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Meal Recipes: The case for fewer favorites, not more

Flyin' Brian Robinson preparing a meal in Kings Canyon (which at the time included alcohol stoves in their fire ban restrictions). When Brian completed the Calendar Triple Crown, which took about 300 days, he had just a 3-dinner rotation. He says he never got tired of them -- Does he look like a guy who should be a picky eater?

Flyin’ Brian Robinson preparing a meal in Kings Canyon (which at the time included alcohol stoves in their fire ban restrictions). When Brian completed the Calendar Triple Crown, which took about 300 days, he had just a 3-dinner rotation. He says he never got tired of them — Does he look like a guy who should be a picky eater?

Early last week I posted a fifth backpacking dinner recipe. You should not expect more — these five meals are the extent of my backcountry cookbook. (I will post some additional breakfasts, however.)

I have considered developing more, either from scratch or based on other recipes out there. But in addition to not yet being tired of my five meals, there is a strong case to be made for having fewer favorites, not more:

1. Long trips are the exception

How many of your trips each year are longer than 2-3 nights? For most backpackers, it’s not many. With just a handful of reliable recipes, then, your backcountry cuisine can continue to feel fresh and novel.

2. On longer trips, hunger is the best seasoning

When the length of your trip exceeds the number of unique dinner recipes you have, you’ll have to repeat meals. But the jump in your appetite on longer trips will make them just as good on the second, third, or fiftieth time around. If you still fear boredom, try minor tweaks before wholesale changes, e.g. use potatoes instead of noodles, or cashews instead of raisins.

Meal production prior to a multi-week stretch of guided trips. A shorter list of recipes translates into less time shopping and preparing.

Meal production prior to a multi-week stretch of guided trips. A shorter list of recipes translates into less time shopping and preparing.

3. Reduce prep time

My five dinner recipes call for twenty-six unique ingredients, which I purchase from three local stores (Costco, King Soopers, and Sprouts) and from several online sources like Harmony House and Amazon. More recipes would mean more ingredients, which would translate into even more shopping time.

Of course, shopping is the easy part — the bigger time sink is packaging. Since each meal entails a setup and breakdown (e.g. compiling the ingredients, cleaning bowls and measuring cups, and counting and storing away), it takes far less time to prepare another dozen meals of the same kind than to make a dozen meals of a new recipe.

Leave a comment. I’m curious to know: How many backpacking meal recipes do you have?

23 Responses to Meal Recipes: The case for fewer favorites, not more

  1. korpijaakko September 23, 2015 at 9:19 am #

    I’m pretty much with you here Andrew. Most of my trips (both in total amount of days but also in the number of trips) are longer than 2-3 nights but that only means the second and third point make even more sense.

    I guess the total amount of recipies I use over a year is (sometimes) more than five but on a sinlge trip it’s usually 2-5 meals. And even the fifth feels unnecessary. Three weeks with three meals is just perfect. Most of the times I go back to the same simple favourites (like dehydrated moose + instant mash).

    By the way, I did enjoy your peanut noodle recipe. I tried it this autumn as one of the two meals I had for two weeks. Makes it on the short list. 🙂

  2. Sam H. September 23, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

    I can definitely get behind this concept, Andy. I do randomly try new recipes from the likes of Linda Frederick Yaffe’s book “Backpack Gourmet” as well as recommendations from the “Dirty Gourmet” blog my recipe list is short. During my PNT thru-hike I dehydrated most of my food in advance and the list of recipes was well under ten.

  3. Dave September 23, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

    I find that I gets more bored with snacks and supplements (eg. maltodextrin) way before I get sick of the meals. I think that’s because it’s fairly easy to vary the meal by changing it up with a simple spice kit. Whereas prepackaged snacks, not so much.

    The good thing is that one can buy snacks at bulk, then mix and match to avoid that experience. Too bad meals take a lot of preparation, and it makes more sense to stick with the basic due to the time involved.

  4. Vadim Fedorovsky September 23, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

    Andrew I stick to about four recipes that are focused mainly on a base i.e. polenta, instant potatoes, and instant rice or noodles.

    For variety I mix up what I put in there, i.e. seasonings, cheeses, sauces, etc.

    That is how I keep myself from getting bored.

    Thank you.

