Regarding COVID-19: Please recreate responsibly and practice social distancing. Closures and travel restrictions are changing rapidly, always check and respect local regulations.

5 Backcountry Food Disasters and How to Avoid Them

Don't let hunger get you down.

1. Mistaking baking powder for Alfredo sauce. Or hot chocolate for brownie mix. Or potato pearls for powdered milk.

It’s rare that getting your cooking ingredients confused has a positive outcome. Don’t end up with pasta in a baking powder-based white sauce, or mashed potato-earl grey tea. Learn to confidently identify each ingredient by sight, texture, or smell, or consider labeling each ingredient’s bag with a permanent marker.

Just as disastrous as mistaking one food ingredient for another is mistaking your cooking oil for soap (true story!). Again, labeling can be key here. We recommend keeping your soap in a bottle distinctly different from your spice bottles in order to prevent your rice and beans from getting sudsy.

2. Under-hydrating your dehydrated veggies

Failing to properly rehydrate certain foods can be a recipe for a stomachache.  Dehydrated hash browns for instance, though delicious when cooked properly, can wreak havoc on your intestines for the whole morning if not given enough time in a cup of water.  Plan meals at least a couple hours in advance so you can soak dried ingredients as necessary.  Consider putting dehydrated vegetables in a small water bottle or screw-top bowl overnight or during the day while you hike.  Then when it’s time to cook, your ingredients will be good to go, and your stomach will thank you.

Photo: Mike Sanders

3. Burning your breakfast biscuits

There are few things worse than starting your day with a bowl of charred carbon.  When baking on a camping stove, remember to put the flame on a simmer.  With a lower heat intensity, your pancakes, biscuits, scones, and other baked goods can cook all the way through without getting scorched.   Some stoves make it easy to adjust their flame to a simmer. Other stoves, like Whisperlites, require you to depressurize the fuel bottle in order to reach a simmer. 

To put a Whisperlite on simmer, follow these steps: Light the stove as usual.  Once the flame is up and running at normal pressure, turn off the fuel valve.  Double check that there is no open flame immediately nearby, then hold the fuel bottle upright and carefully unscrew the pump to release some of the pressure.  You’ll be able to hear some of the pressure escaping from the bottle.  Then re-screw the pump on the bottle, give it one or two more pumps, set it back down next to the stove, open the fuel valve, and relight the stove.  If you want an even lower flame intensity, repeat the process.  Playing around with new stove techniques can be dangerous, so practice this for the first time under the supervision of an experienced Whisperlite simmer-er.

4. Running out of food

Food stress exists for a reason: running out of food while in the backcountry truly is a food disaster.  Luckily, with proper planning, you can prevent this nightmare from becoming reality.  If you’re creating your own rations for an expedition, take some time to calculate out enough food for each day.  Consult the NOLS Backcountry Nutrition guidebook to determine your caloric and nutrient needs, which can be calculated as a function of physical activity intensity level, temperature, altitude, height, weight, etc. 

You can get as scientific as you want with this process to prevent food shortages.  Consider pre-bagging each meal and labeling them Dinner 1, Dinner 2, Dinner 3, etc.  Alternatively, if you want to leave some room for creativity in the kitchen, understand the contents of your ration well enough to know the approximate food- per-day average.

One more tip for preventing food shortages: leave trail foods for the trail.  It can sometimes be easy to snack on trail mix and granola bars when hanging around camp, but by saving trail foods for the trail, you won’t have to sacrifice breakfast or dinner foods as trail food.  As a result, you should almost always have a solid hot dinner to look forward to at the end of the day.  With a strong understanding of your rations system, you should have enough food to fuel your body, and you will hopefully never go to bed hungry.

Photo: Liz Schultz

5. Running out of fuel

Falafel suddenly isn’t tasty anymore if it’s cold and still liquid.  Using up all your stove fuel can make much of your backcountry rations hard to stomach, or in some cases, completely inedible.  Determine how much fuel you’ll need on your expedition based on weather conditions and food ration plans (e.g. Will you want hot water bottles to keep your feet warm at night?  Will you be cooking one, two, or three hot meals per day? How many days will you be in the backcountry?) Understand how much fuel you’ve been rationed each day, and do your best to not over-do the hot drinks and hot water bottles beyond what you’ve planned for.  Additionally, instead of draining your hot pasta water into the dirt, get two uses out of it by draining it into water bottles for hot chocolate or tea. 

Cover photo: Anne Vetter

This article was originally written by Megan Mackenzie for the NOLS blog.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Megan MacKenzie

san francisco bay area native and maine transplant, living semi-nomadically in wyoming, utah, and idaho for the past year working in outdoor education and wilderness therapy. otherwise you can find me on my road bike...