Food is one of my favorite things, and nothing makes me happier while out than to sit down and cook a simple or elaborate meal using tools I made myself and often using ingredients I’ve found along the way.
I’m not going to get into foraging here, although I encourage all of you to learn about it. It is incredibly rewarding, but relying on it without prior experience and practice is a dangerous prospect. Read the book “Into the Wilderness” to see the difference a few weeks can have in the difference between food and poison. Simply going on hikes with a good book, such as Richard Mabey’s “Food For Free”
is an excellent (and often filling) way to get the hang of it. And let me tell you; after a few weeks without fresh vegetables, you will be really wishing you’d learned how to at least gather and cook greens.
One alternative to foraged greens is a sprout bottle
. Sprout a variety of seeds (alfalfa, bean, lentil sunflower, etc) by soaking them over night in a plastic peanut butter jar. After soaking them, attach a piece of screen across the top of the jar with tape or a rubber band and drain the water from the jar. I use old silk screen scraps. Do this until the seeds begin to sprout in a day or two. Rinse and drain the seeds daily and carry the jar in the bottom of your pack. Soon you’ll have a mass of fresh spriuts not unlike when you buy alfalfa sprouts from the store. Great in soups, over pasta or noodles and adds crunchiness to boiled greens.
There are a number of staple foods I vary between when I can get them in bulk. I tend to carry enough to eat well, very rarely going short on food and I like to carry a variety, because after 2 weeks straight, I imagine couscous might start to feel like eating Styrofoam beads.
Flour: Don’t laugh about not having an oven. With water and a pinch of baking soda, you can make bread on rocks, sticks or in a pot. Add powdered egg and milk, and you have pancakes. A touch of sugar and some unripe foraged raspberries, you have tarts. The trick is to lay out a bit of flour and slowly knead in water until you get a soft dough. I now do this in a plastic bag because the dough gets insanely sticky. Add more water and boil it if you need wheat paste. Once you’ve got the dough starting to form, fold in the baking soda. The resulting dough can be cooked on a rock at the edge of a campfire, pulled into strips and wrapped around green sticks to make stickbread (Way more fun than Marshmellows, and is like biscotti if dipped in coffee). Don’t expect wonderbread, but expect a deep smoky taste from the wood. Trust me, eventually, you’ll know and enjoy the flavor of oak fires.
Couscous: A wonder food, which tends to be stupidly expensive if purchased in pretty boxes, but dirt cheap if bought in unpackaged bulk. Couscous absorbs the flavor of anything you put in it, which means a touch of chicken or beef bullion cubes or a bit of miso powder can create radically different tastes and break up monotony. Couscous is also amazing with dried fruits and vegetables. One of my favorite breakfasts is hot couscous cooked with powdered milk, raisins and dried berries. You can “cook” it in nearly tepid water in ziplock bags, since all it needs to do is absorb the water.
Polenta is another food that is remarkably versatile. I often use it to thicken up dried soups and add a few calories when hungry. It is possible to grill it but it always makes a mess out of my pan.
Oatmeal: Don’t carry too much of it or plan to eat it every day for breakfast. At least not if you want to keep enjoying oatmeal. Vary your breakfasts by packing granola or other hard cereals with powdered milk in baggies. Sometimes the crunchy texture maks a cold breakfast much better than spoonfuls of oat-crete paste. You can often buy muesli as an oatmeal substitute, but I find it hard to find in bulk.
Dried Fish: In many asian grocery stores you can find a variety of dried flattened fish. These are great in soups or ramen. I personally like the dried shrimp, but I also think squid jerky is great trail food.
Quinoa: This Andean grain is unique in that it is a complete protein by itself, unlike rice or wheat. Its Incan history is amazing and it has been cultivated in the rugged Andes Mountains for over 5000 years. It can be used in place of any grain, but is sometimes difficult to find. To cook it, you mix 1 cup quinoa to 2 cups water and cook @15 minutes. You can use it in place of rice or any other grain.
Rice: Unfortunately, rice is a no-go for hiking. It takes too long to cook, using up too much fuel. Fortunately, you can cook rice and re-dry it to make instant rice. To cook dried rice, mix equal portions dried rice and water. Yes, you can buy instant rice, and I always do myself, but I hate endorsing packaged or processed food and I’ve never seen instant rice in bulk.
Corn Pasta: Get small pastinis that won’t break being packed. Corn pasta is easier to find in whole grain varieties which are more filling and nutritious.
Olive Oil: An easy alternative to butter in most cases, you can use olive oil in almost everything. Even stick bread.
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The cookset: My cookset is minimalist. I am limited by this in what I can cook, but the lack of weight over many miles makes up for it. Basically, when you can choose between a pound of food and a pound of stove the choice makes itself for you the first time you go six days without seeing a store.
Thankfully, the worlds lightest stove is also the cheapest. All it takes is two tin cans, a box cutter and some patience. There are a lot of sites detailing the creation of alcohol stoves and I learned much of what I know from www.zenstoves.com
. By carefully cutting apart the two tin cans you can create a 1 inch high stove the runs on denatured alcohol, running alcohol or moonshine. Most stoves have holes on the top, requiring the use of a pot holder. I use one with a large central hole and holes along the side which allows me to set my pot directly on the stove without a potholder. This necessitates a small pot, but unless you are cooking for more than one person you will seldom need more than three cups of boiling water. You always need to use a wind screen with an alcohol stove. Wind can double or triple cook times or even make it impossible due to the small amount of fuel the stove holds. To make a simple wind screen simply fold aluminum foil over itself three times and make a ring by wrapping the foil around your cook pot.
My pot is a simple aluminum affair. I bought a light aluminum pot from the thrift store, and unscrewed the handle to make it pack easier. I use my folding pliers to move it. It is important that the pot has a lid with a good fit as this speeds cooking; reducing the amount of fuel you will need to use and therefore carry. I use one that is a bit too large that I have punched slits in to enable me to bundle this all together with an old belt.
Finally, cutlery. I carry a lexan platic spoon and fork, they are heavy duty, nearly unbreakable and decent unless you’re trying to eat steak. For years I carried metal ones, but switched after winding up using these for a while after an old set got lost. You can occasionally find them in cafes or upscale takeout restaurants for free, you can recognize lexan by the difficulty in bending it. It will often break instead of twist.
I use my old army laundry bag
, lined with a heavy duty trash bag. On the side, I have sewn a square of fabric to make pouch which holds 50 feet of parachute cord. The purpose of the lined bag is twofold. The trash bag keeps smells from coming through the canvas laundry bag and attracting animals, but also allows you to inflate the bag inside your pack in order to carry crushables like fruit or bread. Simply blow it up and then wrap the draw strings in alternating directions around the neck of the bag to tie it off.
Every night, after dinner, I hang the bag. In areas with bears, I cook away from my camp, often sitting down for dinner a mile or more away from where I plan to sleep. I also hang the food bag away from my campsite. When hanging a food bag, which can be surprisingly heavy, you should find a sturdy branch 15-20 feet off the ground with no nearby perches. The bag itself should be hung 10-11 feet above the ground, and five feet or more from the trunk and branch. This keeps raccoons, squirrels and bears from getting at it.
I get pretty winded when I write these up, sorry for verbosity. It seems a lot of you enjoy them though. I’m trying to sort out some thoughts before I leave tomorrow, but if it takes too long, I’ll be offline for a few days.