Food. These four letters are such a vital part of camping. After a long day, canoeing, kayaking, bikepacking or backpacking, your brain and body demands fuel. There are a zillion camping recipes online, numerous detailed books available and plenty of information on dehydrating certain foods (such as beef or beans).
This “how-to” is about meal planning and getting a little creative with regular at-home recipes. I’ve also included a section on shopping for handy helpers that make food prep a little easier. Finally, I share some favourite meal-in-a-bag dehydrated options.
But before we head to the grocery store, let’s answer the three questions that shape how we plan meals.
What Type of Backcountry Camping?
For us, backpacking or bikepacking means light, compact, quick to prepare meals. Canoe camping means the same thing, though we sometimes sacrifice weight for fresh food options (meat, veggies, fruit) for an extra day or two depending on the number and length of portages. Shorter adventures involve some light and easy to prepare meals, with a few flavour-bursting food options thrown in, such as an oh so good small brie cheese wheel.
Where are you Going?
Flying or driving into a different country? In certain places, food must be declared at the border. Border security may ask where the meat in the dehydrated package came from. Some countries won’t let you bring in your own dehydrated food either. Read up online about their individual particulars, especially fruit, meat and fish. Another consideration is the actual terrain. Many backpackers in Greenland use the huts (Arctic Circle Trail) to stop and cook a meal. Or perch on a beach and set up their camp stoves because the risk of fires is so high (yes, there are lovely beaches in Greenland).
Finally, How Long is Your Trip?
A two-day backpacking trip vs a ten-day backpacking trip requires thought about weight, food spoiling and variety.
And read this good explanation about food safety and temperature. Food poisoning while camping is not fun!
Lego and Food? What Do They Have in Common?
Let’s build a meal. Spend time online scrolling through one-pot recipes. Some of these can easily be converted to backcountry meals, especially for the first few days of the trip. Think of dinners like Lego, using rice or quinoa, beans or pasta or ramen noodles as a building base. Then, add ingredients – a dehydrated protein, vegetables and spice it up! Use fresh ingredients on the first day or two and then dehydrated options or seeds, limes, compact veggies or shelf-stable items for the rest of the trip.
Example – Day 2
Base (rice) + fresh peppers + tuna packets + spice (chillies and dried coriander) Sprinkle with tamari almonds or pumpkin seeds
Example – Day 5
Base (pasta) + dehydrated peas + dehydrated chicken (or a packet of pre-cooked chicken) + spices (basil, oregano, pepper) + top with loads of parmesan cheese
These meals are all easy to add to a pot of water, which is essential when camping: one-pot = less cleaning, easier preparation. Add the base, add dehydrated meat or vegetables or lentils, and leave soak in cold or warm water while you set up camp, then cooking time is reduced. Remember to add spices that you have measured and mixed at home, top with cheese or crunchy seeds, and you have a tasty dinner option.
We like to spend time preparing a meal on shorter activity days and less food preparation on long days. In other words, it’s easy to fuel up by rehydrating a commercially prepared meal-in-a-bag for dinner after an extended canoe or hike when you are racing against sundown and just want to crawl into your tent. Or it is dumping rain.
Time allows a slower prep for food, especially around a campfire.
TIP: A word on packing. We typically pack breakfast and dinner for each day in one bag. Each day has its own bag. Snacks are stored together, so bars, cup-a-soups, nuts and seeds, cheese and jerky or GORP can be easily accessed based on hunger and activities. We may label “Day 7” on a bag and use it on “Day 5”. Personally, we like flexibility, so that if we backpack 25 kilometres that day, we can switch out dinners based on prep time and taste buds. The only days that don’t change are Day 1, where fresh meat that may spoil is involved.
Just a suggestion – try to keep your recipe to under five items and to one pot. Using this Lego method has always worked for me. Mix and measure spices and the base at home (ie don’t bring a full package of pasta if it’s not needed). Then rehydrate on the trail and cook everything together and presto – you have a tasty meal.
Check out these websites – a great mix of recipes that involve dehydrated ingredients that you can measure and combine at home with a base of pasta, rice, beans, or quinoa. And some of the recipes throw in a few fresh ingredients to add variety and mountains of flavour.
https://www.trail.recipes/recipe-collection/main-course/ (good for ideas)
Day 1 – Meal Planning
For the first night kayak camping or a short backpacking trip, try these options:
– Pack individual portions of salmon and steak, freeze them, ziplocked sealed and wrapped in newspaper (extra insulation, soaks up moisture and suitable for starting a campfire). Pack a few small fingerling potatoes and carrots wrapped in tinfoil to bake in the campfire coals while the steak/salmon cooks. It’s a great way to end the first day. These are prepped with salt, pepper and spices ahead of time. Sometimes, we half-cook the potatoes and veggies so that the prep time is quicker, mainly if we know we have a long first day.
– At home, cook a beef or bean and vegetable burrito. Add the spices, including cheese and salsa, to the tortilla. Wrap in tin foil and freeze. Reheat on a small grill or in the campfire coals for about 15 minutes. For a decadent treat, bring an avocado to make guacamole with a few crackers. A great appetizer to the burrito meal.
– Breakfast burrito is another delicious option. Buy the dry egg mix or bring a few fresh eggs, fry them up in a pan with a few veggies (peppers, onions, carrots), real bacon or bacon bits and roll in a tortilla. Add cheese and black beans. Black beans are easy to carry for the first day or the start of the second day. Drain the can at home, rinse the beans well, portion and wrap in a Ziploc bag and then freeze. Add a bit of spice to them (cumin, coriander or hot chilis) before you freeze them and then they are ready for the burrito breakfast wrap.
