about four o’clock when we made camp. We dumped our gear, gave our trail-weary feet a brief soaking in the nearby stream, then set about preparing a barbecue of immense proportion.

While the grill chef bustled about creating the least environmentally damaging way to construct a grilling pit, I speared chunks of fresh zucchini, mushrooms and onions on bamboo skewers, plopped a zip-lock bag of marinating cucumber slices down in the water to cool and wrapped potatoes in foil.

Finally, with the sun only three fingers off the horizon, and the potatoes snuggled up next to the charcoal, we headed down to the water’s edge to relax while the coals worked up a fine coating of ash.

It was well past sundown before we finally sawed into our steaks. They were superb.

Sitting on my rock, munching delicately charred fresh vegetables between sips of a pertinent Bordeaux, I savored the moment. The myriad stars splashed over the velvet alpine sky seemed too few to rate this restaurant.

Elegant repasts aside, my theory regarding trail food is simple: Anything considered edible at the beginning of a hike will be downright exquisite by the fourth day.

So it’s always a good idea to eat most of the good stuff at the beginning of a journey when the palate is most discriminating. Consider this meal for your first night on the trail: Trail-thawed salmon (still frozen at the trail head, thawed by the time you’ve settled on a spot for the night and set up camp), nestled into a foil pouch with a bit of fresh lemon, fresh herbs, a splash of the house pinot gris, and a little salt and pepper, then placed in a dry frying pan over a backpacking stove. Heavenly!

First-night salmon

1 1/2 pounds of wild salmon filets or steaks (see note)

Dry white wine (such as a nice pinot blanc, pinot gris or sauvignon blanc)

Generous squeeze of fresh lemon


Fresh rosemary

Salt and pepper to taste

Create a foil pan for the fish that is large enough to surround everything and partially enclose the top. Snuggle this pan into your largest backpacking skillet. Spread open the foil and place the salmon in the center. Pour on enough dry white wine to create a small amount of liquid around the salmon. Add the juice from half a lemon, a few slivers of butter, some slices of Walla Walla Sweet onion, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and about 2 teaspoons of fresh rosemary leaves. Snuggle the foil up and around the fish, leaving the top open so the fish will poach but not steam.

Place the foil pouch and skillet over a backpacking stove and cook just until the fish will flake when gently prodded with a fork, about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, and the temperature of your environment. Every few minutes during cooking, baste the fish with some of the wine liquid.

Makes 4 servings.

Note on salmon: Make sure that if you’re taking salmon along for your first night in the wilderness that you start with a frozen piece. Also, it’s less messy if you can buy the salmon in a vacuum-sealed pouch.

This is the cucumber salad that I’ve been taking on backpacking trips for years. Salad purists may gasp at the use of packaged dressing, but it’s simple and quick, and quite transportable, which makes it perfect for the trail.

Simple salad

1red onion, sliced

1really good-flavored cucumber (preferably, an in-season local variety), peeled and thinly sliced

1(0.7 ounce) packet of Italian salad dressing mix

3/4cup wine vinegar

1/4cup salad oil

Place vegetables in large zip-lock bag. Add dressing packet contents, vinegar, and oil. Seal pouch, and squeeze to combine contents. Chill the pouch of salad in a snowbank, river or lake until ready to serve.

Safety note: To avoid contaminating the contents of the pouch with untreated river or lake water, the pouch must be opened carefully, and none of the water droplets clinging to the outside of the container allowed to come in contact with the salad.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at

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