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.

Solo Stove Campfire

This looks really interesting as a patrol-sized wood-fueled backpacking stove. I have the smallest model, which is great for one or two people. This is sized for more people and should work great for a Boy Scout patrol (around eight).

The design is about 7″ in diameter and about 9″ tall. That is roughly the size of a squared-off gallon milk jug, if you make a cylinder around the outside edges. It weighs two pounds, which is substantial, but not bad for a stove to feed a patrol. Remember, no fuel weight, only firestarter material.

If the milk jug analogy doesn’t work for you, it is smaller and lighter than most bear canisters. It would almost certainly fit inside a BearVault BV500.

It is also smaller and lighter than any synthetic sleeping bag. For example, the Cat’s Meow from The North Face is 2 pounds 10 ounces, and packs down to 8″ in diameter and 17″ long. The Solo Stove Campfire is an inch smaller in diameter and half as long when the fire ring is inverted for packing.

This is a “wood gasification” stove, with air feeds at two levels to promote secondary combustion and efficient use of the wood. It can be a real blowtorch if you need that, or you can moderate the heat by limiting the fuel. You get it started, then keep feeding it small stuff. The shell and bottom stay cool because there is outside air drawn in at the bottom. No scorched fire rings, and just ashes to dump out after it is done.

The Solo Stove Campfire Kickstarter level to get a stove is $99. Very tempting. I’m guessing it will be about $120 once they get to full production.

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.

Hand Sanitizer is not Enough

I’m seeing more and more backcountry books that suggest using hand sanitizer by itself. That does not work. Soap and water is necessary, sanitizer is optional.

The Scouts Backpacking Cookbook is one of those with that bad advice. The BSA Handbook gets it right. Wash your hands with soap and water.

Clean hands are important in the backcountry. People who know, like Tod Schimelpfenig, Curriculum Director at the Wilderness Medicine Institute of the National Outdoor Leadership School, believe that dirty hands are a bigger health risk than dirty water.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say that hand sanitizer does not work on dirty hands. Natural oils and dirt on your hands create a barrier to the sanitizing action. The CDC procedure is to wash off visible dirt first, then sanitize. Here is a clear PDF handout about clean hands from the Connecticut Department of Public Health. This is a good thing to distribute to your troop.

How do you wash your hands well? Wash with soap and water, scrubbing for the time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice (20 seconds), then rinse. That’s it.

Soap is also lighter than hand sanitizer. An ounce of concentrated soap will last for a couple of years of backpacking. I carry a basin cut from the bottom of a milk carton (33g, 1 oz.) and a small bottle of biodegradable soap (25g, 1 oz.). Again, that is a lot of soap.

If you do want to follow up with hand sanitizer, there are a few options.

Alcohol hand sanitizer: This is the most common kind. It must be 60% alcohol or more to be effective. It can dry out your hands and increase the chance of skin cracks on a long trip. Bacteria hide in skin cracks.

There is enough alcohol in hand sanitizer to make it flammable. I haven’t seen boys figure this out yet, but they will. One could make a good argument that alcohol hand sanitizer is a chemical fuel and should be handled according to the Guide to Safe Scouting rules on chemical fuels. When I teach Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills to Scoutmasters, I demonstrate alcohol hand sanitizer on toilet paper as an emergency fire starter.

Amk sanitizer mdBenzalkonium chloride (BAK): Non-alcohol sanitizers use BAK, the same thing used in Bactine (which also has lidocaine, an anesthetic). BAK is effective and also useful as part of a first aid kit. Adventure Medical makes a nice 0.5 ounce spray bottle of non-alcohol sanitizer. That is what I carry.

Herbal sanitizers: Or, ineffective hand sanitizers. Concoctions like lavender oil may kill some bacteria, but they are not a reliable sanitizer. They are also “smellables”, and go up in the bear or raccoon bag, along with anything they have been spread on. If you want to keep your Scouts in their tents rather than in the bear bag, stick with an alcohol or BAK hand sanitizer.

If you are up for a longer article on this, with references, read Ryan Jordan on hand sanitizers.

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.

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.

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.

Trail Cooking — Homemade Backpacking Meals

Prepackaged backpacking food is often blah and expensive. If you’ve thought “I could do better than this”, start with this book, Trail Cooking: Trail Food Made Gourmet. This is the brand-new cookbook from Sarah Kirkconnell, who writes at

The meals I’ve made from this book and it’s predecessor, Freezer Bag Cooking, are easy to make, cost half as much as pre-made backpacking meals, and are bigger portions, that is, enough food.

