With more kilometres under his boots than a bushranger at full bore, Joel has had his fair share of meals on the trail. Here he shares with us his go-to hiking food, so you too can eat like a backcountry king.
It’s early morning in Central Australia. We’ve been walking for ten days. In the east, the sunburst sparkles on the horizon, spilling red, yellow, purple and gold across the landscape. As the sun crests the ridge, one of my friends innocently remarks how good a Bacon and Egg Burger would be right now. Silent and wide-eyed, each of us raises one hand to cover our mouths and the other to point directly at her. Groaning, she drops to the ground.
Food is an emotive subject on the trail. In this case, we had instigated a Lord-of-the-Flies ruling that there would be punishment for anyone who uttered one of the hallowed B-words: Bacon, Burgers or Beer. That punishment being 10 push-ups. With a full pack on. Sarah owed 20.
Planning tasty meals is one of the most agonised-over aspects of camping and hiking. In my travels, I’ve come across people who have brought nothing but biltong, plain oats or sunflower seeds (not all of those things… one of those things, for days or even weeks). At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve hiked on the steepest tracks in the Blue Mountains with someone who pulled out a cast-iron skillet and wok burner to cook eggs (individually wrapped in bubble wrap in an empty Nalgene) and bacon in the morning.
The best adventure-fuel is (i) tasty, (ii) light, (iii) quick to cook (to conserve gas), and (iv) won’t go off or become crushed in your pack. While it’s true that everything tastes better after a day on the trail, that doesn’t mean you need to settle for 2-minute noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Win the envy and respect of your trail mates, without breaking your back, with these suggestions – just be ready with a sharpened stick, come dinner time!
Patagonian trail mix
So-called because I came across the recipe at the iconic Erratic Rock hostel in Patagonia, this is a fantastic just-add-water porridge. Mix up a batch of the following before you leave: 2 cups quick oats; 3/4 cup dried mixed fruit (apricots, blueberries, apple, cranberries etc); 1 cup milk power; 1/4 cup desiccated coconut; 1/4 cup sugar; and two good shakes of cinnamon. On the trail, scoop it into an insulated coffee mug and pour in some boiling water – seal it up and give it a good shake. After 3 mins, you have the most delicious warm breakfast. Pro-tip: you can rehydrate it directly in the ziplock bag instead of a mug; stuff it down your jacket and it doubles as a hot water bottle as it cooks!
This is another grab-and-go oat-option which is perfect when you’re heading out the door early on the first morning or to make when you’re sitting around the campfire and have run out of Would-You-Rather questions. Many varieties here – I’m partial to Choconut (1/2 cup normal oats, 1/2 cup water, milk powder, cocoa powder or choc nibs, and 2 globs of Peanut Butter/Nutella) or Apple Pie (1/2 cup oats, 1/2 cup water, milk powder, dried apple and sultanas, cinnamon). Check out Quaker Oats for more inspiration.
Trail Breakfast Burrito
Wrap up a smear of peanut butter, a banana, honey, and a fistful of trail mix in a flatbread and warm it on the fire. Lovely.
If you’re taking a lightweight fry pan and have a bit of time, these are a godsend. Buy the premix from the supermarket – get the maple buttermilk variety and thank me later.
Muesli or granola
If you can’t stand dehydrated milk powder, try it with UHT (long-life) milk which doesn’t need to be refrigerated.
For breakfast on the go when you’re rushing out to capture that sunrise, try one of the pre-mix protein shakes for an easy pick-me-up. Just add water.
Lunch on the trail doesn’t always have to be utilitarian. Particularly for the first day, wrap up some leftovers for an easy lunch. As a bonus, your companions, grimly munching on Mountain Bread, will refuse to talk to you, so you’ll be able to really soak in that peace and quiet.
Bread, pita or flatbread
Bung some peanut butter, Nutella, Laughing Cow processed cheese, tuna (get the Tetrapack version rather than the tins), honey or vegemite between some bread – easy, quick, and will keep forever. For something more gourmet, take along smoked chicken, a firm avocado and semi-dried tomatoes.
With salami, cheese, cucumber and a spread (chutney, tahini, hummus or pesto are good options).
Mi Goreng noodles
If you need something hot. [Note: many brands use unsustainable palm oil]
Dinner- When You’re Carrying a Pack
Frozen bolognese or curry
For the first night, the tastiest option is to freeze a proper meal, which will keep for at least 24 hours if it’s buried in your pack. For best results, freeze it in an open double-lock zip lock bag, suck all the air out of it once frozen, and then put it back in the freezer. At camp, just simmer the bag in your pot to heat it through – this saves on washing up and you can use the hot water too!
Dehydrated meals (from all good camping stores)
These things are better than sliced bread. Not only are there heaps of varieties these days, they are super easy and quick after a hard day on the trail, and they’re their own cooking pot and bowl, so there’s no washing up. People will debate the culinary merits of the different brands and meals until they’re blue in the face – we generally find the Thai Green Curry, Teriyaki Beef, Roast Chicken or Lamb, and Tandoori Chicken are crowd-pleasers. Yes, they’re expensive, but you’d spend far more than $15 on takeaway back home, and you’ll probably appreciate these more! Pro-tip: get the 2-serve portion – the single serve just doesn’t fill most people up.
