I am not a trail chef but I hope to be one someday. I hope to pull the big white puffy hat that weighs two pounds out of my backpack and wear it like Chef Boyardee in the backcountry. One thing I enjoy about planning upcoming backpacking trips is the meal planning. I enjoy cooking meals on the trail and trying new recipes. Sure, it’s a lot less work when you just throw a bunch of dry protein bars in. The meals in a bag are okay sometimes. If you are looking to maximize hiking miles then the dry bars might be the way to go. In most of the national parks, especially recently, fires are not allowed, so making dinner becomes an activity the whole crew can participate in.
As meal planner for a recent trip to Great Basin National Park, I had a couple of failures that set me back on my journey to trail chef and getting my big hat. It made me think back to all of the ways, other than simply undercooking or overcooking, that I and others have goofed up the food prep in the backcountry. Here are my Top Ten Trail Chef Failures:
10) Knocking over the meal. This is one of the more common failures and it is an accident that can happen to anyone. I work with a Pocket Rocket so let’s face the physics, your balancing a large pan with heavy contents on a little tripod on top of a small canister that is sitting on an uneven surface. In the wind.
9) Lack of imagination. Planning the same thing for every meal, while not a crime, might cause a mutiny on a long trip.
8) Getting dirt in the food. This is not the same as number 10, which was putting the food in the dirt. You’re in a dirt environment. Finding places to set things down, without getting dirt on them, and then mixing said dirt into the pot takes special care. Watch out for wind-blown debris as well.
7) Running out of fuel. This happened to me once on a five-night solo trip in Zion. I had only taken a very small cannister and used it a couple of nights to heat a hot water bottle for my feet. Fortunately it was the last night on the trail and it’s not the end of the world because not having fuel doesn’t make the food any less edible.
6) Not bringing large enough cooking gear. This is a recent blunder I made. We did a virtual gear run-through, and I thought the pot someone was bringing was much bigger. We got by with cooking the meals in halves in a frying pan. It was a an inconvenience but we made do because that’s what you do on the trail.
5) Not enough food/ too much food. One of these results in carrying extra weight while the other borders on dangerous. Fortunately, I’ve only ever brought too much.
4) Forgetting the Pocket Rocket or fuel. If you are in a no fire environment, to not bring the method by which you can prepare any meals can be a real downer to the crew, especially on a longer trip.
3) Food allergies. If you are the meal planner and you don’t find out about someone’s food allergy until you are on the trail, then shame on both of you.
2) Getting the squirts. The backcountry is no place to have diarrhea or vomiting. Always wash your hands before prepping meals and always wash or sterilize dishes after eating.
1) Bringing critters to camp. Leaving food in camp or spreading bits and scents around camp can, and usually will, bring critters into camp. This can get very dangerous in bear country. Always do meals away from tents and use a bear bag or locker when in bear country.
Honorable Mention: My personal top Trail Chef Failure kind of falls into category number one, but then it might deserve a category all its own. I had driven seven hours from Long Beach to the backpackers camp near mineral King in Sequoia National Park, arriving late at night. The day before I had purchased some ghee and other items in Long Beach, after going to multiple stores, to use in cooking all of the trout I would catch in the backcountry. If you aren’t familiar with ghee it is basically simmered butter. Since the water is removed it is shelf stable. If you aren’t familiar with my fishing prowess, I would catch no fish.
I woke up early the next morning ready to pick up my permit and hit the Mineral King Loop. The campsite had a picnic table which I used to sort my gear for loading my backpack. I had come straight from a business meeting so nothing was loaded. Up until this point everything, including my pack and the plastic grocery bag with the ghee, had remained in my large duffle bag in the trunk of the rental car. On the long drive the ghee had turned to liquid in the trunk which would have been fine except that the glass jar had been upside down so everything inside the grocery bag was coated with a fine coating of butter. That should attract the animals on the trail!
I thought I would put some liquid ghee in a plastic 8 ounce bottle, but it had gotten cold during the night and hardened again. I had heated water for oatmeal and coffee so I decided to heat the ghee back up. Since it had hardened upside down, there was an inch of space in the bottom of the jar. It started to melt so I took it off the flame but when I set the jar on the cold picnic table it immediately broke and liquid butter ran everywhere.
I then heated up more water which I used to clean up my groceries and the mess that I had made, including carefully finding all the broken glass. Finally, I scraped a bit of the hardened ghee off the top, careful to avoid the broken glass and put it in a Ziploc bag. It ended up being a lot of work for something I would not end up using.
These are my top ten. Do you have something different?