I made “Cheese Steak Mashers” (page 171) for a weekend backpack that was forecast to be wet and cold (it was). Here is the ready-to-pack meal (the bag in the center) along with the ingredients.


The ingredients are:

  • instant mashed potatoes
  • dried milk (I had some dried buttermilk, yum)
  • parmesan cheese (I put it back in the fridge)
  • dehydrated bell peppers (from Harmony House)
  • dried onions
  • red pepper flakes

Simple, right?

The recipe calls for beef jerky to be simmered for a while, but I substituted a small can of chicken, which was easier and tasty.

If you think you can’t find some of the ingredients, check out Sarah’s guide to the less-common ingredients.

I highly recommend this style of backpacking meals and Sarah’s cookbook. Give it a try, and have some tasty days on the trail.

Veggie Exotic Couscous (Freezer Bag Cooking)

This is a surprisingly tasty meal. I always use this in my cooking demos and people are always a bit suspicious until they taste it. Then they want seconds. For a purely vegetarian (even vegan) dish, use vegetable bouillon instead of chicken bouillion.

On a whim, I threw in dried apricots and I was really happy with that addition. If you can get them, use local Blenheim apricots rather than the cheap stuff. Once you’ve had Blenheims, the Turkish apricots taste like cardboard. Trust me.

In a quart freezer bag, put:

3/4 cup couscous
2 Tbl Craisins (dried sweetened cranberries)
2 Tbl golden raisins
1/4 cup diced dried apricots
4 tsp diced dried carrots
4 tsp dried onion
1 Tbl low sodium chicken bouillon
1 Tbl tsp chili powder
1 tsp granulated garlic
1/2 tsp brown sugar

Also take:

4 Tbl diced toasted almonds (toasted pine nuts are good, too)

In camp:

Add 1 cup boiling water. Stir well and place in cozy for 10 minutes.
Add nuts and serve.
Serves 2.

This is from Sarah Kirkconnell’s first cookbook Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple.

You can leave out the dried carrots if you don’t have a dehydrator, but it is worth getting some, because you can add them to nearly anything. Harmony House sells 4 ounces of dried carrots for $2.95.

You can make this at home, too. Saute 1/4 cup diced onion and 1/4 cup diced carrot in a savory oil, maybe peanut oil, add a clove of minced garlic, then continue with the recipe, using chicken stock instead of the bouillon and water.

If you want to dive more into freezer bag cooking, I’d recommend starting with Sarah’s latest cookbook, which has even more recipes and is nicely organized: Trail Cooking: Trail Food Made Gourmet. It does not have this recipe, but then, you already have it, right?

This recipe is republished with the generous permission of Sarah Kirkconnell.

A Few Favorite Backcountry Cookbooks

Backcountry cookbooks tend to stick to a single cooking approach, ranging from “just add boiling water” to cooking from scratch. You may need to sample a few cookbooks until you find one that matches your style.

Freezer Bag Cooking by Sarah Kirkconnell is a guide to making your own just-add-water backcountry meals. Most ingredients are available at your supermarket. Compared to pre-packaged freeze-dried meals, these have twice the food and cost half as much. Read carefully, though, some of the recipes serve two people and some serve only one.

Freezer Bag Cooking

NOLS Cookery is the best book for working from bulk food. This is a different style than planning each meal, but effective for larger and more frequent expeditions. NOLS Cookery uses a fixed set of staples with a few extras for a wide variety of meals which are combined, prepped, and cooked on the trail. No at-home prep, just flat-out cooking on the trail. Be prepared to buy a Banks Fry-Bake, NOLS loves that pan. If you know how to use it, it is both a frying pan and a dutch oven.

NOLS Cookery also has great info on building wood fires, planning the right amount of calories for a trip, and bear protocol. Even if you don’t cook the NOLS way, you can get some valuable information from this book.

NOLS Cookery

The Back-Country Kitchen by Teresa Marrone mixes supermarket-available and home-dehydrated ingredients for rehydration or minimal cooking on the trail. The recipes vary in complexity from dressing up instant grits with cheese and egg to Cajun Venison Tenderloin. They also range from backpacking to cabin cooking.

