Backpacking Meal Planning: Sources for Ingredients and Meals

Tired of the same old mylar packet of freeze-dried stuff? Here are some sources for tasty prepackaged meals and for dehydrated ingredients so you can make your own. As I write this, a lot of the dehydrated ingredients are out of stock, likely due to new converts to emergency preparedness. I’m sure they’ll be back in stock by the time we are ready to go backpacking again.

PackIt Gourmet

PackIt Gourmet makes appetizing prepackaged meals, some of them unusual, like the Many Bean Salad. That takes a hour to rehydrate (cold water), but it is really tasty. They also sell ingredients and kits of ingredients. The black beans can be combined with minute rice, sun-dried tomatoes, dried onion, and some seasonings to make a homemade dehydrated trail meal. Add a can of chicken if you’d like some meat.

Pack-It Gourmet offers freeze-dried meat, which can be hard to find. With that and some grocery store items, you can package your own backpacking meals.

Outdoor Herbivore

Good source for vegetarian and vegan backpacking meals. As a bonus, they’ll show you how to grow sprouts on the trail. And their name rhymes.

Harmony House

The Harmony House Backpacking Kit is a collection of eighteen packages of different kinds of freeze-dried vegetables. Each package is one cup of freeze-dried vegetables in a zip-lock bag. The kit is about $70 from most sources. This is a great way to get started with home-assembled dehydrated meals if you don’t have a dehydrator. Harmony House sells lots of different kinds and quantities of dehydrated and freeze-dried ingredients.

Harmony House also stocks a wide variety of textured vegetable protein (TVP), a vegan option for backpacking.

True Lime, True Lemon

Crystallized lime or lemon juice with no sugar. Add this to beans or Mexican food when it is finished cooking and the flavor will really pop out. It’s good with tea, too, if you are into that sort of thing.

Amazon

Dehydrated lentils, dehydrated garbanzo beans, coconut milk powder, all sorts of things are available on Amazon.

Your Supermarket

There are a surprising number of dehydrated ingredients in regular grocery stores. You’ll find instant rice, potato flakes, couscous, soup mixes, and more. Plus, you can use small cans of cooked chicken to provide protein. Check the international section for other dried foods. Look into freezer bag cooking to get idea and recipes.

Backpacking Meal Planning: Nutrition, Recipes, and Techniques

These are my favorite trail cooking references and cookbooks, with some explanations of why they are so good.

Trail cooking books

Nutrition and Ration Planning

The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Rick Curtis. ISBN: 1400053099

This is the best source for information on nutrition and hydration. It is the only book I’ve found that is specific about how much water to carry (page 71). The section is short, like all the sections. This is really a college text for outdoor programs and is was written for an outdoor leader training course at Princeton. It is not thrilling to read, but it sure does have the data.

Want to know how to make complete protein combinations in your meals? Check out the nutrition “N” diagram on page 68. Organize the categories in alphabetical order and choose any two neighbors. Yes, this will be on the test.

Nutrition N

NOLS Cookery 7th Edition, Claudia Pearson, editor. ISBN: 0811719812

The best reference on ration planning. You’ll learn about “ppppd”, pounds per person per day, and how to get healthy food that doesn’t weigh too much. This is the best resource on cooking fires and bear protocol (though Philmont bear protocol is different).

Most recipes use the NOLS style of cooking from scratch (with a few mixes) on the trail. Carry bulk ingredients, then combine them for meals. If you want to make bread in the backcountry, NOLS Cookery will tell you how. It is worth trying this style, if only to make Meal-in-a-Mug (page 111). Recent editions (6th and later) include some ultralight-style recipes that are made at home and rehydrated on the trail.

The Hungry Spork and The Hungry Spork Trail Recipes, Inge Aksamit. ISBN: 0997061812 and ISBN: 0997061839

The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning is the best reference for pre-planning meals for treks of a week or more, including a week-by-week schedule before the trip. The recipes are high-calorie thru-hiker food, suitable for hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail or feeding hungry teenagers. Includes excellent information on sports nutrition for hiking; which foods to eat when so you keep your energy up on the trail.

