Camp food is one of the best parts of the outdoor day. David Lintern is thinking about his stomach (again).
Backpacking and camping season is almost upon us, so I thought it was time to talk about something that’s high on my list of priorities when outside – food! When you’ve been carting a heavy bag across the hills all day, the rewards of a good meal are obvious. But it’s easy to over complicate this. There are millions of words devoted to calorie count vs weight, and a lot of it is there just to sell more prepackaged, pricey, silver foil wrapped, military spec space food. I know we are all time stretched in our everyday lives, but why on earth would we want to make things more expensive and complicated outdoors? Won’t that turn newbies and youngsters off?
My mantra with outdoors eating is to keep it simple. Meals should be relatively quick and easy, cheap and light. Below are some ideas that anyone should be able to knock together, from high street or supermarket ingredients, without taking out a mortgage. This is not a military campaign – we’re going hiking – and whilst my camp food is hardly haute cuisine, the suggestions below are tasty and include a mix of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals. I wouldn’t want to live on these concoctions for years, but I have regularly lived on them for walks lasting between 2 days and 2 months, without losing more than a few kilos in body weight, at most.
A few other guiding principles, and I’ll get on with the recipe ideas.
How much and why? I’m only giving approximate quantities, because everybody is different, and I find I eat different amounts depending on the time of year, weather, terrain and the length of trip. The obvious example is more calories in winter, less in summer. Demanding terrain requires more energy but if it’s hot or I’m pushing myself, then my stomach struggles with bulky foods at the end of the day – little and often is more manageable.
Don’t underestimate the psychological benefits of hot food and drink. Take a break, make a brew and have a snack – you’ll feel better for it. How many calories exactly, and in what form precisely? On trips of 3 days or less, take a mix of foods, but within reason eat what you like and don’t worry too much about it! For example, I love Soreen malt loaf – calorifically it’s almost useless, but I can get it down no matter how cold, wet and tired I am.
Meat and Seeds. On a longer trip, protein, vitamin and mineral intake become more important in order to maintain the immune system, as well as for muscle strength, stamina, and repair. I include seeds in my food because they are ‘shelf stable’, dry and lightweight in the pack, but vitamin and mineral heavy. I don’t include meat in my food because I rarely eat it and its much less shelf stable – but if that’s your thing, add it in. The obvious things to take are small tins of oily fish like mackerel or sachets of tuna. Both empty containers will pack out small. Dried pork or beef products pack well, have a great fat, salt and protein content and last for days, even in warmer temperatures – saucisson and jerky are probably the kings of outdoor foods for the more carnivorous. Incidentally, protein rich food (meat/bars) are best left until your evening meal, as the body will digest them better overnight.
Food packing and preparation
Most ideas here are meals rehydrated in boiled water, because dried food is lighter to carry. Water weighs a kilo per litre, so it’s best to limit how much I carry locked away in food. I swear by my local Health and Asian food stores for dried goods. Of course, it’s possible to order dried ingredients online, or buy a dehydrator and evaporate the water out of your home cooked meals, but I’m trying to keep things straightforward, and a good dehydrator is very expensive.
I repack all my dried food into ziplock or freezer bags, which are washed and reused to minimize my environmental footprint (it’s easier than it sounds – most bags get reused 4-5 times). I do this to reduce pack bulk and weight, and to make sure it stays dry – nothing worse than soggy porridge! ALL my rubbish (and any food waste) is packed out with me, without exception.
Using dehydrated food means I’ll need a stove… and some water, which means I also need to plan for water stops on the way. In Scotland that’s usually easy! The cooking times listed here are approximate and based on adding food to the pan once water has boiled, removing from the stove and resting in an insulated foil ‘pot-cosy’ for the remainder of the cooking time. In winter I will put this (carefully) inside my sleeping bag to retain more of the heat. The ‘cosy’ method conserves fuel and therefore reduces pack weight.
Porridge is my usual staple start to the day. Some add ground ginger or cinnamon, dried apple, cashews and salt to their morning gruel, but I usually slum it as follows:
3-4 tbsp of porridge oats
1 tbsp of dried fruit (raisins, cranberries or goji berries are all great)
1 tsp of powered milk
Sugar to taste
Total weight approx 60g per serving.
Adding a few seeds supplements your vitamin intake and lowers the Glycemic Index (GI) of this staple, meaning it should digest a little more slowly. If you aren’t sure where to start, look for ‘sprinkles’ or ‘seed mix’ in the supermarket. I’d also recommend full fat milk powder, which I get from my local Asian store – because you need to keep your strength up, and because skimmed milk powder tastes foul.
