You don’t need to be a professional chef to prepare great food on the trail. This crash-course will teach you everything you need to know about cooking great outdoor food. Cooking outdoors is a lot about personal preference. Some backpackers put great effort into planning and cooking elaborate meals, including such as marinated meats, risotto, steamed vegetables, and sauce. Others don’t mind cold oatmeal, coffee, nuts & raisins, and mac & cheeses. For many backpackers, good food around the campfire is the best part of the trip. Others don’t mind running a calorie deficit and think of cooking as a necessary evil. What works best for you and your family largely depends on how much weight in food you are willing to carry, how much energy you will use hiking, and how important good food is to you.
There is however a few basic things you need to know and keep in mind about food and cooking when planning a backpacking trip.
- Cooking set: a family size cooking set should include at least an 8-12 inch frying pan and a 26-34oz pot. Most sets come with lids and grip handles. If lids are not included, tinfoil works great. Some sets also include mugs and plates.
- Titanium is the best performer and weighs the least – it is also the most expensive at $80-$100 for a family size set. Titanium’s strength is quite amazing, especially considering how thin they make the cookware.
- Aluminum is light and less expensive than Titanium at $60-$80 for a family set. While some aluminum alloys are quite a bit stronger than others, they all dent and distort over time.
- Stainless steel is heavier than Titanium and Aluminum, but less expensive at $40-$60.
- Cast iron skillets are great for cooking over fire, but are not suitable for backpacking because they are extremely heavy. Car-camping only!
- Small spatula for stirring.
- Stove & Fuel:
- Propane stoves generally have the best heat to weight output, and flame intensity can be easily adjusted. Basic propane stoves cost around $40 (MSR Pocket Rocket or similar). High altitude is not an issue with propane gas stoves, but they may not work below freezing temperatures (make sure to check canister!). Propane fuel comes packaged in a disposable metal canister at $3-4.
- Alcohol stoves, significantly less expensive than propane, come in many forms and are commonly homemade from aluminum or tin cans. They tend to cook slow and use up more fuel than propane stoves. Flame intensity can be difficult, or impossible, to adjust. Alcohol stoves, not including fuel, usually weighs less than an ounce. Alcohol stoves may work poorly in the cold without an insulating platform and/or preheating.
- Plates & bowls: aluminum or plastic works fine. One plate or bowl per person is usually sufficient. A family set cost $25-45.
- Mugs & glasses: comes in metal of plastic. Insulated mugs are great, but most expensive. Basic plastic mugs works fine and doesn’t cost more than $3-5.
- Soap + small dish brush or sponge (optional, but highly recommended): biodegradable soap for doing dishes cost $3-$5 (REI, Gander Mountain, Cabelas), a brush or sponge from Walmart or Target cost $1-2.
- Cooking Oil: not required for coated cooking sets, but adds flavor, calories, and texture to food.
- Seasoning, Salt & Pepper, Bullion, Spices as desired.
- Cutting board: I use a plastic table placemat cut in half, $2 at Walmart.
Food to Bring
Foods with high calorie-to-weight-ratio make great backpacking food. In near future I plan on posting a collection of backpacking recipes. In meantime:
- Dry goods: pasta, mac & cheese, instant rice, quinoa, beans, dried vegetables, instant soups and sauces, Oatmeal, etc.
- Tortilla wraps: loaded with carbs and calories.
- Pre-packaged meats in foil packets: chicken, tuna, salmon, etc.
- Dried meats, beef jerky.
- Cream cheese and Nutella: small packets, loaded with calories and taste great on crackers.
- Wax-coated cheese: aged Cheddar, Parmigiano, and Gruyère will keep for at least a week unrefrigerated.
- Dried fruits & nuts: makes a great high-energy snack between meals. GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) is a classic backpacking snack.
- Condiments: you can find conveniently prepackaged small packets of ketchup, mayo, mustard, honey, jelly, BBQ and salad dressing at any fast food restaurant.
- Candy: loaded with cheap calories and can provide a quick shot of energy in late afternoon and help you crank out the last few miles before dinner.
- Energy bars
- Powdered drink mixes, hot chocolate, tea/coffee.
Food NOT to Bring
- Fresh foods (unless you plan on eating it Day 1): weighs a ton and quickly spoils in warm temperatures.
- Tin-cans: usually low in calories, weighs a ton and you have to carry the empty can back out.
How much food should you bring?
