How to make a gourmet meal from a backpack

It’s going to be epic—you’re planning a backcountry camping trip and everything is in order: The sites are booked and the routes have been picked; you’ve pulled the paddles out of storage; you’ve re-waxed your hiking boots and stocked up on insect repellent; and you’ve picked up enough fuel to launch your camp stove into orbit.

But what about the food? While you could pack a pound or three of some variant of GORP, a.k.a. “good old raisins and peanuts,” some granola bars, dried fruit, some sugar-laden snacks, and a package of hotdogs, what about kicking it up a notch? Why not explore how to go gourmet from your backpack? That’s right—gourmet. Imagine yourself dining on some of these dishes next to the campfire:

•    Beef stroganoff
•    Shrimp pad thai
•    Chana masala
•    Tandoori curry
•    Cuban coconut black beans and rice
•    General Tao’s chicken
•    Three pepper steak
•    Garlic mashed potatoes and veggies

Sound a little too good to be true? This gourmet menu is entirely possible without any fuss, and without having the likes of Jamie Oliver or Rachael Ray on your campsite. And don’t worry about packing heavy, spillage-prone plastic containers full of stuff you’ve spent days preparing. You actually have some relatively straightforward options here, and all of them are easy to pack into your bag.

Option 1: Given the technical wizardry of modern food science, the likes of both backpackers and astronauts can enjoy well-balanced, epicurean delights from a small aluminum foil package, which can be purchased from most outdoor recreation retailers, such as Mountain Equipment Co-op. With most of these meals, all you have to do is add hot water to a bag of nondescript powder. In a matter of minutes, freeze-dried chunks of meat becomes beef stroganoff. Cold dishes and desserts often require only cold water and a bit of mixing before they’re ready-to-eat.

Now I’ll be honest, having tried numerous brands and numerous meals, the use of the word “gourmet” to describe the ready-to-eat foodstuff coming from a package can at times be misleading. I mean, how often do 4-star restaurants serve meals in an aluminum foil bag? But in some cases, gourmet is the real-deal. Soups of any foods built on the sauce-noodles-veggies-seasonings formula—think pastas through curries here—can be well-replicated and both look and taste amazing. The meat dishes, however, can be hit or miss, depending on a number of factors such as the way the food was initially processed and preserved, and you may feel like you’re chewing on small pieces of leather suspended in a sauce.

Option 2: Head to your nearest department store and pick up a food dehydrator. If you’re more adventurous or prefer to save cash, you can just use your regular oven or convection oven. Whatever the case, the first step here is to plan your menu based on your own tastes. Once that’s done, figure out which items from that menu you’re able to dehydrate and then prepare them accordingly by slicing, cutting, etc. There are a number of online resources that offer information on food selection, dehydration times, and storage and safety, for example here and here. Basically, start with foods that are high in moisture content, such as fruits and vegetables, and go from there. Meats can also be dehydrated, and to be safe, should always be pre-cooked. They’ll require more time to dehydrate.

When dehydrating anything the key is to use small pieces with a maximum surface-to-volume ratio (so it dries more quickly). Use lemon juice to pre-treat fruits that oxidize (browning or discoloring) when exposed to air, like apples, and ensure the pieces are spread out in a single layer so they dehydrate evenly and fully. Thick liquids like spaghetti sauce or curry are also fair game as long as you spread them out on wax paper before going into the dehydrator.

When it’s time to revive dehydrated foods—and you don’t need to rehydrate everything, of course—simply add water and reheat when appropriate. Just don’t expect your food to look like it did on the produce shelf or when it went into the dehydrator.

So there you have it, a basic overview of eating gourmet out of your backpack. Whatever route you take, do not overlook the importance of drinking lots of water when sustaining yourself on ready-to-eat and/or dehydrated meals. It’s simple: you’re cutting a lot of moisture out of your food and you’re not putting it all back. And it’s almost inevitable that you’re pushing your body harder than usual on a trip like this. So drink water regularly and with every meal. Dehydration can wreak physiological havoc on the body, so don’t overdo it.

Pay attention to labels: An important caveat if you’re opting for a culinary shopping spree at an outdoor retailer to stock your camp kitchen: Pay attention to the ingredient list, preparation time and steps, expiration date, packaging waste, serving size and total caloric content for each meal choice. The ingredient list is a major consideration, especially if you’re opting for foods that are low in sodium, gluten-free, naturally sweetened, zero trans-fat or other. Some retailers actually provide categorized product lists, such as low sodium options.



Alexander MacDonald hails from the wee hamlet called Hall’s Harbour, NS, on the Bay of Fundy. He graduated from McGill with a BSc after spending a semester in Panama through the joint Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute-McGill University Panama Field Study Semester. He has worked in the ENGO sector for groups including CPAWS Nova Scotia (cpawsns.org), and served on the boards of Nature Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Environmental Network. He was also a National Councillor for the Canadian Environmental Network during that time (cen-rce.org). After moving with his wife to Ottawa to complete an MSc in Biology at the University of Ottawa, he alighted at Nature Canada, where he manages the organization’s national protected areas program. He currently manages the Lac Deschenes Important Bird Area Naturehood initiative based in Ottawa-Gatineau, which focuses on celebrating, educating, protecting and monitoring a globally significant wildlife habitat right in the nation’s capital. In his spare time, he also fronts the indie folk-rock band Umbrella Protest.