The Hungry Spork Trail Recipes: Quick Gourmet Meals for the Backcountry is a collection of 30 recipes with detailed nutrition information, options for vegetarian, vegan, or allergy-friendly meals, and helpful reviews from meal testers. It is a bit like reading a very, very good blog on trail cooking.

Recipes and Techniques

NOLS Cookery

See above, this is the top references for the “NOLS” style of cooking sort-of from scratch. Carry things like biscuit mix, potato buds, cheese, and so on.

Freezer Bag Cooking, Sarah Kirkconnell.

Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple is the first of a series of books by Sarah Kirkconnell on backpacking meals made with (mostly) supermarket ingredients. Many of them are designed to be packaged and rehydrated in a quart ziplock freezer bag, thus the name of the technique. For larger groups, these can be simmered in a pot.

This is a great approach for Scouts because it is much less expensive than prepackaged freeze-dried meals, and can be adjusted for preferences in ingredients and seasonings. Measuring and prep is done in a home kitchen, with simple rehydration on the trail.

I blogged one of her recipes with her kind permission, Veggie Exotic Couscous.

You can find all of her books at the Trail Cooking store.

Recipes for Adventure, Glenn Mcallister. ISBN: 1484861345

How to dehydrate ingredients and mixes at home, then rehydrate them on the trail. More useful if you have a dehydrator, but smaller quantities can be dried in an oven. This book is especially useful if you need to carefully control ingredients because of food allergies, religious requirements, or other reasons. Also, the food tastes really good. Also go to Glen’s website Backpacking Chef.

Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’, Christine Connors and Tim Connors. ISBN: 0762781327

Most of these recipes are entirely cooked at home, dehydrated, then rehydrated on the trail. If you want to use that style, start with this book. You will probably need a dehydrator and plenty of home prep time.

The Back-Country Kitchen, Teresa Marrone. ISBN: 0965153509

My personal favorite backcountry cookbook, because it has a wide variety of techniques and it’s all delicious. It covers everything from bread on a stick to venison with cherry sauce.

I’ve blogged about two recipes from this book, Italian Stick Bread and Lentil-Bulgur Chili (with her permission, since it includes the recipe).

What’s Cooking on the PCT?, Martin “Rainman” Leghart, Jr.

This has one recipe each from 48 different people, so it is a wild ride through cooking styles. It includes vegan bean chili stew, vegan hete bliksem (spiced apples and potatoes), big shakes or super oatmeal for big breakfast hikers, a couple of ramen pseudo-Thai meals, a Roman army lentil stew, Leebe bedouin bread baked in coals, loaded mashed potatoes, Thanksgiving in a bowl, and finally quick and dirty peach cobbler (using Louisiana Fish Fry brand cobbler mix). On top of that, half the profits go to the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Not bad for $10.

Dirty Gourmet: Food for Your Outdoor Adventures by Aimee Trudeau, Emily Nielson, and Mai-Yan Kwan.

I have not (yet) cooked from this book. Every time I look at it, I start planning a trip where I can cook from it. Take a look at the Dirty Gourmet website to see some recipes and get a feel for their approach.

Allergy-Friendly Trail Recipes

The cooking merit badge requires a Scout create menus “keeping in mind any special needs (such as food allergies)”, but doesn’t provide a source for allergy-friendly recipes. It does give a URL for FARE, but that doesn’t have an organized recipe section.

The next version of the merit badge pamphlet should reference Hiking Free: Allergy Friendly Recipes For The Outdoors because that is the only book I know of on the subject.

Hiking Free Kindle Cover

I’m not the right person to review it, because I don’t regularly have to deal with food allergies, but she created these recipes for her son’s food allergies. I’ll trust that. I do have several of Sarah Kirkconnell’s other books and recommend them highly.

The author describes it as:

110+ Recipes That Are Top 8 Allergen Free: No Gluten, Peanut, Tree Nuts, Soy, Seafood/Shellfish, Dairy & Egg. Recipes for backpacking, the great outdoors, camping, car trips, dorm living and travel, for anywhere you need easy to prep meals that are safe to eat.

