Backpack Banquets


With a little advanced preparation, eating well on the trail need not cost a lot

It’s a few moments before dawn. The sky is clear, a delicate blue with a hint of pink in the east. Dew hangs heavy on blades of grass, making the meadow gleam with silver. There is an expectant silence as one bird’s call dies in an echo.

It’s easy to imagine that you are the first human to ever see this spot. The beauty seems custom-ordered just for you. To be able to enjoy such moments in nature, it often means leaving modern transportation behind and carrying what you need on your back.

Backpacking is a popular excursion for Scouting groups, girls’ camp programs, and families. The necessities of life are reduced to the basics—a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and food. And food often becomes the biggest problem because of its weight and bulk.

Commercial companies have developed freeze-dried meals featuring everything from shrimp creole and rib-eye steaks to ice cream. With the moisture removed, the food is greatly reduced in both bulk and weight, but the commercial meals are often prohibitively expensive.

With a little ingenuity and advanced preparation at home, you can make dehydrated meals that are simple to fix up, lightweight to carry, easy to prepare in camp, and best of all, cost a fraction of commercially prepared backpacking food.

Our modern life-style where convenience foods are common and mixes are available in supermarkets fits well into a backpacker’s needs. Mixes that simply require adding water can supply some nutritious and delicious meals in the out-of-doors with a minimum of work. With hot cereal and hot chocolate mixes, breakfast may only require boiling water. Add fruit drink and pancakes, both requiring only water, and you have an especially hearty meal.

Snacks and lunch on the trail need to be finger foods such as crackers and cheese, granola bars, jerky, and gorp (a nickname for a tasty mixture of nuts, raisins, seeds, dried fruit, and chocolate bits).

It’s dinner that often presents the problem. The two major requirements for dinner on the trail are (1) it should be simple to fix and (2) it should be ready in less than 20 minutes. Also, it should be something that can be fixed over a single burner backpacker’s stove, in the doorway of a tent in a rainstorm if necessary.

Those who do a lot of backpacking have discovered some tricks that make meals on the trail easier and more interesting. Keith Brown of Fresno, California, takes Scouting groups into the High Sierras. Although the areas he enjoys hiking allow fires, he takes along small stoves for cooking because they make it easier to prepare meals, especially if it rains.

Keith has found a way to have fresh biscuits on the trail. Bread is one item that is very difficult to take in a pack, and hikers develop a real craving for it after several days in the hills. “We take biscuit mix with us,” says Keith. “We mix it according to the directions, and then we roll it loosely in foil and throw it on the coals of the fire. With a little experience you can learn to bake it evenly on all sides.”

Another of Keith’s standbys in the mountains is instant pudding. With dry milk mixed with the pudding, all you add is water.

Lee Shaw of Salt Lake City enjoys taking his six children backpacking in the high Uintas. “When kids hike into their camping spot, it helps them discover things,” says Lee. “It brings out the explorer in them.” Since several of Lee’s children are too small to carry a heavy pack, he must be particularly careful to eliminate any extra weight. “I repackage most things,” says Lee. “I strip them down to their lightest, smallest form.”

If his family is on a short trip, he will often freeze meat to take with them. If the meat is insulated away from the outer surfaces of the pack, it takes a day or more to thaw and can be used fresh.

Gail Whereatt and her family in St. Paul, Minnesota, enjoy canoe camping. Although not as limited as a backpacker, Gail must still be careful of the food they take. The Whereatts enjoy exploring the Boundary Waters, but this area is restricted and no cans or bottles are allowed. Since they have to portage (carry over land) the canoes up to a mile in places, weight is a concern.

“We have to tie the food up every night to protect it from animals,” says Gail, “but on the last trip, our dog, not the bears, ate the bacon.”

Gail has learned a trick to making a refreshing dessert that would work in any cold stream or lake. She mixes a gelatin dessert according to direction, adds dried fruit, and seals it in a plastic bag. She then places this bag in another larger plastic bag with a few rocks, ties it securely with a rope, and drops it in a cold lake or stream. The rocks make the bags sink to a cool depth, and the rope is tied to a branch so the package can be retrieved. The dessert will set up in several hours.

