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December 1998

Protect Your Pack Food

The inside of a pack is a rough place for poorly packaged food. Protect your grub so it emerges intact.

If you’ve ever seen a suitcase burst open on an airport luggage carousel and thought, “Glad that isn’t mine,” then you can relate to the predicament of Bob, a former student in one of the backcountry cooking classes I teach with Yosemite Association in Yosemite National Park. Bob stowed all of his edible goodies for a 5-day backpacking adventure in the thin plastic bags found in a supermarket produce aisle and tied off each bag with a twist tie. Like a bulgingsuitcase tied with rope, Bob’s food packaging was a disaster waiting to happen.

Bob’s only saving grace was that he’d bothered to put his bags of food into a nylon duffel before stuffing them into his pack, because when it came time to prepare the first night’s meal he zipped open an unholy mess. Inside was a melange of powdered milk, pancake mix, sugar, crushed crackers and a generous slathering of peanut butter. Fortunately for Bob we had plenty of extra food and spare room in our bear canisters to safely store the mess he’d created.

The moral of the story, and the one I drive home to my students all the time: the meals you plan are only as good as their packaging. The inside of a pack is a hostile environment for food-it’s hot, cramped, and full of hard-edged objects-so pack each ingredient and each meal to withstand the punishment. Following are the equipment and packing tips needed to get your vittles from grocery store exit to trailhead.


Zipper lock bags: The genius who invented zipper-lock plastic bags has won my eternal gratitude. Have an assortment of sizes on hand before you begin packing, from sandwich to 1-gallon size, and get the heavier-duty freezer weight style with the write-on strip at the top. (Generic brand bags might save you a few pennies but if the plastic’s thin and the zippers are flimsy, they aren’t worth it.) Because these bags are so strong, you can give them double-, even triple-duty by bringing them home, rinsing and reusing.

Vacuum sealer: An alternative to zipper-lock bags is using a vacuum sealer like the Fresh Lock II, which I purchased at a local Sears store for $39.95. It’s effective at sealing homemade energy bars, small amounts of vinegar, even whole meals. Vacuum sealing beats zipper-locks when it comes to keeping food fresh, a decided advantage if you’re packing well in advance of a trip, or you’re preparing food drops for long hikes.

Lexan bottles: It’s a tad more expensive than Nalgene, but Lexan retains no food odor. A good bet for olive oil, vinegar and other strong-flavored liquids. Make sure you get bottles with measurements on the side.

Old prescription vials: Perfect for packing special mustards and other oozy substances needed in small quantities. Wash ’em out before using, unless you want a trace of Viagra with your meal.

Food tubes: When the weather’s warm, these refillable containers do the job holding mess-makers like peanut butter and cream cheese, but when it’s cold the tubes split or the clip pops off. A widemouth, screw-top plastic bottle, such as an old peanut butter jar, is a better bet.

Cracker protector: Crackers are a treat on the trail, but will end up as a pile of crumbs unless you stow them in a sturdy canister like an empty Pringles potato chip can. Carr’s and Ritz crackers fit nicely in these cans and emerge intact. One can feeds two people for a weekend trip.

Cheese chunker: For groups of four or more out on long trips, wrap blocks of Swiss, jack or cheddar in cheese cloth (wrap each block twice around) and dip in melted paraffin wax. For smaller groups, grab gouda or edam in individually waxed rounds, or plastic-wrapped string cheese. These must have been invented with the backpacker in mind.

Pillow packs: Why bother trying to pack cream cheese, salsa, ketchup, mustard and other condiments when they’re available in trail-ready, single serving containers at fast food joints?

Duffel bag: A simple, lightweight nylon duffel bag shelters your meals from cuts and punctures inside your pack, and keeps food separate from your other belongings. A duffel loads and unloads more easily than a stuff sack, and can be tied off at the handles and slung in a tree at night in locales where bears aren’t too wily. But in a growing number of national parks and wilderness areas, bear canisters are suggested if not required. If canisters are available for rent, then by all means get one.

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