Posted by: James Wapotich | April 15, 2019

Trail Quest: Backcountry Gourmet

Backcountry gourmet menu ideas backpacking los padres national forest trail hacks campfire


Although people have been drying meat and fruit since probably before recorded history, the process of dehydrating food didn’t start to see its full application until the second World War when reducing the weight and bulk of food for transportation became important.

In the 1960’s, as interest in backpacking become more popular, campers turned to dehydrated fare for their trips. These meals have several advantages, they’re lightweight, easy to make, take less time to cook, which reduces the amount of fuel one has to carry, and come in a wide variety of flavors.

And yet for all of its functionality and convenience, dehydrated food can sometimes be too much of a good thing. Several years ago, after a dozen different backpacking trips over the course of six months in our local mountains, my taste buds were ready for a change. With more trips coming up later that fall, I was re-inspired to find some satisfying alternatives to dehydrated backpacking food.

In spite of the extra weight, I’ve found that packing in treats can improve morale. Having something that feels more like a home-cooked meal can not only offset the long miles, but help alleviate the mindset that camping is somehow about suffering.

Nevertheless, there’s a balance to be struck; backpacking does require effort, and there are limitations to the scope of one’s kitchen at camp and the types of items that can be easily carried. Over the years, rather than developing recipes, I’ve sought out items that are pre-made or instant and relatively easy to make. I’ve also favored items that don’t have a lot of heavy or bulky packaging that I have to pack out.

A while back a friend shared with me a couple menu ideas from his own trick bag that helped break me out of the perception that the only place to find backpacking food is at a store that sells sporting goods or camping gear. That set me on the path of occasionally wandering the aisles of different grocery stores, searching out and exploring alternative menu ideas for backpacking.

His most versatile idea is to take polenta and instant black bean soup, found in the bulk section of local health food stores, and combine it with chunks of salami, cheese, and sun-dried tomato. While these may sound like mismatched items, the resulting meal is a tasty blend of flavors reminiscent of both pizza and burritos. It’s simple to make adding the polenta and then seasoned, instant black bean flakes to boiling water until it’s cooked, and then adding in the other ingredients to heat them up. Since I often bring salami and cheese to go with crackers for lunches, it’s relatively easy to bring extra for the dinner meal.

His other idea is pre-made Indian food in a foil pouch. Tasty Bites makes a wide range of flavors and Trader Joe’s also has a similar private label selection. Some personal favorites include Bombay potato and Madras lentil. These items pair well with grains such as instant rice or couscous.

Another trick I’ve learned is that Madras lentils is almost like Indian chili, and that combining it with pre-cooked tri-tip can make for a hardy meal in the backcountry. As an alternative to salami, I’ll often bring tri-tip to go with my cheese and crackers for lunch. Pre-cooked tri-tip can be found at a number of stores in Santa Barbara, and will keep well for a couple of days if kept unsliced as a single piece wrapped in tin foil and stored in a resealable bag to keep the juices from leaking out.

One of my favorite backpacking meals is spaghetti and meatballs. The challenge with this item in the past had been how to carry it. Do you pack it in a glass jar or plastic container and hope it doesn’t break or leak? Or do you pour it into a water bottle and hope that the smell and flavor doesn’t permanently effect it?

During one of my many wanders through the grocery store I stumbled across a marvel of modern packaging, marinara sauce in an aseptic tetra pak box. I’ve only found one brand packaged this way and now can only find it at Tino’s Italian Grocery Store or online, but Pomì’s marinara sauce is worth the effort.

The sealed container serves two people and when empty is easy to pack out. The sauce comes fully flavored and only needs to be heated up, and when combined with pasta and pre-cooked meatballs is an amazing backcountry treat. A checkered table cloth is optional, but other items worth bringing along are French bread, parmesan cheese, and red wine. Again, thanks to the wonders of modern packaging it’s easy to find single serving wine in small plastic containers or double servings in similar aseptic boxes.

I’ve also found that bringing gourmet treats with me when my girlfriend joins me on a backpacking trip improves the likelihood of her going on subsequent trips into the backcountry. Whatever long miles I just made her hike will more easily be forgotten with a great meal.

Another item I rediscovered at the grocery store was macaroni and cheese. While this is close in spirit to dehydrated food, it still feels more like a home-cooked meal. This was also staple item from my Boy Scout days when we’d often have macaroni and cheese on the first night of our five-day backpacking trips. For protein we added in a large can of tuna. Today, tuna also comes in an easy to pack foil pouch.

A favorite pastime around the campfire for both my sister and my girlfriend is expressing their dismay around the very notion of adding tuna to macaroni and cheese. This prompts me to remind them that the recipe for tuna casserole, which dates back to at least the 1950s, is essentially noodles and tuna. For added effect, I’ll mention that some recipes even include sprinkling crumbled potato chips on top; this usually establishes who has the better sense of taste and allows us to move on to a different topic.

A recent addition to my trick bag is backcountry tacos. These are surprisingly easy to make. I use instant rice and black bean soup or dehydrated bean flakes, which give the tacos more substance, and then add tri-tip I’ve heated up. My favorite tortillas are a blend of corn and flour, which are easier to heat up and more pliable than corn tortillas. For garnishes I use cheese, along with fresh onion and cilantro. Instead of bringing a bottle of hot sauce or small packets from fast food restaurants, I’ve found that several stores now carry salsa in small, plastic single-use containers.

Sometimes I’ll bring fresh eggs, which is an easy way to take any leftovers from the tacos the night before and repurpose them into breakfast burritos. Eggs can be tricky to carry, but they will stay fresh if unopened. Powdered eggs are easy to find anywhere dehydrated backpacking food is sold, but in terms of flavor and consistency, for me they’re nowhere near the same.

The closet thing I’ve found to real eggs, and by closest I mean halfway between powdered eggs and real eggs, is Ova Easy egg crystals, which can be found at REI and online. For the best results mix the egg crystals and water the night before, this allows the eggs to rehydrate more thoroughly and cook up fluffier. Pre-cooked sausage pairs well with scrambled eggs and will keep for a couple of days.

I remember when Starbucks first introduced their own instant coffee, I wished I was an avid coffee drinker just so I could write a review. But I do enjoy a good mocha, and their single-serving packets make for an easy way to have backcountry mochas. There are several tricks to making a good mocha, first and foremost is milk, which I discovered after trying to mix instant coffee with just instant hot chocolate.

The second and equally important is deciding what type of mocha drinker you are. Do you prefer coffee with some hot chocolate or hot chocolate with some coffee? If it’s the latter, then the trick is to start with chocolate milk and add to it some powdered hot chocolate to make it extra chocolatey. Again, thanks to modern packaging, single-serving milk can be found in aseptic tetra pak boxes that don’t require refrigeration.

Whipped cream still has a way to go before it’ll be easy to carry into the backcountry. Trader Joe’s makes whipping cream in aseptic tetra pak boxes, but it takes a lot of work to whip it to the right consistency without a mixer.

As an alternative, my girlfriend will just add marshmallows to her mocha, which to me just seems wrong, but I’ve noticed that out in the wild there’s a certain lawlessness that can take hold of some people.

But the real key to creating good backpacking fare is to remember that it’s about finding ways to bring along what you enjoy and deciding when the weight tradeoff makes sense.

Article appears in section A of the March 18th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

This article draws on in part from a blog post I made in 2014, which can be seen here, plus three other food related posts I drafted but never got around to posting. I may add those other three at some point since they include addition menu ideas that I didn’t have room for in the article.

Bonus points if you can name the camp featured in the photo at the top of this post.

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