The Magical Makings of Memorable Trail Food
Most of us love food. For long-distance sojourners, it can be a great motivator—especially when someone else is conjuring hot dishes of fried goodness in large quantities and serving up heaping helpings within the cozy confines of a town diner. Food can be equally as appreciated even when it comes dished out from the depths of a Ziplock® freezer bag, exquisitely accompanied by a chorus of echoing loon wails or while watching a fiery sun descend into darkness at the end of a long day.
Even though eating is simply an act of refueling, like a favorite song*, food can contribute to the way in which a trip is remembered. Meals conjure memory. Will your food be as enduring and satisfying as David Bowie’s Changes or as forgetful and bland as Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On? Will a journey be forever associated to lyrics as cold and dry as a nutritional bar or will they be inextricably bound to a spine-tingling chord change the way a simmering pot of hearty chowder will radiate right down to your fingertips on a blustery day?
I can still recall waiting out a snow squall in the stone shelter atop Blood Mountain during my college spring break trip. I unpacked the stove, mixed up the batter, and baked skillet bread, distributing the piping hot, honey-laden slices among the few of us stuck there that morning. Thirty years later, I summoned another pan of skillet bread. This time we raced a thunderstorm in the Adirondacks, along with a youth group, arriving at Mother Johnson’s lean-to on the Raquette River. We boiled water, made cocoa and shared chunks of hot, buttery bread while the rain poured down.
Next to being asked why I’m not afraid to be tramping through the woods with an apparently astonishingly high percentage of bears and psychopaths, how I’m managing to feed myself for the next six months or so is another concern front country people fuss about most on my behalf.
There are as many differing opinions about how a long-distance hiker goes about obtaining and carrying food as there are about obtaining a trail name. And yes, I’ve even read one disturbingly long post suggesting how a prospective thru-hiker intends to forage for wild edibles and rattlesnakes, living off the land instead of carrying much, if any, food. With this sort of magical thinking, it won’t take long for the rest of us pasta sides-packing hikers to be hungrily eyed as potential meal tickets.
For most hikers, food procurement boils up (see what I did there?) to two schools of thought: Buy as you go or send yourself a mail drop with pre-purchased food and/or recipes of your own preparation. Neither or both tactics are better. Or worse. Sort of like debating who is the venerable wizard—Dumbledore or Gandalf?
Some people do few or no mail drops, while others plan to do several or many.
I fall into the latter category. I am choosing to trade off a constraint-free itinerary and the prospect of finding palatable food at local convenience stores to being at the mercy of postal office hours and hostel locations in order to pick up a mail drop or bounce box.
I’ve always packed my own recipes. I consider food preparation part of the overall adventure. Beginning with the Sierra Club’s publication of “Simple Foods for the Pack” that I picked up in the early 80s, all of my canoeing and hiking trips have included food put together by myself. The only exception was the occasional tantalizing silver-packaged Mountain House freeze-dried dinner used to entice the kids as a “special” dinner night on the trail.
In 2011, I spent 53 days paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and coordinated six different drops of food using my prearranged meals. So, for me, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d do more or less the same when planning a five to seven-month trip. Although this time around, I discovered the magic of Trailcooking.com recipes and the provisional wonders of Harmony House Foods and Minimus online.
I’ve owned a dehydrator since forever. Beef jerky is one of our favorite homemade camping foodstuffs. For my 2011 canoe trip, I bagged up the equivalent of about ten pounds of ground beef as jerky. Opening each one of the twelve bags in the back county was sooooo worth it. And ultimately cheaper than purchasing store-bought brands.
Pulling rabbits (or beef or chickens) out of the hat (or food bag) and following the dangling carrot.
Only days of deprivation, such that long-distance hiking ensures, will render a pasteurized cheese product into nectar from the gods or ramen, manna from heaven. I just prefer to help ensure that my manna includes real veggies and maybe some curry and coconut powders.
Yeah, I realize I’m tethering myself to a town or hostel with an associated schedule, but here’s a sampling of the culinary magic I will be pulling out of my food bag:
- Tuna Basil Pasta
- Edamame Noodle Bowl
- Beef Curry
- Chicken with Veggies
- Sundried Tomato Tuna Tortellini
- Thanksgiving on the Trail
- Potato and Cheese Chowder
- Mediterranean Lentil Salad
- Lemony Chickpea Salad
I can only imagine that weeks spent on the trail will only render these recipes even more epicurean delightful. How can I not be looking forward to eating as much or more than doing the actual hiking? Instead of a carrot on a string, this beast will be looking forward to the hedonistic victuals contained within a plastic baggie.
I field-tested quite a few new recipes last year before I let loose, went hog wild and dove head first into extreme freezer bag cooking. At the same time I also began conjuring ultalight pot cozies, rendering most of my trail “cooking” even more practical. Some recipes don’t even require heat. I simply add water, oil and/or dressing to the bag, walk a few hours and voila—lunch is served!
My lightweight production line.
I’ve spent a month packaging up close to 150 dinners and an assortment of lunch salad sides. Three to five bags of each recipe were lined up and packed at the same time. I went through several pounds of dried onion flakes, the most frequently used ingredient next to dried tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Recipes typically include a starch such as three-minute quick-cook pasta, corn or whole wheat pasta, instant brown rice, couscous or ramen supplemented by freeze-dried or dehydrated vegetables, and a protein.
Although I dehydrate many staples like spinach, mushrooms, corn, and canned chicken (rehydrates so easily!), I draw the line at beans and some veggies like carrots. A friend told me about Harmony House, and I ordered the sampler backpacking kit. Holy macaroni. I’m smitten. Everything I’ve used worked great—and that’s like 17 of the 18 bags included in the kit. I liked the freeze-dried lentils so much that I ordered another gallon. Only the jalapeno sample bag remains largely untouched. Almost all of my recipes include Parmesan—or other cheeses—and oil. Minimus sells individual packets that make recipe packaging complete.
Common grocery store items like oatmeal, tortillas, and power/granola bars will be procured as I go, as will fresh food like cheese and sausages. I know that purchasing items helps support trail town economies, plus it doesn’t make sense to me to increase the cost of shelf-stable grocery items by shipping food that is readily available en route.
Food has the ability to shape a travel experience that goes well beyond simply satisfying hunger. In addition to every step, I can only hope to be conjuring memories with every bite.
Now. I’m going to count to three and snap my fingers, and we’re all going to recognize that the better wizard is indeed Gandalf.
*Apologies to any Celine Dion fans. And Harry Potter aficionados.
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In 2016, I set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail as a flip-flopper but my attempt ended after 1300 miles. I started in Shenandoah National Park summiting Mt. Katahdin on August 23, four months later. During the winter, I decided I should finish what I started and headed back to the A.T. on May 2, 2017 departing from Springer Mountain. I arrived at my 2016 starting point at Rockfish Gap on June 30. I’m also a paddler who has canoed the 428-mile Wisconsin River from source to mouth and twice completed the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
I know HYOH and all that, but here clearly you’re wrong. Dumbledore. 🙂
Very impressive!! You should post your favorite recipes.
There is no debate…Gandalf! And I think you will be eating better on the trail than I will be on the cruise ship! What a wonderful collection of recipes to fuel you up and down in all sorts of weather, not to mention the fun-filled winter days getting it all ready!
Did you try the Mountain House dehydrated ground beef crumbles? If so, how were they, did they taste good?
Only have used vegie crumbles. I’ve read hamburger works well too but idnot be as comfotable using that without vacuum sealing.