Ideas for Day 2
For Day 2, these meal options use a mix of fresh and dehydrated ingredients:
– Think tinfoil one packet meals. Especially with a campfire. Purchase shelf stable packets of chicken or dehydrate chicken to add once rehydrated onsite. Wrap a few small potatoes, chunks of red onion and peppers in tinfoil packets. Freeze. At the campsite, rehydrate the chicken, spice with BBQ sauce (from a package), and cook in the coals of a campfire.
– One packet food options wrapped in tin foil require creativity. Try cured sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, onions, half cobs of corn, wrap and spice with dry Cajun mix ahead of time. Freeze and carry. Check out some websites for one-pot meals and see if you can build a one tinfoil pack meal.
TIP: One way to keep these frozen items from thawing quickly in warmer weather is to carry a frozen water bottle with the tin foil packages you have prepared. It keeps the food cooler, and the frozen water bottle slowly thaws.
Snack or appetizer options:
– Apples cut up, grapes, salmon or beef jerky, a block of cheese, nuts, raisins, chocolate, dehydrated mangoes slices or apricots or banana chips.
– Brie Cheese wheel is delish and decadent. Wrap the brie wheel in tinfoil and warm on the campfire before serving. It’s oozy gooey good. Or add a bit of spice to it, a shot of maple syrup (steal some from your morning pancakes) and a few nuts from your snack bag, and your friends will swear you are the best camp chef ever!
TIP: Always remember to check the temperature of where you are going. If your food is going to thaw fast because it is summer, you may not be able to keep the packets frozen for long. This increases your risk of food poisoning. Only use fresh meat on Day 1 if it can stay frozen for a good chunk of the day. I have found that beans, potatoes and vegetables can last for a few days.
Day 3 and Beyond
Creativity? Yep. Needed here, especially on late spring and summer backpacking trips. But again, use the philosophy of looking at a recipe you like at home and see if there is a way to bring it to the backcountry. Think of the building blocks, dry or dehydrated options to combine with a one-pot solution. You can also mix dehydrated options (meal-in-a-bag) with your own food options too.
– Leather strip Spaghetti is a personal favourite. Spread the spaghetti sauce on a pan at home; one large jar on a cookie sheet works well. Leave the oven door open an inch (I use an oven mitt to prop it open), then put it at the lowest possible temperature for 3-5 hours. It’s ready when it peels off the cookie sheet like leather. It compacts down into a small package. TIP: use basic spaghetti sauce, not the three cheese or anything fancy. Those have more oil in them, which is tougher to dehydrate.
Buy dehydrated veggies or shelf stable beef package and add that to the pot if you want more variety and flavour. This is an easy one-pot meal. When you are camping, just add the pasta and dehydrated tomato sauce and any other dehydrated veggies or beef, add water, and let it slowly rehydrate. Pop it on the stove, stir as the pasta cooks, and PRESTO – a one-pot spaghetti dinner.
– Buy the dehydrated chilli meal-in-a-bag, prepare as directed, and add it to a bed of rice or quinoa; sprinkle with shelf-stable cheese and peppers or green onions for more variety.
– Purchase the taco bean or beef mix made by Happy Yak or any other company, powdered eggs, add some cheese. Then you have a breakfast wrap that will fuel your morning activities.
Packets of Goodness that Last….
If you are like me, you stick to your few favourite isles of the grocery store and know those by heart. But when you plan a camping trip, you are looking for packets of flavour, dried items or easy to prepare mixes. Natural food stores or local food grocery stores (those small ones with tons of food stuffed into them) are excellent sources. Spend some time browsing.
Some great finds:
– Dehydrated hummus, great for tortilla wrap sandwiches or to serve with small bite-size carrots.
– Small packets of peanut butter – endless possibilities. Spread the peanut butter on a tortilla wrap, place a peeled banana in the centre and voila! A peanut banana roll-up!
– Packets of tuna pair well with pasta, a bit of cheese and spice (think bacon bits, dehydrated peas/veggies or chilli peppers) or use as a lunch wrap with packets of mayonnaise. Yippee for mayo!
– Bacon bits flavour pasta, wraps or mac and cheese. Red chillies flavour everything too.
– Microwaveable lentils and rice type mix. Compact and easy to carry. Let them soak in water for ½ hour before dinner, add some Indian spicing and dehydrated veggies or chicken (or both), and then heat and stir. Oh.So.Good.
– International food sections usually have some great options to add to and different spices that keep your meals interesting. Go exploring!
Just Add Water
Check out some of the dehydrating technique websites. There is so much information available. Many people now make chilli or a stew and then dehydrate it at home. When camping, they just have to add water and the base (pasta or rice, etc.), and it’s ready.
Compared to years ago, the commercially dehydrated meals available now are incredibly flavourful. Quick and easy, just rehydrate with water, and within 10 minutes or so, you have a delicious meal.
There are many options out there now. Here are a few favourites:
- Vegetable Pad Thai by Happy Yak
- Mandarin Beef and Rice by Happy Yak
- Merry Berry Couscous (breakfast) by Happy Yak
- Cheese Enchilada Ranchero by Alpinaire
- Irish Shepard’s Pie (Nomad Nutrition)
- Indian Red Lentil Stew by Nomad Nutrition
Spend some time online, buy a good camp recipe book to help get the creative juices flowing and starting building recipes that you enjoy! Pack some meal-in-a-bags and mix and match for variety and taste. Camp food isn’t just hot dogs anymore. Happy cooking!