Keep it Fresh
When I started backpacking over two decades ago, I was convinced that packing fresh food was “verboten”. The colossal weight of several extra ounces of avocado on your back were just not worth the delight of savoring it’s creamy green goodness. The hiking gods would never allow such a sin to go unpunished. If you knew what was good for you, you’d stick with convenient and quick processed meals of dehydrated chicken and rice and count your bland, ultralight blessings.
While I still invest in lightweight gear, I’ve moved steadily away from gulping down the mummified remains of freeze-dried meals. I now know it’s possible to cook real, healthy food without wasting hours hunched over the stove or earning a hernia while carrying my dinner.
Here’s some helpful hints to turn your boring freeze-dried dinner into a (relatively) lightweight backcountry delight:
- Remember: Water is water. Your body doesn’t know the difference between the water in your Nalgene and in that succulent heirloom tomato. You’ll be carrying that water weight anyway- wouldn’t you rather some of it be in the form of delicious, juicy fruits and veggies? Benefits abound: Tomatoes alone provide a great amount of vitamin C and an outstanding antioxidant content- shown to fight fatigue and support your immune system- generally a great idea while hiking.
- Spices, spices, spices! Spices are worth their weight in gold. Salt and pepper are a must, but you can also bring anything from cumin to garlic powder. BONUS: include copious amounts of Curry for the anti-inflammatory powers of tumeric and you’ll be a lot less sore after your long days on trail. Skip the full containers and use Ziplock baggies for your kitchen on the go.
- Include healthy fats. Fat carries the most flavor- and serves as a great source of energy and materials to help your body to repair itself. Butter, coconut oil, olive oil and avocado oil are all great choices. Ounce for ounce, fats provide the most fuel and flavor you need to keep going. TIP: The medium chain Triglycerides in coconut oil are particularly useful for quick energy since the body can absorb them directly from the digestive tract without having to go through all the extra work of emulsification.
- Freeze your first night’s protein. Stash a great steak in the freezer overnight before your trip. Just before you’re about to go, take it out, double ziplock bag it and pack it deep in the center of your pack. Your other gear will act as insulation keeping it cold and leaving you with a real treat at the end of the day. (NOTE: Unfortunately veggies and fruits generally do NOT freeze well- ice crystals break up their cell structure and they will turn into mush as they melt). Protein and fat are both necessary materials to help repair your muscles after long hours of hiking with a heavy pack. Make sure to give your body what it needs to rebuild.
- Precook some of your ingredients for the first night’s meal. Food such as onions, mushrooms and other side dish veggies can be precooked and then added to your pan at the last minute. You’ll cut down on cooking time, the size of pans and amount of fuel you’ll need to carry. By incorporating foods such as onions and garlic, you’ll not only drive away bears (and other backpackers) but also give your body the sulfur it needs to help produce the glycosaminoglycans necessary (amongst other functions) for the smooth, pain free movements of your joints and tendons.
- Choose dehydrated wisely. Instead of going for bland dehydrated meals, choose individual dry ingredients that will actually enhance the end flavor and health of your meal. Sundried tomatoes, herbs and dried mushroom medleys are all just waiting to be rehydrated and mixed in as ultra-flavorful components of your meals.
- Utilize dry staples, such as quick cook rice and (Gluten Free) pasta, then add fresh ingredients to spice up the meal. NOTE: A helpful trick to speed up the cooking process is to add your pasta or rice to a Ziplock bag full of water for the last mile or so (perhaps more depending on estimated cook time) of your hike into camp.
Fresh food may add some weight, but with the right choices it can more than make up for that in flavor and health. Everything tastes better in the backcountry, but that’s no excuse for eating just plain bad food.