Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I haven't gotten a stick of equipment yet. No tent, no sleeping bag, no boots. (I do own camping gear, but it's old, too heavy for backpacking, and suited for summer weather, though it did keep me dry through a week's worth of rain on The Island last year.) Yet somehow, I feel like I'm done obsessing over equipment. I've done enough research to narrow my options to a reasonable number, and my next step is to go to REI, EMS, and the much-anticipated Hilton's Tent City in Boston to actually try stuff out. Basically, I've thought all I can about equipment without leaving the house. So my mind has moved on. My next obsession is food.

That's not really fair. I'm always obsessed with food. I'm a lazy cook but a highly motivated eater; my other big output for inherited money is farmer's markets, pastries, and meals out. I read cookbooks with no plans to use them. The New Yorker's food issue is my absolute favorite of the year. So being obsessed about backpacking food is more like normal life, just focused.

The food that requires planning is the stuff I'll take into the backcountry. My backcountry jaunts may run as long as six or seven days at a time--in fact, the food I can carry will be the limiting factor. There is no refrigeration. There is limited fuel, and certainly limited utensils, work space, and patience for cooking. And there will certainly be a weight limit. Lunches and snacks can be fresh foods or no-preparation snacks I get on the road. But meals in camp--breakfasts and dinners--will have to be planned for. Given those restrictions, I have several options for eating.

1. I could buy ready-made freeze-dried backpacking meals from camping supply stores.

2. I could buy ready-made instant meals from the supermarket (ramen, Lipton mixes, etc.)

3. I could carry ingredients and cook on the trail.

4. I could make and dehydrate my own meals ahead of time.

Option 1 has advantages, in that everything will be ready-made with all my restrictions, needs, and parameters in mind. It'll be high-calorie, lightweight, easy and fast to prepare, and nutritionally complete. It'll also be expensive, and might taste like ass. Option 2 is far cheaper, and I generally have a good idea of what tastes yummy (according to many backpacking guides, blue-box mac and cheese, a savored guilty pleasure of mine, is a trail staple), but that stuff is mad nutritionally suspect, and often bulky. Option 3 sounds romantic and would probably taste the best, but it also sounds like a pain in the ass; when I've finished a day's worth of hiking and only have maybe one pot and one pan and a rickety stove and a folding knife, I'll probably give up and eat cold gorp and go to bed rather than try to chop onions on a slab of wood by headlamp. I don't even like gorp.

It's a long trip, so of course there will probably be a mix of all, but it looks like Option 4 is the best way to go. There are disadvantages to this--it's by far the most labor-intensive, plus I'll have to make a six-months' supply of food and then figure out how to either store it or get it to myself when I'm on the road, as I won't have much ability to cook and dehydrate while living out of a tent/truck/hotel. But making my food has a lot of other advantages. I can make things just how I like them, modifying recipes to my taste. I can make as much or as little as I like. Though I love trying new things (I had my first steak tartar the other day), I'm also good at subsisting on a favorite for several days at a time--and doubling a recipe for a week'sworth is easier and cheaper than buying twice as much prepared food. Other than the initial investment of a food dehydrator, it's pretty inexpensive all around. I can also make and test everything beforehand, which if you couldn't tell is kind of a thing for me.

I'm excited to try the recipes from a couple of library books, both by Linda Frederick Yaffe: Backpack Gourmet and High Trail Cookery. Both include foods that sound totally edible as regular meals--no reliance on TVP, obscure grains, or f'ing lentils (I HATE lentils--backpackers seem to love them). The recipes sound relatively easy to make. And they all come with instructions on how to dehydrate them at home and reconstitute them with boiling water on the trail. Maybe these books will even give me the urge to do more cooking.

There will also be, of course, smoked cheese and crackers and summer sausage and instant oatmeal and beef jerky. There will be un-mixed trail mix, with nuts and chocolate and dried fruit in their own separate little bags, as I like all the ingredients but hate the way they end up seeming slightly damp and tasting all the same when combined. There will also be fast food at truck stops and scones at coffee houses in Portland and a nice meal at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. I have a (arbitrary, I know) taboo against eating at McDonald's, with the caveat that if I'm traveling and there is no other convenient option, it'll have to do. And honestly, I just might be looking forward to my first Bic Mac in many years somewhere in the middle of Idaho. Thinking about food is the funnest part of my fun obsession.

As an aside: I've noticed that the guidebooks I end up favoring were all written by women. This isn't intentional; I came home with several "backpacking for women" style guidebooks, and I found them a bit whiny/preachy, if not so hopelessly out-of-date that they felt obligated to reassure readers that no, your ovaries won't fall out if you hike too much. But there is something to be said for a book whose tone is reassuring and non-competitive, a far cry from the Idiosyncratic Guides or XTREME Gear Guides, even if I am myself antsy and competitive.

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