You can buy it here, $12.99 for paperback, $7.99 for Kindle.

Also, the 2016 edition of the merit badge pamphlet keeps the dangerous trail cooking recipe that uses ground turkey breast. It just isn’t possible to safely store and transport that on the trail (see requirement 1c). I blogged that problem back in 2014 in the Cooking Merit Badge: Trail Cooking Fail post.

Update: Sarah has posted two of the recipes on her blog along with a longer story about how she came to create all the recipes.

$7 Stove Windscreen

A kitchen splatter guard is just the right size for a backpacking stove windscreen. It costs $7 and weighs eleven ounces. A little heavy but a good choice for Boy Scout patrols.

It is tall enough to shield the flame of a canister-topper stove and big enough to leave room around the fuel tank so it won’t overheat.

Windscreen 1

A view from the top, showing the room for ventilation or bigger pots. Back in the 1970’s, my dad made a windscreen like this by bending some tabs on thin sheets of aluminum.

Windscreen 2

The one I bought is the Norpro Nonstick 3 Sided Splatter Guard. Each panel is 10 inches wide and 9 inches tall. The Amazon price varies. It cost $5.55 when I bought it. Similar splatter guards should be available at department stores or hardware stores that sell kitchen tools.

Windscreen 3

Lentil-Bulgur Chili

I’ve made this on a few backpacking trips and it has always been delicious. It is several cuts above the normal dehydrated meal. It is simple to assemble at home and needs only a few dehydrated vegetables. On an overnight, it is worth carrying some fresh sourdough bread to accompany the chili.

This is from my favorite outdoor cookbook, The Back-Country Kitchen: Cooking for Canoeists, Anglers, and Hikers by Teresa Marrone, page 125. I’m reprinting it here with her kind permission.

Here we are, enjoying the chili with friends at Eagle Spring trail camp, near Mission Peak.

MG 5014

And here is her recipe.


Lentils, bulgur, and shredded cheese combine to make a complete protein in this delicious vegetarian chili. The sunflower seeds add great texture.

Serves 3-4.

Combine in quart plastic zipper bag:

1/2 cup lentils
1/3 cup bulgur
1/3 cup dried shredded carrot
2 tablespoons chopped celery (preferably de-stringed)
2 tablespoons husked, salted sunflower seeds
1 tablespoon chopped green bell pepper
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons dried onion flakes
1 teaspoon crumbled dried parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried garlic chips
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
4 sun-dried tomato halves cut in half-inch pieces (I used oil-packed)
half of the leather from an 8 ounce can of tomato sauce (I used some sun-dried tomato paste)

Carry separately:

1/2 cup cheddar cheese (I use pre-shredded cheese)

In medium pot, boil 2 1/2 cups of water. Add mix; stir thoroughly. Cover and allow to stand for 15 minutes. Stir well and return to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender, 15 to 20 minutes; add additional water (1/2 cup) if the chili begins sticking during cooking. While the chili cooks, shred or coarsely chop the cheese. Sprinkle each serving with cheese.


I’ve also made this at home, using fresh ingredients for the dried vegetables. It was just as tasty at home, something that isn’t always true for trail meals.

The cookbook has a handy chapter of equivalents for dried and fresh ingredients. I replaced the dehydrated vegetables with fresh and sautéed them before cooking the lentils and bulgur.

1 cup diced carrot
1 cup chopped celery (I add chopped celery leaves because I like celery)
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper (I use poblano because my wife doesn’t like bell pepper)
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 ounces tomato sauce
1/4 cup chopped parsley (or to taste)
olive oil

Sauté the onion, carrot, celery, and bell pepper in one or two tablespoons of olive oil until the onion is translucent.

Add the garlic and sauté another minute (until fragrant).

Add water and all remaining ingredients except the parsley and cheese. Bring to a simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until lentils are tender. Different lentils cook for different times, so check the package.
Stir in the parsley.

Serve topped with cheese.

Back country kitchen The Back-Country Kitchen is available at Amazon.

