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.
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.
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.