You're Only as Good as Your Preparation
All the logisitics, equipment, techniques, and shortcuts you'll need to become a campground superchef
By Paul Kvinta
While we camp cooks are often content to let our gastrointestinal juices do the planning for us as we wander aimlessly down the supermarket aisle, a true gourmet outing requires serious forethought. Sure, it may seem easy enough to flip through Great Good Food and jot down a list of ingredients. But knowing how the recipes will translate to an outdoor environment, and how to pull them off without having to hump your entire kitchen to the campsite, is a bit more tricky. Which is why, before turning to the menus offered by our three celebrity chefs, we consulted with a few experts on the fine points of preparation. Claudia Pearson, a rations manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School and coauthor of The NOLS Cookery, Blake Spalding, a river cook with Canyon Explorations in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Carole Latimer, author of the indispensible backpacker's bible Wilderness Cuisine, share their advice on matters ranging from pre-trip planning to ecologically sound cleanup methods. What follows are the combined pearls of 46 years of backcountry culinary wisdom.
First, sift through your menus and compile a complete list of ingredients to purchase. "Go the extra mile and get the freshest meats and vegetables you can find," advises Spalding. "It'll make a big difference at the end of a hard day." But be sure to consider the water supply at your destination before you settle on a final meal plan: If you have to haul in lots of water, you'll either have to prepare for substantially increased weight or make menu sacrifices to lighten your load. Of course, the time of year should also play a role in determining your final menu. Trekking in July gives you plenty of daylight for leisurely preparation, cooking, and cleanup, while an October trip may mean lights out at 6 p.m. Latimer recommends packing what she calls "bailout food"--freeze-dried dinners or instant noodles, for instance--lest you be caught in a downpour or miscalculate the length of a hike and find yourself forced to peel potatoes in the dark.
Make a Spice Kit
Pack whatever seasonings your recipes call for into one-ounce plastic bottles (most backpacking stores carry a variety of different-size plastic bottles made by Nalgene), and then fill two larger containers with olive oil and butter. Place these and some loose garlic into one stuffsack. "We call this the food repair kit," says Pearson. "Spices can fix any disaster."
Pack with Precision
On a three-day weekend camping trip, Pearson recommends packing the ingredients for each meal (except the spices and miscellaneous items such as coffee, tea bags, and butter) into separate stuffsacks. Be sure to label them clearly--"Day One Breakfast," "Day Three Lunch," and so forth--so that you can instantly grab the one you need. Next, consider Latimer's three cardinal rules for packing vegetables: Don't wash, don't cut, and don't wrap in plastic. Adding moisture to a vegetable or exposing its interior hastens the decaying process. "And they need to breathe," says Latimer. "Just put them in brown paper bags--they'll last longer." Pack especially soft items, such as tomatoes and avocados, inside your pot for protection. To save weight and space, repackage all boxed foods, such as pasta, into plastic bags and transfer canned or bottled liquids, such as tomato sauce, into Nalgene bottles.
Consider Your Meats
If you plan to keep the hiking to a minimum--establishing, say, a base camp a few miles in and conducting loop hikes from there--think about bringing along a cooler (see below). But even without a cooler, spoilage shouldn't pose a problem on a three-day trip as long as you take proper precautions and steer away from poultry. During colder months or in cooler climes, obviously, meat keeps longer. If it's particularly hot, however, you'll want to use canned or dried meats on the second and third days. And no matter where you're camping, don't expose your pack to direct sunlight.
Carefully plot the order of your meals. You can serve virtually anything the first night if you keep it in a cooler until you reach the trailhead. Meat on the second night should be fine if you hard-freeze it a couple of nights before the trip, double-wrap it in resealable plastic bags, and then pack it in a paper bag insulated with crushed egg cartons and newspaper. Keep it on ice until you get to the trailhead and then store it deep in your pack. Meals on day three should involve only canned or dried meats.
And If You Have More Room...
When river rafting, horsepacking, or car camping, weight and space become less of a concern. If that's the case, you might want to consider adding the following:
A Cooler. Careful management of a hard plastic cooler can prevent food spoilage for up to two weeks. Use block ice, not cubed or crushed, and remove the plastic so the blocks will fuse into one long-lasting chunk. Spalding recommends placing a fitted piece of cardboard between the ice and the food and a piece of fitted foam rubber between the food and the lid for maximum insulation. If possible, open the cooler only when the sun is down, and remember to drain water repeatedly.
A Dutch Oven. "They're infallible for baking," Spalding says. "They seal in moisture better than my kitchen oven." Spalding suggests combing thrift shops to find a well-seasoned, cast-iron oven. Make sure it has legs on the bottom and a half-inch lip around the rim to hold coals.
Cooking on an Open Flame
Of course, nothing beats a lightweight camp stove, which not only is more efficient and ecologically sound than a campfire, but also offers the ultimate cooking advantage: flame control. However, a couple of the recipes offered by our chefs do call for fires, and you never know when your fuel canister may come up empty. So as long as fires are allowed where you're camping, by all means go for it. The best idea is to use an existing fire ring; if there isn't one at your campsite, think small and low-impact:
- First, remove and save the duff from a small area clear of tents and vegetation.
- Next, dig a shallow, 24-inch-diameter pit in the exposed mineral soil.
- Collect downed firewood from a wide area to prevent denuding the campsite.
- Keep the fire as small as possible for better flame control.
- When breaking camp, finish burning all partially burned wood, crush the coals, and scatter the ashes, leaving your ring intact for future campers.
"The most important thing about cooking over a fire is to never leave the area--not even for one second," says Pearson. Even with a small, manageable flame, she warns, move your pan or the food on your grill often. Set cooked items on hot rocks near the fire to stay warm, and always use gloves or pot grippers when moving cookware. If you forget your grill, Pearson advises against trying to fashion a spit: "It's too labor-intensive. Just skewer your meat on a stick or put it in a pan and hold it over the fire."
Cooking at Altitude
If you're feeling lucky, you can try cooking thin pastas, such as angel hair, up to about 10,000 feet. But be forewarned: You'll need lots of water and about five to seven minutes of cooking time. Above 11,000 feet, stick to minute rice or instant couscous. "If you try pasta up there," says Latimer, "you'll get wallpaper paste." Blame it on decreased atmospheric pressure and the fact that water boils at a lower temperature. Take care, also, when baking at altitude. Decrease baking powder and sugar; increase liquid, flour, and cooking time.
If your plan is to modify the four- to six-person adventure our chefs have concocted into an intimate weekend for two, you'll be able to cut out quite a bit of food weight--which we hope will leave some room in your pack for these ambience accessories, guaranteed to convince someone special that your sleeping bags work better when zipped together:
- The silver side of a space blanket, spread as a tablecloth.
- Colored bandannas for napkins, arranged in three-point stance.
- A centerpiece consisting of a candle lantern encircled by freshly picked wildflowers.
- A bottle of 1986 Chateau Latour, which you naturally have been saving for just this moment, served in plastic champagne glasses with screw-on stems.
When you're done feasting, heat up a pot of dishwater and march at least 200 feet away from any stream or lake to wash your utensils. Unless you've brought along biodegradable soap, use one of nature's scrub brushes--pinecones, sand, or snow--and disperse the dirty dishwater over a wide area when you're finished. As for the scraps of food you won't be using as leftovers, the age-old mantra is this: Pack it in, pack it out.