What’s Cooking on the PCT

If you’d like to eat better on the trail, you should get this book with the favorite recipes from more than forty PCT hikers. Most trail cookbooks follow a single style, but this one is a wide-ranging trip through different styles of prep (home dehydration, supermarket food, no cook) and eating (big breakfast, vegan, high protein).

What’s Cooking on the PCT 2015 is the first of a planned yearly collection from Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers.

Whats cooking 2015

Some samples: vegan bean chili stew, vegan hete bliksem (spiced apples and potatoes), big shakes or super oatmeal for big breakfast hikers, a couple of ramen pseudo-Thai meals, a Roman army lentil stew, Leebe bedouin bread baked in coals, loaded mashed potatoes, Thanksgiving in a bowl, and finally quick and dirty peach cobbler (using Louisiana Fish Fry brand cobbler mix.

There is also a recipe for Costco chocolate chip cookies with canned whipped cream and a cherry on top from the “Sonora Pass Café“. Now that sounds like Scout food.

My favorite preparation instruction is for the Leebe bread: “Take it out of the fire and beat the loaf up to break off the burnt crust and shake off the dust.” That is something I need to make on a trip.

All of this for under ten dollars, and half the profits go to the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Hard to lose with that deal.

You can get it from Amazon or the author’s website.

A Gift for your Backpacking Chef

We can all find dehydrated onions, but what about dehydrated carrots or cabbage? Make sure that your backcountry chef has what they need.

The Harmony House Backpacking Kit is a collection of eighteen packages of different kinds of freeze-dried vegetables. Each package is one cup of freeze-dried vegetables in a zip-lock bag. The kit is about $50 from most sources.

Backpacking kit

I got this for Christmas a few years ago and it has been great. Whenever I want to make a backpacking meal, I just dip into the backpacking pantry.

Here is the list of the vegetables in the kit, each item is one cup of freeze-dried veg:

  • Carrots (2)
  • Diced Potatoes (2)
  • Green Peas (2)
  • Tomato Dices
  • Sweet Celery
  • Cut Green Beans
  • Sweet Corn
  • Green Cabbage
  • Mixed Red & Green Peppers
  • Chopped Onions
  • Black Beans
  • Northern Beans
  • Lentils
  • Red Beans
  • Pinto Beans

The perfect companion to this gift is a backpacking cookbook. I recommend Trail Cooking by Sarah Kirkconnell and The Back-Country Kitchen by Teresa Marrone. The first is focused on backpacking meals, the other covers the full spectrum from backpacking to cabin cuisine. Might as well get both, I can’t choose.

The Backpacking Kit from Harmony House.

The Backpacking Kit from REI.

The Backpacking Kit from Amazon.

Bacon Jerky!

Bacon is magic in food but a problem on the trail—refrigeration, skillets, grease, etc. Shelf-stable bacon makes tons of trash with strips wrapped individually. Bacon jerky to the rescue!

IMG 1093 crop

On a recent visit to Walgreens, I spotted bacon jerky and immediately bought it. It does not seem to have a lot of preservatives. It isn’t overly salty (beyond its bacon-ness) or smoky. It should be eaten within three days after opening the package. With Scouts, it would last three minutes, so that is not an issue.

$5.99 for 3 ounces. That is a decent amount of cooked bacon, so a fair deal.

When my dad and I backpacked in the Pecos Wilderness, we took Wilson’s bacon bars to crumble into our morning oatmeal. The bacon bars disappeared decades ago, but we finally have a good replacement.

I have only seen this as a Walgreens brand. It will probably spread, but pop into your local Walgreens and give it a try.

Supermarket Backpacker

I came for the flannel, but I stayed for Harriett. I didn’t see this book in 1977, but I’m glad I found it now.

I bought a used copy of Supermarket Backpacker by Harriett Barker and I love it. This sentence starting at the bottom of page one may be the truest thing ever written in a cookbook: “Don’t forget that water is the only thing you can cook really well when backpacking in the high mountains.” I have proved that it is true in the flatlands, too. Ask the other members of the Raccoon Patrol.

