Backcountry Meal Planning
This book got me started and I still use it today. Some of the meals in my spreadsheet come from her book.
This is another book from the same author with new recipes!
Tip: The Cozy
You can make a cozy out of any insulating material. Reflectix works well, is light, and doesn’t cost much. We cut out squares and tape them together with duct tape.
You could make one out of an old fleece jacket or wool sweater or some neoprene material too.
There are plenty of cozies available on the market too. I like the idea of this one that combines reflective insulation with primaloft and has a velcro flap to keep it closed.
The Nutristore chicken had a great taste and texture. I like Mountain House’s chicken too but Nutristore tastes closer to the real thing.
I typically just take regular cheese on trips but when weight, space, and longevity is a priority, freeze dried cheese comes in handy. I tested out hydrating it at home and thought it was good enough to eat alone. I even found myself snacking on the weirdly squeaky dried stuff as I put together meals.
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Preparing meals for backpacking trip combines 3 of my great loves: spreadsheets, cooking, and outdoor adventures. For me, it doesn’t get much better than that!
Freezer Bag Cooking
We primarily practice a faith called called Freezer Bag Cooking. We are loyal followers because of our love for not doing dishes and the amount of spreadsheet use in the planning phases that it encourages.
The basic concept is that none of your meals actually need to be cooked, they just need to be rehydrated. We package our homemade meals into individual servings in quart sized zip-lock bags. Then on the trail, we boil water and add it to the bags, letting them sit for 10-15 minutes in an insulated cozy to rehydrate.
And now for the Pros and Cons List!
No dishes! This means less work but also that we don’t have to worry about where to dump our dirty dish water.
Less fuel! Since all we have to do is bring a minimal amount of water to a boil, we use less fuel than if we had to keep the water at a boil while we cooked pasta or rice.
Less work during the trip. Boil water, add to bag, wait. That’s it! You can even go do something else like set up your tent while your food hydrates.
No dishes. Yes, I already listed this one but seriously this is the biggest pro and the main reason we cook this way in the backcountry. My least favorite thing after a long day of hiking, and a delicious relaxing meal, is getting up, digging a hole, washing dishes, dumping the dirty water, and then worrying a bear will smell it and pay me a visit later. The other option with your water is to be a true LNT practicer and wash the dishes without soap and DRINK your dishwater. As much as I’ll admonish you for throwing your apple core into the woods, I’m not committed enough to drink water with my leftovers floating in it.
Inexpensive. This cooking method might sound very similar to making meals that you can buy already prepared at any outdoor store. Brands like Backpacker’s Pantry and Mountain House are popular but at $7-9 per meal per person who has that kind of money? I prefer not to spend more money on food when I’m backpacking than I do preparing meals at home. By using mostly standard foods that you prepare ahead of time, your freezer bag backpacking meals will be very inexpensive.
Trash. This method uses lots and lots of ziplock baggies. Although, if I was packaging meals for cooking on backpacking trips I’d still have to put them in something, so really it’s just the difference between the thinner plastic of storage bags and the thicker freezer bags.
Sitting there with a bag of food, counting down the minutes until it’s ready. Unlike cooking, there is nothing to see so you just sit and wait.
Sometimes you don’t add the right amount of water and you have to eat watery food or add more water and wait longer. It takes some learning to get it right if you are creating your own recipes. Fortunately there are folks out there who have created them for you can you can save the guesswork! One of my favorites is Freezer Bag Cooking
More work before the trip. Measuring, bagging, labeling. (For me this actually belongs in the Pro column but I recognize that we aren’t all crazy.)
No pancakes. I do miss my trail pancakes. But then I remember that I’m no longer cooking for just me and cooking one pancake at a time over a backpacking stove is so not fun. I’ve done it. We don’t get out of camp until close to lunch.
What to Cook?
Start with a cookbook. I use the Freezer Bag Cooking cookbook for some of my recipes such as Cranberry Chicken and Rice. Google around. You’ll find a lot of the same things over and over but every now and then you stumble on a gem like The Yummy Life and her meal prep blog for her husband’s backpacking trips. I use her dinner recipes like the Curry Rice with Chicken & Cashews and her oatmeal ideas on our trips regularly.
Adapt other camping meals. One of my favorites, Gado Gado Spaghetti, came from the NOLS Cookery cookbook. It was designed to be cooked with multiple pans but with a little experimentation I was able to easily adapt it for rehydration. This one is so good that sometimes we cook it at home! I recently found on the NOLS blog, they have created an instant adaptation as well
Think of foods that your family likes to eat at home and dehydrate them yourself. Pastas and casseroles work really well as long as they don’t have too much fat in them. Fat doesn’t really dehydrate well. So spaghetti works great, and lasagna works well too. I leave the mozzerella out of the lasagna but ricotta dehydrates just fine. When cooking the ground beef or turkey if you want meat in your lasagna, go with the leanest beef (95% lean) and cook in a non-stick skillet so you don’t have to use any oil to cook it. Check out the Backpacking Chef’s site for great ideas on how and what to dehydrate.
