Want to join us for a trip to the mountains? We're leaving tomorrow after work," the voice at the other end of the phone says. No doubt they want me along for my sterling company. I look at the clock-7 p.m., just enough time to organize my gear before hitting the hay. "Oh, one other thing. Sally can't go, and she'd volunteered to bring the food. Can you handle it?"
I swallow hard. The truth is they only want me for my grub. "Sure," I answer with confidence. "No problem." And it's not, because my cupboard is stocked with the 25 backcountry essentials. At a moment's notice I can scramble together meals for a weekend on the trail, all lightweight, good-tasting, and anything but monotonous. No need to hurriedly inventory what's on hand, frantically dash to the supermarket to fill in the holes, then stay up into the wee hours measuring and bagging ingredients.
Why just 25 ingredients, especially when there's a universe full of foods suitable for backpacking? Because through years of practice, I've noticed that many of the same ingredients keep showing up in most of my backcountry creations. By narrowing the list and designing recipes around these 25 ingredients, I've simplified my life without sacrificing taste or variety.
You'll find most of these backcountry essentials at your favorite supermarket and local health food store, although some specialty items can be hard to track down. I've offered suggestions on where you can get these through mail-order.
If you're the overly fastidious sort, you might consider keeping an inventory list that shows when you're running low on any one item. When you're scraping the bottom of the barrel, you add the items to your household shopping list and scratch them off as you make your usual rounds. Or you place an order with a specialty food company through the mail. Last-minute shopping becomes a thing of the past.
A note about storage. I keep backcountry-only ingredients in a large pretzel tin and stow it in a cool, dry area. If you have shelf space to spare, then reserve room for your camping food supplies. I also store powdered eggs, powdered dairy products, dried or freeze-dried meats or seafood, and anything with a high fat content in a bag in the refrigerator or freezer.
1. Quick oats. Make your own no-cook oatmeal by running 1-minute (a.k.a. "quick") oats briefly through a food processor. You want them to be the consistency of the instant oats you find in store-bought packets of instant oatmeal. Team them up with powdered milk, fruit, and brown sugar or other sweetener. On the trail, pour the oatmeal mix (3/4 cup feeds one hungry hiker) into a mug, add boiling water, stir, and let stand.
2. Powdered milk. No breakfast cereal is complete without it. Powdered milk supplies calcium, protein, and flavor. The instant, nonfat variety is easy to use, it doesn't lump, and it stores for a long time.
3. Coffee, tea, And hot choco-late. Would you be able to start or finish the day without them?
4. Quick-cooking hash browns. At the grocery store, look for hash browns that rehydrate with boiling water. If the store doesn't stock them, you might buy a package of instant latkes and use the dried potatoes. Hash browns are the foundation of a sticks-to-your ribs breakfast.
5. Dried fruit. Branch out from plain old raisins and prunes to exotic mango, papaya, pineapple, cranberries, and other dried fruit. They taste great in cereals, curries, and desserts. Dried cherries with chocolate pudding is a favorite of mine.
6. Powdered eggs. For breakfast on the first day, go ahead and use EggBeaters or a similar egg white product. After that you'll want powdered eggs, which can be doctored quite nicely. Some outdoors stores stock powdered eggs, as do mail order companies AlpineAire and The Baker's Catalogue.
7. Bagels and tortillas. Keep a supply of these ready to go in the freezer, or pick up fresh ones on the way out of town. Bagels and tortillas are the backbone of any trail lunch and a good source of complex carbohydrates, which replenish your store of glycogen.
8. Quick-cooking grains. For fast dinners you'll want a supply of instant rice, couscous, and small-grained bulgur to choose from. Freeze-dried wild rice is available through AlpineAire.
9. Chinese or instant Ramen noodles. These are precooked and dried, so they're ready in a flash, which saves stove fuel. They are good with vegetables and soup mixes. Many supermarkets stock these in the international foods aisle.
10. Pasta. Small shells and elbows are easier to drain and eat than are long strands of spaghetti. No-cook pasta is available through AlpineAire.
11. Instant mashed potatoes. Allows you to make shepherd's pie, potato pancakes, and a quick, hot lunch on soggy, cold days.
12. No-cook refried beans. A real boon for Mexican meals. Just add boiling water and-Presto!-you have seasoned refries for burritos. Look in the international foods or instant soup section of your supermarket. Black bean powder can be substituted if they're not available.
13. Lentils. Place in a screw-top bottle with water at the start of the day, and come dinner time the lentils will cook up in about 5 minutes (1/2 cup dried lentils + 1 cup water = 1 cup of ready-to-eat lentils). Use in stews, burritos, curries, and other dishes.