How many cookbooks have an intro with more information than the four pages in this book? Not many. Perhaps more trail cookbooks should be written by “an avid outdoorswoman as well as a trained home economist.”

For the perfect icing on the cake, a friend wrote haiku for each chapter.

Backpacking for days.
Found! New evidence of man…
Plastic container.

Also, lovely pen and ink illustrations from two other friends. We should all be so lucky in our friends.

This book has a huge amount of information. Brand names, vegetarian meals, kosher meals, a Mexican sopa seca recipe. You could camp for years on just this cookbook.

One more quote from page 86, in the dehydrating section:

A good rule to follow when making any leather…if it tastes good in the blender, it will taste twice as good at camp. Before drying, sample and make additions until the combination pleases you.

There is only one thing that makes me sad from this book. We can no longer buy a Wilson’s bacon bar. Dang, I miss those.

Mushroom Spaghetti (Vegetarian)

OK, so I broke our Vegan September by adding (excellent, imported) Parmesan, but this was a tasty backpacking meal and still vegetarian. I’d use fresh mushrooms and spices for guests at home, but this is a tasty, filling meal on the trail.

IMG 7737

This recipe is from Teresa Marrone’s The Backcountry Kitchen.

Mushroom spaghetti is not tomato spaghetti sauce with mushrooms. It is a mushroom sauce over pasta, in this case, spinach pasta.

For two people, I used six ounces of pasta, half the box. This is a pretty light meal, because the dried mushrooms are only an ounce. Add an ounce or so of parmesan and you are at nine ounces for two people. Because of the pasta box size (12 oz.), this is a slightly better meal scaled up to four people.

Because it is so light (about four ounces per person), it would be a great meal towards the end of a longer trek. Everyone is hungrier later in the the trek and this is a filling meal.

It does require two pots, one for the mushroom sauce and one for cooking the pasta. That is extra weight, but on a longer trip a second pot is handy, since you’ll be washing dishes every night. I hope you rinse them with boiling water, since I would hate for you to get the runs on the trail.

But back to the positive: tasty, light, and nutritious. Hint: if you are serving linguine, bring forks.

Tina was reading the first Longmire mystery, so I forgive her for reading during dinner. Also, that really is a kids cereal bowl with the alphabet all around. Lightweight and nearly indestructible, so a great choice for backpacking.

Planning a Vegan Backpacking Menu

Tina and I are going vegan for September, and we have a backpacking outing planned for the last weekend of the month. Teresa Marrone’s The Back-Country Kitchen is, once again, looking like the best resource.

Breakfast and lunch are not a challenge. I often have a Lärabar for breakfast at home. Oatmeal, bars, dried apricots (only Blenheims), figs, cashews, whatever, will get us through until dinner. But dinner is a challenge.

I pulled out a few backpacking cookbooks and a stack of Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador cards for bookmarks.

My first resource was Glen McAllister’s Recipes for Adventure, especially because of Philip Werner’s glowing recommendation of his ratatouille.

Ratatouille is almost all vegetables, so it is easy to make vegan, but does not have a lot of calories for feeding hikers. I need to at least add rice. Plus, McAllister’s recipe uses fennel seeds, which my wife doesn’t like.

Red Beans and Rice from McAllister looked good, and since I grew up in Louisiana, it goes on my list of possible meals.

So, I went back to my go-to cookbook, Teresa Marrone’s The Back-Country Kitchen.

Lentil-Bulgur Chili from this book is fantastic, and trivial to vegan-ize (don’t top with cheese). But we might hike with another couple and I made this the last time the four of us went backpacking, so I’d like to make something else.

Teresa’s “Weetamoo” Stew looks good with rice, bulgur, onions, other veg, but the leek soup mix probably has milk. Dang.

Mushroom Spaghetti looks like a winner. Use a mix of tasty dried mushrooms with a tomato sauce over spinach noodles. We only need to omit the cheese. Maybe I’ll bring parmesan for our friends.

Ratatouille, hmm I like her recipe better. She sweats liquid from both the eggplant and the zucchini and uses a more traditional spice mix of parsley, basil, thyme, and oregano. Maybe I could use this as a veg with the mushroom spaghetti.

