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Backcountry cooking: An argument for soups and gruels

Beans and rice soup, infused with cheddar cheese and Fritos, and spiced with taco seasoning.

Beans and rice soup, infused with cheddar cheese and Fritos, and spiced with taco seasoning.

At home, where I have a fully array of kitchen tools — e.g. measuring spoons and cups, multiple pots and pans, and dish rags and soap — and where there is some consideration for the “dining experience,” executing perfectly a breakfast or dinner recipe is very feasible, and in fact expected. When backpacking, however, I have far fewer tools available and I’m much more concerned with convenience and pure nourishment than mealtime ambiance.

Hence why, regardless of the dish and its recommended serving style, I make every backcountry meal a soup or gruel. The advantages:

1. It’s easy to heat up more than enough water

Without a measuring cup or scale, it’s difficult to know exactly how much water is in the pot. Some pots have engraved markings, but they are accurate only if the pot is level and they are useful only if the exact amount of required water is known. Commercial freeze-dried and dehydrated meals will include specific instructions on the the packaging, but my preference — DIY backpacking recipes — will not.

2. Lower burn risk, and thus easier cleanup

We have all done it: burned a meal in a pot or dish. The usual culprits include distractions, too little water, and too high of heat — conditions that normally exist in a backcountry kitchen. The associated cleanup is a complete hassle, even at home. With soups and gruels, the risk of a burnt meal declines considerably, making the post-meal cleanup reliably easier.

3. Hydration

It’s rarely discouraged to ingest additional water when backpacking, and soupy breakfasts and dinners offer a convenient opportunity to get more hydrated. Even if you were borderline hyponatremic, the meal’s saltiness would completely negate the additional 4 or 8 oz of water in the pot, and then some.

4. Body warmth

Especially in cool and cold conditions, a big steaming hot pot of cheesy potatoes or bean soup goes a long way in warming me up. If the meal were only half the volume, not so much, even if the calorie content was the same. By keeping my body warm through external means, my body can use its energy on other tasks, like recovering overnight or hiking hard during the day.

5. The meal lasts longer

While I always try to carry enough food to sustain my energy level, I rarely have more than enough. By adding extra water to all of my meals, it makes them last longer, and both my body and my mind are tricked into thinking that I’m eating more than I actually am.

Cheesy potato soup, with crumbled bacon and green chilis

Cheesy potato soup, with crumbled bacon and green chilis

20 Responses to Backcountry cooking: An argument for soups and gruels

  1. Andy February 24, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    Hey Andrew,

    Love your take on simplicity on the trail. Any recipes/concoctions you can share for these gruels? Do you ever dry your own food?

    Thanks,
    Andy

  2. Vadim Fedorovsky February 24, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

    This is great advice. How about some more backcountry recipes! 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka February 24, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

      Working on that. This post was something of a preface.

      • Vadim Fedorovsky February 25, 2015 at 7:34 am #

        Excellent!

  3. korpijaakko February 24, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    While I also eat very soupy dishes in the outdoors (and also enjoy yoru articles a lot!), I think the point 4 is only a common misunderstanding and probably has more to do with the psychological effects mentioned in point 5 than in actually warming us in real life.

    We don’t want to eat food that’s +100°C (boiling). Probably +60°C is a good estimate for hot food we eat. So, simple math says:

    When the extra 4 oz (0,113kg) of water cools down from +60°C to +37°C it gives us:

    4,12 kJ/(K kg) * 0,113kg * 23K = 11 KJ (around 3 kcal)

    I.e. about the same amount of energt than in 1g of carbs or proteins or 0,3g of vegetable oil. Or double that if you use extra 8 oz of water.

  4. Derek Hansen February 24, 2015 at 3:53 pm #

    Another benefit (for us gram weenies, perhaps) is lower fuel consumption along with less kitchen gear, which translates to a lower pack weight (and sometimes lower bulk).

    Complex, multi-stage, or long-duration meal prep can consume large amounts of fuel. I just went backpacking this past weekend and decided to do some backcountry baking. It not only required _8 times_ the amount of fuel to bake, I also had to carry extra equipment for a novelty item.

