by Teresa “Dicentra” Black
Prepared freeze dried backpacking meals are expensive and they don’t usually taste very good. I argue that you need to look no further than your local grocery store to create delicious backcountry food. No fancy tools or techniques are needed. We are, however, extremely spoiled in the Pacific Northwest to have such an amazing variety of grocery stores to choose from. Take advantage of the diversity and your backcountry meals will never be the same again. Say goodbye to the ramen and Lipton sides!
When shopping for backcountry meals, keep in mind that there are no rules. Don’t be afraid to recombine things in different ways or to not follow the exact direction on the package.
Different types of stores carry different ingredients. Take a friend and go explore the natural food stores and ethnic markets.
I’ve put together an aisle-by-aisle guide to get you started.
At general grocery stores (Safeway, Fred Meyer, Haggens, The Markets, QFC, etc.) you will find sun dried tomatoes and tiny pickles in single serving cups – both delicious for lunches. One of my favorite things to include in a tortilla wrap is the fried onions that are usually found on the green bean casserole at Thanksgiving. Stuffing mix with some dried cherries or cranberries and a pouch of chicken makes a delicious backcountry dinner. Noodles with peanut sauce (ethnic aisle, in a pouch) and some vegetables are another suggestion. Ready-to-go Indian dishes in pouches (Tasty Bite is a well-distributed brand) can be wonderful. Dry cereals make a great base for trail mixes. Pop Tarts and Fig Newtons are classic trail junk foods.
Don’t dismiss fresh produce. I like to bring vegetables for my trail lunches. Celery, snap peas, cauliflower, broccoli and/or carrot sticks paired with some instant hummus is delicious. If you pack them carefully, avocados and bananas are wonderful trail treats. Pearl onions are a great choice for backpacking trips. They are small and light enough to pack nicely and add a lot of flavor to your dinner, but not as big as a whole onion to stink up your whole backpack. Brussels sprouts and cabbage pack well too.
Potatoes are the quintessential backpacking food. Dried potato slices can be stolen from boxes of au gratin potatoes and used however you’d like. Idahoan makes a wide variety of just-add-water instant potatoes that are all delicious. Potato shreds can be found in paper cartons at many stores and make fabulous trail hash browns.
Look to the baking aisle for desserts. Jell-O, instant puddings, cheesecakes and mousses in many different flavors are available. Dress them up with chocolate or other flavored chips, nuts and marshmallows that can be found in the same aisle. Now that liquor is being sold at our stores, I can pick up my favorite trail dessert all in one stop; Grand Marnier Chocolate Mousse – mousse mix, powdered milk, Grand Marnier. Simple to make, but it tastes fancy and delicious!
Trader Joes is my go-to place for nuts, seeds, dried and freeze-dried fruit and trail bars. I stock up on sun dried tomatoes, quick cooking barley and bulgur. They also carry a line of ready-to-eat shelf stable dinners that are similar to Tasty Bite.
Higher end grocery stores such as Whole foods are good choices for when you want to impress a certain someone on the trail. There you will find soy and rice milk powders, dry soup mixes, dried fruits and vegetables, and gourmet snacks such as fancy cheeses and meats.
Asian Markets are great places to find unusual ingredients. The produce section is usually very high-quality and highly varied. Don’t be afraid to try something new. I look to these markets for coconut crème powder, powdered milk (both plain and almond flavored), dried mangos, pineapple and mushrooms. I love the noodle aisle. A whole entire aisle just for all different kinds of noodles. Fabulous! And perfect for backpackers. Many kinds of sauce mixes can be found at the Asian markets as well.
Believe it or not, dollar stores can also be a great resource for backpacking food. I find brand name pouches of salmon, tuna, pepperoni and salami as well as snacks and trail mix. Off brands of macaroni and cheese, jerky and other typical trail fare can be found here too.
The Pacific Northwest has no shortage of healthy, active people and it shows in the types of stores that we have available. Natural food stores (Think: Co-ops) carry all kinds of delicious items. Instant refried beans, hummus, tabbouleh and flavored couscous are all wonderful choices for backpacking meals. I buy a lot of specialty items at these types of stores and combine them with regular grocery store finds; tomato powder, dried vegetables, textured vegetable protein (in many flavors), and powdered milk. You can also find an extensive variety of gluten free items, including noodles and cookies.
Don’t be afraid to explore. Take your time, wander the aisles of different types of stores and see what catches your eye. You don’t have to eat expensively or poorly. With a little imagination and a little time shopping, you can be eating delicious gourmet meals on all of your outdoor adventures.
This is the first in a series of articles about backcountry cooking. Teresa “Dicentra” Black is a Seattle native who became frustrated with what was available for backcountry recipe ideas and set out to create her own. Using a lifetime of hiking and camping experience, One Pan Wonders and two subsequent books with the same name are the result. Her dishes have been featured in Backpacker Magazine several times and she writes for several other publications. She is currently the President of the American Long Distance Hiking Association West.
Black’s philosophy is that with a little creativity and some preparation before backcountry trips, eating well during outdoor activities is an easily attainable goal.
For more backcountry food inspiration check out the One Pan Wonders website.