Streamlined cuisine: Backcountry cooking can spice up outdoor experiences

OUT TO EAT: Dan Phillips at Mast General Store demonstrates how to set up a backcountry cooking station with minimal time, effort and space. Photo by Liisa Andreassen

Western North Carolina is a backpacker’s paradise, but all that walking can really fire up your appetite. To be sure, space and weight concerns impose some limitations when you’re carrying your kitchen on your back, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a delicious dinner after a long day on the trail.

Class it up

“The meal is often the highlight of a backpacker’s day,” notes Claude Matkin, who teaches free hands-on courses at REI Asheville that show backpackers, campers and other outdoors enthusiasts how to build a camp kitchen, design a menu and prepare enjoyable, nutritious meals.

Participants learn about different stove types, proper food handling and sanitation techniques and ways to minimize cleanup. But the best part is the actual meals, made from a mix of freeze-dried and fresh ingredients, that are prepped, cooked and shared.

“These classes help people take it up a notch,” says Matkin. “It’s not just about Clif Bars anymore. If you plan and prep, it’s really pretty easy to have a tasty meal on the trail.”

Using freeze-dried items, he continues, “It’s now common to enjoy dishes such as cold-smoked pesto salmon with olive oil, curry and lentils or a Cuban coconut chili with black beans and fresh plantains.”

He also recommends bringing prepackaged grocery store condiments to further spice things up.

Fire it up

Once you’ve decided what to eat on the trail, it’s time to choose a stove, says Dan Phillips, outdoors department manager at Mast General Store in Asheville. There are many different kinds, and they’re typically distinguished by the type of fuel they use:

  • Isobutane.
  • Propane.
  • Denatured alcohol.
  • Solid fuel cubes.
  • White gas.

“There are others, but these represent what we sell,” says Phillips. Each type has advantages and disadvanges.

“For example, isobutane stoves are relatively easy to get and light for backpacking, but they don’t burn well in cold temperatures. Propane is easy to find, but the canisters are heavy and better suited for car camping. Denatured alcohol stoves are superlight, but cook times are about twice as long. The best thing about denatured alcohol is that it burns quietly,” he explains.

Factors to consider when selecting a backpacking stove include:

  • Fuel type and availability.
  • Stove weight and efficiency.
  • Cooking time.
  • Cost (prices range from about $40 to $140).
  • Cold weather performance.
  • Ease of use.

Cook it up

Whenever possible, Phillips favors whole foods such as fruits, meats and eggs. “But that’s more for the short term,” he says. “It comes down to how long the trip is and how long the food needs to be kept cold.

“For me, bacon and hot coffee are must-haves. Of course, freeze-dried is the easiest and the lightest, because you only need boiling water, and the options and flavors have come a long way.”

Kurt Shoemaker, the manager at Black Dome Mountain Sports, recommends a plastic egg carrier. He also suggests eating the heavier items the first night. Fresh food should be vacuum-packed, so it doesn’t require cold storage and takes up less space.

Clean it up

Leave-no-trace backpacking applies to cooking as well. Collapsible sinks, which fold up into a packet about the size of a wallet, make it easy to clean all your utensils at once.

But Shoemaker also recommends “reducing litter at the source — before you leave town. Leave excess packaging at home and plan rations to avoid leftovers as much as possible.”

A storage plan is also key. Matkin says REI Asheville has gone from selling practically no bear canisters to moving a couple of hundred per week. Many areas now require them, he notes, and if you’re found hiking without one, you’ll be fined.

“Plus, it’s just a good habit to keep things well-stored and clean.”

So whether you’re preparing for a weekend jaunt or a more extensive trek, take some tips from the experts, and you can please your palate while you nourish your soul.



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