Thursday, August 9, 2007

Preparing Food

A friend of mine is heading up to hike the Cape Scott Trail this month, and she recently called me to get some ideas for meals. Good timing, as I'm up to my eyeballs in preparing food for next week's West Coast Trail hike.

I have a few goals in mind when I start preparing a meal list: weight, nutritional value, taste, and shelf life. I like to make a lot of my meals from scratch, using recipes from Lipsmackin' Backpackin, the Web, or my imagination. I know when I make the meals myself that they will be healthy, satisfying, and chemical-free. Unfortunately, sometimes that's just not what I crave on the trail, so I will augment my menu with a few commercial freeze dried meals, energy bars, and snacks. Currently about 75% of my food is homemade.

So, the first step is to calculate how many days and nights you plan to be on the trail, and from there figure out how many of each meal you will need. For this upcoming trip, I have determined that I will need 5 breakfasts, 5 snacks, 6 lunches, 6 bags of trailmix (gorp), and 5 dinners. We're planning to spend 4 nights on the trail, but weather and timing means 5 nights is just as likely. Normally I would bring an extra emergency meal, but instead I will take a bit of cash and perhaps enjoy a meal at Chez Monique's (photo), or some fresh crab or salmon at the Nitnat ferry.

Once quantities are calculated, I will grab a pad of paper and make a chart with the headings of breakfast, snacks, lunch, gorp, and dinner. Under each heading I will create a numbered line up to the quantity of each meal needed (ie, 5 lines for breakfast). I will then proceed to populate the chart with meals as I prepare or buy them.

The next step for me is to go through all the meals and make a shopping list for ingredients. This usually requires visiting a health food store, grocery store, and outfitter. Then, I will prepare all of the ingredients that require dehydrating, and load up my dehydrator. This often takes a couple of days so I try to start a few weeks in advance. While dehydrating, I will start preparing the meals that don't require dehydrated ingredients, but may require dehydrating once prepared. Between stages, I store all dried ingredients in the freezer to maximize shelf life and make them easier to chop in the blender.

The next few days are spent baking, mixing, and generally making a mess of the kitchen. Eventually, I will have a bunch of Ziploc bags full of tasty meals. Each bag gets a masking tape label with the meal name, preparation instructions, and another label with any ingredients I need to add before I leave, such as cheese. If a meal is in multiple bags I will label them with "1 of 3","2 of 3" etc. Once each meal is completed, I will put a checkmark beside it on my chart.

A few days before my hike, most meals should be checked off the list, and any prepackaged meals added to fill in any blanks. When buying prepackaged meals, I look for those with the least amount of chemicals, and make sure they don't require long simmering times or the addition of special ingredients. A paper pouch is also nice as it can be burned in a camp fire. For my Ziploc meals, I will bring the tempty bags home, wash them, and use them again.

Now it's time to load up the pack. Typically I've always put a day's worth of food in one large Ziploc, and label the bag "Monday" or "Day 1", for example. For next week's West Coast Trail trip, I am going to try a slightly different system. As we don't know what time or day we will be starting (we don't have a permit reserved) I am just going to load all the breakfasts in one bag, lunches in another, and so on. This way, if we start early or late I can quickly add or remove items and leave them in the car. Another potential benefit of this method is I can have some choice in meals each day and not force myself to eat something I'm not craving that particular day. It will also let me choose meals according to the weather and schedule: a hot breakfast on a cold day, or cold cereal on a morning we're racing to catch a low tide. Meals with longer preparation times can be used on days we decide to stop early.

In my next post, I will share my specific meal plan, along with weights and approximate nutritional information.

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