Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Cooking and Eating

You should know that my backcountry cooking practices have veered increasingly in the direction of the barbaric. I like to keep it simple. If I have to do more than boil water and pour it into a bag, it is too much – better if I don’t have to heat the water. Oddly enough, I sometimes yield to my caffeine addiction and bring along a very small espresso maker and a demitasse.

  • Sierra cup
    – when traveling alone I replace this with a very small pot for cooking and eating.
  • Spoon
    – plastic, though I covet one of those cool, but expensive, titanium sporks.
  • Foldable plastic wash basin
    – only on longer trips and more for washing clothes than anything else. A friend brings one of the larger models so that he can carry water to camp for filtering.
  • Soap
    – small bottle of the backpackers soap from REI. For dishes, clothes, hair, etc.
  • Water bottles or bags
    – I carry at least one two liter Cascade Designs Platypus bag with a drinking tube, and I usually toss an extra 1 liter bag in the pack “just in case.” With two bags I can generally filter water once when I get to camp and I’ll have enough to fix dinner and breakfast and to start the next day’s hike.
  • Water filter
    – the old Pur Hiker model. It is simple and lightweight and fairly compact.
  • Stove
    – I have an old MSR Whisperlite that is becoming increasingly cranky. I just gave in to temptation and bought a MSR Simmerlite; about 8 oz., very quiet, yet plenty hot. After using it this season (summer 2003) I can report is is a very reliable stove.
  • Stove fuel
    – I can usually go for days on the smallest MSR fuel bottle since I don’t do a lot of heavy duty cooking.
  • Scrubber
    – one of those little sponges with the abrasive backing, though I rarely actually use it.
  • Pots
    – When traveling alone I carry one very small pot that doubles as my “bowl/plate” – and I leave the Sierra cup at home. Currently I have the smallest stainless steel MSR pot, though eventually I’ll probably spring for one of those cool titanium models. UPDATE (6/6/04): I just used part of my REI divident to purchase a titanium solo cooking kit with a small pot and cup. I’ll update after trying this out over the summer.
  • Espresso maker
    – I sometimes – though much less often recently – carry a small single-cup espresso maker. When I do carry it is is almost as much for the novelty as it is for the coffee…
  • Salt & pepper shaker
    – can rescue bland dinners
  • Extra plastic bags
    – for garbage, covering gear in the rain, broken bags, etc.
  • Small towel
  • Cigarette lighters
    – I carry two of the cheap disposable models to start my stove. They work fine even at altitude but I don’t trust their quality enough to rely on only one. Since they use a flint to ignite the gas I figure that I might still be able to start a fire even if I can’t get a flame out of the lighter, although I have not had to test this theory. At one point I purchased a fancy backcountry lighter from REI at a “scratch and dent” sale. Turns out it doesn’t even work above about 8,000 or 9,000 feet!

I favor simplicity – sometimes at the expense of variety and quality. I’m not in the backcountry to eat – I’ll go to a good restaurant on the way home!

There are situations in which I don’t follow my primitive regimen.

  • On short trips I get lazy and often carry more food than I really need, and I’ll toss a few treats in the pack.
  • When I travelled with young kids I made sure to carry food that they would like. I brought along treats as rewards for getting through difficult hikes – you’d be amazed at what they can accomplish with a bit of encouragement. “Hey, let’s stop at that clump of trees half way up the climb for M&M’s and some lemonade!” (Basic rule for backpacking with children: “The highest goal is to have a good time.” If they don’t enjoy the experience, you won’t either; nor will they be likely to continue to backpack with you as they get older.)

I have also travelled once or twice without carrying a stove. Although I’ve seen people do this for longer periods, for me this works best on a fast and light 2 or 3 day trip. It may seem barbaric to those who are used to hot meals but in actual practice it isn’t really a big deal. Breakfast stays about the same for me: granola with dried milk. Lunch and dinner turn into largish snacks, using mostly the same foods listed below but with perhaps more cheese, bread, jerky, and so on. I often think I’m going to be dissatisfied with this kind of dinner, but in actual practice it turns out to be just fine.

Breakfast

  • Granola
    premixed with dry milk. Pour it in the Sierra cup and add water. This has been my standard breakfast for years – but see below.
  • Quick-cooking (not instant!) oatmeal
    augmented with a bit of brown sugar, some cinnamon, and nuts and raisins. I never used to cook breakfast, but a couple of years ago while preparing for a long trip it occurred to me that oatmeal is lighter and packs smaller than granola. The “packs smaller” issue was most important since I was concerned about getting food for a 9 day trip into a bear canister. While one cannot ignore the additional fuel’s weight and mass, at least it doesn’t have to go into the canister.
  • Drink mix
    – I used to carry Tang, but don’t bother any more – Sierra water is just fine!
  • Coffee maker
    – I have been carrying a mini-espresso maker for a few years, but I’ve begun leaving that at home recently as well.
  • Instant hot drinks
    – When I leave the espresso-maker at home I may carry instant coffee (yuck!) or, more likely, tea bags and instant hot chocolate or cider mixes. True barbarians don’t cook breakfast or fix hot drinks. (However, I am reconsidering this idea now that I have realized that oatmeal is lighter and packs smaller than granola on long trips. Since I’m heating water anyway, why not enjoy a cup of tea?)
  • Energy bars
    (Clif, Powerbars, etc.) can make a decent quick breakfast, especially if you are trying to get up and on the trail quickly.

