How To Become a Backcountry Super Chef
While most people worry about what gear and clothing they are going to bring on their thru-hike, I worried about food. I am a hungry girl in normal life. I eat constantly throughout the day and when my aerobic activity increases, so does my insane appetite. While I’m not a picky eater, I get sick of eating the same things. Taking all this into account, the constant thought of what the hell am I going to eat for six months?! floated through my brain on a daily basis. If you’re like me,and the thought of eating tortillas & peanut butter and Pasta Sides for six months scares you, read on for some simple tips to broaden your backcountry pantry.
1. Instant Mashed Potatoes as a Thickening Agent
Beware of eating an entire packet of instant mashed potatoes as a meal, they are extremely dense and will sit like a pile of cement in your stomach. Instead, mix them in with ramen, rice, pasta, or couscous. I would carry one packet for every four days and mix a little into my meal (I had a tendency to cook my couscous and seasoning in too much water). Adding the potatoes soaks up the extra water without taking all the flavor away and makes it more filling of a meal. Tip: the Idahoan brand is WAY better than Betty Crocker.
2. Seasoning is the Secret Weapon
Being creative with seasonings is the number one way to avoid getting sick of food quickly. You may think a bottle of hot sauce will be your saving grace, but you’ll need more then that. Not to mention hot sauce is liquid. Liquid=Heavy=No Bueno.
McCormick makes buffalo seasoning packets in different flavors, which are lightweight, easy to store in a baggie and will go a long way in terms of usage.
Knorr also makes great powder sauce mixes. I recommend mixing Knorr alfredo with McCormick buffalo seasoning, plus a pouch of chicken to get buffalo chicken pasta.
Then there;s gravy. Add it in powder form to just about anything for a beefy flavor. Dehydrated garlic was also another must-have for me—super light and would last me about six weeks. I would add it to just about anything for instant flavor.
Finally, Bacon Bits (which are actually made out of soy, not bacon, vegetarians take note) are great thrown into anything including oatmeal. Seriously.
3. Don’t Forget the Protein!
Protein is heavy and usually the most expensive part of a resupply, but it is necessary to maintain muscle and keep hunger at bay. My go-to were tuna pouches in a variety of flavors. The version in olive oil tasted great, and was packed with extra calories.
Don’t believe me? Summer sausage, pepperoni, salami, meat sticks, and chicken pouches are all calorie- and protein-dense. My hiking partner would boil a half dozen eggs in town, peel them, and then wrap them in a baggie and eat them for breakfast or lunch the next day. Another guy brought mustard and mayo packets so he could make deviled eggs. Where there’s a will there’s a way!
One of the most glorious parts of a long distance hike is the ability to eat whatever the hell you want and not worry about the consequences. Before my hike I considered myself to be a healthy eater. That went out the window fast. I indulged in anything Little Debbie, ate whole pizzas, and ice cream by the pints when I got into town and loved every second of it. But after a few weeks my body started craving vegetables and while I missed them, I had no desire to pack in a salad bar every time I left town. Knorr makes a few varieties of dehydrated vegetable soup mix (onions, peas, carrots) which went well with ramen or couscous. I also found containers of dried veggie chips (green beans, squash, sweet potato, carrots) which re-hydratee when thrown into pasta or rice. Sun-dried tomatoes, which I never liked before, were easy to find in most stores and went well with pesto and rice.
5. Some Other Tips
- Explore the store! Not every town will have a big name grocery store and even so, not all stores carry the same items region to region. Have a list handy but also check out all the little shelves in the produce section for dried mushrooms. Check out the spice aisle and the shelves around the deli.
- Don’t expect the creativity to hit you right off the bat. Backcountry cooking is a work in progress and will come naturally with time. Watch your fellow hikers cook, this is a great way to pick up tips and get new ideas for your own meals.
- Don’t try to be too healthy. You are going to be burning massive amounts of calories everyday. Live a little!
- Consider using ramen, instant rice, or couscous. All they need is to steep in hot water to bring them to life. This will save you huge $$ on fuel no matter what type of stove you use.
- Think about “double” ingredients. I would take the sunflower seeds out of my trail mix to put in my pesto rice for some crunch. One hiker I knew would use the raisins out of his trail mix to mix with chicken ramen and peanut butter for “Hiker Trash Pad Thai.”
- Follow your fellow hikers to the post office to pick up their mail drop. Chances are they are sick of half of what they sent themselves and will either give it away or trade for something. (Only do this if you are actually friends with the other person otherwise just wait until they dump it in the nearest hiker box to avoid looking like a total asshole).
Happy hiking and happy cooking!
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Great tips! I can relate to the cement ball referenced in #1! The first time I did this I added the whole package of instant potatoes to my dehydrated soup and ended up with a rather unappetizing blob of mush; it tasted fine but was a chore to get down.
As for ramen (vs. rice or couscous) I will eat it occasionally but am not a big fan. There are many dehydrated rice & pasta meals available that have relatively short cooking times, while others can take 20 minutes or more of simmer time. When shopping for these types of meals I spend the extra time reading and comparing the cooking instructions in the store to ensure I get those with the easiest preparation and shortest cook times. I’d also suggest trying meals at home or on a shorter trip first so you know how to prepare them and are certain you like them before buying a large supply for a longer trip.
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