Last weekend our backpacking destination had thunderstorms, so we had to completely change our plans — backpacking with a two year old during storms is where I draw the line. Instead, we car camped at Grand Teton National Park and used all of our backpacking gear instead of the more luxurious stuff we bring when we car camp because our backpacks were already packed and ready to go. Because we were staying in an established campground, I had a lot more energy to take pictures of the cooking processes we use out in the back country, and thought it would be a good time to do a post on how I feed my family on the trail that includes some kid-approved backpacking meals.
Cooking at Independence Lakes, Idaho.
When we first started backpacking, we spent a bunch of money on freeze-dried meals from the outdoor sports store. Then I got sick of spending that much money, and started making my own meals from scratch and dehydrating them using our food dehydrator. I loved this Backpack Gourmet book by Linda Frederick Yaffe, and tried all sorts of fun and experimental ideas I got from her. Since I had Sam, the complications of backpacking with a two-year old have made it difficult to be as ambitious as I used to be. My new requirements for a good backpacking meal are: easy, cheap, lightweight, not messy, and dense in calories, carbs, and protein. The following is a list of our favorite recipes to use when hiking with a two year old, and they are easy enough that he can help!
I don’t like the kinds of trail mix you can buy in the store, so I usually make my own and put it in snack bags. Here is my favorite mixture:
Snack: Trail Mix (Serves 1 – 252 calories)
- 1 heaping tbsp craisins or dried cherries
- 1 heaping tbsp dark chocolate morsels
- 1 tbsp pine nuts
- 1 tbsp shelled pistachios
- 1 tbsp cashews
We will usually eat this with a fruit like grapes. Fruit is delicious on the trail and helps to quench our parched mouths before digging into the nuts and sweets. We bring quite a bit of fresh fruit and veggies on the trail. A real “lightweight junkie” would probably object to this, but I feel like I need to provide some fresh foods for Sam and don’t mind the extra weight – it gets lighter and lighter as we go. We each carry 40 pounds, which is an extreme weight for backpackers, but the shorter distances we’re hiking makes it manageable.
Lunch: Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches (Serves 1 – 511 calories)
- 2 slices of dense, nutritious bread (go all out – I like Dave’s Good Seed Bread)
- 2 tbsp all-natural peanut butter (I like creamy, especially when we use nutty bread)
- 1 pat of butter
- 1 tbps huckleberry jam
We really do go all out when we’re on the trail. I usually eat lower calorie bread, so it is such a treat to eat the good stuff! And I like to get the regionally-appropriate huckleberry jam to eat on the trail. We’ve tried meat and cheese sandwiches, but peanut butter and jelly is so much more appetizing after it has been smooshed up in a backpack for two days. Plus, it is easier to keep track if I just make 6 of the same kind of sandwich rather than special stuff for Sam. I make enough for two lunches – on the way out and on the way home. Adding a layer of butter to the side with the jam keeps it from leaking into the bread. We usually supplement lunch with an apple.
The two meals we prepare at camp on an overnighter are breakfast and dinner. We don’t count on being able to cook on a campfire because many of the places we hike in don’t allow fires, especially in the dryer seasons when wildfires are common. We have invested in a small, lightweight backpacking stove, and use small canisters of propane fuel.
One of the most convenient ways to cook in the backcountry is with freezer bags. In this method, you place dehydrated, “instant,” or freeze-dried foods inside of a freezer bag, and then rehydrate them in the bag with boiling water. This method is incredibly easy because I can prepare most of it at home ahead of time. When we are camping with a two-year old, simplicity is very important. If we are tired and distracted by food preparation, Sam could easily wander off and get himself hurt (or killed).
The freezer bag method is also completely mess-free. I hate doing dishes in the backcountry because I’m afraid of attracting bears with the lingering food smells we leave behind, and I also don’t like the idea of polluting the pristine lakes and rivers we visit with soaps. With the freezer bag method, we eat the food, then seal the mess in the freezer bag, lick our spoons clean, and pack out the mess. My friend’s mom made these beautiful insulated “cozies” that help retain the heat and keep the bags from burning our hands.