Your mileage may vary, but I can’t get away without tea and coffee for too long! I make do with instant coffee, of which there are several palatable ‘freeze-dried’ options. I also take hot chocolate, either for an evening treat, or to mix with my coffee in the morning for a kick-start to the day. Both herbal and caffeinated teas are a great way to boost morale and stay hydrated. I take at least one cup-a-soup per day to replace salts and fluids. In hot weather or on tougher trips I also carry a tiny bag of rock salt and place a few grains under my tongue as needed. A few electrolyte tablets ensure I stay hydrated. Without managing my water and salt levels, my appetite and therefore energy levels suffer.
Lunch and snacks
I allow for 2-3 smaller snack breaks rather than one longer stop, unless I’m with a friend and there is tea to be brewed! A muesli bar is usually second breakfast. Chocolate, nut bars, or a hard boiled/chewy sugar energy hit whilst ascending, or else whole dried fruit like apricots, dates, figs or mango strips from the health food shop. If you like, mix the dried fruit with nuts to lower the GI and make the energy last. Shortbread is one of the best off the shelf outdoor foods there are; high in calories and tasty at any time of day.
However, I’ve learnt (several times over) not to overdo the sugars – they won’t replace other foods, and if they’re taken in excess I run the risk of crashing and burning. Nuts, Bombay mix or Japanese rice crackers all have good fat content. For something more substantial I take flat tortilla bread (superbly packable, high in calories) or sometimes rye bread (actually the same weight and similar GI although higher in fibre, which can make it harder to digest on more aerobic trips) oatcakes or crackers, and lots of cheese (rubbery milder cheeses like Emmental keep better than a strong crumbly Cheddar). On winter trips I like pies, because they are fatty, easy to eat with gloves, and low temps mean they keep well.
The principle is simple – a carbohydrate base with a sauce to add flavour. I usually aim for around 110-140g dried and bagged weight per meal, depending on season and terrain. Of the total weight, the base is usually about 80-100g.
Olive oil is a key ingredient and has the biggest calorific bang for buck here. Because flavour is harder to achieve in dried foods, I like to make up small batches of flavoured oil in advance and let it ferment! I add dried Rosemary, chilli flakes or fresh garlic, plus a drop or three of balsamic vinegar to a small bottle to take with me.
Cheesy Mash Potato
This is a great ‘get out of jail free’ foodstuff – On hard trips I usually pack in at least one bag of this on top of my daily meal allowance, and it’s always a winner – it works for lunch or evening meal, is quick to make, easy to digest, good to share as part of another meal with your trip partner and is very satisfying. Carb-loading heaven!
Instant mashed potato powder
full fat powdered milk
1 tbsp dried grated cheese
Black pepper to taste
Olive oil drizzle
Hot n fruity Cous Cous
This is about as fast as food gets in the hills, aside from the cheesy mash above. This variant has a sweet chilli kick, good after a tiring day.
Plain Cous Cous
Pinch of chilli flakes
mixed herbs/black pepper to taste
1tsp vegetable stock
1/2 dozen chopped dried dates
4-5 sun dried tomatoes, chopped
Olive oil drizzle
Vaguely Thai Noodles
Probably my flagship dish (which may not be saying much!), this is high in carbs, vitamins and protein, and low in packed weight for bulk once rehydrated. I use a combination of the following:
Dried medium noodles
1-2 tbsp dried seaweed
2 tbsp dried soy protein sticks
1 handful dried mushrooms, chopped
Coconut milk powder
1tsp vegetable stock
1tsp chilli and/or garlic flakes
1tsp sesame seeds.
1 sachet of soy sauce (or recycle the little bottles you get with pre-packaged supermarket sushi)
Tomato or Cheese Pasta
Giving camp food a bad name since forever, this is probably the staple it is most easy to get wrong!
I try to keep it simple and use the ready-made packets of ‘tomato and herb’ or ‘mac n cheese’ pasta from the supermarket, and to this I might add:
Sundried tomatoes, chopped.
Pinch of rosemary or oregano
1 tbsp Pine nuts
2 tbsp Vegetarian mince (soy protein)
Parmesan or other dried grated cheese, to taste.
These extras really lift the taste of an otherwise bland offering.
Curried or Vegetable Rice
It takes the longest to cook and may not contain the most fat, but has good carbohydrate value and can be supplemented easily with cheese, meat or fish.
I mostly use the dried, flavoured rice packets from supermarkets as a base, because they contain flavours already and are cheap and easy to find, but it’s almost as simple to use plain, easy cook rice and add herbs and spices to taste. To a rice base I add:
Dried vegetables (try Whitworths, sold in Asda)
Broken whole dried mushrooms (Asian supermarket – both of the above take longer to hydrate but then so does the rice)
A few dried raisins or sultanas.
To conclude, a lot can be accomplished without technical drinks and specialist food, and at a fraction of the price. As part of a group (say, if you work with others outdoors as a guide or leader) getting the food sorted together can be a useful and bonding part of expedition preparation. And on a longer walk, most of these items are available locally, which makes resupply easier and keeps more money where it’s needed: in the community.