Camp Food: Eating Right in the Backcountry
There are two schools of thought regarding the menu for a hunting, fishing or camping trip in a remote location - roughing it or eating well. On my recent Alaskan caribou hunt, we ate well - including tundra filet mignon cooked on an innovative grill which folds up to the size of a ruler!
On any trip where weight is a factor, like a fly-in hunt in Alaska or a backcountry trout-fishing trip in the Rockies, it is tough to carry a week's worth of food. Unless you are willing to go hard-core and supplement a steady diet of instant oatmeal by living off the land, it is difficult to plan great meals without buying loads of the pre-packaged dehydrated foods found in outdoor stores, or enough MRE's to feed someone for a week. Either of these options are effective and lightweight, but run at least five dollars or more per meal which can add up for a week in a remote location.
The pre-packaged meals or military vittles are not the only way to eat well in the wild.
Great hunting, fishing or camping trips start with great planning. If the excursion is for fly-in hunting, or involves living out of a backpack for a week, start out with a scale. Assemble all of the gear including the pack it is going in and weigh it. Whatever is left below the target weight is what you have left for food.
Taking the extreme view, a hunter packing for a sheep hunt needs to keep the total weight of the pack and all gear to around 45-50 pounds, which leaves 5-10 pounds for food. Sheep hunters bring around a pound of dry food per day, and often have to carry water as well. Given the extreme exertion of a sheep hunt, this doesn't leave much of a weight allowance to carry enough high calorie meals to sustain oneself.
Water weighs exactly 8.33 pounds per gallon, so it stands to reason that the more water there is in the food items you are packing, the greater the weight. The best way to get the weight down is remove the water, which is how the packaged backpack meals are prepared, all dehydrated and the only cooking instruction is to add hot water.
Assuming water will be available where you will be camped, it is simple to cook up a decent meal without a lot of trouble. The next step is coming up with a meal plan for the trip. Figure out a menu that you will be happy with but will also be reasonable for cooking a one-pot meal on a backpack stove. On many remote trips, you will work up quite an appetite, so plan on eating more than you typically do at home.
Backpack Food From the Grocery
Pasta mixes, rice dinners all are available in the grocery store and are dried and packaged appropriately for a remote trip. These can be also be made into a complete meal by adding some meat to the mix. Be sure to read the label and stick to the foods that only need water to prepare or plan on bringing powdered milk.
You can't live on carbohydrates alone for a week, so it is important to bring along some meat and protein items. Canned goods weigh quite a bit, but there is usually room for a couple of small canned items like chicken, tuna, or corned beef that can be used in a meal or two. Other good sources of protein include items like my favorite, Power Bars, or any of the other various protein bars. Nuts and cashews are another good source and are easy to carry.
Many grocery stores carry great backpack foods, if you look for them. They are usually packed in pouches that can be stored at room temperature and don't weigh a whole lot. Pre-cooked albacore tuna, chicken breast, and even complete meals like chicken stew are available this way, often in the gourmet or natural foods isle. Many of these pre-cooked packaged meals can be added to Ramen noodles for a quick and easy meal.
Some cooking items will be needed for the trip. A can of Pam or spray butter that doesn't have to be refrigerated is great for anything hat has to be cooked in a frying pan, like pancakes.
Drinks are easy to come by for a camping trip. Most grocery stores will have plenty of drink mixes. Look for drink mixes which are packaged for individual servings. It is easy to find this type of mix for iced tea, various fruit drinks, and even sport drinks. Throw a packet in a water bottle and shake it up, it's that simple. Coffee, tea, and hot chocolate are also available in individual servings.
One good trick is to save up all of the little packets of mayonnaise, catsup, mustard, and other various sauces as this is a convenient way to bring some condiments along on a trip. Salt, sugar, and creamer packets are also worth saving. My buddy has a zip-loc bag of these items that goes on all of his hunting trips.
Home Prepared Meals
There were a couple of mornings on our recent caribou hunt when the morning fog along the river was so thick that we slept in a little late. On those days, we boiled some water in the tent and added it to the prefabricated breakfast meals Bobby brought from home. Using a vacuum sealer, he made up packages of oatmeal with a little butter and a handful of dried fruit thrown in. A great instant hot breakfast you could eat right out of the package, plus the Coleman stove warmed up the tent.
