Gear

Backcountry Foodie review

People who love to eat are always the best people.

Julia Child
Blissful gives Backcountry Foodie the highest rating, five Anitas.
Backcountry Foodie's recipe for Garlic Parmesan Ramen served on the Kekekabic as a cold soak. The verdict? Delicious, nutritious and filling!
The Backcountry Foodie recipe for Garlic Parmesan Ramen served on the Kekekabic as a cold soak. The verdict? Delicious, nutritious and filling!

What do you eat when you thru-hike, Blissful?

The number one question I’m asked when making a presentation about my thru-hiking is, “What do you eat?” quickly followed by, “How do you get enough calories?

It’s no secret in my household that I am not much of a cook. When I hit my twenties, my mom gave me The Joy of Cooking for Christmas. Seemingly at the tail end of a vain attempt to convince me I’d come to like it too, she inscribed on the inside front cover, “It really is a joy!”

Is this a joke? I wondered.

Fast forward to today and the bible of cooking still sits on my kitchen counter but it’s more Richard’s than mine. Before we met, I subsisted on microwaveable dinners, ones I’d assumed were healthy since they came from the natural foods aisle.

Though I have improved and those of you who’ve followed my blogs from the Te Araroa or the Pacific Crest Trail, know my “balanced diet” includes a combination of healthy items I make myself including fabulous vegetarian pemmican bars, dried fruit and veggies and jerky as well as one-pot meals dehydrated and packed in vacuum seal bags.

What’s difficult for me, however, is that these items are hard to make in bulk and send forward as resupply. I’d come to rely on questionably nutritious packets of “food” picked up at random shops along the way.

What I ate left me constantly hungry and usually craving sugar. On the PCT in particular, I developed an addiction to gummy bears – well, to be perfectly frank, gummy anything. By the time I arrived in Southern California, I was consuming a full bag every single day!

My strategy to make up for the lost calories – and lost weight? Eat massive amounts in town. Surely there had to be a better way.

Backcountry Foodie recipes are one-pot meals and take very little time or fuel to cook.
Backcountry Foodie recipes are one-pot meals and take very little time or fuel to cook.

Introducing Backcountry Foodie

When Backcountry Foodie contacted me last year to see if I might want to trail test their company’s wares, I was under the impression the food was pre-made. Of course I said yes, send ’em on over! I’ll check them out on Isle Royale and the Kekekabic

Not so fast, Blissful.

Unlike any company I know of in the outdoor industry, Backcountry Foodie is less a provider than a partner in thru-hike meal planning.

Aaron Owens Mayhew is a registered dietician and ultralight long-distance backpacker. It would take more than fifteen years of carrying heavy military rations and unappetizing freeze-dried meals that left her feeling hungry before she thought to combine her passions.

She has created a spectacular collection of recipes in a kind of thru-hiker meal strategy, one that checks all the boxes – food that’s healthy and high in calories, ultralight and concentrated as well as cheap to create at home and easy to prepare on the trail.

One of my go-to recipes for breakfast is the chocolate/peanut butter shake.
One of my go-to recipes for breakfast is the chocolate/peanut butter shake.

How does Backcountry Foodie work?

Aaron must have been a straight-A student because she’s organized, passionate and thorough, covering information I hadn’t even known I needed, categorizing her meals by day part, calories-per-ounce, as well as cross referencing the use of ingredients for other meals.

I should point out here that it’s not necessary to own a dehydrator unless you want to dry your own ingredients.

The “pantry” is the extensive list of ingredients with a link to purchase each item. Many ingredients can be found at your local store, but some, like dehydrated refried beans or peanut butter flour, are harder to find and best bought online.

Every recipe is “freezer-bag” style, cooking fast (if at all) and using very little fuel and each one is designed like pages of a cookbook (The Joy of Cooking, anyone?) including home and field prep time, allergy and diet restriction information and if the meal works best cold soaked or cooked. Plus, there are individual labels to print and slap on your baggie with all pertinent information. This will definitely come in handy when you open a resupply box three months down the road.

