The 5 Best Backcountry Recipes I Learned On My NOLS Trip

"Weren't you hungry on your NOLS trip?!"
"Nope."

By: Corinne White
January 19, 2016

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Typically, one does not count food as one of the benefits of being in the backcountry. When you get back from your trek, your friends do not ask, “How was the food?” That’s because all backcountry food tends to be the same: peanut butter, granola, oatmeal, and pre-made rehydrated dinners from REI. I’ve mostly found this to be true—until I went on NOLS, and suddenly backpacking food became something to lneed ook forward to. I do not work for NOLS, and they are not paying me to say this. I’m saying it because it’s true. Their backcountry recipes are filling, nutritious, tasty and—dare I say it—innovative. These recipes are some of my personal favorites.

1. Pizza

I still remember when my NOLS instructors told us about Pizza Night. We were deep in the Wind River Range, taking a break from a long day of trekking, and our leaders were whispering to each other in hushed tones. “Do you think tomorrow is the right night?” “Does every group have the necessary items? Should we wait until the next resupply?” They finally agreed on an answer, and gathered the group with big grins on their faces. “Tomorrow night,” they said, “we’re making PIZZA.” Man, did my heart soar. I didn’t think I would be having my favorite food for the 30 days I was in the field. I was wrong though, because NOLS is awesome.

Difficulty: Hard

CRUST

  • 1 tsp. dry yeast
  • ½ cup lukewarm water
  • ½ tsp. sugar
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup flour

Dissolve yeast in warm water with sugar and salt. Add flour and make a stiff dough. To rise, place dough in plastic bag and place inside the jacket you’re wearing. Oil a fry pan, and spread dough with oiled fingers to form a crust.

SAUCE

  • 1 Tbs. dried onion
  • 1 Tbs. dried green and red peppers
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 4 to 6 Tbs. tomato base
  • 2 Tbs. powdered milk
  • ½ tsp. oregano or basil
  • ¼ tsp. black pepper
  • ¼ tsp. garlic

Rehydrate onions and peppers in ½ cup hot water for 5-10 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients, except last cup of water. Gradually add hot water. Heat through, stirring occasionally.

Possible toppings: Grated cheese, fish, wild onions, ham and sausage bits

Cover and bake on a stove on low heat until crust is golden brown. Rotate frequently so all sides of pizza are cooked.

Climb Cone Peak in Big Sur (Sea to Sky Route) | Photo: Josiah Roe

2. Vegetarian Meatballs

Once upon a time, I lived in New York City. It made me a little crazy (not much camping around those parts) but it did have this restaurant called The Meatball Shop which is, you guessed it: a magical place dedicated to just meatballs. Though it may not taste like it when you make these back home, when you eat them in the backcountry, you’ll feel like you’re on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn eating the world-famous Meatball Shop’s meatballs, even though they’re really just humble NOLS veggie meatballs. Bonus: these can be eaten cold or hot, so if you have leftovers from dinner, store them for lunch the next day.

Difficulty: Moderate

  • ¾ cup cornmeal
  • ½ cup whole wheat flour
  • ¼ cup white flour
  • 6 Tbs. dry milk powder
  • ½ tsp. garlic
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbs. dried onion
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbs. oil
  • ½ to 1/3 cup water

Mix all dry ingredients together. Add rehydrated onions, mixing well to form a stiff dough. Form 22-25 balls, approximately the size of a walnut. Add about 1 Tbs. oil to a fry pan and heat. Add grain bails and shake around until they are coated in oil. Cover and cook 20-30 minutes, shaking occasionally. Eat warm or cold.

Insider Tip: If you have it, add: pesto, sun dried tomatoes, and olive oil.

3. Phil’s Power Dinner

Non-NOLS grads are always asking NOLS grads this question: “Were you hungry the entire time?” No, non-NOLS grad, we were not. Yes, fine, we may have dreamed about a cheeseburger with fries and a milkshake quite a few times, but we weren’t hungry. After years and years of research and experience, NOLS has crafted caloric, nutrient-rich meals like this one that nourish us—even after we’ve trekked for many miles with heavy packs on our backs.

Difficulty: Easy

  • 2 cups bulgur or couscous
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1-2 Tbs. dried peas and carrots
  • 2 Tbs. margarine
  • ½-1 cup grated cheese
  • 4-6 Tbs. powdered eggs
  • ¾ cup powdered milk
  • 4 Tbs. flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp. black pepper

Cook grain in 4 cups of water to which salt and dried vegetables have been added. When done, stir in margarine and cheese. Pour into a fry pan. In a bowl, mix milk, eggs, flour, baking powder, salt, garlic and pepper. Mix well. Gradually add enough water to make a sauce consistency. Pour this over grain in the fry pan, cover tightly, and cook over medium heat, using the round the clock method of rotation. Dish is done when topping is set and cooked through, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Backpack to North Lake via Independence Lake | Photo: Nick Lake

4. Quiche Moraine

Breakfast for dinner? Yes, please! This recipe works equally well for either morning or evening. It holds a special place in my heart as my cook group made it after a particularly harrowing hailstorm, and the meal lived up to its reputation as “comfort food”.

Difficulty: Moderate

  • 1 ½ cups crumbled or diced cheese
  • 1 ½ cups powdered milk
  • 1 cup powdered egg (If you have real eggs, by all means use ‘em!)
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 Tbs. dried onion, rehydrated
  • Tabasco or cayenne to taste
  • 2 Tbs. dried red and green peppers, rehydrated

For crust, mix flour and salt together. Cut in margarine, using two knives. Mix in water to form a dough. Roll out and fit into fry pan. For filling, layer cheese on bottom of crust. Mix dry milk and egg powders in a bowl; slowly add water, stirring constantly. Stir in vegetables and seasonings. Pour into crust, cover and bake, using a twiggy fire on top, 30 minutes or until crust pulls away from pan and filling is set.

5. Spicy Bean and Pasta Soup

Ah, the spice kit. Making NOLS meals deliciously flavorful since 1965. For those of you who haven’t been a NOLS expedition, your cook group is armed with a small zippered black bag that contains a great variety of little tubes containing different spices. If you know how to use these small but mighty cooking companions, your backcountry meals will never fail to impress. The spice kit is critical to this soup’s success—use it wisely.

Difficulty: Easy

  • 4 cups water
  • 2 Tbs. dried red/green bell peppers
  • 1 Tbs. dried onion
  • 2 broth packets
  • 2 Tbs. margarine
  • 2 cups bean flakes or refried beans
  • 2 cups pasta
  • 1 cup grated cheese (pepper jack is best)
  • Hot sauce or salsa
  • Seasoning of your choice to taste

Cook, drain pasta, and set aside. Separately bring water, dried veggies, broth packets, and margarine to a boil. Add beans and stir. Turn heat down and simmer. Cook beans until tender. Mixture should be brothy, so add more water if necessary. When beans are nearly done, add pasta. Add grated cheese to individual portions. Serve with hot tortillas or bagels for added heartiness.

Cover photo: Liz Schultz

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Get the gear you need to cook in the backcountry:

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.