Cooking in the mountains boils down (good pun) to preparing at home, well prepared! With the right planning you can have food in the backcountry that is better than most people get at a restaurant.
If you can boil water, you can re-heat some wonderful home-prepared meals that will lift your spirits and leave you satisfied. But not all backcountry cookery is easy. To make the difference obvious, we have assigned the following difficulty or (Class) ratings:
• Class 1
- Minimalist- Bivy on a Rock Face or Ledge- Bagels, Power bars, and Cliff Bars, all prepared no cooking or construction required. Construction of sandwiches, prepared homemade food for the trail, no trail cooking required
• Class 2
- Boiling water, for freeze dried meal bags, oatmeal etc.
• Class 3
- You are cooking now and will need the “Essentials of Mountain Cooking”, frying, package or construction of ingredients.
• Class 4
- Ok, you might be car camping at a trailhead and will be pulling your food out of a cooler, like eggs and other ingredients to create food from scratch.
• Class 5
- Full blown Base Camp, Expedition or long term meal preparation using several methods and ingredients.
• Class 5.10
- The use of power tools or appliances in the backcountry.
Essentials of Mountain Cooking
• Stove with adequate fuel
• 1 quart (1 liter) kettle
• Frying pan, lightweight
• Personal spoon, fork, and knife
• PAM and/or olive oil (or other cooking oil)
• Safe water (either carried or filtered or boiled)
• Meal bowls (also used for preparation)
Today, most hikers focus only on weight. For longer trips or speed, there are some excellent stoves available. But if you are willing to sacrifice some distance and speed to eat like a king, you need to use a bit more savvy in selecting a stove.
Look for a stove with an adjustable flame. Adjustability is important so that you can simmer, boil, and everything in between. Look for a sturdy stove that will stand up to your pots and pans.
Most manufacturers offer "boil and burn times" for their stoves, so you know how long it will take to boil water and how much time you can expect out of a fuel canister. Hiking stoves that heat up quicker and use less fuel may be more expensive, but they'll save you time and money in the long run.
If you want to really go gourmet, you'll probably need a bigger stove and more fuel, which will be more difficult to carry long distances. If you want to kick up your hiking menu, don't hike so far. Carry along some frozen or fresh foods you can cook in camp. You can cook on a small backpacking stove, but many now come with two burners.
These suggestions work well for camping, too, so you don't have to carry your food and tools so far. Invest in a good hiking stove and it will last you for many years of fabulous meals on the trail!
Group Cookware: Pots and Pans for Outdoor Cooking
Fancy equipment makes sense for car campers and base campers who don’t have to hike very far to a campsite. However, backpackers who want a light pack need to be a little more selective about their equipment. Here are the basics:
• Pot. Aluminum cook pots are light. Titanium, although expensive, is even lighter. Make sure the pot has a lid for retaining heat and cooking more efficiently. Most solo long-distance hikers use a single pot for cooking and eating, whereas hikers with partners usually carry bowls. Pots come in all sorts of sizes and types. For snow camping, a large pot that works with a heat exchanger will cook faster and conserve fuel. Non-stick pans can be a good idea, but health requires that you monitor a coated pan better than a plain one; Teflon works fine as a coating on your Gore-Tex clothes, but not so much as a coating for your intestines.
• Pot sets. Pots designed for outdoor cooking are sometimes sold in sets, but very few hikers use all the elements. A nested set of three pots is probably two more pots than are needed. However, one especially useful configuration is a set of pot and a shallow pan. Use the pot for boiling water and cooking common backpacking foods such as pasta or rice. Use the pan can either as a fry pan (for eggs or a trout), but also as a lid on the deeper main pot.
• Pot grabbers, or tongs. These are metal implements that can be used to safely remove a pot from the heat source. Some are sold along with the pots and are designed to work only with those pots. Others are generic. Choosing is merely a matter of making sure the grabber can hold the pot securely. Beyond that, select the lightest pot grabber available.
• Cooking utensils. A big spoon is very handy. Make sure it is long enough to avoid the dreaded “sunken spoon syndrome.” Hikers who have aspirations of creating outdoor gourmet meals should bring a lightweight spatula.
• Pot scrubber. A simple plastic dish scrubber is fine. Half of one will probably work. A plastic mesh scrubber is strong enough to get off some of the inevitable burnt-on crud and won’t hold as many food odors.
• Utensils. Most hikers simply use a spoon. A “spork” (combination of spoon and fork) makes one utensil do two jobs.
• Bowl and plate. In recent years, manufacturers of outdoor equipment have come up with some interesting variations on plain old plastic bowls, including plates made of silicone, and foldable, squashable lightweight cups and bowls. You’ll find some of these at outfitting shops such as R.E.I and independent outdoor retailers. Alternately, or for those on the cheap, a plain old storage container from the supermarket can act as a bowl. Many hikers like them because they find that containers with tight-fitting leak-proof lids allow them to soak dried foods like beans while they are hiking, or they can carry left-overs in the sealed container.