Flavoured ‘Instant’ Rice, Couscous or Pasta
… Combine with your favourite mix-in. I love tuna, a squeeze of lemon and a handful of crushed walnuts; or pesto, smoked chicken (tinned or vacuum-packed) and semi-dried tomatoes.
Fry up some laksa paste or red curry paste and add 1-2 cups of coconut milk (you can carry the can if you’re a purist, or supermarkets sell coconut milk powder). In a separate pot or bowl, add vermicelli rice noodles to boiled water to soften. Tip the drained noodles into the soup, with a tin of cocktail prawns or smoked mussels and a roughly chopped bok choy or snow peas. My go-to for impressing trail buddies.
Great for a quick meal, with an arrabbiata sauce and zucchini.
Pumpkin soup, coconut milk and ginger
Both the pumpkin soup and the coconut milk come in dehydrated versions – adding these all together makes for a tastier meal and you can increase the portion size. Use the leftover coconut milk to make ‘Chai-conut’ for dessert – tea with a touch of coconut milk powder, honey, cinnamon and ginger.
… cooked in alfoil with lemon, butter and garlic.
A great ‘emergency meal’ to keep in your pack in case you take longer than expected to get back! It’s fairly light, quick to cook, and hearty. Mix it with some spices and freeze-dried veggies or sultanas beforehand and pop it in a ziplock – when you need it, just boil some water (one and a half times the amount of couscous), add it to the mix and stand for 5 minutes.
Dinner – When You’re Car Camping (Or Not Worried About Pack Weight)
A can of Stagg chilli heated up and topped with corn chips, a firm avocado and grated cheese.
Fry up an onion; 1 can pinto beans; 1 can refried beans; Salsa; and 1 tsp each coriander, cumin and cayenne. Wrap it in a tortilla. Immensely satisfying.
Pasta mixed with a jar of antipasto veggies (olives, sundried tomatoes, roasted peppers/capsicum) and some fresh garlic.
Diced tomatoes, dried basil, anchovies, capers, olives and chilli simmered down for a bit, and then tossed through pasta.
Mountain Bread ‘Pizza’
I say pizza in inverted commas; manage your expectations! You’ll need a frypan or a firepit with a cook-plate. Brush your sheets of Mountain Bread with some water and layer up 3-4 sheets. Top with your preferred bits-and-pieces – I like semi-dried tomatoes, salami, jarred capsicums, some red onion, cheese and a small sachet of tomato paste. Grill this on the hotplate – it works better if you fold it over like a calzone and cook on both sides.
Worth more than frankincense and myrrh when you’re backcountry. Everyone has their own recipes, I swear by Lisa C’s version – 2 cups self-raising flour and 2 tbsp. butter rubbed together into breadcrumbs, then a good pinch or two of salt. Add enough water (or beer) until it kneads together into a ball of dough that holds together without being too sticky. Cook it over the coals in a pot, or, in a pinch, wrapped in 5-6 layers of aluminium foil. After about 20 minutes, it will sound hollow when you tap it. Pull it apart and slather some honey on it – there’s very little that’s better in this world.
Fosters packet custard
With some dehydrated milk and dried fruit (mangos, peaches, figs etc).
Many different varieties. Getting the cooking method right will be the night’s entertainment.
- Nut bars
- Biltong or jerky
- Scroggin/Trail mix (your choice of nuts, dried fruit, seeds, chocolate etc)
- Protein balls
- Lollies (Bring enough for your friends and pull it out when everyone needs a sugar hit. Hasbro Gummy Bears have narrowly prevented many a mutiny!)
- Packet soup or miso
Zip-locks are your friend
Sandwich-sized bags for sealing perishables like salami and cucumber, and large double-lock bags for keeping rubbish from leaking/ stinking out your pack. They’re good for portioning, and can even be used for cooking – I often do porridge or couscous by adding boiling water straight into the bag, sealing it up and tucking it into my jacket – it’s quick, saves on washing up and acts as a hot water bottle!
Waxed cotton food wraps
These are a fantastic, sustainable and reusable alternative for plastic wrapping, particularly for cheese, sandwiches, butter (yes, you can take butter, if it’s buried in your pack!) etc. Plus they really make your Instagram pics pop with that rustic chic!
Try to link up recipes between ingredients that you’re already carrying
For example, the flatbread and peanut butter I’m carrying for lunch, and trail mix for snacks, become a fantastic Trail Breakfast Burrito when paired with a banana. Similarly, pesto, smoked chicken and semi-dried tomatoes double as both a lunch (on a sandwich) or dinner (with pasta). Powdered milk or coconut milk can be used for a variety of breakfasts, dinners and/or hot drinks.
You can get powdered/dehydrated versions of milk, eggs, coconut milk, curry paste and tomato paste, which open up a world of options for cooking more conventional meals. Get creative!
Many foods are less perishable than you may expect
… and your pack is a great insulator if you bury things. Hard cheese, butter, sauces like pesto, and frozen meals like curries will keep for a couple of days out of the fridge, particularly in cooler months and regions.