Lunch/Snacks

The boundary between lunch and snacks is somewhat nebulous for me. I tend to snack throughout the day; lunch on the trail just seems like a larger snack. I carry a variety of things, but not usually everything you see listed here.

  • Pita bread, crackers, small french bread rolls, or (my favorite) schwarzbrot
    – these both keep fairly well and the pita bread tends to not get squished in the pack. Crackers keep better than bread on longer trips. One 7 ounce package of Whole Foods Markets crostini lasts me a week.
  • Cheese/Peanut butter/turkey jerky
    – I’ve always carried a tube of peanut butter, often with the jelly premixed. However, I think I have finally admitted to myself that I hate peanut butter from a tube, and I’ll leave it home in the future. I prefer some combination of hard (sometimes smoked) cheese and turkey jerky (favorites are the really spicy kind and the teriyaki version). Pick hard cheeses and they will keep for quite a long time in the pack. Current favorites – for flavor and storage – include dry jack and Fiscalini cheddar.
  • Nuts
    – mixed nuts are great for munching. Peanuts run a close second. Tamari almonds are a treat.
  • Dried fruit
    – I like dates and dried pineapple
  • Energy bars
    – I know they taste awful at home. But they are good quick and compact snacks on the trail. For a long time Clif Bars and Powerbars were pretty much the best options. Recently I’ve become fond of Mojo Bars from the same folks who make Clif Bars. I’ll occasionally carry some of the energy gel products like GU, etc. I find that I generally eat fewer than one bar per day so I might take 4-5 of them on a week-long trip.
  • Fig bars
    – one per day.
  • Drink mixes
    – I used to carry instant drink mixes (lemonade, etc.) though I rarely bother any more.

Dinner

  • Freeze-dried dinners
    – I know that many people don’t like them, but I like the fact that I can boil water, pour it in the bag, and eat a few minutes later. This really saves on stove fuel and clean-up. I rely entirely on these meals on some trips. (However, on longer trips I remove them from packaging to save space and prepare them directly in a small pot.
  • Grocery store food
    – Besides the old standby macaroni and cheese there are a number of excellent rice dinners that don’t take too much cooking. You can do pretty well with some of the instant meal cups, and save space by repackaging them.
  • Instant Soups
    – The ubiquitous “cup o’ soup” style soups in the small paper cups can easily be repackaged as dinners. For me, two of the soup packages make a decent trail dinner. They are simple to fix (just add boiling water and wait 5-8 minutes) and many of them taste pretty good. Some are more substantial that others, so you may want to try them out before relying on them in the backcountry. If weight isn’t a great concern on a shorter trip, I may toss in one or two of these in case discover that I want a more substantial dinner.

  • Bulk food bin mixes
    – My local Whole Foods Store is a great source. Some of my favorites are their Potato Corn Chowder, Split Pea Soup, Lentil Curry Soup, and refried bean mixes.

  • Burritos
    – Mix up some dried refried beans, bring along some grated cheese, warm some flour tortillas
  • Powdered hummus mix with pita bread
    makes a quick and delicious no-cook dinner.
  • Make-your-own dinners
    – Years ago I used to make my own dried meals – even going so far as to grow my own vegetables and dry them myself. I have taken trips as long as two weeks this way. I don’t do this anymore but if you are interested look for a Sierra Club book called “Simple Foods for the Pack.” Try the lentil chili – I know it sounds improbable but it is really good. (Pre-soak beans in a small water bottle as you hike to reduce cooking time. But don’t presoak pasta… ;-)
  • Dessert
    – When I started backpacking we would often take pudding mixes and even cheesecake mixes! I pretty much gave this up when I realized how much weight (and trouble) I could avoid. Now I may treat myself to a small bar of good chocolate in the evening.

Protecting the food from the critters

The critter of greatest concern in the Sierra is, of course, the black bear – especially when traveling in popular places. However, don’t forget that other beasties can, and will, also get into your food. Particularly watch out for small rodents such as mice who will sneak into unprotected food at night and nibble on lots of items and leave a trail of droppings in your food bag. Yuck.

Current wisdom (and, in some areas, the law) suggests carrying food canisters such as the plastic Garcia models that the parks service rents. These are awkward and bulky and add a couple of pounds of weight to your pack; they also force you to select and pack your food carefully to avoid carrying extra canisters. On the other hand, they provide virtually complete peace of mind – and they do make comfortable camp stools.

