IF ONLY Cheryl Talbert was around for my first college backpacking trip.
She would have cringed at the massive block of cheddar, hauled along ostensibly for mac and cheese. But much of the cheese had to be diverted to the couscous, a dish that taught me the lifelong lesson that food does not always taste better when you’re hungry, cold and in the woods.
Talbert has learned similar lessons — and more — over 30 years of backpacking. She shares those lessons in a class on light and healthful backpacking food she teaches for The Mountaineers, a nonprofit outdoors-advocacy group.
I was eager to hear what Talbert had to say so I could prepare for future trips — and purge the memory of the couscous catastrophe.
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One of the biggest errors people make for backpack trips is bringing fresh food, Talbert told the class. (But the cheese, Cheryl, the cheese.)
Fresh foods are heavy and messy. They need to be cooked in pots, with potential for scorching. Which then requires pot scrubbing. Talbert also has an extreme dislike for scrubbing pots, which I concur might be the worst chore ever at a cold campsite.
One key to backpacking is lightening your load, including reducing water weight in your food. You can buy prepackaged dehydrated meals, but they are often salty and not so delicious, Talbert said. They also cost more.
So, what is the best way to backpack and reduce weight, fuel use and trash? Dehydrate your own food.
Say what? She was serious. Dehydrated meals can be rehydrated in the bag with boiling water. You know what’s in it. It’s more affordable.
Talbert had us try a bunch of dehydrated foods, including instant mashed potatoes, minute rice, chicken, beef and vegetables, adding spices and olive oil, coconut cream or soy sauce powders to flavor up the rehydrated food. (Freeze-dried chicken that has been rehydrated tastes better than it sounds, though not by much.)
The more delicious solution is dehydrating actual meals, leaning toward dishes such as stews or casseroles, or thicker sauces such as mole or peanut butter.
You also need a decent dehydrator. From there, you can take any favorite comfort foods, even frozen meals or ones bought at a grocery store, and dehydrate them for backpacking, she said. She had us try a Marie Callender’s lasagna, a Trader Joe’s frozen meal and some of her home-cooked dishes. We tasted fresh and then the rehydrated versions.
The rehydrated frozen meals tasted remarkably similar to the fresh ones. Her home-cooked meals topped the list. A rehydrated veggie red Thai curry had sweet, concentrated flavor, while a thick veggie marinara was tasty.
To make it even easier, Talbert often will double a recipe for dinner, then chop it into smaller pieces and dehydrate it overnight for a backpacking meal.
It looked simple. It must be simple.
Talbert also said that because some foods don’t dehydrate so well, it’s good to test dishes before bringing them on the trail.
She also spent considerable time talking about calorie density, to account for nutrition needs on the trail. Backpacking is not the time to go on a diet, she advised. Nuts, dry salami and Snickers are all calorie-dense.
For more information on calorie density, Talbert has some tips on her blog: http://happytramper.wordpress.com.
Eating well while backpacking suddenly feels easy. It requires planning, but you have to prep regardless. And you might as well eat the delicious, healthy way.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.