Ruby Bayan
is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing her simple joys. She used to be an avid backpacker.

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How to Pack Food
by Ruby Bayan

'Camp Food' by GMDauz Every backpacker has, at one time or another, dreamed that at the end of a long and torturous trek there would be a buffet table, complete from soup to nuts, all laid out and waiting for the exhausted and famished group to feast on. Alas, some dreams never come true.

In the real world, backpackers will always have to plan their meals themselves and pack each item to weigh the least yet be scrumptious, filling, and nutritious as well. They will also have to manage their meals so that wastage and spoilage is minimal, and at the same time anticipate that their best meal plans can go awry from unexpected conditions in the wild.

How do you plan a backpackerís meal? What should be taken into consideration? How do you pack the raw eggs? Letís answer all these questions by starting with the basic conditions that influence food management in the outdoors.

Meal Planning Tips

Face it; youíll be carrying all the food you will need during your backpacking adventure, without the benefit of a refrigerator, microwave oven, or kitchen sink. You may be meeting extreme weather conditions, may not have the time and energy to cook, and may be forced to stay in the wild for days. In other words, outdoor conditions will influence your food planning. For example:

  1. The weather can suddenly turn foul just before you reach camp, making cooking impossible. Or, after a particularly agonizing trek, you may not have the energy or inclination to cook the carbonara pasta you had planned on. Or worse, your cooking equipment can fail or you could run out of fuel. To survive these odds, always have a Plan B, which will allow you to down a decent meal without having to light up the stove. Contingency meals can include pre-cooked, canned or dried food, bread, cookies, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Know also how to cook your meals using natural resources.

  2. Most pre-cooked and un-refrigerated meals last only a day or two. Plan on consuming these before they perish. Aside from onsite cooking, consider prepared camping meals and instant food, which have extended shelf life and require minimum preparation, in case you need to stay outdoors longer than expected.

  3. High altitude affects cooking Ė water takes longer to boil, and itís harder to sustain a flame. Factor these in when you plan your backpacking timetables.

  4. High altitude can cause food containers to inflate and pop open. Be sure to take this into consideration when packing pre-cooked and saucy foods Ė or risk having spaghetti sauce all over the contents of your backpack.

  5. Water can get scarce. Apportion your water ration to consider drinking as well as cooking requirements. Or plan your meals around your water supply.

  6. Trekking can jingle and jangle the articles in your backpack, including all the foodstuff you packed in. Be sure that your meals and ingredients are packed well enough to withstand the bumps and grinds in transit.

  7. Hiking will make you hungry. Plan on addressing your increased appetite with larger food rations; remember to work your meal plans around minimum bulk and weight, but optimum nutrition. You may also want to plan your meals around eating the heavy foods first to lighten your load as you move along.
Packing Tips

Ready for any untoward outdoor extreme condition that may come your way, youíre all set to pack your foodstuffs in the best possible manner to minimize weight and mass, as well as distress, damage and decomposition. Here are some tips to remember:

  1. Store pre-cooked meals in tight-seal plastic containers. Wrap the containers in zipper-lock plastic bags to prevent spills in case they pop open during the hike.

  2. Pack items that will tend to get squished (like bread or sandwiches, and salad ingredients) inside lightweight containers like empty snack food canisters.

  3. If youíre packing frozen raw meats or cold cuts, take them out of the freezer just before leaving for the trip. Wrap them in several layers of newspaper to delay thawing and seal them inside durable plastic bags.

  4. If pan-frying is in your agenda, pack your oils securely. Or consider packing solid vegetable lard or margarine, instead of cooking oil. Itís totally distressful to have to deal with an oil spill inside your backpack.

  5. As for condiments, you can buy small sachets of salt and pepper, but you can also repack them, including your favorite herbs and spices, into small plastic canisters. Donít forget to label your canisters; and bring only what you will need for the trip.

  6. If you're planning to cook spaghetti or pasta dishes, you can pack the raw noodles in empty water bottles so they don't get crushed in transit.

  7. Raw eggs? Leave them in the egg tray then slip the tray into a lightweight hard sided plastic container (empty chips canisters will work, too). Slip small packs of dried fish or dried beef, rice, pasta, etc. to fill the gaps in the container.
There are many ways to pack food and prepare meals for a backcountry adventure. Itís always easiest to grab nutri-bars, prepared foods, and dehydrated meals from the supermarket, but half the pleasure of backpacking is in sitting together preparing and savoring a meal amidst the natural elements.

Many backpacking enthusiasts have devised their own tricks and strategies on how to choose the lightest yet most nutritious foods, how to pack food so they don't get ground to a pulp inside the backpack, and how to harness nature to enhance the eating experience. Feel free to ask other backpackers or experiment on some food-toting and outdoor cooking strategies of your own.

Suggested Reading:

A Hikers Companion: 12,000 Miles Of Trail-Tested Wisdom, Cindy Ross Todd Gladfelter Kris Fulsaas (Editor) ; Format: Paperback, 199pp.; ISBN: 0898863538; Publisher: Mountaineers Books, The; Pub. Date: September 1989

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hiking, Camping, and the Great Outdoors, Michael Mouland; Format: Paperback, 2nd ed., 361pp.; ISBN: 0028631862; Publisher: Macmillan General Reference; Pub. Date: September 1999

The Outdoor Family Fun Guide: A Complete Camping, Hiking, Canoeing, Nature Watching, Mountain Biking, Skiing, Climbing, and General Fun Book for Kids (and Their Parents), Michael Hodgson Nicole Hodgson; Format: Paperback, 192pp.; ISBN: 0070291845; Publisher: International Marine Publishing Co.; Pub. Date: April 1998

Related Tutorial:
How to Pack a Backpack


Introduction to Backpacking

A first guide and set of tutorials on preparedness, presence of mind, and delight in memorable escapades in the great outdoors.
[First published as an online course at Suite101 University.]

Fitness Exercises
Outdoor Survival Basics

Choosing Equipment:
Choosing a Backpack
Choosing a Sleeping Bag
Choosing a Tent
Choosing Hiking Boots

Gearing Up:
What to Wear
How to Pack a Backpack
How to Pack Food

Campsite Management:
How to Choose a Campsite
How to Pitch a Tent

Emergency Situations:

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