Food Planning for an Expedition
There is a philosophy and science to preparing a menu for a long back country trip. My personal foodie philosophy says eat simple, eat well, eat healthy. To me as a guide cooking on trail is a chance to do more than just fuel up, it’s a time to unwind, relive the days events, share stories and tell tall tales. Of course some meals on trail are simply about replacing calories, but too many meals that way can start to sink morale, deplete your health and turn meal time into a chore instead of a time of the day to look forward to. Here are a few thoughts on food prep from my experience leading extended back country expeditions for the last 10 years:
–Eat well on trail, no one likes gruel. I have been known to say that as long as the food is warm I could care less what it is, and to a certain extent that’s true, sometimes, but when you’re planning food for a group what you select should be better than just what you’d tolerate, it should be instead be a planned positive part of the experience that your trail mates will talk about when the trip is over. It can be a challenge to plan a menu everyone will enjoy, especially these days where there seems to be a new dietary preference/restriction every day, but as long as meals are simple, nourishing and healthy chances are meal time will be a hit. Or you can follow the mantra of an old Maine guide who once said you should take the food you like so you’ll be guaranteed to have at least one happy eater at the table.
Food is medicine for the spirit on trail and while I don’t advocate breaking the bank buying gourmet food, a little love goes a long way towards making meal time a welcome part of the day instead of a mere filling of the tank. This summer we had one group member that was adamantly, and vocally opposed to having oats for breakfast every day due to an overdose on quick oats this past spring (I don’t know who mistakenly bought quick oats…). To appease his legit concerns we started by getting good steel cut oats and added fruit and nuts to the pot to add nutrition, variety and substance to an otherwise gluey breakfast. In this case just a little creativity and flexibility headed off what could have been 22 grumpy breakfasts.
While we strive for quality and diversity in our trail food, we also live in the real world with a budget and we travel with finite space so the food we took along was a mix of all three needs:
–Spend a little extra on nutrition. Little decisions when you’re shopping for your expedition’s food I believe can make a difference over the long haul. Buying whole grain pasta, brown or wild rice, multi-grain hot cereals, and maple syrup or honey are all upgrades in nutrition compared to the cheaper options in the form of white flour and cane sugar. A diet of cheap sugar and carbs may be fine for a short time but when your body is cranking and you are pushing it day after day I believe that you should feed the furnace the best you can. Again, this isn’t meant to be taken as eating expensive or luxury foods, just simple, healthy whole foods that you should probably be eating all the time anyway. A general rule of thumb for a food budget is $4-$6 per person/ per day for basic food and $7-$15 per person/ per day if you want a more diverse diet with more diverse foods. Above $15 per person/ per day and you are either glamping or you’re buying the expensive pre-packaged camping food which is usually terribly salty, often oddly portioned (too much or too little) and are a huge waste of packaging.
-Cook, Don’t just heat up. Anyone can pop a top off a can of spam or tear open a pre-made meal in a bag but a real outdoors person worth their salt should be able to cook over a camp stove or open fire at the same level as one does at home. Cooking to me means you didn’t just boil noodles and dump in a can of red sauce. It means maybe you fried some veggies first, grilled meat or spiced up the sauce. One of the participants on the trip this summer related a story of being stationed on base in Germany and how some of the mess cooks would add to each dish something to make an otherwise boring meal good and how much that was appreciated by the other service guys. That brought up the notion of adding a little love to each meal which after brought out the complain “where’s the love?” if we were served a stock meal.
It’s super easy to take bulk trail food like spaghetti and make it just a little better. Adding some fresh veggies or meat, hot sauce, cheese, spices or whatever you have rolling around the food box does take a certain amount of culinary confidence/ experience, so if you don’t know how to ad hoc a meal, learn at home before you hit the trail, your expedition crew will appreciate, it I guarantee it. Take your skills one step further by learning how to bake bread, cake and cookies over a stove or campfire. Think your friends will like your new pasta and sauce? Imagine how much more they’ll like it if you can give them a piece of warm bread to go with it. Camp cooking is an art that many haven’t taken the time to learn but it is just as important, in my opinion as any other wilderness camping skill.
Vitamin Supplements. A few years ago I lead a workshop on menu planning for an extended winter expedition at a winter camping symposium. At the Q & A session a guy asked about taking vitamin supplements on trail, which at the time I answered that I though it couldn’t hurt but the food you take should represent a complete diet. While I have never taken supplements on trail outside of some vitamin C, I bet there is good evidence to show that, even if we are eating a good diet on trail there are micro nutrients and vitamins we are exhausting without replacing. Now, unless you are going to be on trail for months and months on end, this probably isn’t a concern, but I guess a few multi-vitamins don’t take up a lot of space so why not?
Food, meals and amounts for 7 people for 24 days
(18) Oats- ¾ cup per person per day
(6) Breakfast Eggs & Bacon- 18 eggs per day, 1 lb of bacon
*Eggs and bacon/ breakfast sausage travel well and will last a while if kept cool. We kept them in a small cooler filled with river water at night. They were fresh for the 6 days and while the bacon was getting close to being ready to feed to the snapping turtles the eggs would have been fine for a lot longer. Another way we could have kept the bacon (or any meat) fresh longer would have been to fill the small cooler with meat and water and frozen the whole cooler solid.
(12) Peanut Butter and Jelly- 1 ½ lb peanut butter, 20 oz jelly, 16 tortillas per day
(12) Meat and Cheese- 4 oz dried meat per person, 1 lb cheese, 2 packages of Wasa crackers per day
Apples and carrots
* For meat we dried and smoked 35 pounds of pork loin which was used for lunches and dinners.
(8) Pasta and Red Sauce- 6 oz. Pasta per person. 1 45 oz sauce jar. Leftover cheese and meat from lunch.
*For the first week we had some random veggies- onions, green peppers, garlic
(6) Burritos with Rice and Beans- ¼ c rice per person, ¼ c dry beans, 4 oz dried meat per person, spice mix, 2 tortillas per person, 8 oz cheese, two cans diced green chilies
(6) Chili- ¼ c rice per person, 1/4/ beans, 3 6 oz cans of tomato paste, 2 14 oz cans diced tomatoes, 2 chili spice pack, hot sauce, 8 oz cheese
(4) Tuna Mac- 6 oz pasta per person, 4 5 oz cans of tuna, 1 12 oz jar Mayonnaise, 2 can of corn, 1 can of peas, 2 cans of green chilies
Spices/ seasoning packets
Gorp Mix- 1 C. per person per day. This we bought pre-mixed which would have been cheaper to buy in bulk and mix ourselves but the grocery didn’t have the bulk foods we wanted.
To have a little fun at the grocery buying all this food and also to give everyone a little more ownership in the food we were bringing, I charged everyone with picking out 2 luxury items less than $5 a piece to add to the food boxes. My thinking was that this would not only make for some funny moments when the mystery items were unearthed but it would also allow every meal a little something special for not a lot of extra money. Items included 2 boxes of pancake mix, a jar of Ovaltine, tahini, lemons, drink mix, cake mix, cookies, pesto, garlic paste and a few random spices and hot sauces. All in all the food filled four York Boxes (waterproof cases with around 4 cubic feet of interior volume) two for the first 14 days and two for the last 10.