Backcountry recipes

🕔Jan 29, 2009

There are plenty of good reasons for getting out in the backcountry, but perhaps the most compelling of these is how good food tastes when it’s consumed miles from the nearest drive-thru window, frozen food section, or anything involving microwaves.

Mealtimes in the bush are about more than just re-fuelling: they’re a time to turn your face toward the sky, take in the view, chat with your fellow adventurers and savour the food you’ve so dearly earned. Perhaps it could be said that backcountry expeditions are little more than a lot of hard work for the sake of the most rewarding noshing you’ll ever partake in.

With this sentiment in mind, we chewed the fat with a few of northern BC’s outdoor enthusiasts for their secrets to breaking bread in the bush. These suggestions always come with more fond memories than exact calculations or fancy ingredients. They are often followed by the words, “…and whatever you can find in your backpack.” Many require a little prep work, a food dehydrator or some time spent staring at bulk bins in the health-food store.

They’re quick, simple and no-frills, but when served under a big sky in the backcountry, nothing ever tasted so good.

Cullen’s Rice and Beans Coalition
When Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen isn’t donning a suit and heading off to work on Parliament Hill, you’re likely to find him exploring the furthest reaches of his constituency and beyond, preferably with paddle in hand.

“I wouldn’t say I’m the most hardcore person, but I love it. Canoeing’s my favourite thing, when I can. That’s where I get my peace and tranquility,” says Cullen, who—at press time, anyway—is also NDP environment critic. Cullen has dipped his paddle in rivers across Ontario and BC, but says his most memorable canoe trip was the Upper Stikine a few years ago; this may partly explain his distaste for coalbed methane.

Cullen doesn’t do dishes—not in the bush, anyway—and describes himself as a “one pot kinda’ chef” on backcountry expeditions—simple meals fit the bill. “I’m a breakfast guy, so if I can get a rice-and-beans out of the trip, I’m happy,” says the well-travelled MP, who acquired a taste for rice and beans while hiking in Ecuador a few years back. It has since become a staple breakfast, both in and out of the backcountry.

“It’s the perfect meal—the best balance of protein and carbohydrates you can get,” he says about the power breakfast that gets you through a day of roughing it in the bush. Staying true to the Latin American theme, Cullen advises also tossing a bottle of Salsa Lisano in your backpack. “It’s my one decadence. It’s a rescue sauce when any meal goes sideways,” he says.

Soak beans overnight
Soak rice briefly to save fuel
While boiling, toss in dehydrated onions, garlic and cilantro
Salsa Lisano to taste

High-Altitude, Low-Fat Soup
Christoph Dietzfelbinger’s initial response to the question “What is your favorite backcountry meal” is easy: His favourite backcountry meal? Whatever he’s served by the cook at his remote cabin, the Burnie Glacier Chalet. But if anyone is accustomed to fending for himself, it’s northern BC’s resident mountain guide, and it doesn’t take long for Dietzfelbinger to start reminiscing about great meals amongst the peaks.

The alpinist relies on his food dehydrator to eat well in the backcountry, creating home-cooked luxuries like pasta sauce and curry that he then evaporates into lightweight meals. “I tend to make a whole dish at home, dry it, then pack it along. I do as little real cooking as possible while I’m out there,” he says.

With nearly three decades of guiding experience and 100 to 200 days spent in the backcountry each year, Dietzfelbinger knows that the higher you go, the less your body is able to metabolize fats, making low-fat recipes important on high-altitude expeditions. While guiding Mount Logan a few years back, re-hydrated soup with potatoes (from his own Telkwa High-Road garden) and dulse (a high-protein, high-vitamin seaweed good for replacing lost minerals) was a hit with the group.

“Everybody really craved the salty stuff. I suspect it has to do with the snow that we melt for drinking water being so bereft of minerals,” he says.

Soup stock
Gruyere cheese
Combine into soup, then dehydrate.

Christoph adds the following instructions for cooking the dried soup: “Use sufficient water and an available source of heat, while taking care to contain the mixture in a pot.”

Gatt’s “Mushed” Lasagna
Just home from the Sheep Mountain Lodge 150 Sled-Dog Race in central Alaska—where he placed third out of 48 teams in temperatures that dipped to 20 below—musher Hans Gatt says he craves a lot of things on the trail, but it’s safe to say low-fat isn’t one of them.

As his partner Susie Rogan, the team’s culinary expert, scrolls through a list of running rations, Gatt stops her at the vegetable lasagna: “I think that’s my favourite,” says the part-time Atlin resident and veteran dog-sledder, who is already signed up to run this year’s Iditarod and Yukon Quest races.

Cooked right in the couple’s own kitchen, the mammoth lasagnas are made in two roasting pans weighing in the neighbourhood of 20 pounds each. Cut into single-meal portions and vacuum-sealed in plastic, Rogan then squishes the packages flat to allow for faster cooking.

After a long day on the trail, Gatt boils the water he will use to feed the dogs, tossing his lasagna package in to heat as well while he tends to his team. As the dogs’ dinner soaks, the three-time Quest winner cuts the corner of the package and squeezes out warm lasagna—it holds up to its squishing pretty well, he says—eliminating the need for dishes and utensils.

Then he sits back to watch the show. Most recently, Gatt raced under the combination of a full moon and a meteor shower: “I stopped counting,” he says about the shooting stars. “It was unbelievable.”

Lasagna noodles
Tomato sauce
Roasted eggplant
Black olives
Artichoke hearts
Cottage cheese

Bake in two large roasting pans and seal in single-serving packs
To prepare: Heat in boiling water for five minutes

Sawchuk’s Tuna Surprise
In his effort to protect the pristine mountain landscapes near his hometown of Chetwynd, photographer and conservationist Wayne Sawchuk spends an average two-and-a-half months in the backcountry every year. For the dedicated adventurer, the seclusion is not a hardship.

“It’s a way of getting me out in the mountains for a length of time,” says Sawchuk, a driving force behind the creation of northeastern BC’s Muskwa-Kechika Management Area and winner of a 2006 Canadian Environmental Award.

“It’s a life that harkens back to our history as North Americans. It’s like life on the frontier was a century ago—the simplicity of it and I guess the elegance, you could say. You’re with the horses and the wildlife; you’re in the untracked wilderness.”

Sawchuk is currently planning this summer’s expedition—part eco-tourism, part conservation initiative—that will begin late June and meander through the Northern Rockies until mid-September, with various groups joining and leaving the expedition along the way.

On his summer excursions, guests take turns preparing a meal, with regular food drops taking place throughout the trip. The system exposes Sawchuk to an array of backcountry cooking styles, but his favourite dish is about as ‘cowboy’ as baked beans. “For a quick meal coming in off the horses: tuna surprise!” Sawchuks says.

And the surprise part? “It can be a surprise because it depends what’s in your panniers. It’s never built the same way twice.”

Two boxes Macaroni Dinner (with butter and powdered milk, if available)
One can mushrooms
One can tomatoes
Two cans tuna
A couple dried chilies, “according to the tolerance of your party”