Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Backcountry Cooking Tips

I had an interesting experience in observation on a trip to the Olympic Peninsula a couple years ago. It was a light weight backpacking trip - base camp was an easy few miles from the parking lot and we were only staying two nights. One of the couples on the trip had never been backcountry camping before and watching them prepare, eat, and clean up from their meals really made me thankful that I was taught the ways of low-maintenance leave no trace camping on my earliest trips.

I had the privileged of learning how to cook leave no trace style from these lovely ladies.

The couple's method went something like this:

Step 1) Lug a whole backpack worth of food into camp. It was a short hike (about an hour) but for only two nights, their food was quite heavy and bulky.
Step 2) Spend a solid hour cooking using a variety of pots and pans (all which had to be rotated over one burner), do things like drain pasta water onto the dirt, and use ingredients like fresh milk.
Step 3) Eat a big yummy meal...albeit long after everyone else was done cooking, eating, and cleaning up.
Step 4) Spend a good hour mucking up the beautiful little river with the remains from 5 or 6 dirty pans and containers. Even though this small river was rushing (the entry point was right below a 6 foot waterfall) the icky dirty water lingered for some time.
Step 5) Pack out a big old bag full of garbage.

I'm not sharing this story to pass judgment on these folks. They were absolutely lovely and the trip was much improved with them in attendance. It's just that this was their first time camping and they hadn't had the opportunity to learn the tricks that made backcountry cooking a faster, easier, and more eco friendly. If any of you are just starting out, here are some things I think you should consider when planning your menu.

Perishables. Think weather and duration.

Are you camping in the hot dessert sun? Better be vigilant about non-perishables only.

Are you doing an overnight snowshoe trip in the cold winter? Frozen or perishable foods are probably fine.

Somewhere in between? Use your best judgment. I have no problem taking eggs or smokies on a 2-3 day trip in the spring time. Is it perfectly food safe? Probably not, but it's a risk that I personally think is reasonable.

Size and Weight. Think mode of transportation and duration.

How will you carry your food? When I backpack I care a lot more about weight than when I kayak. If I'm on a one night trip and have lots of space in my bag I don't care too much about bulk. But If I'm on the trail for several days I have to actually be able to fit all of that food into my bag.

Look for foods that are dry or dehydrated (dried fruit instead of fresh, dried soup instead of canned) and packaged light (tuna in vacuum sealed packages instead of cans).

You can also reduce the weight and bulk of your food (not to mention of your garbage) by re-packaging foods before your trip. Get rid of that unnecessary box, open up those individual oatmeal packets and pour them all into one zip lock, take just the portion that you plan to use on your trip and leave the rest behind.

Price. Think time vs. money.

I'm sure you've probably heard of pre-packaged backpacking food. It is soooo convenient: open the pouch, add boiling water, let it stand a few minutes, and chow down. Your only clean up is licking your spoon and stowing the packaging with your garbage. And in my experience it is DE.LIC.IOUS. But it's pricey. One pouch usually costs about $8.

Aside: The package usually says it's for two...yeah right. I've been there. And when you have just dragged your kayak onto the beach for refuge (FINALLY A BEACH!) after paddling through a crazy storm (who plans their trips against the current when it's unnecessary? Stupid people like me, apparently) for about 2 hours you'll laugh at the idea that this meal is meant to two. Two NORMAL people. Not two ravenous backpackers (or in this case, kayakers).

Ultimately I can make dinner for a heck of a lot less than $8 a pop. But if your priority is your time, not your moola then these camping meals are a great alternative.

Preparation. Think materials and patience.

I happen to care a lot about getting my meals ready quickly and easily. You may have more patience than me. That's really a personal choice.

But are you choosing a meal that requires a lot of gear? I strive to make all my meals with nothing more than a pot, bowl, spoon, and backpacking stove. Look at the meal your planning. Will you need additional pots and pans? Cooking utensils such as knives, whisks, spatulas, can openers, or cutting boards? Will you need special items like a dutch oven?

