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Experts weigh-in on good backpacking food that’s not freeze-dried

“My absolute go-to is a couscous.”

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A Jen Brown trail meal: Whole-wheat tortilla with walnuts, apricots and peanut butter - PHOTO COURTESY OF JEN BROWN
  • Photo courtesy of Jen Brown
  • A Jen Brown trail meal: Whole-wheat tortilla with walnuts, apricots and peanut butter

Pre-packaged freeze-dried meals, from beef stew to pad thai, are popular with backpackers. But they’re heavily processed, often super salty, and come in high-tech, cook-in plastic pouches that are not easily recyclable. The repetitive prep (just add boiling water!) can grow tedious. But what besides old-school trail-food options — jerky, trail mix, oatmeal, etc. — meets requirements for taste, nutrition, carrying weight and non-spoilage? I asked some local experts.

Jen Brown, who’s backpacked in Olympic National Park and Banff National Park, and along the Appalachian Trail, claims culinary feats including baking a cake on trail. But, she says, “My absolute go-to is a couscous.” The crushed-pasta dish is light, travels well, and takes all flavors including Brown’s favorite make-on-trail sauce, a blend of peanut butter, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. Brown also likes hard cheeses, which can go days without refrigeration.

Mike Schiller has climbed Death Valley’s Telescope Peak, and Alaska’s Denali; less concerned about the weight he’s carrying than the day’s-end reward of a good meal, he’s been known to pack a 12-inch cast-iron skillet to fry pierogies on-trail in mid-winter. His blackened Spamfish over polenta is cayenne-dusted Spam slices, cut into fish shapes, fried in a skillet and served with polenta and tomato sauce. Schiller’s Thanksgiving dinner in pot combines instant stuffing and canned turkey with craisins and canned corn; he even makes a skillet lasagna, with bow-tie pasta or macaronis layered with tomato sauce, shredded cheese, and bulghur instead of meat.

Shin Ramyun spicy instant noodles are a fave of Sean Brady, especially with add-ins like dried mushrooms and canned (or pouched) chicken or tuna. He also likes packing fresh meat, fruit and veg for at least the first night’s camp-out. Brady has backpacked from Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Quebec Run Wild Area to (on his honeymoon) Wyoming’s Wind River Range. But lately, he notes, he’s gotten into canoe camping, especially on the upper Allegheny River, where coolers solve the what-to-eat problem. “There is no freeze-dry. You bring everything,” he says. “We actually eat pretty gourmet canoe-camping.”


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