How not to ultra-light camp: A guide to gourmet cooking in the backcountry

Ultra-lightweight backcountry packing might be the trend, but heavy gourmet camp cooking sounds a lot tastier to us

Many of Canada’s mountains are named after politicians and European explorers.  Thus, Watermelon Peak in Banff National Park stands out. Apparently, the first ascent party in 1966 carried a five-kilogram watermelon to the summit and ate it. Times were different; people weren’t sawing off toothbrushes or tearing off clothing tags to save weight. It didn’t matter as everything was heavy, especially food.

I’ve tried to be a lightweight backpacker, packing my bag with energy bars that look like they came out of a toilet and dehydrated meals that have the consistency of plaster. It didn’t last. When packing, I think of what J.R.R. Tolken wrote in The Hobbit: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Except I’ve replaced “hoarded gold” with “ultra-light camping gear.”

For me, the backcountry is a holiday; a time of food and merriment, not starvation and electrolytes. Here are some tips to improve your mountain gourmet and make it a trip to remember:

Crème brûlée

This classic dessert is remarkably well-suited to camping. It’s best served on mountain tops with a bottle of Champagne chilled on a nearby snow patch. Bake the dessert as directed at home; however, do not brûlée the top.

Since the dessert uses ramekins, it packs well. Cover with tinfoil for carrying. When you get to your destination, sprinkle with sugar and torch the top. Summit views improve with custard.

Summit steak

First, freeze the steaks. Right before leaving for your trip, wrap the frozen steaks tightly in a big towel.

It’s best not to use alpine trees for campfires. Instead, cook on a single-use portable barbeque. Season the steaks as desired. I recommend harissa spice to bring the meal international intrigue.

Moscow Mules pair well, so bring an enamel camping mug, once again using summit snow for ice. Hollandaise sauce goes splendid with steak and can be made on a camping stove. Perhaps as you tuck into your steak you’ll notice the sad campers in the valley below heating water for instant mush. How pedestrian.

Turkey dinner

It’s not as hard as it sounds, but this meal does require an entire day of preparation. For the last nine years, friends and I have gone on a turkey trot in the bush, where we cook a Thanksgiving meal over a fire.

Buy a frozen turkey. Take it out of the freezer the day before the trip. By the time you’re ready to start cooking, it should be mostly thawed.

Prepare the bird following Gordan Ramsay’s method. However, take liberties as the recipe is for a kitchen with an oven. Fire cooking is more temperamental.

To keep the turkey from burning, use multiple aluminum turkey trays. I stack four on the bottom and another one on top, sealed with aluminum foil. The multiple trays are critical as they provide air pockets, which buffer the turkey from the fire’s intense heat. Without them, the turkey will become a lump of coal.

Prop the turkey between rocks or on top of a grill with embers beneath. Replenish/feed the fire as needed.  Don’t worry if the bottom outer tray begins to melt, that’s why you have multiple. Every hour or so, check the turkey, basting as required.

Bring a meat thermometer. When the internal temperature of the thickest part of the breast reads 165 °F, it’s done. Let the turkey rest near the fire, covered, while preparing the fixings.

If it tickles your fancy, bring the bones home and make smoky turkey soup.

Cooking it up a notch

If you really want to step-up your backcountry cuisine, consider getting a backcountry oven. It’s perfect for sweets such as sticky toffee lavender puddings and upside-down plum and thyme cakes. Serve with hand-spun ice cream using snow instead of ice and crème fraiche, which lasts longer out of the fridge, instead of cream.

We live in an age of hustle and weight-saving tactics. It’s important to remember that it wasn’t always like this. Backcountry folk didn’t hum and haw on whether to pack bacon for breakfast or sugar for tea. They just brought it.

Carrying a heavy backpack is hard and it might be tempting, at times, to toss it off a very high cliff with pointy rocks at the bottom and dance manically around the debris. Yet, heavy packs are also more rewarding, particularly on the stomach.


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