    In the location we were camped, camp fires were prohibited, so I wasn’t able to save fuel through a cooking fire.

    Now, for this particular trip (a Boy Scout overnighter), the exercise was worth the extra weight as part of a learning opportunity, but simple meals translating into lighter weight and lower bulk are a ideal for backpacking trips.

  5. Tim Leary February 24, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

    Hey Andrew, that’s my Boy Scout cook kit aluminum pot holding those cheesy potatoes—yummy! Saving money and not buying the titanium Cadillac made em taste even better. Thanks to Katherine for the pot alert!

  6. Randy Martin February 24, 2015 at 7:37 pm #

    I would add another benefit of soup style meals. They can be a little easier to eat (i.e., drink).

  7. James February 25, 2015 at 7:37 am #

    My 1st experience with making a trail soup. A cold Easter weekend 2 night trip. The 2nd night we camped at near Spy Rock on the AT. Pot full of water, enough dehydrated mash potatoes to make a soup like consistency, a foil pack of tuna, salt, pepper and gold fish crackers became Spy Rock Chowdah. 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka February 25, 2015 at 7:52 am #

      As a former Easterner, I can appreciate good chowda’.

      Funny, since Amanda and I recently ordered some clam chowder at a nice restaurant in Colorado. I should have known better — it was disappointingly soupy, not creamy.

  8. Jason February 27, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

    Andrew,

    Well, the recipes sound filling and tasty but if you go to the trouble of publishing more trail recipes,PLEASE engage in a little “food styling” when taking pics? The colors are too cool (warm them up with a filter when editing )and the pot just looks nasty.

    I know its tough to manouver ingredients neatly over a Supercat stove.etc, so I suggest you cook the meal and THEN pour it in a clean pot before taking the pics..That way, it does not look like you are about to slop some hogs on the farm.

    And, that is coming from a guy that eats stuff like potted meat and crackers on the trail…just think of what the ladies here must be thinking…;)

    Bottom line? The word “gruel” + those pics = losing argument….lol

    Great blogs lately Andrew, keep up the good work!

    • boilerbugle March 2, 2015 at 8:57 am #

      I like the Real pictures, so when I’m slurping watery concoctions in the backcountry, I can know I’m not doing it “wrong.”

    • Andrew Skurka March 2, 2015 at 9:33 am #

      I’m partial to the real field photos, too. And with a Canon S100 and poor light, there’s only so much that I can do.

  9. Dave February 27, 2015 at 9:22 pm #

    Soup and gruels fall under “hiking versus camping”.

    Since we road-trip long hours and hike a lot, we don’t really have time to do any backcountry cooking. We’re usually too famished to wait longer than 5 to 10 minutes. So basically all of our meals are slimey, creamy or watery. Our favourite are Indian recipes though!

    Now, when we went fishing, we had time to cook since it’s mostly a sedentary activity which doesn’t consume a lot of calorie.

  10. hooky March 2, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    3 years ago i discovered the idea of freezer bag cooking. I’ve never looked back and rarely do I buy a commercial freeze dried meal. I already had a dehydrator, so it was just a matter of experimenting. Breakfast is typically oatmeal with dehydrated fruit. Dinner runs the gamut and the soupier the better.

    I brown ground turkey and lean ground beef to dehydrate for the protein. Make your favorite sauces separately, dehydrate them and add it to the other dry ingredients in the bag. Cook pasta and/or rice, add corn, canned black beans, etc… then dehyrate. Dehydrate refried beans into a bark and add them to any dish for more bulk and protein. The possibilities are endless. My son will make hash browns, crumble them up on the tray and dehydrate those to go with spicy ground turkey for breakfast. Cook what you like to eat and then dehydrate it for the trail.

    Just boil water, open the ziploc freezer bag with your preassembled dehydrated meal, add water to cover everything about a half inch to inch, stir it well, seal it and wrap it in a stocking cap or fleece to hold in the heat. Give it a good stir at 5 minutes and eat in another 10.

