Cooking Merit Badge: Trail Cooking Fail

Cooking coverI had high hopes for the backpacking recipes in the 2014 Cooking merit badge pamphlet, but I’m deeply dissapointed. The previous edition listed a single entree with no vegetables and two dutch oven desserts. The new edition has two entrees, but neither can work as trail meals. The first recipe uses raw meat, forbidden in the requirements. The second is mostly heavy canned ingredients. Both have excess that you either toss (violating LNT) or pack out.

This pamphlet is an obstacle to a Scout working on Cooking merit badge. These recipes fail the requirements and direct the Scout towards a style of cooking which doesn’t work for backpacking. These recipes are not “quick, light, and easily stored” (page 47).

Backpacking food has moved beyond these recipes. We know how to make light, nutritious, tasty, and affordable meals. These recipes remind me of those in my first Boy Scout Handbook (7th edition, 1965).

Let’s take a detailed look at the two main dish recipes (page 88).

Sloppy Jims: This uses ground turkey, but requirement 7 says the “meals must not require refrigeration.” Even with refrigeration, ground poultry is more susceptible to bacterial contamination than other meats. I would not take it camping even if I had an ice chest. This recipe requires chopping onions and bell peppers. With a cutting board on uneven ground, it will be a challenge to chop and keep the vegetables out of the dirt. Also, why suggest half of a green pepper and half of a red? I think I would take one red bell pepper. The recipe uses half an onion—I might take a small onion instead. For equipment, you need to pack a larger knife (big enough to dice an onion), a cutting board, and a skillet. Ignoring the refrigeration issue, this is a fairly heavy meal for backpacking, when you count the extra equipment.

Southwestern Beans and Rice: This uses a can of black beans, 1.5 cups of black bean salsa, a can of V8 juice, and less than half of a can of corn. It also calls for cooked brown rice, a first for a backpacking recipe in my experience. Cooking the rice on the campout needs 45 minutes of simmering, so bring extra fuel and patient Scouts. Carrying pre-cooked rice would be heavy and require refrigeration. This recipe requires vegetable prep in the field—diced tomato and scallions, plus sliced avocado. They don’t mention draining the black beans, though I think this meal might be soupy if you did not. Bring a can opener and be prepared to pack out empty cans and unused corn. Another heavy meal, this time because of all the canned ingredients.

For a trail breakfast, they suggest peanut butter and banana on whole-grain bread (page 81). Peanut butter is great, but can be a real mess on the trail. A full jar is too heavy. Packing it in tubes works in warm weather, but it is a bear to clean up at home. Taking a banana backpacking is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. Clearly, the authors aren’t backpackers and the meals were not field tested.

The general discussion on trail cooking (pages 47-49) suggests MREs, which aren’t “cooking” in the sense of this merit badge. As a counselor, I would not accept a menu based on MREs.

If a Scout brought me a menu for requirement 7 that used the trail cooking recipes in the book, I could not accept it. I cannot alter the requirement, by BSA policy.

How hard is it to make a patrol-sized meal for backpacking that is “quick, light, and easily stored”? I took on that challenge and came up with something pretty quickly. Start with white rice and lentils, which both cook in 15 minutes. Add canned chicken, which is tasty, affordable, and not too heavy. Bring some carrots to peel, then slice into the pot. Season with dehydrated onion and your choice of a spice mix: Italian seasoning, curry powder, or chili powder. Mix the dry ingredients at home and pack in a ziplock bag. You could probably prep the carrots at home, but it isn’t that hard on the trail. Cook it in a regular pot. You pack out the empty chicken can and the carrot peelings.

Or make this freezer bag style beans and rice.

