Friday, April 25, 2014

Backpacking Meals - Methods and Tradeoffs

How you plan your meals when you backpack can make or break your meal.  If you are too conservative, you could carry a lot of weight.  If you don't plan properly, you could be trying to open a can with a rock or relying on snacks for meals.

You have to ask yourself a few questions:

  • You going to prep the food in advance, or swing by the grocery store on the way over?  
  • How effort do you want to spend cooking and cleaning when you are in the backcountry?  
  • Are you carrying out the trash?  
  • How bulky can you afford to let your pack be?

Here are the primary forms of cooking you can start with.

Pack Meals From Your Cabinets
Weight - High, Taste - Medium, Waste - High, Ease - Medium
New backpackers will often throw food in their bag from their Cabinets or a quick stop at the grocery store before the meeting spot.  This is generally poor planning.

I have seen all of the following during trips:
      • Cans of Soup
      • Cans of Tuna
      • Boxes of snacks and energy bars
      • Packages of easy meals such as EZ Ma
      • Lipton Packets
      • Salami & Cheese Packs (non-refrigerated)
      • Hummis & Veggies

It may be easy and cheap, but many of these lead to extra weight and trash.  Not to mention you'll get laughed at when you break out a Campbell's soup can.

Pack Backpacker Meals
Weight - Low, Taste - Medium, Waste - Medium, Ease - High

The easiest way is to stop by REI or a retailer that sells the prepared meal that you add boiling water to and seal shut, such as Backpacker Pantry meals.
These are easy to pack, you can eat out of the bag, and the trash is minimal.  If you believe in "leaving no trace," you may not burn the bag.  There is less trash less then normal food, but you can do better.
Custom Made Meal
Weight - Varies, Taste - High, Waste - Varies, Ease - Varies
The last time I went snow camping, one of my fellow backpackers cooked up steaks and veggies.  You can get very creative with meals, though it generally requires a little extra weight, including additional cooking utensils and pans, and a little more room for :

Backcountry Thanksgiving (Justin Bailie) 

These are up to the cook.  With the right preparations, you can make some pretty good gourmet meals in the middle of the woods.  Here is a link to my favorite:
Freezer Bag Cooking
Weight - Low, Taste - Medium, Waste - Low, Ease - High
With the right preparations, you can prepare all your meals in freezer bags.  Mark on the bag the how much water to add.  When you add the boiled water to the bag, it slowly cooks the contents of the bag.  If you have the ability to place it in an insulated area or cover it with a towel, it will help it cook properly.  I prefer to eat of the bag so I don't have to wash anything besides my spoon:

Here are a couple great websites for freezer bag cooking:

There are some that say cooking inside a freezer bag is not healthy due to carcinogens, etc.  I am not an expert on this, so do your own research, but I can tell you that this is my preferred method when backpacking and I have never had a bag leak or melt.

Open Fire Cooking
Weight - Low, Taste - High, Waste - Low, Ease - Medium
Generally, I do not cook over the fire.  Camping in California also means many places do not allow open fires.  Then I recommend the Coughlan's Pack Grill for lightweight or a heavier duty Texsport Heavy Duty Camp Grill .  It will take some trial and error.

For beginners, I recommend avoiding direct heat (flames) and using hot coals.  You can even practice with charcoal (if car camping) to learn how to use the grill.  To increase heat, elevate the coals with rocks (prior to starting of course), trap heat with rocks on each side of the Camp Grill, or turn the grill upside down and use rocks / logs to hold the grill.  My favorite use of these grills are to cook burgers or to prep chicken by placing in freezer bags with BBQ/Marinade and storing in the cooler.  When the time comes, these grill cook chicken very well, just careful of direct heat burning the outside without cooking the inside.

What are your favorite recipes?


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