Backpackerís Food---one manís version
[by Michael Edelman, OYB Correspondent; Bureaus of Folding Kayaks, Folding Bikes, Airguns...and Folding Food!]
If you read the popular outdoors literature, most food for backpacking seems to fall into one of two categories. On one hand youíve got the ready-made, freeze dried stuff that costs a fortune, and on the other, a lot of overly fussy dishes that involve multiple pots and pans, long cooking times, and carrying fresh ingredients. There are also a disturbing number of ďpasta saladĒ recipes that are based on cheap ramen noodles and bottled dressing.
Then there are those hard-core backpackers who seem to thrive on living off pure fuel---energy bars, instant protein shakes, or some other compressed ration. My pal Rob---an ultralight hiker whose complete summer pack typically weighs around 20 lbs---will disappear into the woods for a week carrying nothing to eat but a large ziplock bag into which heís emptied the contents of several envelopes of instant flavored mashed potatoes and several packages of ramen. (Dining with him sometimes takes a strong stomach.)
I try to find a middle ground. I want food thatís easy to prepare, but I want something thatís enjoyable, and has some variety. Weíre not eating survival rations on the face of Everest here. Weíre on vacation. Weíre supposed to be having fun.
I canít get started without my morning coffee, so I carry one of those tiny 1-cup espresso makers that fit on a backpack stove along with a tiny demitasse cup. For me, itís a small luxury that is greatly appreciated when I wake up a dozen miles from the nearest sign of civilization. If Iím traveling very light, Iíll carry teabags instead.
The meal proper is oatmeal, but not those envelopes of instant oatmeal that are either too bland, or too sweet. At home I mix up my own muesli, and thatís what I carry camping, too. The recipe is simple: Mix oatmeal with a handful of chopped up nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts) and chopped or small up dried fruit (applies, raisins, cranberries, etc) and some wheat germ. You can eat this as a hot cereal, by adding hot water, or as a cold cereal, with some instant milk. Or you can add instant milk powder to the mixture and avoid a step. Itís a filling, tasty, meal, and it keeps your gut moving.
Itís hard to beat GORP as a trailside snack or quick lunch. I prefer to mix my own as the commercial versions always seem to have a high proportion of M&Ms. I also like to prepare several different varieties, with different fruits and nuts, to insure Iíve got variety in my diet.
Lunch is almost always a meal eaten during a break from paddling or hiking, so unless the weather is chilly itís an uncooked meal. Usually I base it around hard tack or some other dry cracker that holds up well. You can buy hard tack in camping stores, but you can make it yourself, too; itís just flour, salt, and water. To this, I add various spreads and savories that can be eaten along with it. Number one is almond butter---or peanut butter, if you prefer.
Another good accompaniment is cheese, and my preferred backpacking cheese is the tiny wheels of Brie and Camembert that come in aluminum zip-lock cans about the size of a can of tuna.
Last, a small salami is always welcome at lunch time, but carrying meat is dangerous in bear country, or anywhere there are scavenging animals---which is almost everywhere. And if you do carry salamis, pretty soon everything in your pack will smell like salami, too.
Basic Hard Tack
Combine 4c flour, 4t salt, and 2c water.
Mix well to the consistency of playdough.
Roll out 1/4Ē thick and score into 2Ē squares
Pierce each piece with a fork several times
Transfer to an ungreased pan and bake at 375 for an hour, turning once.
Let cool and wrap in ziplock bags.
A lot of backpackers use mixes from the supermarket---instant soup, packaged noodles with sauce, Rice-a-Roni and so forth. I canít stand the taste of most of these mixes---I find them too salty, and artificial tasting. I have found one brand that works for me: the Near East brand couscous mixes. Theyíre not too strongly flavored, they cook quickly, and they make a good base you can add things to. They have eight varieties, as well as some rice-based pilafs (good but require much longer cook time). Each requires only two additional ingredients---water, and butter or oil, which I carry in a small squeeze bottle.
I prepare the mix for packing by transferring the contents of the box to a small ziplock bag. Before sealing, I place a piece of paper inside listing the amount of water and oil to be added---something easier to forget than you might think!
Thatís only half the dinner, though. You need protein. Individual cans of tuna and cooked chicken or ham are good. So are canned mussels, and smoked oysters and clams. Just make sure you get the kind packed in olive oil. For the adventurous, there are things like octopus in spicy red sauce, and squid in ink.
If you enjoy Asian and rice, thereís an even wider range of options available at any Asian market. Walking down the aisles youíll come across stacks of tuna-sized cans with an amazing variety of foods intended to be served over a bowl of rice as a quick meal. At my local market I found several varieties of tuna with vegetables, tuna in bulgogi sauce, tuna with kimchee, roasted eel (very yummy), marinated mushrooms, peanuts and wheat gluten, fish with black beans, mackerel with miso sauceÖ the list goes on.
I usually have tea with dinner, or after dinner. Itís a relaxing drink.
Itís nice to finish the dinner meal with a treat---particularly if youíve just finished a major leg of the trip. Years ago my friend Peter introduced me to the delights of hot Grape Nuts with instant cocoa. You mix this up ahead of time---a quarter cup of grape nuts to a serving of instant cocoa---and bag it in one-serving ziplock bags. To serve, empty the bag into your bowl, add hot water, and wait a minute. Adding freeze dried berries makes this even better. And for a real treat, add a splash of Yukon Jack from your flask.