Either you eat like a king when you're "out there," or you suffer through bland, low-nutrition meals and hit the first McDonald's you see on the drive home to replace all the calories you missed while you were gone.
Everyone likes to hike with Chef Switchback because it means you're going to eat better on the trail than you do at home. He's easily identified by simply looking in his food bag. It's filled with couscous, fresh sprouts and three different kinds of cheese - all of which have names you can't pronounce. And then there's always a spice rack and bottle of Merlot hidden somewhere in the pack.
Unfortunately, I fall into the latter camp. On most hikes, you won't find much in my food bag besides a pound of Mahatma rice and a greasy block of cheddar. Oh yeah, and that ancient box of raisins and a half-eaten peanut butter-flavored Powerbar that's been there for a few seasons. I admit it. I'm that guy. But, it does have it's benefits - no one ever wants to share a meal and your food bag is always ready to go with very little preparation.
Like most hard-core addicts, I've tried to change my ways. I've lugged exotic foods into the woods with the intention of eating well, only to suffer through messy meal preparation and inedible substances not fit for man or beast. Every year, I renew my resolution to eat better when I'm backpacking and every year I break that resolution after splattering my tent with stroganoff and sweet-and-sour sauce. Boiled rice and cheese is a welcome change from undercooked almandine.
But, the same meal gets pretty old trip after trip. Especially when you head on back-to- back trips with only a few days in civilization to revitalize the taste buds. So, I want to try to mend my ways once again. After years of attempting change, I've decided to take it one meal at a time. I won't totally abandon my staples and I refuse to go all the way to the right and eat exclusively hearty and healthy. I'm going to strive for somewhere in the middle - a comfortable balance of tasty and easy.
I've enlisted some help by adding a new book to my library. A year or so ago, I bought Trailside's Trail Food from a friend for $1.00. She was broke and needed money and I never pass up a good book sale. Now that I've finally got around to opening it up, it just may be the best investment I've ever made. It's not only filled with delicious sounding recipes (that I'll probably never try), but it has all the information I need to change from gorp guy to backcountry gourmet.
Experts claim that the average hiker needs approximately 3,000 to 5,000 calories per day to maintain their normal body weight. This is especially true of long distance hikers, such as those who thru-hike the Appalachian, Continental Divide or Pacific Crest Trails. My normal on-the-trail diet doesn't even come close to these numbers. But, I don't have the opportunity to be out for more than a few days at a time so it's not a real health risk.
Backwoods campers have always been faced with the dilemma of packing heavy and eating well or going light and starving. A company that creates great food for the "one-pot-purist" is Cache Lake.
Still, I could eat better when I'm past the trailhead. And, it's as simple as packing a few more staples and experimenting with new recipes before I head for the woods. That just may be the key to having a successful backcountry dining experience. Set up your stove in the backyard and cook a meal on it, without resorting to the microwave or stove-top. If you can do it easily and without a lot of ingredients, think about adding it to your backpacking menu. It's a lot easier to find out that curried chicken doesn't agree with you when the bathroom's just around the corner than when you're 20 miles from your car.
And, don't forget the spices. It's amazing what they can do for your palate. The simple addition of garlic salt, Louisiana Chef Sauce or Baldridge's Secret Seasoning can make the blandest meal a delicacy, especially when you're days from the nearest restaurant. And, don't forget; the dried veggies. Dehydrated tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and other piquant vegetables add zest to any meal.
I have friends who claim that fresh baked bread on the trail is as close to heaven-on- earth as you can get. I wouldn't know. The last time I tried it, I ended up with batter in my sleeping bag. But, don't let me discourage you. If you're a competent baker at home, why not give it a try in the woods. If it turns out, I hope I'm camped next door. So, will the next year be filled with tasty vittles? Or will I once again opt for the easy rice and cheese that has given me many (not-so-happy) years of service in the backcountry. Only time will tell.
If you happen to come across me on the hike out and I have a smile on my face, chances are I've evolved into Chef Switchback. Either that or I'm fantasizing about a Big Mac, 20 McNuggets and a super-size fries.
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