Do you want to carry all of that weight an bulk? If you do then that's great. But if you'd rather have a low key experience I urge you to consider meals with simple preparation.

Also think about what you can do in advance to reduce your time and material needs on the trail. Can you pre-cut the veggies for your rice? Re-package and pre-mix the nuts into your oatmeal?

When the decisions are left completely up to me (which is rare) I bring only a stove, kettle, bowl, and spoon. The only hot meals I eat are of the "just add water" variety. This not only makes cooking super easy, but also makes clean up (my real concern) a breeze. Speaking of clean up...

Cleanup. Think environmental impact and convenience.

For me, cleanup is the number one driver of my backcountry meal choices. This is how I clean up after a meal:

Step 1) Eat EVERYTHING or pack it up as leftovers for tomorrow. Literally pick your pot clean of every food particle.
Step 2) Lick your bowl and spoon clean. To do this you need to make sure to buy a bowl that isn't too deep so that you can lick all the way to the bottom. If you are camping with a group be sure to label everyone's bowl and spoon so that they (and only they) will re-use it. If you like you can use just touch of hot water (maybe a table spoon's worth) to get things even cleaner. Swish the water around in the bowl and drink it or disperse it 200m away from a water source.

This shallow lexan bowl is perfect for licking clean, plus it's light weight.

Step 3) For the pot I have 3 methods:
  • leave it clean (just use it for boiling water - this is why I often camp with just a kettle)
  • clean it with your food (use bread to get all the leftovers off the sides of a soup/stew/pasta/etc pot - yummy and functional)
  • leave it dirty (I often do this for the last meal of the trip. Just leave it dirty, fill it with other garbage, and put on the locking lid before you pack it up).

You'll notice there was no mention of biodegradable soap, washing dishes in rivers or lakes, or other dirty practices. If you plan ahead you wont need to do these things. They are not viable leave no trace practices.

But alright, if you did twist my arm I'd say that washing the MINIMUM dishes (just the cooking dishes for a group, you can still lick bowls and spoons clean) in a river would be ok if that river is named after a state or major city. That's a rule of thumb that I was taught by some pretty reputable leave-no-tracers. But you still need to pick the item clean of every last food morsel and forget soap. The gravel from the river bed is all the "soap" you need.

These group cooking pans had been scraped clean of any food particles before I washed them with rocks in the Colorado River.

Hopefully you'll find these tips helpful to make backcountry cooking quicker, easier, and more eco friendly! What is your favorite tip for backcountry cooking? Have you ever had any cooking mishaps while in the wilderness?


  1. I'll share my backpacking cooking mishap, at the risk of sounding REALLY STUPID. I was about ten, so I should be forgiven.
    I'll set the scene: My family used to backpack every summer in the Sierra Nevada. Of course it never rained. When we lived in Ohio for two years, one year we went for a backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains. I'm sure there are nice areas there, but where we were it left a lot to be desired after the Sierras. And it was raining the whole time! There are pictures of all of us in our ponchos, looking like wet rats.
    Anyway, we were so miserable we started focusing on DINNER, and especially the lemon meringue pie for dessert. At the campsite, I was put in charge of dessert, and I somehow got mixed up and stirred the water in with the graham cracker crumbs instead of the lemon part, so I ruined the crust. Dessert was a disaster. My whole family hated me, and I was really depressed because I'd been dreaming of that pie. Come to think of it, I'm not sure if they've ever forgiven me...

    Thanks for your blog, and through yours I've found the "Best Hikes" which is great, and the one I really can't believe is "Winehiker"- wine and hiking, two of my favorite things!

  2. Ah ha ha! I guess the life lesson is that if dessert is all you have to look forward to don't put it in the hands of a 10 year old. Poor girl!

    And I agree, camping in the rain gets a thumbs down. Too bad I live in a rain forets. (Remind me to move to San Diego!)

  3. To clarify, you lick your bowl clean. With no further cleaning?

    1. Then rinse with a little water. Is it clean in the way you'd expect at home? Certainly not, but it's clean enough for camping if you are the only one using the bowl.



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