Cooking for Camping

What to eat in the backcountry.

July 11, 2016

Issue 19: July/August 2016Recipes

My friend Wes says that cooking for the backcountry is an act of imagination. It is modular cooking—it is assembling the components of a meal you’re going to cook much later and under very different circumstances. Because Wes has a dehydrator and a penchant for doing things the long way, we’re preparing for a three-day backpacking trip by cooking all our meals and snacks from scratch.

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Setting up camp at Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area.

And by cooking from scratch, I mean dehydrating from scratch. We blend fruit into smoothies, spreading the liquid across parchment paper to wait until it dries into fruit leathers. We mix dates and nuts to spread into gooey bars and round into cacao-dusted orbs. I chop vegetables and spread them across screen trays. In less than a day, the carrots will have shrunk into twisted marbles; the broccoli will become impossibly flat and the eggplant will harden into thumbtack-sized pieces. Beans and corn and potatoes—they are precooked and spread across the dehydrator’s screen trays to remove all moisture. Eventually, this food will become Vegetarian Chili, Green Thai Curry, and Mashed Potatoes with Machacha, scooped by sporks into lightweight bowls.

For now, it is all imagination.

When you’re preparing for a backpacking trip, you’re preparing for a future need. You can imagine it, but only until your legs ache from the weight of a 40-pound pack and you find bruises and blisters in places you didn’t know could be bruised and blistered can you really understand it. Indeed, much of the work of “backcountry cooking” often happens in our well-stocked, comfortably lit kitchens, days before we’re on the trail. And when you’re packing for an outing, no matter the duration, you have to remember what you’re going to forget. Olive oil in a container that does not leak. Salt for the rice and chile powder for the chili. A cup for your whiskey.

And there are as many ways to eat in the wilderness as there are to be in the wilderness. The easiest thing to do is to swing by REI or Summit Hut on your way out of town and buy a few freeze-dried, prepackaged, “just add water” meals. These trail-ready meals range from Made in Nature’s Organic Ancient Grain Fusion ($5), made from a nice range of organic, unprocessed ingredients, to the Backpacker’s Pantry Shepherd Potato Stew with Beef ($11), which, it turns out, contains a whole lot of things that are neither potatoes nor beef.

A campfire in Aravaipa Canyon.

A campfire in Aravaipa Canyon.

On the other end of the spectrum—depending on where you’re hiking and camping—you can hunt and gather. “I’ve been on a backpacking trip and brought almost no food,” says Bryon Lichtenhan, a conservation assistant at Sky Island Alliance. “I collected prickly pear fruits. I brought a 22 pistol and shot a rabbit and cooked it over the coals.” Depending on the season, he harvests wild greens or chia seeds. He often forages and gathers provisions ahead of time, assembling dried saguaro fruit, prickly pear fruit leathers, mesquite meal, and dried cholla buds. “To me, a really wonderful way to connect to wilderness is to live off the land, not permanently, but for a weekend. To have that connection to the seasons, the cycles, the weather, and see how these functioning ecosystems provide resources for whoever happens to be living there,” he says. Lichtenhan’s philosophy is to “travel light and be ready to fast a little. So many people in history have traveled without having a constant source of food available.”

I happen to believe one reason to venture into the wilderness is to eat in the wilderness. Food is about context and context is the reason we venture into the wilds—for the quiet and the noise, the un-electronic hum of bugs and birds and water; for the moment you all turn off your headlamps, lie back on the sand, and stare into the bright, dark sky.

The moment dinner is ready.

You can buy a food dehydrator for anywhere from $30 to $300; check thrift stores and garage sales for used appliances. Apart from backpacking, dehydrating is a great way to preserve garden produce or make beef jerky without any added ingredients.

Of course, in Tucson in June, we’re all basically living in a food dehydrator. If you don’t have an electric dehydrator, the sun is the first, best way to dry preserve food. Find a few clean screens and something to cover them that still allows air circulation—a net works, or cheesecloth. You can make a homemade solar dehydrator by fitting screens into a box. The internet abounds with ideas.

For these recipes, you need only a lightweight pot and a stove that can boil water. A stove that has a simmer function is helpful—I have a Snow Peak GigaPower ($50) with a handle that turns the gas valve for adjustable heat.

Serving sizes are for a few hungry people. Multiply as needed. Remember, if you’re boiling water, you don’t need to filter it, unless there’s sediment you want to remove. The Centers for Disease Control recommends bringing water to a boil and keeping it rolling for one minute at elevations up to 6,500 feet, and for three minutes at higher elevations.

Recipes contributed by Wes Oswald.

Vegetable Couscous

Vegetable couscous.

Vegetable couscous.

Vegetable Couscous
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Vegetable Couscous
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Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
At home:
  1. Combine ingredients in a plastic bag.
At camp:
  1. Bring 4 cups of water to boil. Split dry mixture into two bowls. Submerge contents in boiling water, cover, and let sit for five minutes. Uncover, add walnut pieces, stir, and eat.
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Polenta with Sundried Tomatoes

Polenta with sundried tomatoes.

