Backcountry Dinning – AMC Outdoors

January 8, 2004

AMC Outdoors, September 2001

By Michael Lanza

There’s a big difference between the sort of meals Dorcas Miller prepared years ago in the backcountry and those she makes now: In the old days, she would spend lots of time baking and cooking; now, she plans meals that take only 10 minutes to prepare on the trail. “I want to spend my time watching the sunset,” she admits.

And the good news is that the meals she eats while watching those sunsets taste just as good as those for which she slaved tirelessly over a hot camp stove.

You could say her advice on how to eat in the backcountry carries an authoritative flavor. The author of several books, including Good Food for Camp and Trail ($14.95, Pruett Publishing, 800-247-8224), and, most recently, Backcountry Cooking: From Pack to Plate in 10 Minutes ($16.95, The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453,, Miller has been planning and packing food for the trail for 30 years.

She offers this pearl of wisdom: “Keep it simple.” But in her cookbook, “simple” is not synonymous with “bland” and “uninteresting.” With some advance planning and preparation time at home, she whips up delicious meals in minutes on the trail. And, she says, you can too. (Check out two tempting recipes to get you cooking.)

Variety Is the Spice of Life
Miller says she wrote her most recent book with backpackers in mind — those who didn’t want elaborate recipes, who wanted to be able to make food quickly, and who wanted tasty meals. “I preach variety. Some people like to have the same thing every day, and that’s fine. But I urge people to think variety because food is the most important thing, besides weather, in the backcountry. You can’t control the weather, but you can control the food,” she says. “[Meals are] a social time, and having good food is such an important part of the process.”

Many of the questions she fields at the Website, where she is the food expert, “are very basic,” she says. “Many people don’t know how to approach cooking in the outdoors. They’ve never had to plan like that before. Even at home, lots of people don’t plan [meals] for the entire week.” Some backpackers prefer carrying what Miller calls “a pantry” — plenty of staples to ensure that they have enough and to allow themselves the freedom to decide on a daily basis what they’re going to eat. While she acknowledges that’s a perfectly good method, the pantry’s drawbacks are added on-trail preparation time, carrying more weight than necessary, and possibly having to pack out leftovers. She prefers planning specifically what she and her companions will eat every day, and packing food by the meal. “[This way], there’s enough food so everybody gets as much as they want, and nobody’s hungry.”

How Much Is Enough?
People also wonder how much food to bring. “If you have no idea how much you eat,” Miller says, “next time you have a one-pot meal at home, use a measuring cup to serve yourself and keep track of the portion. On a moderately difficult backpacking trip, figure you’ll eat slightly more than that amount per dinner.” For instance, her husband eats 3.5 cups of food for dinner in the backcountry and she eats 1.5 to 2 cups. Her general guidelines for planning meals include, for breakfast, 1 cup of granola for women, 1.5 cups of granola for men, or 1.25 to 1.5 cups of hot cereal for women and 1.5 to 1.75 cups for men; for dinner, 2 to 2.5 cups of food for women, 3.5 cups for men.

Or you can do a little math: Miller plans two pounds of food per person per day, and “I can get it under that when I’m really working on saving weight.”

It’s also important to think about your activity level when planning how much food you will need in the backcountry. The average woman, when sedentary, burns 2,100 calories daily, and a sedentary man burns around 2,800 calories per day. Miller borrows from the guidelines of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) when planning caloric needs of people engaged in physical activity:

  • 2,500 to 3,000 calories per day for moderate outdoor activity, like backpacking;
  • 3,000 to 3,700 calories per day for winter camping;
  • 3,700 to 4,500 calories per day for extremely demanding mountaineering.

You can either calculate calories or use another rule of thumb employed by NOLS:

  • 1.5 to 2 pounds of food provides 2,500 to 3,000 calories;
  • 2 to 2.25 pounds of food provides 3,000 to 3,700 calories;
  • 2.25 to 2.5 pounds of food provides 3,700 to 4,500 calories.

Light on Weight, Not on Flavor
Miller’s meals are fairly lightweight. She doesn’t use many packaged, freeze-dried foods — which frequently will not fill the bellies of as many hikers as their packaging claims. But she does suggest spicing up meals with dehydrated foods like fruits, vegetables, and sour cream powder, often available on the Web or by telephone if not in your local market (her recent book explains where readers can find different types of dehydrated foods). She notes that the sooner you eat a food after it has been dehydrated, the better it tastes.

“There’s an amazing variety of dehydrated foods now available in supermarkets,” she says. Backcountry delicacies can be thrown together in minutes by adding dehydrated vegetables (which can be rehydrating in your pack as you hike) to a dinner base such as instant rice, bulgur (wheat that has been cracked, cooked, and dried), or couscous — all of which cook quickly — and then tossing in a protein like cheese or bacon bits. These meals can be flavored further with fresh garlic or ginger, curry, or salsa (which can be carried fresh for a day or two, or purchased in dehydrated form); as well as dehydrated refried beans, hummus, or black beans.

Breakfast of Champions
Miller makes an ever-popular breakfast of powdered eggs with refried beans, salsa, and dehydrated hash browns. Another favorite of hers is pesto sauce bought in a tube — which doesn’t contain the cheese, just the basil, oil, and chopped nuts — served with real pasta. She also recommends Betty Crocker hash browns because they contain only dehydrated potatoes without other additives.

One of her specialties is chili, made from a dehydrated mix to which she adds sun-dried tomatoes and dried kidney beans. You can buy freeze-dried kidney beans online; or dry them yourself by draining the beans, spreading them on a nonstick cooking pan, and placing it in an oven set at 135 degrees with the oven door slightly ajar (so they’ll dry instead of baking) until the beans are brittle, usually several hours.

During the day, Miller is often climbing and will usually just eat energy bars, bagels, string cheese, and chocolate. String cheese keeps better than a block of cheese, although cheese rounds packaged in wax will keep longer than both. On one 49-day canoe trip, she packed a pound of cheese for each day, which she’d wrapped in cheesecloth and dipped in wax. As a result, the cheese they ate on day 49 “was a little more shop-worn, but it wasn’t covered with mold.”

Lastly, Miller offers this sage advice: “Take food you like. Think about what foods give you a lift, which ones provide the carrot at the end of the stick on a long day. Get a comfort food. Treat yourself well.”

Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.

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