To prepare your own backpack banquets, you need to know how to dehydrate food. It is the water that adds so much of the weight to food. There are many excellent publications on drying food. In the United States, county extension agents can give you advice on methods. Drying can be done successfully in nearly every climate in dehydrators. However, the oven or sunshine methods can be used only in less humid areas. The tricks you learn in preparing backpack meals can be applied to other areas such as food storage or emergency preparedness.

Here are a few recipes and new ways to make some rather interesting trail meals and snacks.

Beef Stroganoff

Beef stroganoff can be made on the first night out with fresh hamburger that has been frozen before leaving home, or later in the trip with hamburger that has been thoroughly cooked, drained, and crumbled.

Beef stroganoff mix can be purchased in an envelope, or gravy mix can be used. Dry sour cream in a packet can be purchased to add to the stroganoff or gravy mix. Mix according to directions on the packages. Add dry onion flakes if desired.

If using fresh hamburger, brown in a pan and drain before adding sauce. If using precooked hamburger, add directly to the sauce. Heat thoroughly. Serve over cooked noodles or instant rice.

Jerky

Jerky was a necessity to the pioneers, but it continues to be a favorite modern-day snack. You need no special equipment and very little effort to make your own jerky. It can be done overnight in a regular oven.

Select a lean cut of beef or venison (poultry and pork do not make good jerky). Partially freeze the meat to make it easier to cut evenly. Slice the meat across the grain in strips no more than 1/4-inch thick. Salt and pepper both sides of the strips and soak in Worchestershire or soy sauce (try adding a little hot sauce if you like spicy jerky). Marinate for an hour or more. Slide a toothpick through the end of each strip. Lay the toothpicks across the rungs of the oven rack with the strips of meat hanging below. Cover the bottom of your oven with aluminum foil to catch any drips. Close the oven door and turn the oven on to its lowest setting (140 to 160 degrees F.). The jerky should take about 8 to 10 hours to dry. Jerky is done when a strip will crack without breaking in two.

Making your own jerky is less expensive than buying it and it is often better tasting than the kind you buy.

Beef Stew

Beef stew is a camping favorite. It’s makes a hearty meal and is especially easy to prepare. At home, cut carrots, potatoes, and onions in small pieces. Cook each vegetable separately for 4 to 5 minutes in boiling water until slightly soft. Drain and dehydrate. Also dehydrate corn using either canned or frozen corn. You do not need to cook the corn since it has already been cooked before canning or freezing.

Cook the stew meat completely. Drain and blot grease and moisture with paper towels. Package in a small plastic bag and freeze until ready to leave. Or if you are not planning stew as a meal early in your trip, you can dehydrate the cooked stew meat. You can package all dehydrated vegetables together in one bag, but package the meat separately. Buy a beef stew seasoning mix for flavoring.

As soon as you arrive at your camp spot for the evening, place the vegetables (and meat if it’s dehydrated) in your cooking pot. Cover with water and let soak while you are setting up camp. Or, if you’ll be staying in one place for a while, let the vegetables soak in water all afternoon while you’re out exploring or fishing.

Bring the vegetables and water to a boil. Add the meat. Adjust water level so it just barely covers the vegetables. Add packet of stew seasoning. This will thicken into a gravy. If you have presoaked the vegetables, cooking time will be about 10 minutes. If you didn’t have time to pre-soak the vegetables, cooking time will be between 20 and 30 minutes.

Morning Fruit Cup

If you miss the taste of fresh fruit, try this. At home, drain and dehydrate a can of fruit cocktail (or use fresh fruit). In camp, before you go to bed, mix some orange drink and let the fruit cocktail rehydrate in it all night. You’ll have a fruit cup ready for breakfast.

The dehydrated fruit cocktail is also great to mix with granola or to eat in a trail snack mix.

Granola Bars

These trail treats are tasty, easy to make, and less than half the cost of commercially prepared bars. Wrapped individually in foil or plastic wrap, granola bars are the right size for a pocket or pack and can be custom-made to your family’s tastes. When freshly made, the bars are quite chewy but will become more firm with time.

Measure six cups of any combination of granola, rice or bran cereal, coconut, peanuts, raisins, or dried fruit. Set aside. In a saucepan, melt half a cube of margarine (1/4 cup) and eight ounces of marshmallows over medium heat. Stir melting mixture until smooth and creamy. Pour over granola mixture. If by any chance the mixture is too sticky, add more granola. Mix thoroughly. Grease a 9 x 13 cake pan with margarine. Press mixture tightly into the bottom of the pan. Cool. Cut into 1 x 4 inch bars. Wrap individually. Makes 20.

