What's Your Off-Grid Cooking Style?

June 26, 2018 6 MINUTE READ

A thru-hiker, two vanlifers, and a duo of professional chefs who are avid backpackers.

A Quick Guide to Cooking in the Outdoors

For some people, food is merely fuel; for others, it’s an integral part of their outdoor experience. Some folks love a big breakfast; others grab a Clif bar and save their big meal for dinnertime.

What’s great, is that when it comes to cooking in the outdoors, there is no right or wrong option to choose from. It’s just about what is important to you. Below we’ve gathered 3 common types of cooks you’ll find on the trail and outlined how each cooking style impacts your meal planning.

Level One: Ultra-Lighter

Michael is an adventurer who recently completed his first thru hike of the JMT and is currently a planning another backpacking trip to Kesugi Ridge in Alaska. His trips often require food to be carried for multiple days and miles before they get eaten so when it comes to meal prep, Michael says, “efficiency is king. The goal is to get as much of the essential nutrients, proteins, and vitamins in as little space as possible. "Calories per pound" is a crucial part of your meal planning. So, unfortunately, flavor often takes a back seat and you end up eating lots of bland oatmeal and rehydrated pasta dishes. But the high of a 20 mile day, up and over mountains tops in the wind and rain, will make any hot meal feel like mama's best home cooking.”

  • This describes you if...you’re counting ounces in your pack and need to bring the bare minimum. Your definition of off grid cooking is boiling water to quickly rehydrate a meal to refuel after a long day in the backcountry or mixing up a packet of oatmeal ahead of your trek. It’s all about speed and nutritional value.
  • Pros: Supplies are lightweight and take up minimal space in your pack, quick cooking times, little to no clean up
  • Cons: Dehydrated meals are often high in sodium content and low in the flavor department
  • Ideal for: Thru-hiking, ultra-light backpacking
  • Cooking Equipment: CampStove, pot to boil water, utensils
  • Sample Menu:
    • Breakfast: Coffee and oatmeal.
    • Lunch: A quick lunch of power bars or pre-packed sandwiches.
    • Dinner: Dried backpacking meals that are easily rehydrated with a bit of hot water. If you’re going this route, we’d recommend checking out our friends Good to Go Foods or Mountain House

Level Two: One-Pot Wonder

John and Jayme of Gnomad Home took a leap in 2016. They sold all of their stuff to move into their van. Since then, they’ve been adventuring around the US and living a nomadic lifestyle. As John says, “when you live in such a small area, you have to be conscious of every bit of space you take up. We absolutely love cooking elaborate meals, but when we are in the van we can't really use every single pot and pan that we have. Instead, we stick lentils and rice, stir fries with eggs cracked on top, pastas, soups, and so on. One pot meals guarantee a delicious entree with minimal mess.”

  • This describes you if...you like a good meal in the outdoors but aren’t hell bent on crafting a complex, gourmet dish. You’re all about one pot meals because you can still have great flavors but they only require a few ingredients, limited preparation, and are easy to clean up.
  • Pros: Meals are often delicious and full of flavor. They don’t require too much preparation. Only one pot to clean up and are good for people who don’t want their camp kitchen to take up too much space
  • Cons: Limited on what you can cook (you’re only using one pot after all)
  • Ideal for: Backpacking, bike-packing, hike in and out camping, day trips, car camping/road trips, van life.
  • Cooking Equipment: CampStove, KettlePot, coolers, cutting board, utensils (knife, mixing spoon, bowl, etc).
  • Sample Menu:
    • Breakfast: Coffee and oatmeal or some easy eggs in a pot.
    • Lunch: Leftovers from the night before or cold lunches like sandwiches.
    • Dinner: Chilis, Soups, Stir-fry, curries all cooked up in a single pot. If you’re looking for some inspiration try a one-pot recipe from our ambassadors: Erin & Mehedi or Nash & Kim’s Black Bean Chili.

Level Three: Off-Grid Gourmet

Outbound Kitchen Prep
Outbound Kitchen Kofta

Leslie & John of Outbound Kitchen are two professional chefs who double as avid adventurers. Together, they have hiked, climbed, cooked, swam, biked, or skied on five of the seven continents. “We like to savor our meals as much as our vistas,” says Leslie. “It’s probably because we’re chefs, but the way that we choose what to eat outdoors is not too different than how we choose what to eat in everyday life. Firstly, the food must be delicious, and secondly, it should be good for us. As with any other aspect of outdoorsmanship, a little extra planning and preparation will go a long way to having a much more enjoyable experience.”

  • This describes you if...cooking is directly connected with your experience of the outdoors. Whether it’s breakfast, dinner, or dessert, you put a lot of time and thought into planning, preparing, and packing each meal at the campsite. You find joy in the act of cooking the meal, and eating is one of the main off grid events on any given trip.
  • Pros: Cooking is a fun, group experience that results in a delicious, satisfying meal. You often have leftovers for the morning.
  • Cons: Packing and food prep can be time consuming, supplies take up more space in your car, not ideal for lightweight backpacking trips
  • Ideal for: Hike in and out camping, day trips, car camping, backyard BBQs, road trips, etc.
  • Cooking Equipment: CampStove Bundle, PizzaDome Bundle or FirePit, cooler, cutting board, cooking utensils.
  • Sample Menu:

A Few Must-Haves

No matter what cooking style you choose, there are a few must-haves that everyone should bring along:

  1.  Water: Make sure you have a reliable, potable water source or water filtration system if necessary. You always need to stay hydrated and many off grid meals require water.
  2. Packable Snacks: These are easy grab and go items to fill you up in between meals. Whether it’s a Clif bar, bag of nuts, or piece of fruit, bring along snacks that keep you going.
  3. Fuel Strategy: How will you be cooking meals? If you’re cooking over a wood fired stove, do you have enough pellets or firewood? Or will there be a reliable supply of sticks to use at your campsite? Remember to bring along enough fuel to cook each of meals and don't forget your fire startup squad.  
  4. If relevant: Bear cans and refrigeration options. When packing for your trip consider if items in your recipes need to be refrigerated and bring along necessary coolers or ice packs.

Heads Up: Advocate for Your Gut

Everyone’s got a different relationship to food, indoors and outdoors. It’s a highly personal experience, which makes YOU the best advocate for your food supply when you head off-grid.

Get low blood sugar? Make sure you’ve got a stash of bars handy. Know you need coffee to function but the rest of the crew is fine with water? Pack some pre-ground beans and a press. Love breakfast? Make sure you participate in the meal planning.

Sure, there may need to be some compromises (especially when planning for large groups), but make sure you have the energy you need to feel nourished and recharged on the trail – the only thing worse than being hangry is being hangry on a hike. This is especially important if you are new to an off grid activity. If you’re going on your first thru hike you might trust your friends for navigation planning but make sure you touch base about meals so that you’re fueling up in a way that gives you energy to get through each day.

We'll be adding new tips to The Clinic all summer long. Have a question you'd like answered? Submit below and it may appear in an upcoming post.

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