Next week I am heading out on a long-weekend to the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado. I've been backpacking and camping most of my life. My father would take me to places like the Delaware Water Gap and the Wharton State Forest in New Jersey. Needless to say, this was rare amongst my fellow Jerseyites-of-the-80s, who would find it difficult to hit the trail in their Z-Cavariccis, leg-warmers and Forenza Sweaters. Food was always important to us and it was a welcome challenge to try to make something tasty under spartan conditions. My dad's prize possession was his "quickie pie maker", a cast-iron press that would squeeze two pieces of bread and some filling together to make a 'hot pocket' of sorts. Roasting our apple sauce pies, laden with margarin, was the highlight of our camping trips. It didn't matter how heavy this beast of a tool was, dad carried it without complaint (along with most of my stuff as well when I was young).
When I got to college I actually took a course titled: Backpacking and Camping. Gotta love Temple University! While, you can certainly get a good education there if you dedicate yourself, they have plenty of coursework for those who just want to coast. I took three years of Russian and still cannot speak a word (but I was able to pass with A's simply by giving the teacher a nice bottle of Vodka and sitting next to the Russian kids during the one-page final exam - true!).
In Backpacking 101 we mostly socialized, including our young, strapping teacher named Brett. There was a syllabus and we glossed over the lessons each week. Some inexperienced students actually asked questions and engaged Brett's knowledge of the woods. For our final we were to spend a weekend on the Appalachian trail at Pole Steeple, the unofficial midway point of the trail. There were a lot of cute girls in the class, so I was excited to get away with some new people. A girl named Audrey had agreed to be my tent-mate. Although she had a boyfriend, she was definitely the prettiest girl in the bunch and would at least add some street-cred for bunking with me.
The trip was pretty great. Total strangers hanging in the woods, getting high and drunk for school credit!? I even picked up a new technique and dish while we were there. One of the campers brought an old bucket pot which he filled with sliced onions, hunks of pepperoni and a few cans of baked beans. He hung it over a branch in the fire and let it cook low and slow for a long long time. As is often the case when backpacking, the food might have tasted better not matter what was in it. But the simplicity of the one-pot meal was not lost on me and became the inspiration for many more to come.
Skip ahead to my adulthood. I lived in Colorado for six years and spent a lot of time in the wilderness. My roommate Tom was old-school - carrying an external-frame pack with a bag of P,B&J sandwiches and hot coffee. Me? I was all about the technology and lowering my pack weight. You know the type. Fucking anal pricks. We would scrap a perfectly good pack, or stove, or canteen just because there was a new one that was 3 ounces lighter. We say shit like "ounces add up to pounds". REI was built on the backs of our compulsions.
But, as a foodie, I was left with a dilemma. With the little stove and the little pots and the weightless foodstuff, how can you possibly make decent food? (I bet you were wondering how I was going to piece the technology food angle in - and it only took me 620 words). No quickie pies for me (apple sauce, bread and pie clamp are all too heavy). No pepperoni beans (onions, cans of beans, big pot - no, no, no). Might as well face it, backpacking food sucks. Right?
Kinda. Not really. Maybe. But modern technologies have certainly improved the options for lightweight foodstuffs, some of which I am going to detail below:
Pre-Cooked Bacon - The single greatest revelation I've had on the trail is the discovery of this boxed wünderkind of salted cured animal flesh. This stuff can live without refrigeration for a few days, it takes very little time (and fuel) to cook. To the depraved, over-exhausted mind of the trail rat it tastes as good as any bacon on a normal day. It's light.
Freeze-Dried Fruits & Veggies - This stuff has been around for ever, but it just seems better these days. You can buy any assortment of veggies, mix them all up, put them in a baggie ready to dump into a powdered soup, powdered potatoes, mixed with chicken (see below) and curry powder. The potential uses are endless. A creative chef can actually make a palatable dish that is healthy to boot.
Vacuum-Sealed Meats - Getting protein on the trail has always been a challenge. Jerky was really the only game in town until recently. Now populating the shelves of the tuna aisle are fifty different varieties of tuna, salmon, chicken preserved and sealed in little packets that last for months. They are not light, but they are not heavy either. They sure beat freeze-dried meats, which simply don't stand up as well as their veggie counterparts. Just toss a bag into pasta, curry or any other dish and you've got wholesome treat.
Powdered Eggs - Close enough to the real thing for scrambles and omelets - add meat and veggies to bolster.
Packaged Meals - Two kinds to consider here. First, at the camping store there are a few brands, and endless variety of add-water meals. I like to cook my own meals so I avoid the lasagnas and the beef stews. But the technology in this stuff has come a long way and dare I say, they're not half bad. Especially desserts. In fact, I strongly encourage the desserts. Cobbler that weighs next to nothing - just add water - done deal.
The other type of packaged stuff is just on the shelves at the supermarket. I know, I'm always talking about sustainability and proper shopping, but for this purpose alone you might have to hit the schlocky stores. Whole Foods has a few lightweight treats, but apparently convenience and speeds are important to a lot of people cooking in this country. Safeway's aisles are full of crap in boxes that can be prepared by just heating or adding hot water in under five minutes. Don't forget to check out the packets of sauce available. Pesto? The intrepid chef could find a lot to work with here. In fact, I think this was a Top Chef challenge.
Next time you are hitting the trail and need to lighten the load, know that your options are plenty. Maybe after this trip I'll post some recipes. Not quite sure how many of my readers are outdoorspeople. I suppose we'll see by today's reader stats.