    • Andrew Skurka March 2, 2015 at 1:32 pm #

      It sounds like that system works for you. A few potential issues with it, however:

      1. Dehydrating food is extremely time-consuming. A long-weekend here and there, or 1-2 week-long trips per year, it’s relatively practical. But food for a Boy Scout troop, one of my guided trips, or even a solo thru-hike, no way. When you factor in the time and electricity involved in dehydrating, it’s probably much more economical to buy dehydrated food.

      2. No culture in the world eats out of plastic bags — bowls/pots and plates are far superior for that. Not to mention, I would imagine that pouring near-boiling water into a plastic bag results in some chemicals leaching into the food. I think one of the arguments for freezer bag cooking is the “no mess.” But it’s pretty darn easy to clean a pot — it’s not a problem that I feel compelled to “solve.”

      • hooky March 2, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

        Just like with a bag of Mountainhouse, feel free to dump the contents into a pot of water and bring it to a boil. 🙂 Seriously, the research I’ve done, including contacting the manufacturer has led me to believe that it’s safe. I certainly understand the concern though and would encourage everyone to do what they think is safest.

        As far as the time spent, if you’re cooking meals at home like we do, you’re already spending the time. Just cook a little extra at each meal and dehydrate. I prefer to do it all at once though. For my last trip, I did meals for 2 adults for 6 days over the course of 3 hours on a weekend. That included tomato, alfredo sauce and stroganoff sauces, rice, pasta, corn, black beans, apples, pears, potatoes and ground turkey.

        I would agree that it may not make sense for prolonged through hikes or large groups and it may not be for everyone. For what we do, it does work great. Plus, I hate doing dishes at home, let alone in the back country.

        • Jay Kerr June 2, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

          Back in the 1980’s I was involved in several long expeditions into the Alaska Range. Being poor working class dirtbag climbers, we made almost all of our food for the trip. The 1980 expedition was 80 days in the field, with 10 climbers. We had three classes of meals; skiing days (40), climbing days (20), and basecamp days (20). All the climbing and skiing food was apportioned into 2 man-day units based on a menu of 7 breakfast recipes and 7 dinner recipes, at 4000 calories per day (temps between -20 and + 20 need lots of fuel to keep you warm). We dehydrated all of our ingredients using a massive artifact dryer we scored from an archeological dig. It took 2 months of constant work to prepare and package the rations for the expedition, but the results were fantastic, good tasting food for a reasonable price (discounting all the prep time).

          Needless to say, we did all our planning in Excel for the 1980 trip. These days I do at least one long backpack each summer (this summer it’s the Evolution Loop in SEKI). My menu has simplified into instant oatmeal and coffee breakfasts, powerbar and gel shot snacks, and a single 2-person freeze-dried dinner. But even with the simplified planning, I still use a spreadsheet to plan the menu.

          Andrew, love the website. Great info. I plan to do the SHR (or at least parts of it) next year and enjoyed your TR of doing the trip with Buzz. He looks like a fun hiking partner! I’m 65 this year, with knees that complain a lot, so my MPD won’t match yours, but that just gives me more time to savor the high country…

  11. Bill March 8, 2015 at 6:21 am #

    I can see the point in buying commercially dehydrated food in bulk when planning a long trip or one with many people. I have bought large cans with the idea of repackaging them in heat sealed vacuum bags. I have noticed a relatively high failure rate in the heat seals with my vacuum sealer. For that reason, I have started double sealing my bags. I can;t say whether my machine or my technique is at fault. It is probably material getting trapped in the seal area and interfering with the seal. I’m curious if any one else is experiencing this type of failure. I like to make up my own meals and package them this way. It’s not necessary if they will be used in the near future, but part of the idea of buying in bulk is to pack for long term storage.

    • annie_on_the_trail April 6, 2016 at 9:15 pm #

      Late reply, but I’ve noticed that the seal doesn’t hold or work in the first place if that part of the bag is wet. I now use a paper towel to wipe between the edge of each bag just before sealing. So far this works great, and I even seal bags of soup for my freezer!

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