Risi e Bisi (Rice and Peas) looks good, too, and easy to adapt. Use olive oil instead of butter buds and vegetable bouillion. I don’t really need another starch, but I’ll keep this on my list.

Many Beans Salad from Packit Gourmet looks tasty, especially with some rice.

I’m leaning towards the Mushroom Spaghetti, maybe with Ratatouille on the side if I get fancy and want to carry the pots. Or I could repeat the Lentil-Bulgur Chili. Red Beans and Rice would be nice too—I could dehydrate some okra for that. The Packit Gourmet meal is good to have in my pocket if time gets tight. Nice to have choices, and I’m pleasantly surprised that I can find four nights of vegan dinners with only an hour of research in the cookbook library.

BSA One Pot Stew

If you want to get started on trail cooking, turn to page 318 of The Boy Scout Handbook (14th edition, page 336 in the 13th edition). Choose one ingredient from each column, scale the amounts, and you are on your way.

Since the 11th edition Scout handbook in 1998, the cooking chapter has included a great “choose your own stew” recipe. It might have been in the 10th edition, but I don’t have one of those handy.

The 11th and 12th edition have slightly different lists, so I’ve combined both to make one table. I’ve also split vegetables out into their own column, since they are not really the same thing as cheese or nuts.

Choose one item from each column. The amounts are for a single serving.

Starch Protein Sauce Vegetables Extras
3 oz. 3 oz. can or packet According to package 3+ oz. 1-2 oz.
Spaghetti Chicken Gravy mix Broccoli Cheese (2 oz.)
Macaroni Tuna Spaghetti sauce Green beans Nuts (1-2 oz.)
Noodles Tofu Stroganoff sauce Corn
Ramen TVP Pesto sauce Peas
Rice Onions and/or peppers

General cooking approach:

Before you put the pot on the stove, put in all the ingredients. Add enough water to cover the ingredients, plus a little bit more water, about an inch. Some ingredients will float, so add water slowly until the level reaches the top of the ingredients, then put a spoon against the side to mark than and add an inch more above that level. You can always add more water later as things cook.

Bring to a boil, them simmer as long as the instructions say for the starch.That will be enough to heat the other ingredients and meld the flavors. Add cheese and/or nuts at the end.
Elbows

How do you bring vegetables? For a weekend trip, buy bags of frozen vegetables and keep them frozen until you pack up. Put them inside a fleece cap or jacket to keep them cold. If you will be building a campfire, wrap them loosely in newspaper and use the newspaper as firestarter. You can add the vegetables to the pot still frozen. Try broccoli, peas, green beans, corn, spinach, beets (my favorite), or mix them up. It is hard to go wrong with vegetables.

When you get tired of pasta and rice, try lentils. Those are tiny beans that cook quickly. Red or yellow lentils will cook in 10-20 minutes and make a very filling stew. A rice and lentil stew does not need meat to be a nutritious meal, so try that combination, too. Or you can get wild and use filled pasta, like tortellini.
Sc chunk white dark

Let’s use this method for a dinner where six people from your patrol are on the outing. We will multiply each single serving size times six.

Macaroni: 3 oz. × 6 = 18 oz. Macaroni comes in one pound (16 oz.) portions, so we’ll use one pound. We will use some starchy vegetables (peas or corn) to fill in the extra carbs.
Lawrys crop

Chicken: 3 oz. × 6 = 18 oz. Canned chicken comes in several sizes: 3, 4.5, 9.75, and 12.75 ounces. Two 9.75 ounce cans would be just right, but buy a combination of cans that is pretty close. Choose cans that have a pull tab, so that you don’t have to carry a can opener.

