22 May, 2008

Camping food

Last weekend was an official opening of the camping season. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to participate in yearly Grand Rassemblement de Kayakiste and I don't have any photos or recipes to share with you. But I still want to make a post about camping food (vegan, vegetarian, or not). From past years of camping with people and from hearing their stories I realised that food, or should I say it's weight, is one of the biggest problems among campers, and more specifically hikers. If you usually camp by car, canoe, or even kayak you can pretty much take whatever you want with you: even if the space is somewhat limited - you do not have to worry about the weight of your breakfasts and suppers. This changes once you realise that you have to carry all your food on your shoulders for next three ..... five ... or even ten days. Once you pack all your food try comparing its' weight to the weight of the rest of your equipment and you would start wondering if you really need/want eat that much! But good nutrition is important, especially when you spend 24 hours outdoors, hiking up and down the hills. Here I tried to put some advice about

MINIMIZING food weight.

I am sure that the list is not complete and I would LOVE to hear more ideas.

1. Cut down on fresh produce
Fresh fruits and vegetables, bread and cheese, snacks and drinks, are the most heavy food items. Try to avoid bringing them with you, especially if you know that you are camping for several days. Even though it is amazing to bite into fresh apple, while sitting next to the lake you might want to bring dehydrated/dried fruits to snack on instead.
If you can't eliminate fresh produce from your diet, take those items that are less heavy and do not forget to ration them (see #2).

What about all those tofu-based "meats"? I doubt I can find a dehydrated version of my ground round.
I firmly believe that Textured Vegetable and Soy Protein (TVP and TSP) were invented by hikers. What could be better then these lights "biscuits" that turn into yummy chewy meaty chunks in your soups and stews? You can ground them to add in your pasta sauce or chili. They are truly versatile and weight NOTHING!

If TVP is not readily available you could always bring some tofu. I like my scrambled tofu made from silken "Mori-Nu" tofu which comes in tetra pack package and does not need to be refrigerated.

Finally if you can't imagine your weekend without fresh fruits and vegetables, or if you do not mind carrying a little bit extra weight, make sure to limit the amount of fresh produce you will be bringing. One of the ways of doing it is using an insulated lunch box with an ice pack in it as a "measure". Fill it up with perishable goods, strap it on your pack or put it inside. Anything that did not fit would have to stay home! If you find lunch box too big, try one of the insulated plastic bags with an ice pack in it.

2 Make a menu
Camping supper is far from an experience you have in a fancy restaurant but you still need a menu. I believe that any camping food preparation should start with creating a menu. All you need is a piece of paper and some ideas about the food you want to have while camping. The menu serves several purposes:
First of all, it will help you to make your grocery list.
Secondly, menu will help you calculate how much of each item you would need. It would also make it easier for you to mix and match your ingredients: if you are taking a zucchini for your scrambled tofu you might want to serve pasta in the evening - to use the leftovers of zucchini. Bringing "multifunctional" food helps reduce the overall weight of your food bag.
Finally, with the menu you will know for sure how much and what you would be eating, it will help you to calculate the number of breakfasts, snacks, and suppers you'll be having. Bringing one extra meal is always good, but you don't want end up with too little snacks or too many breakfasts. Bringing too much extra food is the most common problem among novice hikers.
And yeah, menu would help you to have varied food throughout your camping - this is specially important for longer hikes, when you end up making same dishes over and over again.

3 Ration
The idea behind rationing is similar to the one behind menu - calculating how much food you bring and avoiding bringing too much. I am not big fan of food rationing in real life, however when camping any extra piece of food translates directly into weight.

4 Packaging
Not a lot of campers think about packaging of the goods that they are bringing. Compare the weight of a can of vegetables (+ the can opener) to the same amount of fresh vegetables. If you are not using the tin for anything - why bother bringing it with you? I know that some products are available only in cans and there is no way around it, but you could still minimize the weight by taking the smallest cans available.
With the meals in boxes, try to leave as much packaging at home as possible. Write down the cooking instructions on the plastic bag and leave the heavy cardboard at home.
Finally, if the amount of packed good is too big, do not hesitate to re-pack it in smaller Ziploc bags. You do not need 3 servings of vegetable couscous if you are leaving for one-night trip.


  1. Yep.. good points.

    I think the first and biggest culprit in overweight food portions is laziness. It does take some amount of work to cut down on food weight and, unfortunately, there's no easy fix like going to the store and buying something expensive and lighter :) Having said this.. repackaging, repackaging and repackaging!! It's incredible the amount of weight that can be saved by bringing the right amount of food repackaged in zip type bags. Remember the one time there was almost a full trash bag of commercial wraps, boxes and cans on the living room floor once everything was sorted out and divided?

    Also, dehydrate what can be dehydrated; big weight saving there. If one can not live without fresh produce, it's possible to adapt the choices towards lighter stuff; a watermelon is heavy... slices of an orange, ziplocked are much less so. A vacuum packing device is a nifty thing to have. It does permit to bring along fresh apple slices for instance. It does, however, generate plastic wrapping waste and that's one of the main reason we don't use it (I'm sure you were wondering how come I never got one for our extreme expeditions.. :p); the beauty of zip bags is that they are reusable ;)

    But, the summum of lightness remains freezer bag cooking and ramen noodles! lol!