As a member-based organization, Backcountry Foodie offers three tiers – the most basic – and independent – level providing access to 75 different recipes, with the more comprehensive levels including meal plans, webinars, group web calls as well as custom meal planning.

In case you thought maybe the meals could get a little boring, here’s a sampling to whet your appetite: Coconut Mango Porridge, Taco Scramble, Bivy Bran Flakes, Antioxidant Trail Mix, Spicy Hummus, Yosemite Yams, Chips & Salsa with Guacamole, Pasta Primavera, Reboot Espresso Trail Mix, Pina Colada…and on and on.

I should mention here that each recipe is vegetarian, still managing to provide the essential vitamins and minerals and calories needed from a hiker walking 10-12 hours per day.

Packing meals for nine days on Isle Royale. My pack felt lighter and less bulky carrying Backcountry Foodie recipes. I also was not starved the entire time.
Packing meals for nine days on Isle Royale. My pack felt lighter and less bulky carrying Backcountry Foodie recipes. I also wasn’t feeling starved the entire walk.

How did it go?

There are way more recipes than I could possibly have explored for my shortish hikes this fall. Working through the bounty one-by-one will take me most of the off-season. But from what I field-tested, I can say without reservation, Backcountry Foodie is a game changer.

I started this review mentioning that I’m not much of a cook, and that is made patently obvious on the trail where all I want to do is eat and get going. I want my meals to be simple.

And simple is the name of the game, one pot, just-add-water kinda meals, exactly the way I like it.

I made two items for breakfast – a Chocolate/Peanut Butter Shake and Banana Nut Crunch. These were beyond easy to put together even if I dried my own bananas. They tasted great in the field and I mixed and ate them directly from their baggie. They hit the two most important criteria – they tasted good (I wanted another serving the next day) and they filled me up.

I usually snack during the day on dried fruit and jerky, but I loved the Black Bean Dip made on my dehydrator and eaten with a bag of Fritos , a staple of every thru-hiker’s kitchen.

For dinner, I mostly stuck with the Ramen meals – yup, the same thing you had in college at 25¢ a pop. The secret is to remove the flavor packets, crunch up the noodles and add all sorts of tasty items like my new best friend, shelf-stable parmesan cheese, or freeze dried mushrooms, even cashews and red pepper flakes.

The only drawback for me is the recipes calling for the addition of oil. I just can’t make the leap to carry oil in my pack, no matter how carefully it’s wrapped. Maybe it’s because I’m generally a slob when backpacking and everything tends to get beaten up within an inch of its life.

I have no problem carrying nut butters, but I draw the line at things that might spill on my clothes and sleeping bag. Unfortunately without oil, the nutritional profile is not accurate. That being said, the meals I made tasted delicious and I found oil was not necessary.

Because everything was so delicious and I felt full and strong, I thought what the heck, why not give cold soaking a try on the Kekekabic. Cold soaking is exactly as it sounds – water is added to rehydrate the meal and it’s eaten cold. The advantage to the hiker is leaving the stove and fuel at home, thus saving weight and bulk. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised at just how good everything tasted and I never felt the need for a warm meal even when the temperatures dipped at night.

I am now a convert to cold soaking and it wouldn’t have be able to accomplish this without the superb recipes from Backcountry Foodie.

Blissful gives Backcountry Foodie the highest rating, five Anitas.

Specs at a glance

  • three-tiered ultralight recipe and meal planner with lifetime access
  • recipes sorted by meal type, cooking style, and dietary needs.
  • freezer-bag style meals that are easy to make, nutrition-packed and inexpensive.
  • “pantry” ingredient resource and where to purchase
  • monthly webinars, recipe subscription and meal plans available
  • custom meal planning available

Disclosure

alison young was given a demo account for testing by Backcountry Foodie.

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hike blog

Behold the bar!

vegan pemmican bars pack a high-calorie & nutrient-rich punch (includes recipe!)

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. 

