Cooking the Ultralight Way
Man I love to eat! But food is heavy and most of all I hate to do dishes while backpacking. I am not especially fond of doing dishes at home let alone while on the trail. So over the years I have developed a way of cooking and eating while on the trail that really simplifies things and keeps the weight down.
The Freezer Bag Cooking and Eating Method
Unless the weather is cold I usually start the day with cold cereal like granola with added dried fruits and nuts. At home I add powdered milk to the quart size zip-lock freezer bag the cereal is in. So all I have to do is pour in some water, squeeze it around and eat right out of the bag. When I am done I roll up the zip lock bag, seal it shut and place it in my garbage bag. Which is usually yesterday's food bag. I lick the spoon clean and pack it away, done.
Lunch is usually a simple affair I call grazing or perhaps ultimate snacking. Basically I am eating lunch from about 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Every time I stop for a break I eat something. It keeps my fuel level up and I always have plenty of energy. Sometimes I stop in the middle of the day and have a larger snack. There is a multitude of foods that can be eaten with no cooking and no cleanup. Some items you can find at the grocery store are crackers, salami, cheese, nut butters, powdered hummus, powerbars, dried fruit, nuts, cookies and jerky. Always keep a look out for nutritious, dense foods that pack a lot of calories in a small package. My best advice for trail food is test it out. Take it on a day hike, cook a hot lunch and try out your cooking method. Or try it at home. If it doesn't fly, your not stuck with 4 days of yuck!
Dinner is when I always cook. A hot meal at the end of the day just makes me feel better. I know some backpackers who don't cook at all which lightens their load further because there is no stove or fuel to carry. But for me having a hot meal in the evening is worth the weight because of the feeling it gives me. All of the food I cook utilizes the freezer bag cooking method. Here is how it works. I utilize dehydrated meals that I dehydrate myself or prepackaged meals I purchase. I have found a great source for prepackaged meals called Enertia Trail Foods. They are great tasting and are quite filling. If doing your own dehydrating seems a little daunting then try out some of the prepackaged stuff to see if this freezer bag method works for you. There is also quite a few items that can be picked up at the grocery store. All of my dinners are prepackaged into quart sized zip-lock freezer bags. I boil enough water to fully rehydrate the dehydrated meal. Usually 2 cups or less. Once the water is boiling I blow out the alcohol stove, pour the water into the freezer bag, stir it around to mix, remove as much air as possible, seal the bag shut and place it inside my Cook-N-Coozy. The insulated Coozy keeps the food hot and it continues to cook while inside the bag. I usually let it continue to cook for 7 to 10 minutes depending on the recipe. I take it out squish it around to mix it one last time and I use my long-handled spoon to eat right out of the bag. Long-handled spoons keep your fingers clean. When I'm done it gets rolled up and zipped shut. Lick the spoon clean and dishes are done. This method works especially well in bear country. It keeps odors to a minimum because you are not cooking in a pot and there are no food scraps or rinse water from washing dishes.
If you are just starting out with this method my first suggestion is to try it at home first. By trying it at home first you will discover which meals your really like, exactly how much water to add to fully rehydrate and how long to let it cook in the coozy. My other suggestion is to write on the outside of the freezer bag (with a Sharpie), what is inside (many meals look the same), how much water to add, and how long to let it cook.
Next time you are at the grocery store look for quick cook type staples like instant rice, mashed potatoes, stuffing and angle hair pasta. They make great bases that you can add other ingredients to. When I find time I will be adding additional articles on nutrition, menues and dehydrating. So stay tuned...
In ultralight backpacking stove selection comes down to three types. Each one has their pluses and minuses. No matter what type of stove you choose always use some type of windscreen.
Alcohol stoves: These days alcohol stoves are the overwhelming favorites. They are simple, no moving parts, lightweight and they put out a pretty hot flame. The most important consideration is pick the stove to fit the size of the pot. Just like at home you put a small pot on a small burner. If you are using a pot with a small base like a Hiney Pot or a small mug choose a stove that concentrates the flame right on the bottom of the pot like the Sputnik stove. For medium sized pots try a Blue-Mini which has a medium sized flame spread. And for larger pots try a Blue-Torch which has a wide flame spread. Using a Blue-Torch with a small mug would be a total waste of fuel and heat. The flame spread would go right up the sides past the pot. Not very efficient. There are lots of stoves to choose from out there, just pick the one that fits the pot you are going to use.
Alcohol stoves do have there minuses. In cold weather (below freezing) they don't function as well as they do in warmer weather. The alcohol just doesn't vaporize well and the flame can be weak. Plus it takes a lot of time and fuel to boil really cold water. If you are a thru-hiker your supply of alcohol will need to be purchased along the way as it can not be shipped by airmail. HEET gas line antifreeze in the yellow bottle can be bought in gas stations along the way.
Solid fuel stoves: A common brand name is Esbit. Each solid fuel tab burns for about 10 minutes. Usually enough time to boil water. In warmer temperatures they work just fine. In colder temperatures their performance is also diminished. They pack well and can be blown out and saved for later. Esbits are flammable but can be shipped by ground.
Butane Gas Stoves: If you are a backpacker who likes to cook and simmer your outdoor concoctions then a gas stove is the way to go. At 2.7 oz. the Vargo Jet-Ti Stove is an example of a lightweight efficient stove that works with most of the screw-on type canisters. They put out a lot of heat and have the ability to regulate the flame so you can simmer your food. They also have diminished output in colder weather. A trick is to sleep with the canister in your sleeping bag and in the morning the fuel is warm and the stove will work well.