• Cup. Marked with units of measure, a cup can be used for measuring different amounts of food, for eating side dishes or deserts, and of course, for hot beverages and soups. Metal cups such as the classic Sierra cup don’t hold the heat, which means that hot drinks and soups quickly turn cold. At the same time, metal cups are hot to the touch (sometimes hot enough to burn fingers). Plastic or Pyrex may be a better choice.
Prepare ahead of timePrepare Backpacking Food Ahead of Time.
Cooking on a camp stove can be a challenge. You will be sitting on a rock or in the dirt. You have limited cooking gear, and an only slightly manageable heat source. And you might be tired. One way to create quick, tasty backpacking food with little muss and fuss is to prepare many of the ingredients at home before you leave for your trip. That way, you won't have to spend a lot of time prepping food in camp (in the dirt!), and you won't have to carry as many prepping utensils, either. Preparing food ahead of time takes the guesswork out of camp cooking, and it will make backpacking food a lot more fun for the entire group!
Here are some ideas for prepping items at home before you head for the hills:
• Place all the dry ingredients (like spices) you need for a recipe in one plastic bag, and then you can just pop them all into the mixture without measuring.
• Put just enough for one meal (dried pasta, rice, noodles, cereal, trail mix, or other ingredients) in each plastic bag and label it so you know you have all the ingredients you need for each meal.
• Carry small containers of dehydrated onions and garlic to spice up your meals. A few dried herbs are good, too.
• Remove the packaging from everything you're taking, repackage it in plastic bags, and label with cooking directions. If necessary, cut the directions off the package or include a small note card. Removing the bulk lets you carry more food and less trash on the way home.
• Make your own trail mix by adding your favorite fruits, nuts, seeds, and sweets. Put the mix in individual plastic bags that each member of your group can carry with them during the day. If they need a quick snack, they'll have one right in their pocket!
Outdoor cooking doesn't have to mean steaks, dogs, and burgers. You can cook just about anything on a camp stove or over a fire, and if you can boil water then you can enjoy boil-in-bag meals, pasta side dishes, and a variety of other convenience foods. You can even take along instant pudding; just add dry milk powder and water!
Gourmet outdoor cooking is becoming much more popular. On a large camp stove such as a two-burner Coleman, you can create gourmet meals just like you'd create at home. On a short hiking trip of a couple of days, you can carry insulated containers with food you've prepared at home, then heat up at the camp site.
Another quick outdoor cooking tip is to make use of plastic bags. Partially cook pasta at home, and then put it in a strong plastic bag. You can finish cooking it in the bag when you're ready for dinner. Marinate meats in plastic bags as well, and then cook the meat when you arrive at camp.
Practice at home. You can refine your outdoor cooking skills on your stove or on a grill at home before you hit the trail, so you'll know exactly what you need to do when you arrive in camp. Eat quality foods. If you're going for a shorter hike, you can carry more fresh foods and really enjoy outdoor cooking. Longer, multi-day backpacking treks usually call for more dehydrated and packaged dry foods. But dry and packaged doesn’t have to mean bland and expensive freeze-dried goods.
Easy Backpacking Food and Recipes
Some backpackers stand by staples like pasta, rice, or macaroni and cheese. These are quick to prepare, light to carry, and nutritious enough to keep you going for at least a few days. However, you can whip up some tastier recipes on the trail. And it’s easy.
Try carrying a small tube of tomato paste, and mixing the paste with water and dry spaghetti sauce mix. You'll have a light and tasty spaghetti sauce. Spice it up with dehydrated onion and garlic, or some hot pepper sauce.
Mix instant potatoes with canned or pouched meat for a quick, nutritious dinner.
Carry along a little dry Parmesan or Romano cheese for added flavor.
You can carry some fresh foods, like carrots, fruit, nuts, and even potatoes and onions for a few days, at least. They add weight, but they also add a lot of variety to your cooking.
External LinksExternal links to recipes
This is a great page with simple modified recipes of food you can find easily at the store and take to the mountains.
This page is the rock star of backcountry cooking.
Coffee in the Mountains
Another great page with many recipes!
Many thanks to the following:
, always the motivator and positive thinker and accomplished backcountry chef as well.
- my small still voice regarding these matters
- My rock star of a sister who happens to be a Novelist.
The Idahosummits Message Board Fall Outing team
as field test subjects on the Sausage Penne Pasta Recipe.
Cooking in the Mountains Field Test Subjects: Dan Robbins, Dave Pahlas, John Platt, Margo Lasky, Pat McGrane, Matt Eells, Dan Biddle, Ryan Porter, Chris Randolph and Slade Weston
Please feel free to add your favorite recipes. Please follow the format of my Sausage Penne Pasta listed under the recipes tab.