Virginia Wolff
Bars are a go-to for nearly every backpacker.
A high energy snack for the pack.

This has been a difficult summer for most all of us.

Nonetheless, in this time of Covid, I went ahead and started a new business and launched a podcast to share stories of this stubborn, middle aged gal finding enlightenment while “hiking her own hike.”

I figure, if I can thrive now, I can handle anything life throws at me.

Life always seems to find a way to remain simpatico with my walking quests, and that pep-talk style conversation I have with my sorry little self, finds its way into just about every day I’m on trail.

C’mon, Al, you’ve got this crazy-steep and exposed ridge/slip-n-slide epic mud pit/total white-out in pouring rain! If you can manage here, just think how bad ass you’ll become?! What’s that aphorism again?? ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!’ Right…keep moving!

I happen to believe that Nietzsche never saw suffering in and of itself as a means to strength, but more in how we use obstacles as an opportunity to build strength – strength of body, mind and also, spirit – to give suffering its magical power.

Right now, I’m reading this amazing book called Grit. In it, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth posits that it takes more than talent – and even more than skill – for us achieve. It’s passionate persistence that pushes us to greatness, much of it, like the gritty word ‘grit’ itself, unglamorous and repetitive.

So exactly what does this have to do with a backpacking bar recipe, you might ask?

Years ago when I planned my very first solo thru-hike of the John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada, I knew I needed tools to keep me going. While grit, attitude and drive were necessities, the right gear and the right fuel would bring everything together.

At the time, I was a bit hooked on the amazing feats of a Minnesotan athlete named Scott Jurek. He somehow managed to leave every ultra runner in the dust, even while fueled up on a completely plant based diet. Everything he said made sense to me at the time, and so I copied him and planned to walk my first 200+ mile trail as a vegan.

Let’s just say being a Vegan didn’t last past day three when a burger called my name at the a cafe in Tuolumne Meadows.

That being said, I did find a killer recipe for “vegan pemmican,” a vitamin-packed bar of fat and carbs that has withstood the test of thousands of miles walking and remains to this day, a staple of my thru-hiking bliss.

As I prepare for my next hike on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, I will be cooking up a batch for my own pack.

hike blog

Dried veggies and fruit

Accepting your own mortality is like eating your vegetables: You may not want to do it, but it’s good for you.

Caitlin Doughty
Fruits and veggies are incredibly easy to dehydrate and weigh next to nothing while they pack a nutritional punch.
Fruits and veggies are incredibly easy to dehydrate and weigh next to nothing while they pack a nutritional punch.

The easiest way to get veggies and fruit on your backpacking trip is to dehydrate them. Fresh fruits – like apple and watermelon – and many vegetables – like cherry tomatoes and bell peppers – can be dried directly on the racks, but some – like carrots – need to be blanched first, which takes time and is just one more step I don’t feel like doing. So I was delighted to discover you can get fantastic results dehydrating frozen vegetables as is, no cooking required! including carrots, peas, string beans, corn, and those packages of frozen medleys – as well as a wide range of fruits like mango and pineapple.

Dehydrated vegetables can be added to any meal, and work very well with potato bark. I tend to eat dehydrated fruits all on their own. There is nothing like mango, watermelon or pineapple at the top of a hard-to-reach peak. They taste like candy; a real treat.

Pro tips:

  • For best results, don’t let the fruits or veggies stack on top of each other as the dehydrate.
  • Place them directly on the tray, though you may have to gently peel them when you flip them.
  • Some fruits can get a little sticky or turn slightly brown. You can always add a little lime juice which also gives them a mild margarita taste.
hike blog

Potato Bark

Food is not just eating energy. It’s an experience.
– Guy Fieri

Potato bark is versatile, lightweight and very tasty.

Potato bark is versatile, lightweight and very tasty.