  2. You are partially right, Eric.
    I think that even without dehydrator, campers can have tasty and interesting food. Every big grocery store has a nice selection of prepacked meals in the box (usually they are found in Asian section and contain a beg of rice noodles, sauce, and some dry topping) and some basic dehydrated vegetables. Look at all the powdered sauces and marinades, check your local ethnic store, and use your imagination and creativity!
    As for the vacuum packing device - it helps to make food last longer but it does not diminish its' weight!!! It could be used together with dehydration, but unless you are planning your trip years ahead - there is no need for that.

    Finally, I would like to disagree with you, and this is why I said that you are only partially right, on the point of Ramen noodles and FBC. Both of them are wonderful ways to eat in the wilderness but if Ramen could be ...hmmmmm .... bOOOOring without any modifications, then FBC might be a bit time consuming and intimidating for new campers.

    Thanks a lot for your comment.

  3. Forgot to say about repackaging...

    Yes, it does cut down on food weight in ways you wouldn't imagine, the added benefit, and it's a HUGE one, it permits you to recycle all the package junk the marketings departments work so hard to create so you will buy their stuff instead of the other guys.. :) Once in the warmth of your living room, all is divided and put in the recycling bin. In the wilderness.. hum... again laziness most of the time prevails and I've seen people burry used packaging, burnt it, throw it down dry toilet facilities, or just plain leave it behind to make sure they don't have to bring it back and clutter their packs... :(

    Remember kids; in the woods, the backcountry, the wilderness or wherever you go to play, YOU ALWAYS PACK OUT WHAT YOU BROUGHT IN! Now, don't even get me started with making fires using branches you scavenge off the forest floor.. pffff! he he he.

  4. wasn't suggesting people go out and purchase a dehydrator, you know me better than that, but, it permits the use of simple food you already have without having to go out of your way. Dehydrated leftovers when time is running out anyone? Remember the lazy factor?

    Vacum baging does cut the weight by 1: breaking down the portions, 2: again removing the packaging, 3: removing excess water in can goods, but, generates an entire set of new elements to deal with, thus it's better used for long term storage of food as you suggested.

    Finaly, ramen noodles was a joke;)

    -"Thanks a lot for your comment."-... Euh.. you're welcome?.. lol!

  5. It's tough, without personal experience, to get portion size right, whether you break things down into meals or just bring bags of ingredients.

    My gal and I hike, and weight is always at a premium. My first couple of days I've usually been too tired to eat much more than a few handfuls of trail mix here and there, maybe a small hot dish at the end of the day. In the past, I often brought too much, but I'm getting better at it.

    For us, dehydrating is the way to go. There are some decent ramen/rice meals available, and we bring some, but all suffer from a certain surplus of ingredients, seasonings, salt, or preservatives that we find to be not optimal for us.

    I have a very good dehydrator and do lots of fruits and veggies, some ground beef or turkey, and some some beef and fish jerky. We've done some TVP in the past, with mixed reviews.

    For carbs, we'll bring along some couscous, pasta, cooked dehydrated rice (and/or barley), and some ramen. Oh, yeah, instant potatoes are good too.

    Though I like beans, the GF doesn't, so they're not usually on the menu. I think they make a good addition, especially if pre-cooked, mashed, and dehydrated, or if a quick-cooking one like some lentils such as the little red ones.

    Also make sure to have adequate lipids. We take along a small bottle of light olive oil, about 1 Tbsp per person per day.

    Either bring seasonings or put them into your pre-allocated ziplock meal pouches.

    Bring a few sweet things, even if you're not a big chocaholic or anything. A little sugar here or there can be a nice treat.

    Drinks we bring - powdered fruit or tea drink mix in tubes and individual single-serving coffee bags. One of each per day is usually more than enough for us.

    If you don't want to get into dehydrating, these are two suppliers I've been very pleased with for quality, selection, and service: Harmony House Foods, and Barry Farms. I'm not sure if I prefer one of them over the other, but Barry Farms does have a much larger selection.

    This year's hits so far are powdered eggs, dehydrated tomatoes (peeled, pulp removed, homemade), and teryaki tuna jerky (homemade).

    Good luck with your experiments.


  6. Hi Matt,
    thanks for your comment.

    I have to agree with you, knowledge of portion sizes comes with experience, and even then once in a while you end up bringing too much. As long as the amount of food for one mean is "reasonable" you should be OK with the weight.

    I am yet to experience the joy of owning a dehydrator. For now I have to deal with store-bought dehydrated vegetables as well as ask Eric to dehydrate some things. I also find that Montreal does not have too much variety of dehydrated food, during my visit to Vancuver I was amazed to see dehydrated beans, lots of vegetables, as well as different mixes at the market.

    Thanks for letting me know about Harmony House Foods and Barry Farms - I will try to find them here - to bring along for those evenings when I don't feel like cooking (does it ever happen?) ;)

    And yes, chocolate is ALWAYS good. it's a MUST even during camping.

    Happy hiking!