    -Vadim

  5. Paul September 23, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    I’ve tried a lot, but find that I end up coming back to the same couple ones. On the JMT I regretted taking so many different ones. I found myself wishing I had more Pad Thai.

  6. chad September 23, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

    Question Andrew, I’m fairly new to backpacking and your website but was curious about dehydrating meals and if/when you use this method? Any advantages/disadvantages/advice?

    • Andrew Skurka September 23, 2015 at 10:44 pm #

      Never. If I need dehydrated ingredients, I buy them because the time-savings is well worth it to me.

  7. Mordecai September 23, 2015 at 11:48 pm #

    I dehydrated 100 dinners for the PCT this year. 4 varieties. 3 were worth it and 1 was lame enough that I avoided carrying it. But that was from the start. I never tired of the remaining three.

    Those recipes will be further adapted and others will be tried. Food is a part of nature that we curate more than the rest. It still plays into the experience of nature both inside and out, and thus demands continued attention. Variety is not the point; development remians key.

  8. Ric R September 25, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

    I have to be honest – I’m lazy and just buy the prepackaged (mountain house, Good to go…) meals and then add either couscous, polenta, dehydrated beans, dehydrated mashed potatoes or any other quick rehydrate option. Clean up is an ease and I do not have to worry about prepackaging (other than the items I mentioned). The weight comes pretty darn close to if I were to prepackage and assemble my own recipes. There is a penalty but it usually equates to volume verse weight.

    I used the heck out of some of Mike Clelland’s recipes – then moved away when I started to get lazy and go for the processed packaged meals.

    To your original point – I really only find myself going to a staple of about 4/5 recipe and 4/5 prepackaged.

  9. John Smith September 25, 2015 at 7:27 pm #

    I disagree to a point. I make it a point to try a new recipe for every trip 2 days or longer. I spend much of the winter reading recipes from various backpacking blogs then making said or similar items. I then dehydrate. I think I actually enjoy the process more than the meals sometimes. I also find that most people hat I every backpack with sniff with envy, then they never seem to mind when I share or offer to swap a meal with them. I make all of my meals simple single pot meals and then enjoy the various meals each day. Sometimes I will also make my meals match the likelihood of flora for where i hike. Add some rosehips or berries or ‘shrooms or other ingredients as I hike. Of course on the long 20-25 miles days (long for me at least) I might simply just eat what I brought from home.

  10. Jason H September 28, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    I’ve got 5-6 basic go-to’s that always rise to the top. Tried quite a few more, and sometimes one or two will fall to the bottom after too much use (went years without being able to choke down couscous after relying too heavily one summer), but generally speaking hot and salty does the trick so why bother prepping more?

    Favorites include rice with curried coconut veggies (powdered coconut milk + curry blocks is the key), cheese tortellini with pesto (longer cook time but worth it), couscous with dried mango + mushroom, veggie chili (really just beans and rice with dried tomato and chili spices), pasta (Ramen or other thin pasta, toss in pesto packet or basic red sauce and/or packaged pepperoni or veggies), and instant potatoes (so simple).

    think I’ll give your peanut sauce a whirl. Annie Chung used to have a prepackaged one that did the trick, but I can’t seem to find it anymore…

  11. ADK.Hilly Man September 30, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    I guess that I am the lone dissenter. I enjoy variety, I enjoy experimenting, and I enjoy looking forward to a different meal every night. I am an explorer by nature and look for new experiences, whether on the trail or in the camp “kitchen”.

    I have a long core list of favorite meals; some meals are better for canoe tripping, some for lengthy backpacking trips, and some for overnighters. Every trip I take I select from my established “go-to” list for whatever best fits my needs, and then I add in a few new recipes to try for breakfast, lunch and supper. Every year, year after year, I have been refining my meal options and my cooking methods so that they better fit my needs, and the high expectations of the people that I guide.

    Is preparation more complicated? You bet. But for me the preparation for a trip, and the anticipation of a trip, is part of the enjoyment. To make life a bit easier, rather than making and dehydrating 1 meal at a time, I will often make a batch of the same meal and tuck the extra portions away in the freezer for later use.

    During these many years I have found that my lightweight meals are often the envy of fellow adventurers. By comparison, I never have the slightest temptation to trade for the couscous/rice/mashed potato based glop that I see most people carrying, and especially not the freeze dried stuff.