I am always amazed that when I hike I crave all sorts of things I never eat at home – loads of salt, carbs and fat – and I still lose weight. The problem for me is that I forget how it feels on the trail when I’m back in life, so I need to remind myself to bring the right food to stay energized. Creamy, salty, buttery loaded potatoes is one such food, but I’m horrified by the junk added to store-bought potato flakes – and how overpriced they are – so I decided to save money and dehydrate potatoes myself, adding only what I wanted. They are surprisingly lightweight, versatile and easy to cook.

Here’s what you’ll need:

10 pounds potatoes (Yukon Gold mash really well, but you can use any kind)

8 cups broth

salt/pepper to taste

Optional add-ons:

Onion powder

Garlic powder

Herbs, e.g. dill, chives, parsley

Dried whole milk

Dried cheese

Dried peas, carrots, peppers, etc.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Boil potatoes until you can stick a fork through them. I leave the skins on.
  2. Mash the potatoes slowly adding the broth
  3. Place in a food processor or blender to make them smooth
  4. Pour onto dehydrator trays, almost like you’re frosting a cake
  5. Crank up the dehydrator to 140 degrees
  6. Occasionally check and flip. I cut the pieces smaller into strips as it dries for that “bark” look.
  7. Fully cool before packing into vacuum seal bags and store in the freezer until ready to use.

Pour the mashed mixture onto trays like you're frosting a cake.

Pour the mashed mixture onto trays like you’re frosting a cake.

Pro tips:

  • I add the powdered ingredients and dehydrated vegetables to the dried bark when packaging and not to the mash before drying.
  • The bark is so crunchy, it tends to make small holes in to vacuum seal bags, but I have never had a problem with spoilage
  • The rehydrated bark makes more of a potato soup than mashed potatoes. I often add another helping of dried broth on the trail for even more salt!
hike blog

food, glorious food!

Is it possible to stay healthy and eat heartily on the trail?

Planning Whole30 compliant backpacking food is a learning curve.


Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.
– Ruth Reichl
Have you ever taken a close look at the nutrition labels on pre-packaged backpacking food? My eyes popped at just the amount of sodium, some providing nearly 50% of a daily allowance. And – to paraphrase an old joke – the portions are too small.

For the past six years, I have cooked up my own backpacking food, dehydrated it and placed the crumbly contents in vacuum-sealed bag. It’s more economical to make your own food, takes less packaging and you control the ingredients.

But in recent months, Richard and I have been following the cleansing diet Whole30 with incredible results – loss of cravings, more balanced energy, better sleep and, for me, zero menopause symptoms.

Sun dried tomatoes dehydrator-style.

I also found I no longer had a desire for coffee, which is a huge plus when backpacking as in the past it was imperative that I make time to fire up the stove and heat up a cup of Joe or headaches would set in.

On summit mornings, that can sometimes prove awkward, and I’ve been known to swallow cold coffee out of a Nalgene hiking up the mountain. Bitter, but life-saving.

Grass-fed and organic meat marinated in garlic, vinegar, coconut  

 

Naturally I want to feel this good on my next hike, but the question was how to cook? England’s Coast-to-Coast passes through many towns, so resupply is not a critical issue, but I always like to take four to five days’ worth of food in the event stores are closed or I just feel like getting off a plane, a train and a bus, hiking straight up a hill and camping in a field like I did on the GR5 in France.

In the past, my usual staples included brown rice, quinoa and sometimes grits and oatmeal, all off the list these days. Protein and vegetables is the name of the game, so this time around, I am trying something new, drying ingredients rather than one-pots.

And it’s a lot of ingredients!

  • Red and orange peppers
  • Carrot
  • Zucchini squash
  • Butternut squash
  • Tomatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Yukon potatoes (mashed)
  • Apples
  • Eggs
  • Beef
  • And probably far too many coconut larabars.

Fancy colors bursting with flavor.

Here’s what’s needed to make your own:

I use the Nesco 1000-watt Garden Master dehydrator with eight trays and extra screens. I realize there might be stronger dehydrators on the market, but mine seems to work well enough, though I have always put the temp on full-blast.

