By Annie Fenn, M.D.
When my husband suggested we head into the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming for a week of backpacking, I was reluctant at first. Hike steep ridges wearing the same outfit for eight consecutive days while being swarmed by mosquitoes? Consume a week’s worth of dehydrated one-pot mystery meals? Drink really bad coffee and snack on gorp? And potentially give up my glass of wine with dinner? Not exactly my kind of fun.
Besides—let’s face it—when was the last time I’d hoisted a hefty pack on my back and headed into the wilderness for a week? Let’s see—it was long before I had children (now taller than me); before my midlife episode of chronic back pain; before I banished processed foods from my pantry and started cooking everything from scratch; and before I had become rather, uh, persnickety about my morning coffee.
My husband persevered, promising me great food, plenty of dark chocolate, good coffee, rum in my cocoa, and the chance to catch a golden trout. How could I say no? It would have been foolish to pass up a backpacking trip to the Winds—a remote, hundred-mile-long mountain range known for its magical high-country walking—for fear of bad food.
As I dusted off my 1990s-era backpack, I had two goals for a successful trip. First and foremost, in order to save my back, I would learn to pack like an ultralight backpacker, taking only what’s necessary to be warm, dry, and safe in the mountains. Secondly, the food would have to be as good as the home-cooked meals made in my own kitchen. I would need to devise a menu of calorie-dense foods that would fuel long days spent traversing the mountains and bagging peaks. Meals had to be practical to pack, easy to cook, and utterly satisfying.
Determined to prove that a whole foods backpacking menu could still be lightweight, I turned to my husband’s repertoire of backcountry meals. After all, I married a wilderness veteran who never cooks at home but is somewhat of an expert on cooking in the outdoors. All I needed to do was give the recipes some pizzazz, ditch the processed ingredients, and amp up the nutritional value.
Since frequent snacking on the trail is crucial, I created a “goodie bag” for each of us—a quart-sized Ziploc stuffed with enough snacks for the entire eight days. My homemade backcountry bars were our favorite—wholesome and filling—but most snacks came from the supermarket. A peek into my bag revealed dark chocolate almonds; roasted cashews; Kate’s Real Food bars; dried apricots, cherries, and figs; pocket-stuffed dates; and Chocolove mini chocolate bars (including a few laced with crushed coffee beans for an extra boost).
For breakfast, we alternated between our two morning meals: homemade granola and muesli, packed into single portions. We included Nido whole milk powder and luxe additions of toasted hazelnuts, crystallized ginger, black mission figs, and dried wild blueberries to keep us from getting bored with our breakfast routine.
Starbucks Via instant coffee mix had me soon forgetting my coffee worries. And, like a true backcountry barista, I added Nido and a teaspoon of sugar for a tasty, ultralight option (on shorter trips I still swear by my plastic French press and ground coffee). Sipping strong, hot coffee, while gazing at the morning sky and surrounding granite towers, truly made for the best part of the day.
Lunch on the trail was pieced together with some high-calorie staples: bagels with lox for a special first-day lunch, rolled tortillas with almond butter and honey, and Wasa Crispbread with hunks of dry salami and hard cheese.
Supper was the biggest challenge—I knew we would want to tuck into a satisfying bowl of real food at the end of each day. Only two small canisters of white gas were allotted to fuel our MSR Whisperlite backpacking stove, which is fast and light, but not a great choice for foods that need to simmer. Ideally, dinner had to be prepared quickly and all in one pot.
My gourmet renditions of the dehydrated one-pot meal, like Capellini with Porcini mushrooms in a creamy tomato sauce, replenished our depleted calories and kept our taste buds happy—especially when topped with slices of artisanal truffle-infused hard sausage. We had no problem repeating a polenta version of this meal later in the week. Thai chicken curry was another favorite one-pot wonder. Red curry paste, parceled into a snack-sized Ziploc and combined with a can of coconut milk (not exactly ultralight but ultra-essential to the flavor of the dish), made a quick sauce. Dried peas, shreds of pre-zested lime, brown sugar, fish sauce, and a shelf-stable foil packet of real chicken completed this dish. Instant couscous provided the perfect vehicle for soaking up every last drop of curry.
Later in the week, the couscous would take on a Moroccan flair with the addition of currants, almonds, turmeric, and cinnamon—perfect for pairing with the foil-wrapped trout we were hoping to catch. Thoughtfully, I packed two squares of foil, half of a preserved lemon, and a small stash of Herbes de Provence in preparation for the big catch. And for dessert—spicy Mexican cocoa with a splash of rum (as promised).
I found that eating well on a backpacking trip was not impossible. Our meals were tasty, hearty, and delicious. And as I was hiking out through the brilliant wildflowers carpeting the ground of an old forest burn, I vowed to dedicate part of every summer to a new backpacking adventure.
