Conor and Kim Mihal prepare dinner on the shore of Lake Superior.
Conor and Kim Mihal prepare dinner on the shore of Lake Superior.

I have been eating meals cooked over open fires and camp stoves since I was a Boy Scout. Some of those earlier dining experiences I'm sure were only a tick better than what the Donner party rustled up for dinner as we scouts tended to follow a methodology of put it in a pan, hang it over the fire and try to extract it from the flames before it turned black.

However, after 50 years of eating backcountry culinary concoctions, I've discovered some amazingly good meals can come out of a backpack. Much of this I attribute to Cyndy. When we married, the quality of my outdoor eating experience definitely took an upturn. I've learned that the best camp cooks dig into dinner packs and whip together meals that, if served at home, would draw raves.

To some extent what you put on your plate depends on how much you are willing to carry on your back. Since my wife and I are a couple of small-framed lightweights, our bodies are inadequate for assuming the role of pack horse. Consequently weight is a consideration.

When making trip food choices, if weight and convenience take precedent or you aren't charmed by outdoor cooking, then the racks of freeze-dried and dehydrated entrees that line the walls of outfitters and camping stores will serve you well. These just-add-water meals have come a long way since the 1970s when comments about meals sounded like "I think this might be beef stew, but it could be ravioli."

Freeze-dried dinners of that era typically had the texture of wet paper mache. Today these meals-in-a-sack actually taste pretty much like they are supposed to. However, there are plenty of tastier and less expensive options available. For those willing to carry heftier loads, there are packs made with ice compartments allowing the wearer to carry fresh meat.

Our local grocery offers just about everything needed to feed us on our backcountry junkets. From a shopping list we draw up at home, we develop a menu. What we take will likely be jammed tightly into a pack, take some hits as it thumps on the ground or a canoe bottom, and perhaps be warmed by the summer sun. This means chips will be rendered to the consistency of cereal, heat will melt chocolate-based snacks and unprocessed meats may go bad. Despite these limitations, a surprising array of supermarket food works well.

Loading up at the supermarket
Into our shopping cart go the same foods you would find in most pantries - boxes of rice, pudding, pasta, tortillas, Bisquick mixes and soup packages. The cardboard cracker box provides surprisingly good protection for it contents. The ingredients of trail mixes - nuts, chocolate, dried fruits and seeds - get piled into the cart as well. Moving into the produce section, we select hardy noncrushables like smaller potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, fresh garlic, avocados, apples, lemons and limes.

From the dairy rack we pick up eggs which will later safely be contained in a sturdy plastic egg carrier, and bricks of cheese, which surprisingly hang tough even during hot summer trips. After traveling for several hot days, the cheese may begin to ooze a bit, but it still tastes great. Grated cheese, however, can be a problem as it may develop noneradicable mold.

 It is surprising how durable most foods are, even when shoved into a pack. The relatively recent availability of foods such as chicken, turkey, tuna and meats vacuum packed in foil offer an alternative to just relying on jerky for meat.

Packing is the hard part
Buying the food is the easy part. Packing it is labor intensive. At the start, food is spread all over the counter and kitchen table. Cyndy, with boxes of Ziplocs and a bulk roll of plastic food storage bags, puts together the meals. She's the food person so she heads up this part of the operation. (I'm the one who gets the camping gear ready.)

Working with an array of bags, small Nalgene-type bottles and food packets, she loads them with the ingredients for each dinner. Most foods and seasonings are packed in plastic bags. Messy ingredients such as butter, cooking oils, vinegar, brown sugar, syrup, jams and salsa that can be crushed or spilled are put in these durable plastic jars with screw-top lids specially made for this type of travel.

Into each dinner bag she places a recipe or the basic cooking instructions clipped from the package and adds smaller bags of ingredients that are part of the meal. If the food item isn't readily identifiable, such as Bisquick, flour, or powdered milk, a swatch of paper, correctly labeled, is dropped into the bag. It takes several hours to pack it all. If you don't have the time to devote to this task, or the eagerness to be a wilderness cook, you might better buy prepackaged meals at the store.

There when we need it
After a day spent hiking on the trail or paddling and portaging, hunger comes on with a vengeance. Rummaging through the packs looking for that night's dinner, we hope to avoid the dreaded "I know it's here someplace" syndrome. Yet that was what used to happen just about every time I tried to collect the food we'd be needing for a particular meal.

Cyndy finally solved the problem. We now pack our food in colored stuff bags: Drinks are in the black bag, breads and crackers are in the blue one, purple has the desserts and treats, trail mix, nuts and fruit are in the brown one and a series of silver bags have Magic Marker labels for "dinner," "baking materials" and "breakfast." Other distinctive bags contain the spices, produce and cheeses.

A chart written on sturdy cardboard in waterproof ink stuck in the top of the pack takes the guesswork out of food selection by reminding us what is found in each colored stuff bag.

Food is the fuel we need to handle the rigors of our outdoor adventures. These high calorie needs can be satisfied by meals that rise well beyond descriptors such as "bland" or "palatable." As you do your menu planning for your next outing, think of your favorite foods. Could you pack them into the wilderness and serve them as a camp dinner? You might be pleasantly surprised.

Most years Dave and Cyndy Foley spend 20-30 nights on wilderness trips. This has been a real motivator for learning the skills needed to create delicious backcountry meals.