If you have a food dehydrator and a vacuum sealer, it is easy to put together nearly any meal you would like to have out in the field. This is a little work at home, but it saves a lot of money and the great thing about these meals is they are not only tasty, but they are really easy to make.
The dehydrator can be used to dry a variety of things. Some folks use them to dehydrate items like spaghetti sauce, which ends up looking like the tomato version of a fruit rollup and can be reconstituted with a little water. It is also possible to dehydrate complete meals like lasagna and then cook them in the field.
You do have to use common sense with the home packed stuff, though. Anything with perishables like butter in them won't keep forever and should be used up right away on a trip.
Getting everything ready for a trip takes some work. Generally, the best way to pack is take everything out of the boxes from the grocery store and store them in zip-loc bags. This both eliminates the bulk and adds a second layer of protection.
After everything is broken down and put into zip-loc bags, a waterproof dry bag is the best way to carry and store food in the field. These bags are sturdy enough to protect the food, and even in a week's worth of rain they will keep things dry. These bags also provide a little insulation if you've brought along some frozen hot dogs or other meat for the beginning part of the trip.
The Right Fuel
Another major planning hurdle is the means by which you will cook. On remote trips most folks use some sort of backpack stove, but getting fuel for these stoves away from civilization is not always a sure thing. Fuel cannot be shipped on an airline, so unless you are driving to the start point for your trip, fuel will have to be purchased before venturing into the bush. Some pack stove manufacturers recognize this fact and offer multi-fuel stoves that will function on a variety of fuels. Stoves are available which will work with alcohol, gasoline, white gas, and other fuels.
In most places, Coleman fuel or propane cylinders can be purchased, so a stove that works with either of these fuels is a good bet. Stoves that require specialty fuels or fuel cartridges, are not a good idea unless enough fuel for the trip can be shipped to a drop point.
On the Trip
If you are reasonably sure the chances are good that some fish or game can be added to the menu, plan accordingly. For our trip, we were optimistic enough to bring along a package of powdered meat marinade. We cut up some fresh caribou tenderloin and marinated it all day in a zip-loc bag while we hunted. The meat was excellent.
If there is a good chance at some of nature's foods, bring the same seasonings you use at home for your campfire cooking. It is a good idea to bring along some aluminum foil for cooking meat or fish if you do not have some sort of backpack grill. This way the meal can be foil wrapped and baked in the coals of a campfire.
Extra zip-loc bags are a must for a trip like this. If you cook a big meal and there are leftovers, they can be reheated the next day for an easy meal. It is usually cold enough at night for the food to keep.
Wilderness camping is great fun, regardless of your reason for being there. While the backwoods isn't exactly a four star restaurant, there is no reason for being uncivilized. With a little planning and preparation the food on trips to the most far away parts of the planet does not have to consist of a steady diet of noodles and powdered eggs!
References & Links:
Good cooking gear is available for remote trips. Most of the new gear is designed for compactness and weight. The cookware cleans up easily and stores very compactly. Here are a few manufacturers offering this sort of equipment.
Alpine Aire Foods- www.aa-foods.com (1-800-322-6325) - Alpine Aire makes prepackaged meals suitable for camping.
Coleman- www.coleman.com (1-800-835-3278)- Coleman has a variety of backpack stoves including multi-fuel models. The company also offers cookware and storage containers for food.
Industrial Revolution- www.industrialrev.com (1-888-297-6062) Industrial Revolution makes the Grilliput, a compact stainless steel grill. The company also produces stove accessories and individual mess kits.
JetBoil- www.jetboil.com (1-888-611-9905) JetBoil is the manufacturer of an integrated stove and pot system. They also produce utensils and other camp cooking accessories.
Mountain House Foods- www.mountainhouse.com (1-800-547-0244)- Mountain House makes a variety of freeze dried meals, including multi-day meal kits.
Mountain Safety Research - www.msrgear.com (1-800-531-9531)- MSR produces several different backpack stoves including multi-fuel models. The company also produces compact cookware that has no-stick surfaces for easy cleanup.
Robert Streeter is a freelance outdoor writer from upstate New York.