The next time I headed into the mountains—hiking up and over the Death Canyon Shelf in Grand Teton National Park and coming out in Teton Canyon on the west slope of the range—my twelve-year-old son and friends came along. I upgraded my ancient backpack to a spiffy new, lightweight, lava-orange one—fitted to my torso and weighing in at a mere three pounds, twelve ounces. With the weight I saved, I was able to cram in a few luxuries: my Kindle, a pillow, the makings for Italian S’Mores, and a PlatyPreserve, a lightweight, packable wine preservation pouch, filled with my favorite vino.
- 1 3/4 cups creamy peanut butter
- 1/2 cup brown rice syrup
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3 1/2 cups crushed whole-wheat
- cereal, rice cereal, or granola
- 1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts,
- currants, chopped dried figs,
- crystallized ginger (optional)
- 2 ounces chopped dark choco- late or chocolate chips
- Cooking spray
1. Mix peanut butter, brown rice syrup, and sugar in a large saucepan over low heat. When the mixture starts to bubble, stir continuously for about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.
2. Add crushed cereal (fill a large Ziploc with cereal and crush it with a rolling pin) or granola, and any optional ingredients. Mix well so all ingredients are uniformly distributed throughout the peanut butter base.
3. Pour onto a 13 x 9-inch rimmed baking pan sprayed with cooking oil. Press evenly throughout the pan. Cover the top of the bars with wax paper and press down with a metal spatula or pan. Remove the paper.
4. If topping with chocolate, microwave chopped chocolate or chips on low power at 15-second increments until melted. Stir to smooth; swirl over the top of the bars.
5. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes and cut into 2-inch bars.
Pocket Stuffed Dates
- Medjool dates
- Firm blue cheese
1. Cut a lengthwise slit in each date and remove the pit.
2. Place 1 teaspoon blue cheese inside and press closed.
3. Bake at 375ºF for 10 minutes. Cool.
4. Pack as a trail snack, or wrap in foil and warm over the campfire for an appetizer.
Maple Syrup and Olive Oil Granola with Ginger and Figs
- 5 cups old fashioned oats
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 2/3 cup olive oil
- 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 cup slivered or sliced almonds
- 1/2 cup dried black mission figs,
- stems removed and diced
- 1/2 cup crystallized ginger, diced
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
2. Place oats in a large bowl.
3. In another bowl, whisk together the olive oil, maple syrup, almond, and vanilla extract (warm maple syrup in the microwave for ease).
4. Pour the liquid over the oats and mix well. Sprinkle with salt and mix again.
5. Spread the granola evenly over a large baking sheet lined with a silicon mat or parchment paper.
6. Bake 20 minutes and turn the pan. Bake another 20 minutes. Toss the granola from the edges into the middle of the pan and spread evenly. Bake until golden brown, but not burnt.
7. Once cool, toss with the ginger and figs.
8. For trail mix, add a handful of chocolate chips.
Spicy Mexican Hot Chocolate Mix
- 2 cups natural unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch processed)
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground habanero chili (if you like spice, add up to 1/2 teaspoon )
1. In a blender or food processor, add cocoa, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and chili. Blend until mixed.
2. Break the chocolate into pieces by placing it in a plastic bag and pounding it with a mallet.
3. Add chocolate pieces to the mix in the blender and process until smooth. Small chunks of chocolate in the mix are okay.
4. Place 3 teaspoons of mix and 3 teaspoons of Nido in a mug. Add hot water and stir vigorously.
Capellini with Porcini Mushrooms in a Creamy Tomato Sauce
- 6 ounces Capellini (angel hair) dried pasta
- 1/2 ounce dried Porcini mush- rooms
- 1 tube sun-dried tomato paste (about 4 tablespoons)
- 4 tablespoons Nido
- 5 sun-dried tomatoes, in strips
- 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 3-4 slices of hard sausage (optional)
- Bacon dust (optional)
1. In 3 snack-sized Ziplocs place: mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, grated Parmesan, and Nido.
2. Break pasta in half and place into one pint-sized baggie.
3. Place all ingredients into one quart-sized baggie and label.
1. Fill pot with water and bring to a boil.
2. Place mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl and cover with 1 cup of hot water. Cover with a lid and steep while the pasta is cooking.
3. Cook pasta in the remaining water until barely al dente, 2-3 minutes (allow more time at high altitude).
4. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water in the pan.
5. Place the pasta in a bowl and toss with 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Add sun-dried tomato paste to the pasta water and mix with a fork, forming a sauce. Sprinkle Nido slowly over the sauce while stirring vigorously. Add mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, along with half of the steeping liquid, to the sauce. Simmer for 2 minutes.
6. Add pasta and stir to warm through. To thin, add more steeping liquid.
7. Divide into bowls and top with Parmesan cheese and slices of sausage or bacon dust (optional).