Off the Beeton Track
Tamia's Takeaways — Backcountry Menus to Go
By Tamia Nelson
February 15, 2011
Spring is in the air in Canoe Country. Well, maybe not. Not yet. Not quite. But the days are noticeably longer than they were a month ago, and the sun rises a little farther north on the horizon each morning. I'm getting itchy palms, too. I long to hold a paddle in my hand again. But when I look out over The River I see … what, exactly? Snow, that's what. A monochrome landscape. It will be weeks before winter loosens its grip on The River. Until then, I'm left high and dry. Which leaves trip planning as the best alternative.
It's easy to see this as a poor substitute for the real thing, of course. And if you're impatient — as I often am — it is. Approach trip planning in the proper state of mind, however, and it soon becomes an adventure in its own right. Drawing up equipment lists and shopping for new stuff whets the appetite like nothing else can. Gear. Clothing. Maps. Books. Each gets a list of its own, and every item requires careful consideration, a judicious weighing of pros and cons, a balancing of costs and benefits. And then you come to the most important list of all:
The Trip Bill of Fare
Hungry paddlers are never happy paddlers. They're also prone to illness and accident, not to mention discord. So quantity looms large in any backcountry menu plan. But it's not the only consideration. Not at all. Ease of preparation is important, too. If meals take too long to come together, or if they require the skills of a budding Escoffier to prepare, the temptation to take shortcuts is too powerful to resist. The likely result? Inadequate portions of badly cooked food. That's not good. So it's simply not enough for quantities to be generous. Meals have to be easy to make, and they also have to appeal to every taste. This can be a challenge. Some of your buddies may be vegetarians. Others may have food allergies. And almost everyone will have favorite dishes, along with foods they'd eat only if actually starving. Farwell still shudders to remember a long‑ago marathon trek when his only food came from prepackaged Scandinavian survival rations. The calories were there. And preparation couldn't have been easier. But every mouthful was a test of will. His need for fuel won out in the end, but it was a close‑run thing. Never again, he vowed.
That's the sort of scenario you want to avoid. But how do you begin? First things first. Decide on the menu. Then draw up your shopping list. After all, you can't go food shopping without knowing what you're going to have for supper, can you? Not to mention lunch and breakfast. I've touched on the elements of backcountry meal planning before, with special reference to "Big Trips." See, for example, "First Things," "Food for the Long Haul," and "Building a Menu." Finally, to bring it all together, read "Navigating Through Ten Years of 'Alimentary, My Dear.'" Taken as a whole, these articles will help you eat well on just about any trip, from weekend adventures to summer‑long odysseys.
Will all this take more time than you can spare? If so, but if you're loath to rely entirely on prepackaged (and pricey) camping meals, there's a third way:
The Master Menu
This is nothing more than a seven‑day meal plan — incorporating menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with snacks and extras — that offers enough variety so you can repeat it almost endlessly. Once you have your master menu in hand, planning for the longest expedition is no harder or more time‑consuming than planning for a week‑long outing, and shorter trips are easier still. (For weekend trips, just pick two or three days and go with those.) Of course, there's nothing magic about seven days. Your master menu can be longer or shorter, as you prefer, though there's a price to be paid either way. Shorter menu cycles run the risk of mealtime boredom on longer trips, while longer cycles mean more work for the planner. So maybe there is something special about seven days, after all.
Long or short, however, each master menu is a construct made up of elements drawn largely from the three statutory daily meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And with this as my starting point, I've assembled a guide to relevant articles and recipes in the In the Same Boat Archives. Just mix and match as you choose. To make matters even simpler, I've also distinguished between entrées that are quick and easy to prepare and those that are more elaborate. Paddlers who are inclined toward minimalism or "man cooking" will want to fill their food bags with Quick‑and‑Easy meals, while foodies and backcountry Brillat‑Savarins will opt for the menu items labeled "Leisurely." (But they should still build some Quick‑and‑Easy alternatives into their menus, just in case. Bad weather happens, and there are days when even foodies have to eat on the run.) Whenever an article contains a specific recipe, I've enclosed the link in quotes. Be warned: The links go to the articles, not the referenced recipes. This isn't a big deal, however. Just scroll down or use your browser's search window. Vegans and vegetarians take note: I've also identified meatless options where available.