Sauce/seasoning: Lawry’s Spaghetti Spice and Seasoning is widely available. It says it serves 5, which is pretty close. The package says to add a can of tomato paste. That is kinda heavy and needs a can opener. You could use the spices without tomatoes, or get a tube of concentrated tomato paste (about $5), or bring a can and a can opener. I think any one of those would taste good.
Peas and onions

Vegetables: 3 oz. × 6 = 18 oz. Frozen vegetables are in 14 or 16 oz. bags, so you might want to add two bags. Maybe a starchy vegetable like peas plus a green vegetable like broccoli or green beans. Spinach is surprisingly good in a stew, try it. Sliced bell peppers can be tasty. You can also find tasty vegetable mixes, like peas with pearl onions.
Peppers

Cheese or nuts: We already have a pretty good stew, but if you want to add cheese, I’d choose some aged hard cheese that keeps well on the trail, like parmesan or asiago. 6 ounces of grated cheese should be fine for the patrol. For nuts, choose between sweet nuts like pecans or savory nuts like pine nuts. Peanuts go with everything.

What does it cost (A Scout is Thrifty)? Let’s check out the Safeway website and see.

Ingredient Amount Cost
Golden Grain macaroni 16 oz. $1.00
canned chicken 25 oz. (two 12.5 oz. cans) $10.78
Lawry’s seasoning one packet $2.19
C&W Peas with Onions 14 oz. $3.09
C&W Sliced Peppers 14 oz. $3.09
Total $20.15
Total plus tax $21.76
Cost per serving $3.63

That is pretty cheap, even including a lot of extra chicken (A Scout is Hungry). If you added a $5 tube of fancy tomato paste it would still be about $4.50 per person.

Now let’s cook. Here are the detailed steps for feeding your patrol:

  1. Shoo all of the non-cooks out of the kitchen. The only thing they can do is distract you or knock over the pot (I’ve seen it happen, it isn’t pretty). Ask your Patrol Leader to keep them busy and out of your hair. This is a good time for a game.
  2. Wash your hands with soap and water. Keep scrubbing for the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
  3. Put all the ingredients except the cheese or nuts into a large pot. Empty the juice from the chicken into the pot, too. That is tasty and you carried it to the camp. Use it.
  4. Add water to cover, then about another inch.
  5. Put it on the stove and wait until it boils.
  6. After the water comes to a boil, reduces to a simmer (slow bubbles), and start a timer. Cooking time for the macaroni should be 9-11 minutes, which is enough to heat everything else. If you don’t have a timer, taste every couple of minutes to see if the macaroni (or rice) is tender. The frozen vegetables will be thawed as the stew is brought to a boil and the canned meat is already cooked.
  7. Stir occasionally. If the stew is hard to stir, add more water, about a cup at a time. A juicy stew is better than a scorched stew.
  8. Call the patrol to dinner.
  9. Everyone washes hands, cooks wash again.
  10. Say grace; I prefer the Worth Ranch Grace.
  11. Serve up and dig in.

That sounds good to me. Make it your own and eat well on the trail.

The Scout’s Backpacking Cookbook

I was excited when I heard about this cookbook. We need a Scout-friendly backpacking cookbook and I like the idea of contributed and trail-tested recipes. Unfortunately, I have some reservations recommending this book to Scouts. Good information is buried in boring text and only some of the recipes are Scout-ready.

Scout s Backpacking Cookbook

The Scout’s Backpacking Cookbook was written by the authors of Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’. They worked with Scouting Magazine to collect trail recipes. I even know one of the contributors—Hi, Gordon!

Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’ and some of the recipes in this book use a home-dehydrator approach. Food is cooked at home, dried in a dehydrator, then rehydrated on the trail. This opens up a lot of options, but it requires buying a dehydrator ($100-300) and also requires starting meal prep two or three days before you leave. I’m learning this method using our oven’s dehydrator setting, but I can’t see your average patrol cook doing this, maybe not even the top 2% of patrol cooks. I sure wouldn’t have done that for the Raccoon Patrol when I was their regular cook.

The book starts with a fifty page introduction that has great information (I learned a couple of things), but is much too wordy and text-heavy. I wanted to get out my red pencil and shorten sentences while I was reading it. There are some photos, roughly one every other page, but too many of them are a pot on a stove and don’t illustrate anything. The illustrations in NOLS Cookery are line drawings, but much more effective than these photos.

