Nuts, Noodles & Angina Toast 

A backpacker’s guide to cooking in the backcountry

How many times has this scenario been played out? You have penetrated deep into the mountains, gained some altitude and although tired, you feel strong and in the groove. You could keep up this pace for days, into that next valley up the other side to ascend that peak that dominates your landscape. Your mind is filled with heady alpine thoughts of views, virgin terrain, the overwhelming solitude that comes from being so far from civilization. Then, inevitably, like a whining dog that cannot be ignored, it begins. Your belly steps in and reminds your adventuring spirit who is holding the cards in this physical test. Rumbling and insinuating, it paints a picture of hunger, listlessness, incapacitation, regret and starvation. It demands a quick descent to the pizza parlor as its price for cooperation. And usually, finding little more than half a ration of oatmeal left, you take one last look and, regretfully, your best intentions knuckle under to the lowest part of man’s soul.

The fact is that it is extremely burdensome to eat well in the backcountry unless you are willing to get highly technical, devote a lot of time and spend more money than you should on what is essentially free entertainment. There are, I’m sure, fine, comprehensive books written on the subject of backpacking cuisine. What follows is not comprehensive; it is my own field-tested, idiosyncratic and unapologetically amateur guidelines about eating in the woods, tinged with a suspicion for the pre-packaged, the super-convenient, and those things requiring a line of credit at your local outdoor store.

First, when I go into the woods, I am not trying to recreate my kitchen on the trail, much less my favorite Thai restaurant. But I do want to do a little more than placate my base nature with fuel, and so two questions must first be addressed: How heavy of a pack am I willing to carry and for how long?

Fuel for A Day Hike

Because I am loath to carry a stove and cook anything on a day hike, I am always looking for foods not easily smushed, which need no refrigeration. Apples and oranges are refreshing, but for fuel the easy answer is peanut butter and jelly on bagels, hard rolls, or tortillas, and Good Old Raisins and Peanuts (GORP). Also, any combination of granola, raisins, peanut M&M’s, roasted and salted soybeans, almonds, and walnuts will suffice. Hard candy is an excellent way to re-inspire confidence in your party while you try like hell to understand the map; it may also temporarily restore blood sugar.

For a long time I believed that things that came in little tins were the classy mountaineering foods of a bygone era—when mountaineers wore wool, canvas, and leather instead of plastic, and smoked cigarettes the way today’s mountaineers carbo up, eat energy slimes and hydrate like fiends. Under that civilized aegis I tried all of those exotic cans of oysters, anchovies, and sardines in mustard, Louisiana hot sauce and jalapeño oil. It was not until a tailgate party with some Cleveland Browns fans that I was disabused of the haute nature of sardines, but I still recommend all of the above for the doughty adventurer whose no-fear attitude is as evident in her cuisine as it is among the peaks. Chow for a Camp-Out

“Nick was hungry. He did not believe he had ever been hungrier. He opened and emptied a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan. “I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it,’ Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again.” —Ernest Hemingway, Big Two Hearted River

Nick ate beans from a can, but he probably left the can by the river. They say you can’t do that anymore. Dehydrated beans are almost as good. But for a night or two on the trail, the luxury of a can of beans, meat, fresh fruit and vegetables can usually be justified. If I’m packing cans, it’s tuna or chicken, which are lousy re-hydrated, and I’m adding it to a package of soup mix with couscous or extra egg noodles, which weigh nothing. Going for a few days without cooking hot meals is also possible, but I figure I can usually go farther and faster and eat better by using a lightweight backpacking stove and packing dried foods. But here I must digress.

The only way it is possible to carry enough grub to get through a week in the woods is to pack in as little water in food as possible. Everything must be dried or dehydrated. And that means planning and preparation. If you dislike planning and thinking about what you are going to eat in town, maybe the instant meals are your best bet for the woods. (Everything has its price, and what you pay is usually inversely related to how much you have to think.)

Mainly, these meals are dehydrated rice or noodles with a spicy/cheesey/tomatoey/ sauce with some dehydrated beans, vegetables and, if you are lucky, meat. They are all high is sodium (about 30 percent of the RDA) and suspiciously resemble soup packages made by Knorr, Lipton or others of those one-pot meals that come in single-serving packages and are easily half the price. But with only a little bit of imagination, you can do far better. With a bottle of hot sauce, which along with olive oil and whiskey are the only liquids allowed in my pack, you can do quite a job of doctoring dehydrated veggie chili, or red or black or refried beans into something pretty palatable.

“The coffee boiled as he watched. The lid came up and grounds ran down the side of the pot. … It was a triumph for Hopkins. … Nick drank the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story.”

Like a stone caffeine junkie, I have been through it all: Hopkins’s cowboy coffee, the percolator problem, instant powder, forswearing joe for potent tea. My latest solution has been a stovetop espresso percolator, which makes two good sized cups of high test java. Much smaller than the coffee percolator coffee pot, it steams the water quickly, uses less coffee, and diminishes the dallying around camp in the morning—instead, you hit the trail running.

Breakfast is vital in the woods, because if you don’t have a reason to get up you might not; since you are already in the woods there is no reason to be rushing about getting somewhere. For long, extended backpacking excursions, there is oatmeal and there is everything else. Eating gloopy paste in the morning occasionally livened with whatever dried fruit you have and fortified with powdered milk, butter or even peanut butter is practically ritualistic in most circles, and like most rituals it can be pretty dreadful day after day. A quart-size bag of brown sugar on a week long trip makes the eat it or carry it “no thank you” round of the last of the oatmeal almost edible. But it works and with enough condiments you can usually make it to lunch without too much trouble. For variety, Krusteaz makes a just-add-water pancake mix, which, when fried in Crisco and eaten with honey, makes a good, if more time consuming, alternative.

Finally, there is the hardware to consider. If you own pack animals, can afford sherpas or are traveling by car or canoe, first, buy a Coleman two burner stove. One burner keeps the coffee going nonstop and the other is the province of the cast iron skillet which cooks almost everything. The true testament to this contraption is that I persuaded my best friend to carry the green monster through some 26 miles of the Bob Marshall so that the five of us could use it at our base camp. The earliest one-skillet meal I remember is bacon, followed by corned beef hash with eggs sort of poached on top all cooked in an eight-gallon canning pot suspended over a fire; I also remember running out of water and drinking downstream from a rotting deer carcass on that trip. Since then my greatest contribution to car-camping cookery is a variation of frybread. Cook a lot of bacon in a cast iron skillet. Remove bacon and eat while standing around. Then float pieces of dense bread or bagels on the bacon grease until they are golden brown. Remove and slather with maple syrup. Eat while still hot and delicious. Ignorance of the cooking process is key to the enjoyment of this tailgate delicacy; one greenhorn wanted to know the process so that he could surprise his wife back home in the city. He was admonished and reminded that Angina Toast, like many things you eat in the woods, does not travel well into more civilized circles, and to transport this dish to his home would be to run the risk that his wife and doctor would soon make the formerly healthy activity of being outdoors another concern of the surgeon general.

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