Countless variables make it difficult to calculate exactly how much food you will need: How much do you weigh? How is your metabolism? How far will you hike each day? How much elevation gain? How difficult is the terrain? Are you in good shape? …to only mention a few. Much comes down to personal preference and learning from experience.
Roughly estimated, a person weighing 180lbs burn 500-600 calories per hour hiking with a backpack. If your normal calorie intake is 2000 calories per day, you may need up to 4000 calories per day backpacking.
I don’t recommend running a calorie deficit, as it may affect both your mood and judgment. Until you have a good feel for how much you will need – based on previous rips – I recommend brining more food than you think you will need. Reduce the excess food next time you go.
If weather permits, I prefer cooking over camp fire, allowing me to heat 2 pots at same time. On rainy days, or if no campfire is available, cooking for multiple people with only one stove requires some planning and coordination. If you need to use multiple pots, start with items that take the longest to prepare. When first item is ready, cover with lid or tinfoil, then carefully wrap pot in a towel or shirt to keep warm while cooking next item.
Be cautious when cooking over campfire or burner. Start with small flame, then gradually and slowly increase flame intensity to avoid burning food. Stir frequently.
If using a propane or alcohol stove, never cook inside your tent – major fire hazard!
Wipe dishes as clean as possible before rinsing in moving water. Use small amount of soap if needed.
Use Ziploc bags to keep food and snacks organized. Store all food items in a food sack. Ursack (http://www.ursack.com/) make great quality sacks for this exact purpose.
Make sure that your camp is clean of food scraps which may attract unwanted nightly visitors. “Bear bagging” is a general term used for hanging your food sack in a tree. There are other animals in addition to bears, such as raccoons, opossums, coyotes, chipmunks, skunks, etc. that will also try to go after your food if not stored securely.
Some campsites offer a cable rigged between two trees, other offers a bear/critter-safe metal or wood storage box. All your food, pots, pans, utensils, mugs, garbage – anything that may smell like food – should be stored safely or hung up in a tree or cable. Hang food sack and garbage at least 12-15 feet (3.6 – 4.5 meters) above the ground, and at least 8 feet (2.4 meters) from the tree trunk.
When setting up camp, always keep in mind the “Bearmuda Triangle,” formed by:
- The “kitchen” (where you prepare, cook and eat all food)
- The “sump” (where you do dishes and dump all waste water)
- Location where you store/hang all food.
Your tent should be located 50 feet or more away from the triangle. Do not eat in the tent area, and clothing worn while eating should not be stored inside the sleeping area – especially important for kids who often spill when eating. Check pockets before going to bed – remove any snacks, crumbs, or garbage.
Sample Meal Plan
- Day 1
- Breakfast: huge restaurant brunch before hitting trail around 10 AM
- Lunch: still full from brunch, energy bar and nuts for afternoon snack.
- Dinner: chicken breasts (removed from freezer this morning, stored in zip-lock bag, marinated while hiking), instant rice, dried vegetable mix, sesame seed sauce powder mix.
- Day 2
- Breakfast: oatmeal with dried berries + milk powder, Deli Flats (thin bread) with Nutella.
- Lunch: Wild Rice soup, beef jerky.
- Dinner: tuna (foil packets), pasta, Alfredo sauce powder mix, dried vegetable mix (steamed/cooked).
- Day 3
- Breakfast: Cereal with dried berries + milk powder, Deli Flats with Nutella.
- Lunch: Mac & Cheese, beef jerky.
- Dinner: chicken (foil packets), quinoa, dried vegetable mix (steamed/cooked).
- Last day of trip; eat whatever you have left over.
- Breakfast: oatmeal with brown sugar, berries, and nuts + milk powder, Deli Flats with peanut butter and Nutella.
- Lunch: Potato soup, Deli Flats with peanut butter and Nutella, energy bars, beef jerky.
- Dinner: refuel at restaurant on way home, or dinner at home.
- Energy bars
Tips & Tricks
- Prepare a meal plan at home; breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. Prepare as much as possible before hitting the trail. Divide meals into Ziploc bags and label (Day 1 Lunch, Day 2 Dinner, etc.). Once you are on the trail, all you have to do is add water and heat.
- Tinfoil make great lids if your cooking set doesn’t include lids.
- Hiking in cold temperatures allows you to bring more fresh foods, as it will not spoil as easy in colder temps.
Nutri Strategy – Calories Burned Walking, Hiking, Climbing or Backpacking: http://www.nutristrategy.com/caloriesburnedwalking.htm
Ursack – outdoor food sacks: http://www.ursack.com/