Note: there are some concerns that the plastics might not be safe. I think a dozen meals of this kind in a year is not worth worrying about.
Dinner: Salmon and Mashed Potatoes (Serves 2 – 370 calories each)
- 1 – Instant mashed potatoes package
- 2 – 5 oz salmon pouch
- 2 – quart-sized freezer bag
- 3 – 2 cups of water
- Optional: seasoning, instant non-fat dry milk
At Home: Measure half of the potato mixture into each quart-sized bag. The Idahoan brand that I use measures out to a full cup, so each bag gets ½ a cup. At this stage, you might want to season the potatoes or add instant dry milk. I usually choose an option that does not need milk and is pre-seasoned to make it easier.
At Camp: Slide the freezer bags into the insulated food pouches. Pour 2 cups of water into a pot and bring to a boil. Divide the boiling water between the two freezer bags. Smoosh the potatoes for about 3-5 minutes until they are completely rehydrated, then add the salmon. I place the bag inside of my drinking cup, fold the edges of the bag down, and eat it that way.
This is one of Chris’s and my favorite camp meals. It is easy, mes- free, and contains a good amount of protein and carbs to help us feel satisfied after a long hike carrying weight. It is only about 370 calories, so we usually supplement it with fresh sugar snap peas and freeze-dried ice cream. I like to mix up a cup of Crystal Light to drink before and after dinner to rehydrate. I’ve seen variations of this recipe in which the cook also incorporated a gravy of some sort, but that is getting into “too messy” territory for me.
Unfortunately Sam doesn’t like mashed potatoes OR salmon, and because he is expending all that energy hiking, I try to make sure he gets something he likes. I rarely make him the Kraft Mac and Cheese that he loves so much, so it is a treat he gets in the campsite. (I always make my own healthier veggie-filled mac and cheese approximations because I’m a mean mom like that). I get the kind that comes its own bowl. It takes up more room in the bag, but it is so much easier and cleaner to deal with than the kinds in which we have to provide a bowl – no dish-washing involved! We scrunch down the bowl at the end and it takes up very little space on the way home.
Kid Dinner: Mac and Cheese
- 1 – microwavable bowl of mac and cheese
- 1 – cup of water
At Camp: Bring water to a boil. Fill the cup of mac and cheese with the boiling water right up to the point where it covers the pasta. Let the mac and cheese sit for about five minutes, check for doneness, and if it tastes reasonably cooked, add the cheese package. The consistency isn’t as good as when you make it on a stovetop or in the microwave, but on the trail, everything tastes amazing. Sam will eat the whole thing if he’s put in a good day of hiking.
Note: Do not follow the microwavable directions that tell you to add water to the “fill-to” line. It won’t be able to absorb all that water in camp and you’ll have to strain it off. We like to avoid dropping food smells on the ground so we don’t attract bears.
It is tempting on a chilly morning in the mountains to stay in the tent and munch on a granola bar instead of taking the time to set-up the camp stove and assemble a meal. I don’t begrudge someone who makes that decision, but I always feel so much more prepared for the return hike after I’ve eaten something hot for breakfast. Oatmeal is both easy and filling and it is completely kid-approved.
Breakfast: Oatmeal and Dried Cranberries (Serves 1 – 424 calories)
- 2 – instant oatmeal packages
- 1/3 cup instant non-fat dry milk
- 1/4 cup dried cranberries (Craisins)
- 1 – quart sized freezer bag
- 3/4 – cup of water
At home: Measure out the oatmeal, the milk, and the cranberries into a freezer bag.
At camp: Slide the freezer bag into the insulated food cozy. Bring water to a boil, then add the water to the bag. Allow the oatmeal to fully rehydrate for about five minutes, then enjoy.
This is the highlight meal for Sam. He plows through it like we have never fed him before in his life.
A final note: if you take your kid backpacking, it is likely that his or her hands (and face and clothes) will be filthier than anything you could have imagined. Despite your best efforts with baby wipes and disinfecting towelettes your kid will (unintentionally) eat dirt. And he will have the time of his life.
Next weekend I plan to try some other easy recipes, so check back soon!