14. Dried vegetables. Carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, and tomatoes enhance dinners and create the impression you're eating "real food" rather than trail food. Beware of veggie mixes that contain dehydrated peas, corn, chunks of carrots, and squares of potatoes, all of which may take more than 30 minutes to rehydrate. Health food stores and supermarkets have some dried veggies. Order carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, and tomatoes through AlpineAire. For tomato flakes and dried tomatoes, check out The Baker's Catalogue. Just Tomatoes, Etc. and Backpacker's Pantry sell several mixtures of freeze-dried and dehydrated vegetables.
15. Freeze-dried corn and peas. So good-tasting, these gems are worth making the effort to order through the mail (AlpineAire).
16. Canned turkey, chicken, shrimp, and tuna. Because of their weight, these meats should be used sparingly, but a little goes a long way toward adding heft and flavor to dinners. Freeze-dried meat and seafood is much lighter than canned, and makes a viable alternative on extended trips, but high cost can be a deterrent. Shop for freeze-dried meat and seafood at your local outdoor store or through AlpineAire or Backpacker's Pantry.
17. Dried ground beef. The only way to stock up on this light, extremely versatile ingredient is to make it yourself. Buy extra-lean ground beef, and crumble into very small pieces as you cook it, being careful not to leave any rare meat. Dry the cooked meat in a dehydrator or oven at 130° to 140°F. If you use an oven, leave the door open an inch or two to circulate the air. Dry two to four hours, or until ground beef is dry and hard to the touch. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator or freezer.
18. No-cook soups. Supermarket shelves brim with delectable offerings that require only adding boiling water, but watch out for astronomical sodium levels. These soups are great as an appetizer and help you rehydrate. Combine a quick-cooking grain and extra seasoning for a simple dinner.
19. Nuts. Peanuts, cashews, almonds, and other nuts add flavor, texture, and lots of calories (in the form of fat) to trail meals. Toasting nuts in an oven set at 350°F for 10 minutes enriches their flavor.
20. Cheese. Cheese is loaded with calories, and it gives your taste buds a soothing sensation that carbo-rich foods can't come close to. Parmesan keeps well under trail conditions, as does mozzarella. Plastic-wrapped mozzarella "strings" in single-portion servings must have been designed with backpackers in mind.
21. Powdered dairy products. It's incredible what you can find in convenient powdered form, like cheddar cheese, blue cheese, butter, and sour cream. Use these as flavor enhancers to make a mundane meal marvelous. Powdered cheddar (order through AlpineAire or The Baker's Catalogue) goes with almost anything. Blue cheese powder (The Baker's Catalogue) makes pasta or a rehydrated vegetable salad special. Butter powder (The Baker's Catalogue) adds smoothness to grits, cereal, and dinners. I recommend pure butter powder over butter-flavored sprinkles like Butter Buds or Molly McButter, which are available in the baking goods section of most supermarkets. Powdered sour cream (AlpineAire and The Baker's Catalogue) makes a mean beef stroganoff.
22. Exotic fruit powder. Use coconut cream powder in Asian dinners, backwoods smoothies, and desserts for intense flavor and lots of additional calories. You'll find coconut cream powder in Asian markets. Coconut powder can be ordered through The Baker's Catalogue. Pure orange powder, also available through The Baker's Catalogue, weaves a distinct flavor into cereals, smoothies, and desserts.
23. Single-serving condiments. Praise the fast-food giants for neatly packaging trail-size portions of catsup, mustard, sweet and sour sauce, mayonnaise, lemon juice, relish, salsa, soy sauce, and honey. Get your supply from leftover fast-food meals or negotiate with the folks behind the counter.
24. Seasonings. Spices, herbs, and herb blends are obvious choices, but I pack along hot sauce, wasabi (powdered horseradish), bouillon, and good old salt and pepper, too.
25. Comfort food. Treat yourself to whatever you really love-chocolate, miso, tapioca pudding, salmon jerky, graham crackers. Buy quality products and don't skimp on portions.
AlpineAire Foods, P.O. Box 926, Nevada City, CA 95959; (800) 322-6325; http://www.alpineairefoods.com.
Backpacker's Pantry, 6350 Gunpark Dr., Boulder, CO 80301; (800) 641-0500.
Just Tomatoes, Etc., Box 807, Westley, CA 95387; (800) 537-1985.
The Baker's Catalogue, P.O. Box 876, Norwich, VT 05055-0876; (800) 827-6836; http://www.kingarthurflour.com.