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June 1999

Fresh Backcountry Food

Rather than tearing open an envelope, wouldn't you rather slice and dice something fresh?

Cooking Time

Sometimes no cooking is best. After all, you’ve gone to the trouble of hauling weighty produce, so why not enjoy it raw when it’s at its peak of flavor? Grate beets into salad. Eat baby carrots with lunch, and try thinly sliced turnips as a refreshing midafternoon snack.

Potatoes are too starchy to eat raw, and, like all root vegetables, they are slow to cook. Save them for campfires, when you can prepare them slowly while you enjoy the sunset. If you’re using a pack stove, you don’t have to drain the fuel tank to cook fresh potatoes. Dice them small, cover with water, and bring to a boil while keeping the pot covered. Turn off the heat, and let the pot stand for 15 minutes. The potatoes will be tender, especially if you wrap the pot in a sweater to retain the heat.

Summer squash cooks faster than potatoes and is just as filling. Add diced zucchini to noodles about 5 minutes before the pasta is ready; the squash will be ready by the time the pasta is al dente. The same goes for broccoli or asparagus.


This is where most backpackers balk, because not only does fresh food weigh more than its freeze-dried counterpart, but if you want to cook it, you have to carry about 25 percent more fuel than freeze-dried foods require. Personally, I’m willing to carry a slightly heavier pack on

shorter trips if it means eating “real” food at day’s end. I make every ounce count by going for more flavor, texture, and substance with crisp apples, crunchy cabbage, and filling potatoes. While some people tote onions and garlic, I save a few ounces with onion and garlic granules (1/4 tablespoon garlic granules = 1 garlic clove; 1 tablespoon onion powder = 1 medium onion).

The only time I stick to freeze-dried is in bear country. The weight and volume of fresh grub makes it tough to bear bag or cram into slender bearproof canisters, not to mention the smells of fresh foods that can attract hungry bruins.


To reduce waste, consider produce that’s entirely edible, like sugar snap or snow peas, zucchini, or carrots, rather than weighty and wasteful things like artichokes. Some people eat the entire apple, core and all, while others cook with the seeds and membranes of bell peppers. For snacking, there’s almost nothing I like better than the spicy core of a cabbage or cauliflower.

Get the most out of leeks and green onions-the dark green portions are edible and visually enhance the meal. Thinly sliced broccoli stems add texture and zing to salads and replace water chestnuts in a stir-fry.

Buy organic, and you can eat the peels of apples and cucumbers, since they’re not sprayed with pesticides or treated with waxes. Even citrus peels can be grated into pancakes, desserts, and salads for a flavorful twist.

Packing Produce

Once you’re jazzed about fresh fruits and veggies, how do you avoid making fruit salad inside your pack?

~ Store easily bruised or squashed items in hard-sided cooking pots and mugs. I carry lettuce and tomatoes in a 1-quart plastic container that is also my plate and bowl.

~ Wrap ripe items in loose clothing or bubble wrap, which makes for essential entertainment if you become tentbound.

~ Pack apples and oranges near the top of your pack or in side pockets, and don’t overfill or cinch too tightly.

~ Perishables can also be placed in a bag attached to the outside of your backpack.

Don’t forget that fresh food needs to breathe (I use a paper bag or perforated plastic vegetable bag) and should be kept out of the sun. A light cotton pillowcase allows ventilation, and in camp you can plop it in a stream or snowbank. Or simply douse the pillowcase with water, wring out the excess, and let evaporation keep your food cool.

As T.S. Eliot asked in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” My answer is, “Why not?” Whatever you find delicious at home will be sheer heaven on the trail.

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