Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the summer edition of Tahoe Magazine, available now throughout the Lake Tahoe and Truckee region.
Cooking in the backcountry can be a bit daunting. How much food do you bring? What food do you bring? How do you cut weight? Are pickles an acceptable snack? Though a million questions surround the topic, every hiker will find the only good way to develop a meal plan that works is to get out there and try different things.
There are a few tried-and-true rules to eating in the backcountry. The first is to avoid carrying excess water or products that contain water. These are heavy and will weigh you down. A good example of a watery product not to bring would be a jar of pickles. Not to mention, heavy packaging should always be traded for lighter. If you have to have those pickles, put them in a Tupperware container.
Another rule of the trail kitchen is that extreme perishables are generally a bad idea. Though a few leaves of fresh basil may go great with your morning omelet, it’s unlikely that it’ll last that long. Greens, melons, many meats and mayonnaise are just a few of the perishable items to avoid.
One of the guidelines of food preparation is to lay out everything you plan on bringing in terms of meals. A good start is to have a breakfast, lunch and dinner for each person for each day you’ll be in the backcountry. This makes it easy to spot holes in your meal plan.
Other than that, there’s little you can’t do in the camp kitchen. Though there’s always room to grow, here are a few of the most common strategies to meal time on the trail.
1 The Ultra-light: For those who truly wanted to save on weight, a stove just won’t make the cut. It’s all about calories. Ultra-light trail runners have been known to go for days on energy gels and candy bars. While your palate may not rejoice in the throws of maltodextrin and rice syrup, your back will.
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2 The Gourmet: Though you’re not going to have the convenience of the Top Chef kitchen, cooking great meals in the middle of nowhere is not that hard. An easy way to do this while backpacking is to ask each person in your group to prepare a single three-course dinner for everyone. If you go for the same number of nights as the number of people in your group, each person will only have to cook once, and you’ll get to experience a variety of cuisine.
Pastas, rice dishes, Indian and Mexican food all make for relatively easy preparation. Avoid fresh greens. Soups are divine and not difficult, given you’re near a water source.
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3 The Non-chef: This arena of outdoor cooking has developed significantly during the last 10 years. Entire meals are now being freeze-dried and packaged, so cooking-illiterate backpackers can eat well. Usually, preparation includes boiling a pot of water and pouring it into the pouch, letting it sit for a few minutes and then chowing down. This has to be one of the easiest ways to eat of all time — besides not cooking at all.
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4 The Budget Friendly: While one can survive for a while on white rice alone, there are more reasonable ways to eat on the trail without breaking the bank. Several types of instant pastas come in a “just add water” recipe. For breakfast, oats and brown sugar aren’t bad. Top Ramen is a classic. Though a little heavy, eggs are not expensive and pack a hearty punch, but (obviously) you’ll need a carrier.
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5 The One Night Stand: If you’re not trekking for days on end, there’s some wiggle room regarding weight. This is where canned food comes in great. There are few things as great as a piping hot meal of Chef Boyardee Beefaroni by the campfire. Of course, there are other options, like tomato soup, stew, chicken noodle, raviolis, pork and beans, or, of course, chili. But nothing is as timeless as “America’s favorite macaroni and beef.”
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6 The Ultra-prepared: This highly reclusive cook spends most of his or her time, well, cooking. If you’ve ever had cold pizza on the trail, you’ll know why. It’s delicious. Having all your food prepared before you hike 10 miles can be good and bad. The good, of course, is it’s ready as soon as your pack is off. The bad is that your meals can go bad — but at least there are no dishes.
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Dylan Silver, a former reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, is a freelance writer and photographer who lives at Lake Tahoe’s South Shore.