With a little planning, backpackers can eat well

  • Tuesday, July 27, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

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

But what I’ve noticed during my lifetime of backpacking is that most of us have areas where the weight of an object is secondary to the pleasure derived from bringing it along.

Which is how we end up with a spendy-but-ultra-lightweight titanium cook set, and 1 1/2 pounds of fresh salmon. Or a frozen porterhouse. The meat weighs more than the pot it’s cooked in, but on that first night out on the trail, it’s oh-so-worth it.

Like the beginning of a hike my husband, Steve, and I took to the Wallowas with friends a while back. Freeze-dried lasagna and similar weightless entrees awaited us farther up the trail during our five-day trek into Eagle Cap Wilderness. But on that first night – while backs were strong and fresh food still an option – we had hauled in fresh-frozen salmon (barely thawed by the time we made camp), local cucumbers and Walla Walla Sweet onion slices that had mingled in a light vinaigrette for 48 hours, instant garlic-mashed potatoes, and fresh corn off the cob.

Hiker trade-offs, indeed: Corvallis, Ore., friend Bill Lauer used to carry canned bacon and an iron skillet so he and his brothers could launch each day with a pancake breakfast. But dinners leaned toward Mountain House freeze-dried chili-mac.

Another hiker friend, Dan Bottom, puts up with the extra weight associated with a healthy chunk of a full-flavored semi-dry cheese, such as Old Amsterdam, an extra-aged Gouda.

And Margy and Dave Buchanan always seem to have a bit of dry salami to share when we’re taking lunch breaks on the trail.

My husband particularly hankers for a little extra flavor at lunchtime, so lately we’ve been bringing along the “canned” tuna commercially packed in foil pouches, which we doctor up with squirts from single-serving sized packets of mayonnaise and mustard. One time we were even able to add fresh wild onions. Ak-Mak is our preferred cracker for transporting tuna from pouch to mouth.

Another Steve topping for Ak-Mak is peanut butter and my homemade raspberry jam, each component packed into a plastic backpacking food tube. He’s also fond of carrying along Tabasco sauce to boost the flavor of otherwise tame offerings, such as the various freeze-dried entrees.

This hot sauce comes in tiny, single-serving packets, but Steve’s particularly fond of carrying his very own little 1/8 fluid ounce bottle (I find them in liquor stores), which can be brought from the pack and applied with a dramatic flourish.

Bend, Ore., adventurer and friend Dennis Hanson harbors several sound trail-food philosophies. First of all, he said, “Two of the most important aspects of any outdoor trip are weather and food. You sure can’t control the weather, but bad food – or not enough of it – can put a sour face on any otherwise great adventure.”

Good food, Hanson said, “not only nourishes the body, but feeds the entire sense of an adventure. Good food – and the planning that goes into it – can make what could be a long uphill slog into a memorable adventure.”

On a 1,262-foot-climb up Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, Hanson and his partner hauled two fresh steaks and a packaged salad to the top for the ultimate summit dinner. And of course, he’s no stranger to the prefrozen salmon approach to first night trail cuisine.

Like Steve, Hanson puts the big-taste-in-a-little-bottle of Tabasco to work in zooping up trail dinners of ramen noodles and melted pepperjack cheese.

Actually, Hanson’s approach to backpack cooking can be summed up in six letters: KISMIF: “Keep it simple, make it fun!” Good planning before the trip, he said, “means minimal hassle when you’re dog-tired at the end of a long day: no mixing, measuring, chopping, sauteing, presoaking or simmering. What you carry and how you fix it should be the essence of the KISMIF method of backpack cooking.”

Some additional food for thought:

* Don’t overlook instant couscous; a delicious precooked and dried starch that’s also very lightweight. Just bring some water (flavored with a bit of salt or dried bouillon) to a boil, stir in the couscous and any other dried veggies such as tomatoes and onions, cover the pot, and let it stand for 5 minutes. This is perfect backpacking food.

* Potato flakes: lightweight and a wonderful way to give a little substance to a powdered soup or stew.

* Can’t live without the taste of fresh-ground coffee? REI sells a spoon filter, made of plastic and fine-meshed netting. Just scoop up a serving size of ground coffee into this hinged spoon, clamp it shut and place it in your mug, along with boiling water. Stir until your coffee reaches the appropriate color. Of course, I make room for my cone-filter, which means I’m packing soggy paper filters and grounds, but it’s worth it.

* Says Hanson: “What to take depends on the trip length, your own tastes, and how much weight you want to carry. To the extent possible, use the heavier fresh food early in the trip (precooked and frozen in plastic containers sealed with duct tape), and then move down the trail to your lighter items.

* How about a pertinent chardonnay with that salmon? Transfer the wine out of the heavy glass bottle into plastic water bottles. Once the wine’s gone, the plastic bottles can be returned to their original intended use. And while we’re on the subject of alcohol … if you are going to encounter clean snowfields, throw in some plastic 1.5-ounce “airline bottles” of your favorite liqueur for some adult-style snow cones. Of course, who needs snowfields?

* Cheese is the hiker’s lunchtime staple. Hard cheese keeps longer without refrigeration, so take a variety and label them either by name or by day to be eaten. Two to four ounces are enough for one adult lunch with crackers, nuts and fruit. And even though I could enjoy Dan Bottom’s cheese of choice – Old Amsterdam – for an entire backpacking journey, if you’d like a little more variety than that, here are some other cheeses to consider: Danish fontina, dry Monterey Jack, Kumminost and a smoked Gouda; also, throw in a hunk of Parmesano Reggiano (a little bit goes a long way, though), which can complement many noodle and couscous dinners.

* Check out your favorite bulk-food source for some great trail food inspiration, such as dehydrated cooked lentils and refried beans. You’ll also find seasoning mixes, instant vegetable (and beef and chicken) stock powder, and dried soup mixes in bulk form.

* n n

Consider this meal for your first night on the trail: Trail-thawed salmon (still frozen at the trail head, thawed by the time we were ready for dinner), nestled into a foil pouch with a bit of fresh lemon, fresh herbs, a splash of the house pinot blanc, and a little salt and pepper, then placed in a dry frying pan over a backpacking stove. Heavenly!

Dave and Margy’s trail salmon

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

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

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.

* n n

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.

Backpacker salad

1red onion, sliced

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

1(.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.

* n n

There’s nothing fancy or unique about this gorp. It’s just really good and really simple. Bill Lauer introduced us to this particular blend years and years ago. We mix up large portions of it at the beginning of summer and pack it into small zip-lock bags so we can grab some when we’re packing.

Bill’s Great Gorp

1box of Quaker Oats brand granola

M &M’s

Unsalted (or lightly salted) peanuts


Mix the ingredients in a bowl and then store it in resealable plastic bags. Keeps for weeks and weeks.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Oregon, food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

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