Shelli Johnson cooks while on a NOLS course in Alaska. NOLS students learn to make everything from cake to calzones in the backcountry. (courtesy)

There are plenty of people who want to move quickly through the backcountry, maximizing short windows away from work. They travel light, fast and without frills. But for people looking for a more leisurely adventure, food can be as exciting as time on the trail. There’s no reason you can’t bake cinnamon rolls for breakfast, make a pizza for dinner and whip up a cake for dessert — all while miles from civilization.

Claudia Pearson is rations manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Rocky Mountain Branch in Lander. She said that with good planning there are few limits to what foods you can prepare and enjoy in the backcountry. (courtesy)

Claudia Pearson is rations manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Rocky Mountain Branch in Lander. Each year she outfits thousands of students to spend weeks in the woods. She also helps members of the public who come to the Gulch — NOLS’ rationing store — looking for specialty items, such as cheese for the lactose intolerant, or candy for easy trail snacks.

Pearson recently offered some insight into backcountry cooking. No matter what kind of outdoor adventure, Pearson offers two things to remember: “Ramen can be cooked in so many different ways. Your imagination is your only limitation.”

How much food to bring:

Contact the people you’ll be traveling with and find out if they are big eaters and what they like. Calories are hard to monitor because you don’t always know what you’ll eat when. NOLS issues 1.5 pounds of food per person per day for most of our courses. It’s 1.75 pounds for mountaineering courses.

When to eat:

Eat before you get grouchy. Normally you should eat breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, snack, another snack, dinner and something before bed. It’s an individual’s responsibility to eat enough to be a happy, energetic backcountry hiker.

Chris Scovil, of Chicago, shows off his culinary skills while on a NOLS course in the Brooks Range in Alaska. (courtesy Shelli Johnson)

How much to drink:

Drinking a half gallon of water a day is the minimum, but it often should be up to a gallon.

When to really cook and when to just buy a pre-made backpacking meal:

It depends on the trip’s focus and if you want to leave time for cooking. Some people want to move, move, move, quickly and log lots of miles — then prepackaged meals work. And it depends on how your day went. If you get into camp late, you aren’t doing a fancy three-course meal.

What to do with leftovers:

That’s where all the amazing, creative meals are generated. Lunch is great for leftovers like bread or biscuits from dinner or pancakes from breakfast with peanut butter and cheese. Really you can eat anything anytime — even macaroni for breakfast.

Most unusual concoctions made in the backcountry:

I’ve heard and seen everything. Like once a student made a cake out of [an] orange drink, flour and maybe some random dried fruit they had left over. Hunger is the best sauce.

The basics to bring:

The most versatile and basic items are tortillas, bagels, peanut butter, cheese, jerky, chocolate and nuts. Bring coffee if you are a coffee drinker and wine works well after a long day — but we don’t offer that here.

What to eat when it’s hot:

The most challenging are hot weather rations. It gets to the point where the cheese is soft and the chocolate melts, so it’s no longer appealing. Instead move to crackers, pretzels and dried fruit. Anything with chocolate is going to melt, but the upside is when the morning is cool, you can throw that chocolate in your oatmeal.

NOLS instructor Amy Davidson shows off a pizza she made while on a NOLS course in the Brooks Range in Alaska. Pizza is one of the most popular items NOLS instructors and students make in the backcountry. (courtesy Shelli Johnson)

Have all your food prep in one place. Cook in a protected area and have all the food and utensils within reach so whoever is cooking can stay in a specific place.

Here’s a recipe from the NOLS Cookery you can make at home to take on the trail, or make at camp.
No-Bake Powerhouse Cookies:
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup margarine
3 Tbs. powdered milk
1Tbs. water
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup peanut butter
½ cup nuts
½ cup chocolate or carob chips
½ tsp. vanilla
Mix sugar, margarine, powdered milk, and water in a pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and boil three minutes, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Drop by spoonfuls onto a flat surface such as a pan lid. Let sit for about 10 minutes to set. In hot weather, they might not set as well.
Hint: Instant oatmeal works well in this recipe because it is milled into a finer grade and has a smoother texture. Regular rolled oats give a chewier texture and more bulk.Makes 20 to 24 cookies.
5-6 cookies = 927 calories, 91 g carb, 24 g protein, 57 g fat, 8 g fiber.

Baking at camp:Setting up your camp kitchen:

As soon as (NOLS students) learn to bake, they just go wild. Especially making cinnamon rolls. Baking takes mixing ingredients and kneading bread and it’s messy so you have to be able to wash things. You also have to be organized in the camp kitchen. It’s about having enough time, planning ahead and being organized.

Spicing it up:

We issue a spice kit with 16 spices, but you can pick a few like salt, pepper or garlic powder or chili pepper or cayenne pepper. After you’ve been in the mountains you start liking hotter food.

Adding oil:

Oils provide extra calories. You can use coconut oil to make pancakes or olive oil for other cooking. You can carry them in little Ziploc bags or plastic bottles.

Using what you find in nature:

If you are fishing, you can eat your catch. Use some seasoning and get creative with how you prepare it. Students make all kinds of berry pies using berries they pick and baking the crust at camp.

About eggs:

We issue powdered eggs, but if you are only going for a weekend, crack eggs in a water bottle and keep it cool.

For more information and recipes you can buy the NOLS Cookery, online.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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