How wordy? Here is one example from the introduction, chosen solely because of my pet peeve about hand sanitizer recommendations:

Certain elements of backpacking, especially when answering nature’s call, require fastidious attention to the cleanliness of one’s hands. Each member of the group should carry a small container of hand sanitizer, enough to last the trip, for thoroughly cleansing their hands before handling food at mealtime. This is particularly needed when water for cleaning is in short supply.

And here is my rewrite, which follows CDC guidelines for hand sanitizer use:

Dirty hands are the main cause of sickness on backpacking trips. Before cooking or eating, wash with soap and water until there is no visible dirt, then use hand sanitizer, if you want to carry that.

I’ve cut it from 60 words to 36, half the syllables, and included more information. The book excerpt has a readability score of grade 13.3, mine grade 8.9. Clearly, my first draft needs more work to be ready for Boy Scouts, a program targeted at 6th through 8th graders. The book paragraph is written for college sophomores.

The introduction needs a thorough rewrite with half as many words and twice as many illustrations. Some lists and charts might be good, too. Again, see NOLS Cookery for effective lists and charts. There is great info there, but Scouts will never see it.

The last three pages of the introduction are a detailed, step-by-step walkthrough of preparing a recipe. This is great, and would make a fine patrol meeting.

Recipes are the next section, followed by some appendices with excellent references. The recipe pages are color coded by meal type, with icons for difficulty and perishable items. The icons are not as clear as those in The Back-Country Kitchen and are barely visible on the breakfast pages.

Each recipe lists the packed weight for the meal. This is great. It is a lot of work to compile, but a backpacking cookbook should always include the weight. That is the fundamental challenge, eating well and packing light.

If I counted correctly, there are 102 recipes (including the demonstration recipe, “Rayado Rice and Chicken”):

  • 18 breakfasts
  • 26 lunches
  • 40 dinners
  • 5 breads
  • 16 snacks and desserts
  • 9 drinks

I’ve never used a recipe for a trail breakfast, lunch, snack, or drink, and I’ve rarely made breads, so that leaves about 40 dinner recipes that I might use on a regular outing. Let’s break down the dinner recipes.

  • 10 require a home dehydrator
  • 18 only require rehydrating on the trail
  • 12 need multiple cooking steps, frying, or baking on the trail

Now we are down to 18 recipes appropriate for beginners and 12 for more advanced cooks. I don’t expect the patrol cook to go buy a dehydrator, so I’m ruling those out. Roughly 20 dinner recipes seems like a small payoff for a 180 page cookbook.

None of the dinners are sized to feed 6-8 boys, the expected patrol size. Five are sized for six, but none of them help the beginning patrol cook feed everybody. They are: home-dehydrated ground beef (just that ingredient), home-dehydrated venison and beans, fresh fish caught on the trail, pan-fried hush puppies (should be a bread), and dates stuffed on the trail then fried. I did not see any discussion of scaling up recipes. There are some tricky spots there, for example, a quart freezer bag only holds two servings.

Some of these do look tasty, and I’m sure I’ll try them. I might even branch out into some breakfast or lunch recipes. But I’ll pick and choose when recommending recipes to Scouts.

One small annoyance—could cookbook authors please list every recipe in the table of contents? To see how it is done, look at The Greens Cookbook from 1987. That allows me to scan a couple of pages and immediately find that recipe I’m looking for.

I’m still looking for a backpacking cookbook that I can hand to a Scout and expect them to successfully feed their patrol. This is a step in the right direction, but we aren’t there yet.

What am I looking for? A backpacking cookbook accessible to 7th graders, because not all our Scouts read at grade level. Half the recipes must be achievable by unassisted 7th graders and half can be more challenging. Meal portions are designed for 6-8 Scouts, with smaller plans written out (no arithmetic). Ingredients are affordable and available at supermarkets (A Scout is Thrifty). It needs substantial vegetarian and vegan options. It covers backpacking and food planning skills that are not in The Boy Scout Handbook or the Cooking merit badge pamphlet. That’s a tall task, but totally achievable. If it was just the recipes, that would be OK, too.

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.