What can you create at home?
Portions and Rehydration
Anytime I create or try a new meal, I test out the rehydration and portions at home first. Be sure to write down everything like: 1 cup dried lasagna to 3/4 c. water. I think I’m going to remember these things and then EVERY time I get ready for a new trip, I can’t remember the ratios.
Portion size is really important because obviously you don’t want to go hungry backpacking when you need the calories for energy but just as importantly, you don’t want to have too much food. If you end up with leftovers they are heavier to carry out since they are hydrated and it’s a bummer to have to force down food you don’t want, not to mention that if your kids don’t finish their food, you are going to be the one who has to eat all of their leftovers too. Ugh!
I start with a spreadsheet of meals then make a shopping list with quantities. I’ve never prepped for a trip with only one grocery store trip but without my spreadsheets and grocery lists that I continue to cross off and add on to, I’d have to shop every day.
Create a labeling system. As I bag up the meals, I write, in sharpie, on the outside of the bag, how much water is needed to rehydrate. I also note there if there are other components that need to be added on the trip. These would be wet ingredients like peanut butter, raisins, fresh cheese, etc. If I don’t have all the ingredients on hand that I need, I tape little notes to the outside of each bag noting what I still need to put in and how much. Then I also add these to my grocery list. As meals are completed, I cross them off my meal spreadsheet so I can keep track of what I still need to make.
For me, there is always a separate grocery list of things to buy right before the trip: bread, cheese, any fresh fruits or veggies.
Planning for a family is a whole different beast than putting together meals for a solo trip. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of list, spreadsheets, and a tracking system for what is and isn’t done. You don’t want to have to bail on a trip because you forgot a bunch of ingredients or meals. If you aren’t a planner, just dig in and find that inner Type A. If you are so excited you already have opened a new excel document, this is your time to shine!
What if my trip takes longer than planned and I run out of food? Should I take an extra meal? What if a bear gets my food? What if I spill one of my meals and can’t eat it?
The way I feel about ultralight backpacking is this: pack enough to get out safely. You aren’t going to starve or get even delirious after a day of no food. Look at your route. Note the exits for emergencies. How long will it take you to hike out if you need to? Well if you lose your food to a bear, it doesn’t really matter how much extra you packed does it? If you run behind on your trip, you are going to know it pretty early if you have made a rough plan on where you will be each night or approximately how many miles you want to do each day and you can start to ration your food differently.
Now with kids, I slightly change my perspective on this. While I might be ok with suffering, I only want them to suffer a little. Yes, I do want them to suffer some (builds a tolerance for adversity and overcoming difficulty), but I don’t want them to be miserable and hate outdoor adventures. So, in the case of a 7 day family trip without easy exit routes when we realized we were moving way slower than planned, we just started rationing food. At dinner, we would all share 3 meals rather than the 4 that were planned. Adam and I could have eaten more but it wasn’t like we were going hungry, just a nice diet. After 3 days, we had accumulated an extra family dinner. Same goes for breakfast and lunches. On our most recent 2 week packrafting trip, three lunches worth of bread molded 6 days in. We didn’t want to shorten our trip so we rationed some dinners that we realized were too big and gave ourselves a day of dinner lunches. The extra bars I had brought as “just in case” food became another lunch when combined with some re-allocated peanut butter.
If a particular trip is ambitious in miles or entailed a lot of unknowns and routfinding difficulty, I would recommend adjusting your extra food accordingly. Same goes if you are newer to trip planning. When you have more experience with your abilities and the abilities of your family, you can cut back on packing extra food.
Recipes I’ve Used
Below is my meal planning spreadsheet from my most recent expedition. We went out for two weeks with no resupply so I limited perishable items and bulky items. While we had the ability to carry more in our boats than we did on our backs, we were still tight on space.
Cranberry Chicken and Rice looks boring in the recipe but is a consistent crowd pleaser.
Curry Cashew Chicken can be a bit spicy for kids who balk at the tiniest bit of heat. Cut the curry in half and you’ll still have some good flavor.
Don’t skip the Gado Gado!
This was the first trip we tried the Chicken wraps. I was nervous about them being gross so I saved them for the last two days and they were AH-MAZING! I highly recommend this recipe and will be making it again and again. I couldn’t find this recipe online so you’ll need the Freezer Bag Cooking cookbook.