Pro tip: only use the screens for liquid or liquid-ey items that might pour through the trays, like the eggs and mashed potatoes.

Food processor. I have a mini Kitchenaid food processor. Every year I promise myself a larger one, but somehow just don’t get around to it. Making the larabars took many extra steps, but one blade – even if small – chops the same. The eggs need to be pulverized to dust and trying to do that with mortar and pestle was frustrating to say the least. It was a dream in the food processor.

I made stacks of larabars, but they can act as currency on the trail..

Vacuum sealer: I have been using a Food Saver vacuum sealer for six years with no complaints. I cut varying sizes of bag from a long spool. You will need to heat seal one end first. I do not suggest buying the bags with a port. A friend tried these and found small particles of food gumming it up. In my experience, if the bag springs a miniscule leak – with no food escaping, but air entering the bag – the food is still safe to eat. If you are nervous, you can always cook the food to sterilize.

How it’s done:

The easiest fruits and veggies to dehydrate are those that require no work at all. Frozen veggies – like corn, carrots and peas – can be poured right out of the bag onto the trays and come out as perfectly dried “marbles” after about four hours.

I made it as simple as possible with the peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and apples by simply cutting them into small bits – with apples, I cored them first, then made thin chips – and placing them on open trays. You can add salt to the tomatoes at this point if you don’t want to take salt on the hike

I added oil to the zucchini. Oil, of course, does not dry. In the past, I added oil to a stir fry and dried it for a one-pot. I am not entirely sure how the same will transfer. To be safe, I have taken the dried squash and placed it is an airtight container in the refrigerator before vacuum sealing. My nose will hopefully alert me to any trouble brewing on the trail!

Dried apples need nothing added and still hold their sweetness.

For broccoli, I lightly steamed it before placing on trays. I roasted the butternut squash until soft, adding salt, pepper and olive oil. I make potato “bark” with Yukon potatoes. First boiling until soft, then mashing with salt, pepper, parsley, nutritional yeast, dried shallots, onion powder and a few cups of bouillon. The result is kind of lumpy, but once put into a soup, it has the texture and heartiness of pasta soup. Mix and match a few veggies, drop in a few pieces of beef and voila, dinner is served!

I bought the best cuts of beef I could find at our local co-op. Grass-fed and organic top round, sirloin and flank. You want cuts with the least amount of fat possible and should cut off any excess before drying. Fat can go rancid fast and that’s dangerous stuff on the trail. The first time I made jerky I was so nervous I would make my companions sick, I dried the meat for hours until it was so tough we could barely chew it. The taste was fine and it eventually broke down, but there is no need to create leather. The meat can have a slight tenderness. The key is to freeze the meat for about two hours before slicing, this way you get nice thin strips that dry quickly and are easy to eat – or add to the veggies in a one pot.

Jerky is light and packs a lot of nutrition.

This was the first time I made powdered eggs. Easy as can be. Simply scramble a dozen eggs and place them on a screened tray to dry. It takes about 10 hours. All the oily shine needs to disappear completely before you pulverize the dried egg in a food processor to again avoid any problems with the fat becoming rancid. At camp. Simply add 1-2 tablespoons water to 2 tbsp egg and scramble back up.

Larabars are a real treat, sort of trail-mix-in-a-bar. Pulverize ¾ cups almonds and ¼ cup cashwes in a food processor. Dates work the best for sweetness, but I had prunes, dried cherries and dried apricots on hand, so pulverized 1 ¼ cups with the nut mixture adding ¼ cup of unsweetened shredded coconut and ¼ cup of melted coconut oil. The batter is pressed into pans and refrigerated for a day or two. Cut up bars and vacuum seal.

This is only half the story.

How will it go? I hope reasonably well by supplementing from local shops and an occasional pub visit. I am not super strict on Whole30 having eaten this way for nearly 70 days, but I love my energy.

Sadly booze is out, so not planning on any nips from a flask atop the “Haystacks” but I think the views themselves will give me a natural high.

Let’s hope…