I can vividly remember my first encounter with chili-mac backpacking food. It was on a turkey hunt north of Boise. We had hiked in on an old logging road, stopping at the first big snow drift that covered the way. Camp was set and we went out to find our prey.
A few hours later, I came stumbling back to camp ravenous and sore-legged, looking forward to nothing more than a hot meal and some sleep. I tore into some specially formulated backpacking food I had bought at the store. I boiled water and let it sit for the recommended amount of time. Never in my life have I suffered more from eating one meal. I could hear my guts rejecting the food all night long. It was technically edible, but man, did it suck.
I vowed never to eat like that again while backpacking, even if it meant carrying a little more weight. Luckily, I'm not the first person to have had this problem and, over the last few years, a few folks have come to the rescue for backpackers with tastebuds.
A local hero for the "good backpacking food" cause is Stephen Weston, author of In the Wild Chef: Recipes From Base Camp to Summit, a cookbook dedicated to good, lightweight food. I recently caught up with Weston and prodded him for advice on eating better while on the trail.
"For beginners, I recommend that you practice in your kitchen then take your kitchen outdoors," Weston said. "It seems like a good idea to figure out ways to cook backcountry food at home, when you can afford a mistake, and then make that food again on the trail. Have a killer stir-fry idea for the backcountry? Practice the recipes before your trip. Would you rather fail at home or at 9,000 feet on the side of a boulder?"
Weston advocates those little spice packs (stir-fry powder, taco seasoning, etc.) that you can grab at the grocery store as a flavor starter. Then, all a hiker has to do is find other lightweight alternative foods. Going through his book, I came across multiple recipes using Ramen noodles, powdered milk, Jello mix and even dehydrated potato mix--all lightweight options that I had never considered "trail" food before.
"I am a converter, that's all. I take recipes from the kitchen out on the trail," Weston said. "Why buy that prepackaged stuff? ... My recipes can save you money and taste a heck of a lot better."
"One of my favorites," Weston added, "is King Ludd's Phad Thai. ... It's so easy, quick and yummy."
Yeah, Thai food on the trail.
Another backpacking food guru is Glenn McAllister, owner of backpackingchef.com and the forthcoming e-book, Recipes for Adventure. I caught up with McAllister over the phone from his home in Switzerland and chatted him up about his backpacking food philosophy.
"I was tired of eating all that junk that they sell. It was expensive and it was not all that good for you, just look at the ingredients list. ... I started on the Appalachian trail wanting to cook and prepare my own meals rather than buy," said McAllister.
Perusing the ingredients on the aforementioned chili-mac, I better understood what McAllister was referring to. I am not totally sure what "beef extract" or "disodium guanylate" are, but I am fairly certain if I was given a jar of each, I would be hard pressed to consume them unharmed.
To get better, healthier food, McAllister started dehydrating his own meals for the trail.
"I am the originator, I guess, of the term 'bark' when it comes to backpack cooking," McAllister said. "The dehydrated food takes on the look of tree bark when finished, thus its nickname."
The concept is fairly simple: Just blend together starchy vegetables--like potatoes, beans, creamed corn or pumpkin--with vegetable, chicken or beef broth, then dehydrate the smoothie-like mixture into dried, brittle sheets of "bark."
"When you add moisture, they become like a gravy holding the meal together," McAllister added. "I'll blend potatoes, pasta and sauce and a whole bunch of other things."
Combine the bark with a little water and you can make a wide assortment of foods. On his website, McAllister has recipes for everything from crab chowder to pineapple upside-down cake to Rockin' Root Stew, with yams, parsnips, turnips and rutabaga. All of them start with dehydrated ingredients.
"You can also just munch down on the bark dry," McAllister said. "It is a great snack food, too."
Now that my horizons have been opened, my belly and tastebuds are looking forward to this summer along the trail. And no longer am I dreading the chili-mac that might have been lurking in the bottom of my pack.
Chef Steve Weston's Top Five Outdoor Cooking Items
1. GSI Outdoors Bugaboo Medium Base Camper Cookset"The most versatile set I have ever used," said Weston.
2. Primus ETA Power EF Stove"A great 'system stove,'" said Weston.
3. Primus OmniFuel Expedition Stove"Will burn anything from jet fuel to ISO butane," said Weston.
4. Primus Njord Stove "Cooking for 12 on a backpacking trip?" asked Weston. "No problem, this is the solution."
5. GSI Outdoors Extreme Wok"Chinese food on the trail? Oh, yeah," said Weston.