Fruit Leather

Fruit leather is an easy-to-pack treat whether it’s in a backpack or in a lunch box. A dehydrator speeds up the process, but leather can be made successfully in the oven. Cover your drying screen with plastic wrap, or spread the plastic wrap out on a cookie sheet. Clip or tape as needed to keep the edges of the plastic from rolling.

Place fruit in the blender to puree or use canned applesauce. Just pour on the plastic and spread evenly with a spoon. The applesauce or fruit puree should be spread about 1/4 inch thick. Don’t spread it too thin. Make sure the edges are as thick as the middle of the leather.

Dry according to instructions in your dehydrator or place in the oven set at the lowest possible temperature setting. It will take several hours. When the center of the leather feels firm and leathery, you can carefully peel the leather off the plastic and turn it over to dry for a short time on the other side. If the leather will not peel off the plastic readily, it has not dried long enough.

Applesauce needs no preparation before drying. Bottled fruit that has been on the shelf too long is perfect for making leather. Drain the juice and place the fruit in a blender to puree. If you use fresh fruit, you may have to add sweetener, but bottled fruit has enough sweetening from the canning syrup.

When leather is dry yet flexible, roll it in plastic and cut into one-inch sections for easy eating.

Spaghetti Sauce Leather

You can make spaghetti sauce leather following the same method used for fruit leather. To make it doubly easy, use canned or bottled spaghetti sauce. It’s all spiced and the right consistency. Spread the sauce out 1/4 inch thick on plastic wrap.

When reconstituting the spaghetti sauce, tear the leather into pieces and place in a small amount of hot water. Using a fork, mash the leather, mixing it with the water. Add more water as needed until the sauce is the consistency you like. Heat.

For a quick backpacker dinner, reconstitute the spaghetti leather first. Instead of regular spaghetti pasta, use oriental ramen noodles. Pour boiling water on the noodles, let stand for one minute. Drain noodles and add spaghetti sauce. It’s ready to eat.

Minestrone Soup

Combine these flavoring ingredients:

5 tsps. beef boullion, use the instant granules

1 tbsp. parsley flakes

1 tsp. basil

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. pepper

1/4 tsp. garlic salt

2 tbsps. Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup onion flakes

Seal these ingredients in a plastic bag separate from the rest of the ingredients.

Buy the following ingredients canned. Drain and dehydrate. It is important to use canned beans because they are already cooked. You cannot use dry, uncooked beans.

1 can green beans

1 can red kidney beans

1 can garbanzo beans

1 can tomatoes (drain, chop, and spread on plastic as you would to dry leather.)

Other ingredients:

2 medium carrots, slice and cook for 3 or 4 minutes before dehydrating

4 oz. hard, spicy sausage or beef stick

2 oz. dry noodles

In camp, pour six cups of water into a kettle. Add dehydrated beans (all three kinds), tomatoes, carrots, and let soak. Or if you are in a hurry, place on the heat right away. Add flavoring ingredients, stir thoroughly, and let heat slowly. Cut sausage into thin slices and add to the soup. Add noodles. Bring to a boil and cook 10 minutes. Serves 6.

[photo] Outdoor photo by Don Riding

[photos] Photos by Michael McConkie

[photos] Lunch on the trail means finger foods. (Above) Beef jerky and granola bars help satisfy hunger. Applesauce leather curls are a naturally sweet treat, and dried fruit and a trail mix of nuts, fruit, and seeds fill in the gaps. (Right) Quick-cooking noodles and reconstituted spaghetti leather can be the main course. Add a helping of mixed vegetables and a fruit cup reconstituted from fruit cocktail you dried at home. Improvised bread made from biscuit mix can be baked in aluminum foil on the campfire coals

[photo] Dehydrating reduces not only the weight but the volume of food carried in backpacks. (Above) Spaghetti sauce leather in a roll, fruit cocktail, dried corn, and potatoes and carrots can be packed in a small space. (Right) When you can’t depend on catching fish, it’s nice to have a hearty stew waiting for dinner. A gelatin dessert is refreshing out in nature and can be set by placing it in a cool stream or lake