I was all over the place with rice quantities on this trip. Sometimes we were forcing down way more food than we wanted to. I found that if a rice based meal needs about 1 c of water to hydrate it, that is perfect for Adam and 3/4 c water will be the right size meal for me.
Dehydrating tomatoes is so easy you can do it in your oven. Dry a bunch and add them to all of your meals! Delicious.
Breakfast burritos made from powdered eggs isn’t exactly a simple freezer bag meal like the others. The way I pulled this one off was powdered eggs and freeze dried cheese in a freezer bag. Add water (measure it because this one is easy ruined). Hold freezer bag in a pot of boiling water until the eggs are cooked solid. I precooked and crumbled a bunch of bacon so I assembled all ingredients on a tortilla and feasted! This meal feels really special when you have been eating a lot of grits, oatmeal, and rice.
Powdered eggs or notoriously finicky and gross. I did a bunch of research and ended up buying the Sonstegard brand. They rank highly in comparisons of powdered eggs but are also not astronomically priced. We tried them at home first and felt they were a pretty good substitute for the real thing. I’ve even used them for baking a few times when I was out of real eggs. In the backcountry, they are delicious and could be used to create breakfast bowls or scrambled eggs with various add-ins in addition to burritos. Lightweight breakfast variety is hard to come by but these really did the trick of breaking up the doldrums of oatmeal and grits.
Bacon is one of my favorite ways to make my meals exciting. When cooked pretty well-done, it holds up for a long time unrefrigerated. I don’t want to profess any real knowledge of when bacon will go bad, but my anecdotal evidence is: ours lasted 2 weeks through days in the sun in a black dry-bag in 80 degree weather and no one got sick.
The Nutristore freeze dried chicken was excellent. I’m not saying I’d sit down with a plate of it and just dig in but it had a surprisingly normal taste and texture and re-hyrated easily (even with cold water). I used Mountain House freeze dried chicken on a previous trip and enjoyed it as well but wasn’t quite as impressed with the flavor. Honestly, I’d just buy whichever one was cheaper and Nutristore won this time! There are other brands out there too but I haven’t personally tried them yet.
I couldn’t seem to find instant grits in bulk ANYWHERE. Instant grits are critical to freezer bag cooking them since they just rehydrate with hot water in a couple minutes. Even quick grits need cooking. So until someone can hook me up with a bulk instant grits source, I buy them online in large boxes of tiny packets.
Where To Buy
Any grocery store with a good bulk section. I came across the Holy Grail of bulk discount grocery stores in Las Vegas when getting ready for this trip: Winco Foods. Their bulk section is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I recently considered a 2 hour drive just to get to shop it again. They have an entire aisle of different types of nuts, all shapes of pasta, various rice options, flours, candy, dried fruits, TVP, powdered soups, gravy, you name it! I could do almost all of my grocery shopping from the bulk sections. I only wish they were more widespread. So far I’ve found them in Vegas, Southern California, and Salt Lake City. According to the google, they are also in Phoenix and Idaho.
Prepper websites. Backpacking food companies make some great meals but if you want the flexibility to prepare your own and save money, check out any number of sites dedicated to those who want to be prepared with a non-perishable food supply. I like Nutristore. You can buy directly from them or find them on Amazon. I found better prices on Amazon but the selection is better when you buy direct and they do offer regular sales. Our chicken and cheese came from Nutristore for this trip.
Minimus.biz - Single serving condiments and food items
Ethnic grocery stores. I’ve found better prices and better selection on dried fruits and nuts at asian markets and other ethnic grocery stores. You can also get a little more variety in your food if you shop these.
Let me know what you think! If you have any questions, shoot me an email. I’d love to hear from you. Do you have any recipes I can add to my collection? I’m always looking for new options to keep our meals interesting, light, and delicious.
Tip: Get a long-handled spoon. It makes reaching into the bottom corners of your freezer bags much easier and you don’t end up with food all over the handle. A plastic one works and is lightweight but threatens to break the stress of vigorous eating. (Ours have a bunch of little fractures telling us that the end is near.) If you want to get fancy and more durable, go titanium like the TOAKS spoon.
Tip: Don’t use a spork. Sporks are cool. They make you feel legit. But those short, mostly useless tines are just itching to poke holes in your plastic bags, making a big mess in your cozy. Stick with a spoon
Tip: Bring spices. I always bring a “pantry” with me that consists of salt, pepper, garlic, parmesan, and powdered milk. You can flavor up a bland meal with the spices and fix a runny meal with the powdered milk. Sometimes I throw in other things like hot sauce and soy sauce packets, paprika, etc. When you need more condiments than your Taco Bell habit can supply, check out Minumus.biz. They have everything!