There is an art to packing your canister, and careful planning will let you cram a week or more worth of food (for one person) into a single canister. Paying attention to the following issues is important.

  • Plan food needs carefully. If I’m not careful I can end up carrying a couple of days worth of extra food. When trying to maximize the number of days of food that I can fit into a canister it is critical to determine exact food needs day-by-day and meal-by-meal. (Though do bring a bit extra, just in case.)
  • Repackage commercially packed meals, especially dinners. I remove the contents of any backpacking dinners from the foil packaging and repack the food in small ziploc bags. I add a small note to each bag listing the amount of water needed and the cooking time.
  • Jam repackaged dinners and breakfast cereals into the bottom of the canister. You’ll be amazed at how small they can be.
  • Consider cooked cereal for breakfast. Although I prefer the simplicity of cold cereal (granola with a bit of dried milk premixed in the bag) quick-cooking oatmeal is lighter and takes less space, at the expense of the small amount of fuel required to cook it. Quick-cooking (not instant) oatmeal only needs to cook for a couple of minutes and you can improve it by adding fruit, nuts, sugar, etc.)
  • Carefully calculate lunch and snack food needs. This is my major downfall – I find it very difficult to predict exact needs since I carry a variety of foods in this category. One approach that works for me is to organize these foods into multi-day portions. For example, I’ll buy a small piece of cheese that I know will last 3 days; on a six-day trip I may pack three small 2-day portions of nuts, etc.
  • Remember that you won’t have to put first-day meals in the canister. Eat your largest meals first.

On my recent South Lake to Onion Valley 2004 trip I carried food for 9 trail days in one canister. I’m confident that I could squeeze in food for a 10-12 day trip with careful planning. (But don’t forget to leave a bit of room for toothpaste, etc., which must also be stored in the canister at night.)

A few other food-storage issues…

  • As mentioned above, some non-food items also need to be protected at night or when you are away from camp. These probably include toothpaste and any other smelly items.
  • While canisters are extremely reliable, they are heavy and awkward. There are situations in which I don’t need one. Sometimes I travel to a place where there are metal food lockers in place, such as Fletcher Lake in Yosemite.
  • When I travel to a relatively isolated and high place where I’m less concerned about bears (Mt. Shasta, for example) I take a Kevlar Ursack, which keeps out the small critters and – supposedly – at least slows down bears.
  • The traditional counterbalance method of hanging food still can work in areas where the bears are less “civilized” than those in, say, Yosemite. But don’t use your pack for your food bag – if a bear does get it you may lose your pack. Use stuff sacks (or Ursacks) or even plastic bags.
  • If I found myself in Sierra Nevada black bear country without enough space in my canister I might consider alternatives. One possibility is to put some food that you could live without or which could survive in-bag bear-munching into an Ursack. You could also take your chances and counter-balance a few food items that you can’t fit in the canister. Another possiblity (that some will find controversial and others may regard as just plain stupid) is to keep some factory-sealed foil-wrapped food with you at night. Possibilities include some of the Powerbar-like food bars and freeze-dried dinners in their original packaging. I’m confident that bears will not be able to detect these by smell – but that they will find them if you leave them outside without protection, at which point they are going to get eaten.

A word about Sierra Nevada bears

Many people are quite paranoid about backcountry encounters with Sierra bears. Partly this is probably a normal reaction to the idea of meeting a powerful mammal that is larger than you, but part of it is due to mythology that has been built up around these animals. In their effort to protect park visitors from their ignorance (e.g. – offering snacks to the bears) park rangers seem to create a greater level of panic than is probably necessary. For example, while I know that bears can and do break into cars I have never actually seen it happen in 35 years of backpacking. (Though I am very careful to not leave food in my car and to place items out of sight.)

Some people imagine that the bears may be stalking them in the backcountry. In my experience, bears are not really interested in people at all – just in the goodies that people may leave in their camps. Bears are opportunists: if you leave food where they can get it (or figure out how to get it) they will take it – but they bear no malice towards you and they really are not interested in eating you! So, be careful about food storage, don’t harass bears if you see them – and enjoy the opportunity to view these magnificent animals if you are lucky enough to encounter them.

(These are my personal opinions based primarily on experience with Sierra Nevada black bears. I am not an expert on animal behavior. Some experienced people will disagree with some of my opinions. Please read my disclaimer and consult real experts on bear behavior to ensure that you understand official policies on dealing with bears and other animals in the wild.)

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2 Comments »

  1. I’ve also heard of taking some of your food and shoving it in rock crevaces where bears claws aren’t able to reach. I have a friend who has done this, and quite literally been the only one with food left.

    Comment by Brian_Rueb | December 18, 2007 | Reply

  2. The trick would be finding crevices small enough that bear claws won’t fit but large enough that human claws will. But there is still a problem – I’ve lost food to rodents such as mice on at least one occasion. The best bet currently is still the canister, I think.

    Comment by Dan Mitchell | December 18, 2007 | Reply


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