You certainly don’t have to be an iron chef to cook in the backcountry, but you might become one with all the opportunities to feed yourself and others on the trail. Food is fuel and everyone needs to eat to stay in the game. Read these tips for a new recipe or two before you go out on your next outdoor adventure.
Replicate meals from home.
You can cook from scratch with pantry style ingredients and basic tools, including one small camp stove, two pots and one spoon.
Start simple by making pasta, then learn how to make different sauces: red, white and green for a pasta bar. That’s short for tomato sauce, bechamel sauce and pesto herb sauce.
Make great pasta by adding a drop of oil to boiling water. Stir the pasta when you first drop it in so it doesn’t clump together. If you’re in the mountains, things take longer to cook at altitude. In the high country or desert, pasta will still cook with the lid on, removed from the fire to conserve both precious water and fuel. When sailing, you’re sitting on saltwater, so adjust your salt needs accordingly.
Recipe to try: Simple Pad Thai Sauce
1.5 c Peanut butter
1/4 c soy sauce
¼ c water
1 Tbsp vinegar, salt, minced garlic
1 c crushed peanuts
Optional: 1 can coconut milk, or coconut milk powder.
Heat a pan, saute garlic and onions until soft, add liquids, add salt, stir in peanut butter. Mix thoroughly. Pour over rice noodles/sauteed vegetable mix that’s just finishing. Top with a handful of crushed peanuts.
Take your cooking up a notch with caramelized onions. Very slowly, cook chopped onions in butter or oil with a pinch of salt over low heat until they release their natural sugars and start to turn soft and translucent brown, or caramelized. Add them to a main dish—like quesadillas, burritos or pasta—to really crank up the rich flavors.
Happiness warning: anytime you sauté onions, everyone will say “dinner smells amazing!”
Who knew that orange powdered drink mix could be turned into frosting for homemade cinnamon rolls? Try pretzels with mustard on them. Dress up a bag of peanuts with a little cayenne, cinnamon and brown sugar. Tired of the same old sweet oatmeal? Experiment with savory oatmeal, by playing with cumin, spike and the smokiness of paprika.
Try capturing the flavor of dried fruit in other meals, like candied apricot coffee cake! Imagine the flavors in mango chicken over quinoa. In both instances, dried fruit is chopped up small, sautéed in butter and spices until it reduces and starts to caramelize. Add it in its new form to other meals.
Recipe to try: Candied Apricot Coffee Cake
1 c dried apricots, chopped fine
½ stick butter or margarine
¼ c brown sugar
1.5 c biscuit mix
1.5 c yellow cake mix
1 c brown sugar
1 T cinnamon
1/4 c oats
Margarine: you’ll need enough to grease the pan and—this is key—RUB ON THE INSIDE OF THE BAKING LID AND IT WILL DRIP DOWN OVER THE TOP OF THE CAKE FOR CRUNCHY BUTTERY GOODNESS!
Heat pan, melt butter, add apricots and sugar; sauté until reduced to a sticky, gooey goodness.
Mix batter in the bag until it’s the consistency of muffin mix.
Mix apricots into the batter.
Cut a hole in the bottom of the bag and squeeze out into greased fry-bake pan.
Sprinkle topping on the surface
Double check that you greased the inside of the lid.
Bake in a good bed of coals (on top and all around) for 15-20 mins.
Rotate a few times, and take it out immediately if you start to smell it.
Learn to use a spice kit.
Experiment with building new flavors from scratch. Just go easy on the thermal spices and let others salt and hot sauce their individual portions.
Listen to your nose.
If it smells burnt, it probably is. Burnt meals and over-spiced meals are hard to recover from. Watch your heat and under-spice for the best results.
Gluten-free meals can be great meals.
Do you have an allergy to gluten? No problem. A favorite gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian recipe is Moroccan Quinoa Stew. It’s a light, fast and savory trip to flavor-town. See the recipe below.
Recipe to try: Moroccan Quinoa Stew (Gluten-free, Dairy free, Vegetarian)
1 Big Onion
3 Carrots (take less if backpacking)
2 Bouillon Cubes (chicken or veggie)
1 c Tomato Powder
1 c Mixed Dried Veggies
1/4 c Quinoa per person
¼ c Red Lentils per person
1 c Dried Apricots, chopped
SPICES (Be sure to mix these together pre-trip to save weight/packaging)
4 tsp Salt
2 tsp Paprika
1 T+ Cumin
1 T Oregano
Put Quinoa and Lentils in one pot with salt and 2.5:1 water: Quinoa/Lentil mix and bring to a boil. Once the pot has boiled, add bouillon cubes, spices, dried veggies and fresh chopped veggies. Keep on a very gentle boil. After 5-10 minutes, add in tomato powder. Continue to simmer and stir occasionally until the tails appear on the quinoa. Add chopped dried apricots near the end to plump.
- 1 pkg of vacuum-sealed or canned chicken, sautéed and mixed in at the end
- 1 c veggie burger mix (Beware: this has GLUTEN, so it voids the gluten-free status)
- More fresh veggies
- Grated fresh ginger and 2 tsp Tumeric
You’ll love backcountry Cafe O’Lait.
If you’re on a long trip, the steamer and the half-and-half are probably back home. You can still have that soft foamy goodness on the top of your coffee or hot cocoa.
Mix dried milk powder and water together to fill half of an 8 oz Nalgene. Put the lid on and start shaking. Shake vigorously for 3-5 minutes. The milk will start to froth and bubble. Pour slowly on to the top of your beverage. Pause, smile, sip and enjoy!
Baking is where it’s at.
There’s a whole world of backcountry baking to be explored. Start by learning how to make cornbread or bake brownies from a mix on the trail, over a camp stove or campfire, via a fry-bake pan or Dutch oven. Learn a system to apply heat to both the top and bottom of the pan. Cinnamon rolls, fritters, a million flavors of biscuits, gluten-free goodies and yes, even focaccia are possible with a little time and warm temperatures for the yeast to rise.
When making coffee cake, fruit cobblers or focaccia, liberally apply butter or margarine to the inside of the lid. Poke holes with a matchstick in the top of the baked item before baking. Put on the lid. As heat applies, the butter will melt and drip into the holes on the surface, making for crunchy buttery goodness. Yum.
What’s your favorite sweet recipe to make in the backcountry?
What’s available varies dramatically by region and season. July and August are berry season in the northern climates from Maine to Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest. Blueberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, wild strawberries and Saskatoon berries top the list. Fresh fruit offers a million possibilities, from simply eating your way down the trail to harvesting berries for breakfast toppings, pancakes, fruit cobbler, jams and biscuits. Just be sure to do your homework before so you know what’s safe to eat.
Remember, food is an adventure.
On the trail, learn to work with basic ingredients. Learning to try new foods or a new recipe can be incredibly rewarding.
The best part about trail food is that it all tastes great after a full day of travel, sun on your face, calluses on your hands, surrounded by a crew that has worked hard together. You’ve earned a great meal. Bon appétit!
About the Author
Theo is a long time outdoor educator who has been involved with Outward Bound for over 15 years. She serves as a course director and hiring manager at the Voyageur Outward Bound School. She has led outdoor trips throughout the US and Canada for the past 25 years. Previously, she directed outdoor programs for Cornell University, focused on developing undergraduate outdoor skills and leadership experience. Theo balances a penchant for planting ambitious gardens and growing local food with winters as a dog sledding guide. She holds a degree in Landscape Architecture from Cornell University and writes from the edge of the Boundary Waters wilderness in Minnesota.