Polenta with sundried tomatoes.

Polenta with Sundried Tomatoes
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Polenta with Sundried Tomatoes
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Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
At home:
  1. Combine ingredients in a plastic bag.
At camp:
  1. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Stir in the polenta. Cover, and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently; add water as needed. If you managed to carry in cheese, by all means, add that cheese.
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Peanut Butter and Banana Oats

Peanut butter and banana oats.

Peanut butter and banana oats.

Peanut Butter and Banana Oats
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Peanut Butter and Banana Oats
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Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
At home:
  1. Combine ingredients and divide into two plastic bags.
At camp:
  1. Bring 4 cups of water to boil. Pour dry mixture into two bowls. Submerge oats in boiling water, cover, and let sit for five minutes. Uncover, stir, and eat.
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Mashed Potatoes and Machaca

Backpacking stove and pot.

Backpacking stove and pot.

Thai green curry.
Mashed Potatoes and Machaca
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Thai green curry.
Mashed Potatoes and Machaca
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Instructions
At home:
  1. First, make the mashed potatoes. Boil potatoes until soft. Drain water, return to pot, and mash with a potato masher. Add rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper, and stir until combined. Spread potatoes on parchment paper and place on a drying screen. Dehydrate until all moisture is removed and potatoes are completely crispy and crack (rather than bend) when broken. Pulse dried potatoes in a food processor.
At camp:
  1. Rehydrate potatoes by soaking in filtered water in a cooking pot. Add more filtered water and olive oil, and cook potatoes until hot. Add machaca and more filtered water. Stir, and serve. Add more salt as needed.
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Thai Green Curry

Thai green curry.

Thai green curry.

Backpacking stove and pot.
Thai Green Curry
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Backpacking stove and pot.
Thai Green Curry
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Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
At home:
  1. Dehydrate vegetables. Combine into a plastic bag. Put olive oil, fish sauce, and curry paste in separate leak-proof receptacles.
At camp:
  1. Rehydrate dried mix by soaking in filtered water in a cooking pot. Cook on low heat, adding filtered water as needed. Keep covered, stirring frequently. Once the vegetables are cooked, add dehydrated coconut milk powder, along with more water. Stir. Add fish sauce.
  2. To make the rice, boil water and pour over rice (or add rice to the pot). Cover and let sit for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Serve curried vegetables over rice.
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Vegetarian Chili

Basically, this is a stew of previously dehydrated beans and vegetables. Swap and substitute dried vegetables according to taste.
Vegetarian chili.

Vegetarian chili.

Vegetarian Chili
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Vegetarian Chili
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Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
At home:
  1. Dehydrate cooked beans, corn, and vegetables. Combine, with spices, into a plastic bag.
At camp:
  1. Rehydrate dried mix by soaking in filtered water in a cooking pot. Cook on low heat, adding water as needed. Add olive oil. Keep covered, stirring frequently.
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Date and Nut Bars

There are endless combinations of date and nut bars. Cashews are a good base, as they’re softer and easier to mix in the food processor. Presoak almonds to make them easier to blend. If you add cocoa powder and shape the date and nut mixture into little balls, these bars become truffles, and thus dessert.
Whatever version you’re making, start by pulsing nuts in a food processor to desired consistency. Set aside in a bowl.
Pulse dates in a food processor, sprinkling in water as needed. The dates should combine into a somewhat even paste. Remove date paste and set aside in a mixing bowl.

Cardamom and Cashew Date Bars

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Homemade fruit and nut bars.

Date and Nut Bars
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Date and Nut Bars
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Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
  1. Combine ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Spread mixture onto parchment paper, flattening with the back of a fork or spoon to make sure it is evenly distributed.
  2. Cut into 3 by 2 inch bars, and separate fully. Place on a drying screen. Dehydrate until bars are solid and dry to the touch, but still somewhat pliable.
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Carrot Cake Date Bars

Carrot cake date bar ingredients.

Carrot cake date bar ingredients.

Carrot Cake Date Bars
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Carrot Cake Date Bars
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Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
  1. Combine ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Spread mixture onto parchment paper, flattening with the back of a fork or spoon to make sure it is evenly distributed.
  2. Cut into 3 by 2 inch bars, and separate fully. Place on a drying screen. Dehydrate until bars are solid and dry to the touch, but still somewhat pliable.
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Fruit Leathers

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Fruit leather.

Fruit Leathers
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Fruit Leathers
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Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
  1. Blend ingredients in a blender until completely smooth, adding water as needed. The mixture should look like a smoothie.
  2. Pour mixture onto parchment paper, and spread until disbursed evenly.
  3. Place parchment paper on drying screen. Dehydrate until the liquid becomes solid and dry to the touch, but still pliable.
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