To fix the Cooking merit badge pamphlet:

  1. Choose recipes that meet the requirements.
  2. Publish approximate weights for the meals.
  3. Discuss nutrition and weight with ppppd (pounds per person per day)—see NOLS Cookery for details. This is fundamental for planning backpacking food.
  4. Explore a few styles of backcountry cooking: from scratch (NOLS), freezer bag, simmer on the trail (like the rice and lentils), freeze-dried augmented with supermarket favorites (Philmont).
  5. Test these recipes with real Scouts on the trail. Hand them the recipe and walk away. Don’t answer any questions. Take notes on what they do, how long it takes, and how many times they drop diced onion in the dirt.
  6. For clarity, update the requirement to say “backpacking” rather than “trail hiking and backpacking”. I don’t understand how a trail hiking meal would be different from a backpacking meal.
  7. Require that the menu comply with Leave No Trace. The pamphlet already reprints the Outdoor Code in the trail cooking section, so move this from a guideline to a requirement.

If you are a counselor for Cooking merit badge, you will need to do your own research. You cannot teach requirement 7 from the book. The food section in the Backpacking merit badge pamphlet is pretty good, so start with that.

Finally, why should you believe me about this? I love good food, I’m known among my friends and the Scouts in our troop as one of the top cooks, and I teach a University of Scouting course on backpacking cooking. But most importantly, I was the regular cook for the Raccoon Patrol for at least two years. I’ve dropped Canadian bacon in the dirt and burned biscuits as much as any of our Scouts, maybe more.

To the BSA publications department, I’m glad to contribute to or review a corrected edition.

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8 thoughts on “Cooking Merit Badge: Trail Cooking Fail

  1. I have been working with A scout troop for over 10 years. My work has included some backpacking trips and a whole lot of camping. I read your critique of the cooking merit badge and was disappointed in the position that you took. Scouting is not a backpacking organization. The merit badge is designed to teach outdoor cooking skills two young men ages 12 to 18. Most of are age 12 to 14. Boy Scouts usually are not cleared for high-adventure such as backpacking until age 14. We have used your trail cooking recipes and techniques in preparing for trips with older scouts however by the time they are age appropriate for backpacking they have already learned the basic cooking skills offered by the merit badge. The vast majority of cooking opportunities for Boy Scouts, however, are camp cooking opportunities. Please do not underestimate our use of trail cooking techniques with those who are of the appropriate age level and skill level. There is a backpacking merit badge during which a lot of these cooking techniques are discussed and used. Don’t think of the cooking merit badges a bad ending. Think of it as a good beginning.

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  2. I’ve also been a troop Scouter for 10+ years. Our Scouts go backpacking their first year. Backpacking is a regular Scouting skill. The first Tenderfoot requirement includes “show the right way to pack and carry” your camping gear. Walking into the woods carrying everything you need builds self sufficiency and confidence.

    Regardless of whether you think backpacking is a regular Scouting activity, the merit badge requires backpacking meals. The recipes do not meet the requirements. This is a disservice to our Scouts.

    Backpacking cooking is not hard. It is often easier than car camping meals, because the prep can be done in a home kitchen. It is a slightly different skill that requires attention (“mentally awake”).

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  3. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of backpack cooking. I have not spent a large amount of time with the new pamphlet. I am wondering if the suggested recipes are for backpacking or are they suggested for the other cooking methods?
    Thank you. I look forward to learning more from your observations.
    Marie

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  4. Just found your blog after following the link from a reply you posted on Andrew Skurka’s FB page. Our Scouts go backpacking there first year too, in fact, almost all of our camping is done while backpacking. Great ideas on backpacking meals you would think by now that there would be a wealth of good backpacking recipes found in scout literature, but Instead I am constantly find good tasting recipes on blogs like yours. Thanks!

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  5. Thank you for your comments. I am Cookie for White Stag Sierra, Venture Crew. It has been frustrating to read ‘recipes ‘ that don’t give accurate measures for meals for teens that have been hiking all day! Do you have a recommended site for recipes? I did follow your beans and rice link. I love that site!

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    • The best reference for ration planning and nutrition is the book “NOLS Cookery”. For different activities, they recommend calories, food groups, and weights. Typical backpacking foods are around 1.75 to 2 pounds per person per day (ppppd).

      Also look at the Backpacker’s Field Manual, which reads rather like a college textbook for backpacking.

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