I hope this will simplify the job of meal planning, whether you're going out for a weekend or an entire season. But there's still plenty of work left for you to do. Only you can decide on portion sizes, after all, and you're bound to have plenty of menu ideas of your own. So don't take what I've written as gospel. It isn't. Feel free to embellish at will. Make sure that you err on the side of generosity where quantities are concerned, though. Call this putting something by for a rainy day, if you like. You never know when a major storm or minor mishap will delay your return, or when some of your food stores might be lost to an angry wave or a hungry bear. No waterproof bag is totally bombproof, and black bears are skilled climbers. (No food‑storage safe is proof against every conceivable assault, either.) A few extra pounds are a small price to pay to guarantee that you won't go hungry.
That's enough of cautions and caveats. Let's get started. And we'll begin just as the sun is rising, with…
Some paddlers live for breakfast. Others think it's just a distraction from the important business of drinking coffee. I'm in the latter camp, but I eat breakfast anyway. My motor won't run without fuel. But this doesn't make coffee any less important. That said, there are plenty of beverage options:
- Coffee (My Java Press turns a chore into a delight.)
- "Quick and Easy Choco‑Java"
- Powdered drink mixes
- Instant soup
After that, it's on to the main course. In a hurry? Then choose from among these…
- Instant oatmeal or other instant hot cereal
- A bagel or other bread, topped or filled as you see fit (see "Toppings and Fillings," below)
- Precooked, shelf‑stable bacon
- Breakfast sandwich (many meatless options)
- Granola with reconstituted dry milk
- Fresh or dried fruit
- Toaster pastries, store‑bought or homemade (eaten cold)
- Doughnuts or other store‑bought baked treat
- Store‑bought coffee cake
Or maybe you're stormbound, and you've got scads of time to cook and clean up. If so, here are some suggestions for…
or James Stone's "Magic Morning Mix"
- "Old‑fashioned" oatmeal
Hot breakfast sandwich (many meatless options) Pancakes, French toast, or "Sweet Skillet Biscuits" Eggs, fresh or dried (scrambled, fried, poached, or in an omelet) SPAM, sausage, ham, or bacon Sautéed potatoes or hash browns "Stewed Fruit Slump"
So much for breakfast. Now it's lunchtime. And yes, lunchtime begins as soon as breakfast ends — and it lasts till you're off the water for the day. That being the case, what's for…
As I've just suggested, lunch is a moveable feast. Even if you plan to stop for an extended midday break — and paddlers who are in a hurry often don't — it's important to keep your fuel tank topped up throughout the morning hours. Eat‑out‑of‑hand snacks and sugared drinks fill the bill here. The goal? Keeping the physiological collapse that cyclists and runners call "the bonk" at bay. And for some hard chargers that's it. Lunch is just a bigger helping of whatever snack has fueled them since breakfast. But most paddlers, I imagine, prefer a slightly less harried schedule. For us, lunch is a welcome chance to savor the sweet of the day. Which doesn't mean we always have time to cook a meal, of course. Luckily, there's no shortage of…
- Cold drink from powdered mix
- Journey cakes (Make 'em in camp the night before, or at breakfast.)
- Bagel or other bread with a topping or filling (see "Toppings and Fillings," below)
- Chocolate bar or candies
- Fresh or dried fruit
- Sausage sticks
- Commercial energy bars or homemade "Hundred‑Mile Bars"
Then again, there are also lazy days, days when the midday meal can be an end in itself. At such times, the nuisance of unpacking the stove is a small price to pay for…
- Coffee (instant, if you must), tea (bagged, ditto), or hot cocoa
- Soup, instant or quick‑cook (many meatless options)
- The traditional shore lunch (if the fish are biting — and if they're safe to eat)
- Bannock or flatbread, fresh‑baked
- Skillet biscuits
- Cheeseboard and crackers (NB While wine is a traditional accompaniment for cheese, if you value your boat — not to mention your skin — it's best to leave it in the bottle till dinnertime. 'Nuff said, I'm sure.)
Breadstuffs figure large at lunchtime. And whether you favor ready‑made (bagels, rye, pumpernickel, crackers, tortillas, and the like) or fresh‑baked (biscuits and bannock), or a combination of the two, you'll almost certainly want something to slather on it. Here are some possible…
Toppings and Fillings
- Jam, jelly, or marmalade
- Nut butter (peanut, cashew, or other)
- Butter or margarine
- Olive oil
- Maple syrup
- Marmite (Try it at home first! You'll either love it or hate it.)
