Trail Cooking 101: How to Become a Backpacking Chef

By Sarah Rees

Just a few more steps, just a few more steps, I kept telling myself. The sun was dipping behind the mountainside as we slid down into a valley campsite, our home for the night. Finally I could unstrap my pack and rub my aching shoulders. And breathe. And look.

My husband David and I had traveled all the way across the country to see this—these towering trees with blue sky peeking between the branches, these flowered meadows, and glimpses of snow-sprinkled mountains looming ahead. My quadriceps were confirming that, yes, we were halfway up the Middle Sister, the fourth-highest peak in Oregon, and my stomach was tell me that it was nearly dinnertime. And while these views were feeding the soul, something else was needed to feed our group of five hungry hikers.

Voilà. Out came the backpacking stove, cooking utensils, and ziplock bags of premeasured ingredients. And before it got too dark, we were sitting in the circle together, feasting on spaghetti and chunky meat sauce, Frenched green beans with lemon pepper, and pineapple upside down cake. A miracle? A mirage? No. Just the result of a little planning and the use of a few basic tools that anyone can use.

Any hiker can become a backpacking chef. Homemade jerky and fruit leather, tuna salad, beef stew, cheesecake, and chicken pot pie in the wilderness—it’s all possible and oh, so delicious. Learning how to prepare it is similar to learning to cook at home: start online, gathering recipes and tips; collect the gear you need; select foods appropriate to your health and travel needs; do your at-home preparation; and then, best of all, enjoy your home cooking on the trail!


Go online to get great recipes and advice from the pros! My favorite sites for great how-to articles and recipes include these:

Another good article to peruse is “Trail Food: Keeping It Interesting and Energizing” by Rosaleen Sullivan (www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/trail_food_sullivan.html). These sites will give you a good grasp of how trail cooking works.


After you’ve become somewhat familiar with what kinds of meals can be prepared on the trail, now it’s time to ask yourself some questions:

  • What are my individual nutritional needs?
  • What ingredients do we like, and what foods sound especially appealing on the trail?
  • How can I turn trail cooking into an opportunity to teach skills to my children?
  • What foods require certain equipment to prepare, and what can I afford?

The answers to these questions will determine what direction you take trail cooking. Just remember, if you take even one of these ideas and use it on your next family backpacking or car camping trip, everyone will benefit when you serve your family healthier fare. You’ll also get a chance to learn some fun new ways to cook with the kids!

Gathering Equipment

The meal I told you about at the beginning of this article required certain equipment. In order to make that dinner and dessert, I used my dehydrator, a Nesco 700-Watt Food Dehydrator (www.amazon.com/Nesco-FD-75PR-700-Watt-Food-Dehydrator/dp/B000FFVJ3C). This model comes with six regular trays, two mesh inserts for drying herbs, and two plastic inserts for drying soups and sauces. I also bought three great cookbooks: Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’, Trail Food, and Backpack Gourmet. You can purchase all of these cookbooks on Amazon as well.

The pack stove that my husband and I use is the Primus EtaPack Lite Stove (www.rei.com/product/783670). It weighs about 21 ounces and can be used to prepare a main dish to adequately feed 2–3 adults. For larger groups of hikers, you can eat in batches or simply carry a few stoves with you.

Other than the pack stove, I carry a small wooden spoon, two sporks, a pocketknife, and a squishable bowl. Ziplock bags for carrying and rehydrating dried ingredients are essential. I also use tiny jewelry ziplock bags for carrying spices. (You can buy a package of these in the craft section of Walmart for a dollar.) Wet wipes and paper towels make cleanup a breeze on the trail.

Home Preparation

Once you’ve invested in the equipment you want, now you can plan your meals. Got a dehydrator? Go for meat sauces and stew recipes. These rehydrate pretty quickly on the trail. Need to stick to what you can get at the supermarket? Go for the tuna and chicken available in sealed packets, and take along some pitas and individually sealed mayonnaise packets for salads. Also, look for semi-hard cheese (we like Dubliner Irish Cheddar) and flatbread to pack. Hummus and raw carrots are heavier items, but they pack well and are excellent sources of much-needed protein.

Package all your meals according to recipe instructions, and bring a printout of the instructions with you if necessary. Or simply write the instructions on the ziplocks in permanent marker.

Enjoying the Fruit of Labor!

Eating nutritionally takes planning ahead, but it’s as much a part of hiking preparation as exercising physically. The extra effort it takes to depart from ramen and Twinkies on the trail, I guarantee, will be worth it. You need to prepare food that will equip your body to meet the demands you’ll make on it, not to mention the fact that you get to be the Food Hero at the end of a long day when you dish up a delicious, hot, satisfying meal. After hours of consuming trail mix and powerbars, a good, hot meal is a welcome relief—for everyone.

Exploring the recipe options and cooking up a menu plan can be as much fun as exploring the great outdoors. Turn it into a family learning opportunity that you and your children can get excited about experiencing from start to finish.

So, where does homeschool stop and vacation start? When you become a backpacking gourmet, it’s hard to tell.

Biographical Information

Sarah Rees was never an outdoorsy type and never dreamed of backpacking before she got married. Now she and her husband David count their hiking trips as some of their best memories together. When they’re not hiking and cooking along the nearest trail, they live in Crestview, Florida. Sarah blogs at makingdoblog.wordpress.com and sells stuff on Etsy at www.etsy.com/shop/araneldesigns and www.etsy.com/shop/unwhiteart

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Spring 2011.

Visit The Old Schoolhouse® at theoldschoolhouse.com  to view a full-length sample copy of the print magazine especially for homeschoolers. Click the graphic of the moving computer monitor on the left. Email the Publisher at Publisher@theoldschoolhouse.com.