We asked Outward Bound Instructor Renee Igo to share about the best backcountry meal she’s ever had—her answer might shock you!
Eating well in the woods is important to me. Canoeing, my favorite form of travel, affords me the luxury of heavier food items that backpackers must sacrifice in exchange for lighter packs. While a good meal can boosts morale, a great meal becomes legend—anchoring the memory of a whole expedition. Some meals taste good due to the circumstances, such as hunger and exhaustion, while other meals would be equally as good around a kitchen table at home.
I’ve shared many meals with friends and crewmates on Outward Bound expeditions and personal outdoor adventures, and it’s hard to choose one meal that stands out as the best. If I had to pick a standout among them, I would have to take into account various factors including:
- Overall technical accomplishment
- The company in which the meal was eaten
- The fondness of the memory
After careful deliberation, here is my number one, as well as some honorable mentions for good measure.
A Sixteen-Year-Old’s Boundary Waters Backcountry Buffet
The meal was laid out on a downed log on a sandy beach in the Boundary Waters similar to the photo above. So iconic was this meal that I recognized the downed log a decade later when I paddled by. Though it wasn’t marked by a campsite or any other significant feature in the landscape or on the map, that log stayed in my memory as an important landmark.
I was one of a crew of teens on a week-long outdoor adventure trip, accompanied by several adult chaperones who excelled at giving us freedom and ownership over the daily decisions of the trip. By sixteen, I’d already discovered a love of expedition travel, and my Outward Bound course the previous year had cemented a lifelong passion for challenge and adventure in the woods.
It was the last day of our outdoor trip, and as we paddled toward the parking lot, it was the usual bittersweet goodbye to the woods. We looked forward to hot showers and our beds, but couldn’t help looking back over our shoulders, thinking of the places we’d been and laughs we’d shared over the week.
Lunch was our last meal before we’d reach the vehicles. Instead of peanut butter and crackers or whatever the menu called for, our chaperones let us pull all of the remaining food out of the pack. Leftovers from previous lunches, extra snacks, random bags of trail mix or granola that had been forgotten. We lined up all our various food remnants on the downed log and had ourselves a backcountry buffet. Marshmallows and peanut butter, cheese and fig bars—combinations that undoubtedly made for stomach aches.
“This meal stood for the freedom I loved as a teen in the woods—and as a teen, I found it delicious.”
As a young teen, I loved it. It stood for all of the transgressive, freeing experiences I’d found in the wilderness. Even though I didn’t fully understand how it happened, I relished that the outdoor summer program I went on seemed governed by a different set of rules, a smaller set of rules, than my day-to-day life. Decisions that would not be my own to make in the frontcountry for several more years could be made in the woods—where we were going, what we were eating and who we were with. Friendship and connection seemed more straightforward, and accelerated, as we worked towards a common goal and surmounted obstacles that required the whole team.
This meal stood for the freedom I loved as a teen in the woods—and as a teen, I found it delicious. In the years since perhaps the freedom to choose what I eat on a daily basis doesn’t seem so radical and has been taken for granted. Now there are other things I love about outdoor trips, but this meal on this trip was one more building block in a great and enduring love of the woods.
As I grew from a teen participant to an adult summer trip leader and Outward Bound Instructor, the list of noteworthy meals grew as well. Many of them have been Solo feasts.
Sweet Solo Cinnamon Rolls
First, as a student completing my Outward Bound Solo, and then as an Instructor facilitating many Solos for students on their courses, I’ve consumed a large number of feasts. My menu most often includes homemade cinnamon rolls and cheesy hashbrowns. A celebratory meal full of joy, even if its density makes backcountry travel difficult afterward.
After a Solo of several days where students rest more and eat less, a communal hot breakfast is always a joyful affair. Many students have never eaten a homemade cinnamon roll, much less one cooked over a camp stove or a fire. Solo usually occurs later in the expedition, when students have learned many wilderness skills and grown more comfortable with their surroundings. The feast floors them, showing them that we truly can thrive outdoors, instead of just surviving on dried fruit and nuts.
Baking Bread in the Backcountry
I love teaching students how to bake bread or desserts in the backcountry. Besides the oven, pretty much everything else transfers directly to their home kitchen, with everything becoming a bit easier. I have fond memories of teaching students about the magic of yeast as we bake bread on a quiet afternoon at the campsite.
One teenage student and his batch of brownies stand out in my mind as well. With brownie mix out of the box, we added oil and water, mixed it in a bag, and put it in the greased pan to bake in the coals. After we’d devoured the perfect brownies that evening, he was so excited that he could now go home and know how to bake brownies on his own for his mother. He’d never cooked for his mother before and was filled with joy knowing how impressed she would be. The skills we don’t expect our teens to learn when they go camping.
Smoked Fish for Two
Certain meals hinge on who they’re shared with. One that stands out is a mess of fish that my friend and I caught together, then smoked in a nest of greenwood shavings in a pot over the fire on a remote lake. When it came to smoking fish, we were novices, playing in the woods together. The results were perfect, but the process was just as enjoyable.
When it comes to meal planning for your next expedition, remember that it’s more than the ingredients that make a delicious meal. Playing with food, learning about food, using food to celebrate and build community, and food as creativity and freedom are all ways you can make your meals stand out and become the stuff of legend.
What is the best meal you’ve had in the woods?
About the Author
Renee Igo was an Outward Bound student at age 15 and has been instructing wilderness expeditions for the Voyageur Outward Bound School for the past eight years. When not instructing, she holds a variety of other teaching positions and raises sheep in Maine.