By Kosette Isakson
Photo by Jason Hummel
When I consider what has the biggest impact on travelers in the wilderness, it’s easy to think of the breathtaking views, constant fresh air and long days of hard work. Surprisingly though, one of the most important factors of any backcountry experience is also commonly overlooked: food. What you eat plays a major role in how you experience the wilderness, for better or for worse.
I have been tagging along on my family’s outdoor adventures since I was old enough to sit on a raft without falling out. Now I am in college, and since the day is coming when I’ll be left to my own devices to plan a menu and prepare meals in the backcountry, I set out to learn a few things about backcountry cooking.
When I say “backcountry,” I am referring to a trip that requires you to carry or transport your own gear and food. Mary Owen hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada, in 2010. Hiking upwards of 20 miles per day, she learned to appreciate food in ways she never had before.
“Food is pretty central to the hiking community. It was kind of a bonding thing for all of us,” Owen said, referring to the group of hikers she met on her travels.
Generally, the first thing any hiker does when reaching a town is head for the nearest hot breakfast, because on the trail their options are slim. Owen ate ramen noodles, dehydrated mashed potatoes and a lot of Snickers bars – which she quickly tired of. Eating the same foods gets old after a few weeks, not to mention a few months.
Long-distance hikers like Owen look for foods that are calorie-dense to keep up their energy. According to the National Outdoor Leadership School, backcountry travelers burn between 2,500 and 4,500 calories per day depending on their individual physiology and output. Planning to eat foods rich in calories and fat may take some getting used to, but when you’re putting in the miles, you’ll be glad for the energy.
“On the trail, food is food,” Owen said. While she was in the High Sierras in California, a man taught her to crush a tube of Pringles into a small baggy and add it to her dinners for the fat and calorie-rich content.
Owen did minimal planning for her hike, but for many people, planning meals is a valuable part of any outdoor experience. My mother, Kristen Isakson, has been cooking in the wilderness of Alaska and Washington for 40 years. The array of snacks she brings on hikes never fail to provide nourishment and entertainment during long trail days.
“Variety makes food enjoyable,” she said. “Planning meals is a lot of the pleasure of the trip.”
Owen would agree with this idea. “Food was a big morale booster on the trail,” she said. There were times when she and her friends could forage for foods like green onions to adorn their ramen noodles, adding brightness to an otherwise dull meal.
There are a few questions you need to ask yourself when planning a menu. How long will you be out? How many people are you cooking for? What’s the weather going to be like? Weather can determine if you will want hot chocolate or Crystal Light, pasta or a trail salad. In colder temperatures, you may be able to bring along certain “fresh” foods like cheese or sausage.
It’s important to minimize weight anytime you’ll be carrying food and gear into the wilderness. Two great options for lightweight food are dehydrated and freeze-dried. According to www.planyourhike.com, freeze-dried food is lighter and often tastier than dehydrated food, but is usually more expensive. If you don’t have the budget for multiple Mountain House dinners, you may want to try dehydrating.
For some, dehydrating food is a blast. Others have what Christine Conners calls “dehydrophobia” – “the intense and irrational fear of using a food dehydrator.” If that describes you, check out her article for tips on overcoming your fear at
Another consideration is your gear. The type of stove and cookware you choose can make a huge difference in weight and what you are able to cook. On shorter trips you can use a propane or white gas stove running on a fuel canister. These stoves allow you to control the temperature, which makes cooking easier and more flexible, but they are also much heavier.
Alcohol-burning stoves can be run with a small container of rubbing alcohol and can be made at home for a small price, but they do not concentrate heat like propane stoves. Aluminum or titanium cookware is the most lightweight, but titanium is more
One of the best pieces of advice I have picked up so far is this: try your food at home before taking it on a trip. After reading Ray Jardin’s suggestion of “corn pasta elbows,” my mother packed this energizing meal as dinner for nearly half of the days of a backpacking trip. She said that when boiled, corn pasta turns into corn mush.
“It looked like dead corn with red spaghetti strands coming out of it,” she said. Nobody wants to eat that.
It’s important to remember not to be a perfectionist in your menu planning, and to keep it simple. Something almost always goes wrong when cooking in the wilderness. That is one of the best things my mother has taught me about being in the wilderness. Even though planning is a fun and enjoyable part of a trip, you can’t plan for everything, so enjoy your mistakes – they provide opportunities to learn and experiment. x