  12. Kevin F October 2, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

    I generally take 4 unique meals – all of which are simply dehydrated leftovers of regular meals I have at home.

    Irish beef stew + instant mash
    Chicken stew + instant mash or noodles
    Thai noodles with veg and peanuts or cashews
    enchilada goo with rice and beans
    Quite often I only do the first 3.

    I eat these whether backpacking or on wilderness canoe trips in BWCA/Quetico

    I agree that I usually get bored with the breakfast/snacks before I do with the dinners.

  13. Doug K October 30, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    we used to dehydrate, until we had kids – since then don’t have time for that nonsense.
    For trips with Scouts or family, often default to the packaged dehydrated meals for simplicity. On my own, I can happily eat rice and beans for dinner every night, just switch up the spices.

  14. Stephanie January 15, 2016 at 7:19 pm #

    I did a 13 night backpack through Wrangell St. Elias NP and I ate the exact same dinner each night. I sometimes have (what I call) food OCD, so I was not at all tired of it.

  15. James April 19, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

    Andrew, do you have any recommendations on dinner options that are light weight but aren’t water intensive?

    • Andrew Skurka April 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm #

      As in, meals that don’t require water to constitute, or food items that don’t require as much water to constitute (e.g. polenta v rice).

      Also, I assume by “lightweight” that you mean “calorically dense.” Right?

      • James April 19, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

        Meals that don’t require water to constitute (i.e. hiking in Big Bend where water is scarce). And yes, high caloric density. Sorry for any confusion.

        • Andrew Skurka April 19, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

          Water in your food helps you to hydrate, equally as well as water not in food. So I don’t really see the benefit.

          If I don’t want to cook, I bring “real” food like turkey sandwiches, avocados, pita or tortilla shells, etc. No specific recipes though.

  16. Thomas August 11, 2016 at 11:17 pm #

    I just completed the CT while basing my dinners on your recipes (with some tweaks of my own). I looked foward to dinner every night, when I camped with others they were always curious about I was eating (it smelled so good). Over the month of hiking I did not experience “recipe fatigue” with a three-meal rotation with a few polenta eves thrown in.

    I did have less luck with your way of transporting olive oil. My platypus bottle AND secondary containment suffered a puncture. You can’t believe the mess! So Nalgene bottle with cardboard sleeve it is. If I can carry that much oil, the the additional weight is just a rounding error that I can live with.

    Thanks for all you do!

    • Andrew Skurka August 12, 2016 at 7:57 am #

      Bummer about the olive oil. Were they old Platy bottles or new ones? I’ve had much better luck, with never a puncture. A few years ago when I was guiding more trips, I would leave the TH with 1.5 quarts of oil. You’d have nothing on that mess!

  17. Andy January 22, 2017 at 1:52 pm #

    Old post but I have to comment: my wife and I have developed a similar peanut-butter ramen dish that we love. The difference is we just carry chunky peanut butter (dense calories and also used for breakfasts and some lunches) and use that with the ramen packets–no need to pre-mix or store any peanut sauce. We usually just take an entire plastic jar of peanut butter. We get the organic ramen that doesn’t have the MSG in the spice mix.

    Boil lots of water, make tea in mugs, break and cook the noodles in remaining water, add spice packet mix when done, then stir in half-cup of peanut butter (chunky gives you the peanut pieces for texture). Often, we’ll make this on the first night of the trip, and carry one carrot and a quarter-cabbage: make water for tea and pour into mugs, slice veggies thin, and sautee in lots of oil (be careful, its easy to burn or even overheat a titanium pot), then add water, bring to boil and add noodles. When done stir in spice mix and peanut butter as before.

    We also carry lots of olive oil, you can add it to any dish like this for heartiness. Another favorite is powdered hummus: just add water to make, then when done stir in as much oil as you want, and spread on tortillas, dried tomatoes optional. But the only thing I’ll carry the oil in is a small nalgene bottle, nothing else stays sealed well enough for me.

  18. Rebecca Douglass June 13, 2017 at 10:09 am #

    Interesting approach. I’m another who likes more variety, though we end up coming back to a few favorites. I can’t resist trying new recipes, though. I’m always looking for tweaks that will fill us up and weigh less, take less space, etc. But I haven’t yet had to do more than prep for back-to-back one-week trips, no through hikes (yet).

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