There’s a common misconception that wilderness cooking is limited to hot dogs, space food, and ramen noodles. There’s no right way to do wilderness cooking, but if good food is a priority to you around the dinner table, there’s no reason you should sacrifice that around the campfire.
Whether you’re struggling with a peanut butter overdose or just sick of protein bars, I’m here to offer some tips that will not make you a better wilderness cook. Only experience will do that. But if reading inspires you to dust off your dutch oven and lug it out far enough into the woods to start cursing me, then our time here together will be well worth it.
- Invest time in menu planning. Based on your route and goals of your time in the wilderness, plan an appropriate number of quick, low-effort meals and more elaborate layover day meals. Then plan some more meals. Because being hungry sucks. Think about protein. Think about food weight, depending on your mode of travel. Think about which order you will eat your meals in, considering weight again (heavy first), freshness, and variety. When you get home, take note of what you have extra, and what you wish you had more of while you were out there.
- Bring the right equipment. A frying pan and something to bake in are crucial if you want to move past the boiled sludge stage. A light-weight cutting board makes a handy food prep surface and will keep your knife sharper. Bring a well-stocked spice kit and a sturdy container with a tightly-fitting lid for leftovers.
- Build a fire (after checking for any restrictions and Leave No Trace recommendations). Many camp stoves come with only one setting, while the amount of heat coming out of your fire is endlessly variable. A portable fire grate, a pair of pot-grips or pliers, and a leather glove will make your fire much easier to cook and bake over. A fire requires time – to collect wood, build it, and then let it burn down to coals if you are baking, but a little planning at meal time will make your firewood go farther. Have a pot of water already on the fire grate before you light your match, so it immediately starts heating. Build the fire fast and large to boil the water sooner and cook your main course. Consider whether you can cut vegetables before you light the fire. Use the coals after dinner for baking, as baking over a new fire can result in too high a temperature, meaning burnt on the outside and raw in the middle.
- Make routines and space in your travel schedule for cooking adventures. Cooking takes time and effort, and special meals are likely to get lost in the bottom of your pack if you aren’t deliberate about when they will be eaten. If you’re traveling with a group, delegate someone to be a sous chef or a baker every evening until it becomes a habit. Come up with occasions that need to be celebrated – mile markers, birthdays (celebrate the day even in the wrong month), or the mastery of new skills.
- Plan meals that are flexible, allowing for experimentation if time and energy allow. Biscuit mix that can be added to soup as dumplings, baked as biscuits, or saved for another meal. Onions and potatoes that can go in soup or be made into french fries and onion rings. Tortillas that can be eaten with peanut butter or fried into chips.
- Stop making the same old meals. If you catch yourself thinking, I wouldn’t eat this at home while snarfing down a second heaping bowl of That Stuff, it’s a good sign it’s time to find some new recipes. Almost anything you can make at home can be made in the woods. Your favorite food blog will translate almost effortlessly to the wilderness. Just replace “simmer” with “boil,” “pre-heat the oven” with “pretty hot fire,” and “slice” with “chop haphazardly.” But seriously, if you’re looking for some new recipes, there’s no need to get a fancy wilderness cookbook. Do try your favorite frontcountry meal in the backcountry, and do use your frontcountry amenities to test out recipes for your next trip.
- Go wild. Catch a fish, learn to identify a simple plant or two for tea, or pick berries. Something fresh will add much-needed spark to a longer trip.
- Travel with other people. Steal their recipes and tricks and learn from their mistakes.
- Be fearless. Hot food at the end of a long day always tastes better than expected, even if the vegetables are undercooked and the pasta overcooked. Keep a stash of high-calorie candy bars buried in a pack for the night you accidentally spill the rice in the fire pit, and know that this happens to all of us. It’s hard to cook in the dark/bugs/rain/cold/whatever other plague you may be suffering.
- Do something crazy. Sprout alfalfa. Bake bread. Ferment your own sauerkraut. Smoke your fish. Make a cake and frost it. Eat better in the woods than you do at home. Food can make the difference between a good trip and a tough one, and whether your travel companions are clients, students, or friends, wilderness cooking can empower and bring together. And by all means, go out to eat in a woods-friendly establishment at trip’s end to celebrate what you’ve done out there.