The twenty page chapter on dehydrating food at home is all you’ll ever need and probably worth the price of the book. Want to know how to dry eggplant or kiwi? It is covered concisely, with equivalents between dehydrated and fresh so you can adapt recipes. With home-dried ingredients, you are ready for these tasty recipes or the simpler ones in Freezer Bag Cooking, your choice.

Of course, the recipes are also worth the price. Look for yummies like planked fish held down with bacon or cabin cooking with a can of cherries to season the venison. I made a the Lentil-Bulgur Chili with fresh ingredients at home and the family declared it a keeper. People love the same recipe in the backcountry with dehydrated veg.

Overall, this is my favorite trail cookbook.

The Back-Country Kitchen

The entrees in Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’ by Tim and Christine Connors are yet another style, where you combine and cook ingredients at home, then dehydrate the results. I have the book, but I don’t think I’ve ever cooked anything from it.

Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’

If you do not want to dehydrate at home, I recommend getting some samplers of dehydrated vegetables from Harmony House. That will get you through most of the trail recipes in Back-Country Kitchen. Most recipes only need a tablespoon or a quarter cup, so a one cup bag will last a while. The sampler makes a nice Christmas present, too.

I have a pretty good collection of camping cookbooks, including those my dad bought in the 60’s. You want Bradford Angier’s opinion on moose muzzle? I can find it. He says it is even tastier than bear.

I recommend getting a few books and trying a few styles. You’ll have to go camping to really try them, but that isn’t a problem, right?


Need that extra zing for your backpacking meal? Shelf-stable bacon bits! It is a three ounce package, so you’ll need to use it fairly quickly after you open it. But that might not be a problem. And it is at Safeway, so you can get it for this weekend. I might do that, since I’m teaching BSA Introduction to Outdoor Leadership Skills this weekend.

See Sarah Kirkconnell’s blog for the details.

Scout Cooking in the Classic Mode—Stick Bread

For the Henry Coe campout with our troop this past weekend, I brought some bread mix so the Old Goat Patrol (the adults) could bake bread on sticks over the campfire. Specifically, this was the “Italian Stick Bread” recipe from The Back-Country Kitchen, essentially, from-scratch biscuit mix with Italian seasonings added.

I last made this when I was Grubmaster for the Raccoon Patrol in the early 1970’s. Back then I used biscuit dough that came in a can, the kind you whack on something to split open. That was more fun but this version tasted better.

The technique goes back to the origins of Scouting–here is a drawing and a description by Baden-Powell.

cooking bread on a stick

To make bread, or bannocks, or “dampers”, the usual way is to mix flour with a pinch or two of salt and of baking powder, then make a pile of it and scoop out the centre until it forms a cup for the water, which is then poured in. Mix everything well together until it forms a lump of dough.

… cut a stout stick, sharpen its thin end, peel it, and heat it in the fire. Make a long strip of dough, about two inches wide and half an inch thick and wind it spirally down the stick. Plant the stick close to the fire and let the dough toast, just giving the stick a turn now and then.

From “Camp Fire Yarn No. 10” (Chapter 10) of Scouting for Boys, 1908.

And here what it looked like when we did it.


A closer look at the bread, golden brown and almost ready.


Hint #1: Make sure you have someone minding the fire so that it gets to the “coals” stage at the right time. As you can see, my Fire Marshal did a great job.

Hint #2: Don’t add too much water. I was lucky that I brought two batches, because I used about a third of the second batch getting the first batch less sticky.

Hint #3: Squash the dough so it is thin on the stick, well under a half inch. It will only cook from the outside, so a thick layer will still be wet by the stick while it is done on the outside.

Hint #4: Seal the end of the spiral to the next turn so it it won’t peel off and dangle in the fire.

Commander’s Kitchen: Chicken Étouffée

The Commander’s Kitchen cookbook has a section on “krewe meals”, the food they cook for the staff twice a day. I may never make Quail with Crawfish Stuffing, but the krewe meals are home cooking.

I made their Chicken Étouffée this week. Straightforward, though browning the roux after you make the cajun mirepoix required some bold high heat cooking. Instead of “hot sauce to taste” (love that), I used a cayenne pepper that I’d frozen from last year’s organic veggie box. I might back off on the sage next time — two teaspoons dried sage is a lot for one chicken. Still, pretty danged good and the family was happy with it.

They do a clever thing with rice. In addition to some salt and butter (one tablespoon for one cup of rice!), they add two bay leaves. It adds a really nice aroma, more delicate than I expected.