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Backpacking Cooking 101

Soon we will get a chance to do one of my favorite things in the world- BACKPACKING!!  I have received a lot of questions about food, and thought I would share a few ideas.

Over the years, we have developed some experience on what works and what doesn’t.  There are a couple of “guidelines” that I would like to share first:  1) quick and simple is important as folks are tired when they get to camp.  Look for “instant” in all store brands to avoid long cooking times, 2) minimize weight and trash (repackage at home), and 3) Generally let them eat what they like.  Your son will not usually eat foods on the trail that he won’t eat at home (for some reason oatmeal is a love-it-or-leave-it item).  Bottom line, most of our trips are short and we don’t worry too much about nutritional balance and the food pyramid- just getting them fed and refueled.  

We generally use the “boiling bag” method of cooking, which requires no clean up.  The simplest way to explain it is with oatmeal.  At home, dump two packages of your favorite flavor is instant oatmeal into a zip-loc FREEZER bag (regular sandwich bags won’t work) press out the air and seal.  Write the amount of water required on the bag with a Sharpie.  At camp, boil water, put the bag in your cup or bowl, and pour in the water and allow the oatmeal to rehydrate.  Eat from the bag, then put the bag in the trash (the scout should carry a one gallon zip-loc as a “trash bag”).  Result- nothing to clean!  This method works with tons of other things like Ramen, instant rice, and even EasyMac.  Some things (rice in particular) take a long time to rehydrate and we suggest putting the bag into an insulator.

The key is to get food that the scout actually likes!  Many foods that say to “cook” can work with this method but take a little more time to rehydrate.  Another general note is that what we are after here is something filling with calories that is simple to eat and cleanup.  Save the seven pot meals for car camping! All our scouts will need it a pot to heat water, a bowl and a spork (or spoon and fork).  They can use their water bottle for drinks (or a cup if they want hot chocolate, etc.).  Water rehydrates best- so we don’t recommend the powder additives.

 A number of scouts use commercially prepared freeze-dried or dehydrated meals by companies like Mountain House.  These are available at Blue Ridge, Dicks, and even Walmart, and are pretty good.  If you have food allergies, check the labels carefully.  For a weekend trip they are fine but can get expensive for longer trips, and a lot of our scouts simply won’t eat what is available in the commercial brands (mine won’t).  I dehydrate a lot of my own foods and there are ways for you to do that at home, but let’s assume that isn’t an option for you.  There are a number of other options available.  Here are a few ideas:


  • Oatmeal (can add dried fruit, nuts, powdered milk)
  • Grits (can add shelf-stable cheese like parmesan and bacon bits)
  • Cream of Wheat/Rice (can be flavored with cinnamon/sugar/raisins)
  • Dry cereal (would not suggest powdered milk with cereal- tends not to taste like “home”)
  • Mountain House Scrambled Eggs and Bacon (Freeze Dried)
  • No cook alternatives (nutrition bars, oatmeal bars, etc.).  Pop Tarts will result in hunger again in 12 minutes.
  • Hard boiled eggs (yes- these will last the weekend without refrigeration)

Snacks (we will eat constantly on the trail)

  • GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) or whatever Trail Food they will eat
  • Power Bars, etc. (I like Cliff Bars and LaraBars- but get them what they will like!)
  • Generally avoid chocolate because it can melt, but M&M’s etc. are fine
  • Dried Fruit
  • Jerky
Lunch (generally this is a fast stop and WE DON”T GET OUT THE STOVES)

  • More from the snack list above
  • Peanut Butter and crackers (the single serving Jiff or other brands are easy).   I mix mine with honey and raisins, put it into a sandwich bag, and squeeze it onto crackers.
  • Lunch style packages of things      like tuna or chicken salad and crackers
  • Shelf stable sausage and hard cheese (several stores sell summer sausages the size of your thumb which work well)
  • Some variation of whatever they take to school that is fairly light
  • Flat breads (tortillas or pitas) work better than standard bread

Dinner - While some people believe trail dinners are an art, we lean toward food that is filling and doesn’t require a lot of effort, and we are generally tired.

  • One of the 1,000 Freeze-Dried Meals available
  • EasyMac with sausage (see lunch)- prepare using bag method
  • Ramen-(using the bag method). OK, first throw away the flavor package (please).  Add a low-sodium bullion      cube and a foil package of chicken (or even shrimp!!).  My kids have always also added dried vegetables as well.  You absolutely need to add to Ramen to fill them up and keep them going.
  • Instant Rice with foil packages of chicken, dried veggies and bullion cubes
  • Dried soup mixes (cup-a-soup, etc. with added instant rice and a foil package of chicken works well).  Some of the oriental varieties are great!
  • Lipton “sides” – some of these require cooking in the pot but generally the cook times are low.  Can add pre-cooked chicken, fish, shrimp and even clams in foil packets.
  • Instant Black Beans (or other varieties)- most of these are good and flavorful, and can be added to instant brown rice for a tasty meal 

In keeping with Leave No Trace principles, we only cook with backpacking stoves.  We rarely have a campfire backpacking and we never plan to cook over a campfire.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.  We want the boys to look at this as a “I had fun” experience and not a “I survived” event!  Experimenting at home will give them confidence that they can prepare an easy meal that tastes great on the trail.

For the adults who may want a little more adventure in cooking, a website I recommend is http://www.trailcooking.com .  Many of the meals there are designed to be used for freezer bag cooking!

Oh- and one other thing.  We will be carrying water filters for the trail and camp, but please make sure that every scouts come to camp with at least TWO one-liter water bottles full and ready to go!

Ken Holder