- Marshmallow whip
- Potted meat
- SPAM or one of its many imitators
- Hard salami or dry sausage
Lunch can be a welcome break, indeed, and for some paddlers it's the best part of the day. But nothing lasts forever. As pleasant as it is to chill out on shore while the sun is still high in the sky, you'll want to be back in your boat before long. And that's when you'll start looking forward to…
The moveable feast continues all afternoon, of course. The need to keep your tank topped up never stops. Yet the end of the day looms closer with each bend in the river, each headland that passes astern. Soon you'll be in camp. And evening is a time of total repose, an opportunity to sit back and relax, to enjoy a warm drink or a glass of wine, free of any worry about its effect on the sharp edge of your perceptions.
That's the ideal, anyway. Sometimes, however, the end of the day is just that. You're too tired to enjoy lingering long around a convivial fire. You just want to get something in your belly in the shortest possible time and then grab some shut‑eye. That's when you most appreciate…
Luckily, there are lots of options to choose from:
- Canned soup or stew (many meatless options)
- "Quicker Chicken Stew"
- "Fusion Couscous" (meatless options)
- "Pasta in Tomato Sauce" (meatless options)
- "Pasta With Dried Sauce" (meatless options)
- "Skillet Noodles" (meatless options)
- "Oriental Noodles and Peanuty Broth" (meatless options)
- SPAM with canned beans
- "Creamy Tuna Noodle Casserole"
- "Chicken and Potato Pie"
- "Hurry Curry" (meatless options)
- "Take‑Away Tortillas" (meatless options)
- Basic fritattas (many meatless options)
- "Instant Rice and Beans" (meatless options)
Of course, the list lengthens when you have the time (and energy) to prepare a more elaborate meal:
- Satays with basmati rice
- "Pizza to Go" (many meatless options)
- "Quick and Easy Polenta" (meatless options)
- "Rasta" (many meatless options)
- Tortillas with rice, black beans, and grated Cheddar (many meatless options)
- SPAM or sliced canned ham with potatoes au gratin and pineapple slices
- Pasta and sauce entrées (many meatless options)
- "Reggie's Lemon Risotto" (meatless options)
- "Paddler's Pilaf" (many meatless options)
- "Waterside Waldorf Salad"
- Bruschetta (many meatless options)
- Chicken or beef stew with dumplings or biscuits
- Fritattas (many meatless options)
- "Quinoa Pilaf" (meatless options)
And after dinner comes…
Even paddlers who don't have a sweet tooth will usually appreciate an end‑of‑the‑day treat. Here are some ideas:
- Canned fruit
- Cookies, store‑bought or homemade
- Brownies, ditto
- Candy bars
- Energy bars
- Individually wrapped store‑bought cakes
- Individually wrapped shelf‑stable puddings
- Individually wrapped store‑bought pies
And whenever there's time for something more than hasty pudding:
- Ice cream!
- Apple cobbler, betty, or crisp
- Stewed fruit with cookies crumbled on top
- Skillet brownies
- Skillet cookies
- Pudding (packaged mix)
- "Pound‑Cake Trifle"
- "Sweet Surrender Sandwiches"
- Cheesecake (packaged mix)
- Popcorn (Not everyone's idea of dessert, I know, but it'll do me.)
Well, we've made it from dawn to dusk, and we haven't missed any meals. But we haven't quite exhausted the list of backcountry foods, either. Some things don't slot easily into a single category, but that doesn't make them any less important. And what are these all‑rounders? They're…
I treated this subject at some length in "The Camp Cook's Indispensables," but here's a short list of candidates, some of which have already appeared in one or more meal inventories:
- Coffee (the real thing or instant), tea (leaf or bag), cocoa (instant or regular)
- Salt and pepper
- Spices and herbs
- Cooking oil
- Dried milk
- Cornmeal (for sautéed fish, among other things)
OK. Those are the elements in my Modular Master Menu. The rest is up to you. Make your choices. Build your meal plan. Then go shopping. And don't put it off much longer. There's not a moment to be lost. Spring is in the air!
Some highfliers have personal trainers. Others have personal shoppers. But ordinary paddlers have missed the boat here. No matter. Today, I've taken on the role of personal trip‑menu consultant. It's all part of Paddling.net's friendly service. The price is certainly right. And with winter's end now in view, there's never been a better time to look ahead to warmer days. So grab pen and paper, settle down with a cup of tea or coffee, and get to work. After all, there's more than one way to venture off the Beeton track.
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