5 Backcountry Food Disasters and How to Avoid Them

By Megan Mackenzie

Aug 7, 2015

Even though they don't taste good, food disasters do make for great stories.

Here are 5 of our best (or worst?) backcountry food disasters.

Re-ration at NOLS Patagonia
So, which white powder was the flour, and which was the sugar? Photo by Joshua Leitson.

1. Mistaking baking powder for alfredo sauce. Or hot chocolate for brownie mix. Or potato pearls for powdered milk.

If you’re using powdered goods on your trip, it’s easy to get them confused. And it’s rare that confusing your cooking ingredients has a positive outcome. Don’t end up with pasta in a baking powder-based white sauce, or mashed potato-Earl Grey tea.

Learn to identify each ingredient by sight, texture, or smell, and consider labeling each ingredient’s bag with a permanent marker. If you’re really unsure, give the mysterious powder a little taste-test before you dump it into the pot.

The worst of the worst? Mistaking your cooking oil for soap (true story!). Again, labeling can be key here. We recommend keeping your soap in a bottle distinctly different from your spice bottles in order to prevent your rice and beans from getting sudsy.

2. Underhydrating your dehydrated veggies

Failing to properly rehydrate certain foods can be a recipe for a stomachache. Dehydrated hash browns, though delicious when cooked properly, can wreak havoc on your intestines for the whole morning if you don’t soak them long enough.

Plan meals at least a couple hours in advance so you can soak dried ingredients as necessary. Consider putting dehydrated vegetables in a small water bottle or screw-top bowl overnight or during the day while you hike (you can even use cooking water from other dishes to do this). Then when it’s time to cook, your ingredients will be good to go, and your stomach will thank you.

3. Burning your breakfast biscuits

There are few things worse than starting your day with a bowl of charred carbon. When baking on a camping stove, remember to put the flame on a simmer. With a lower heat intensity, your pancakes, biscuits, scones, and other baked goods can cook all the way through without getting scorched.

Some stoves make it easy to adjust their flame to a simmer. Other stoves, like Whisperlites, require you to depressurize the fuel bottle in order to reach a simmer.

Pro Tip: To put a Whisperlite on simmer, follow these steps.

  • Light the stove as usual. Once the flame is up and running at normal pressure, turn off the fuel valve.
  • Double check that there is no open flame immediately nearby, then hold the fuel bottle upright and carefully unscrew the pump to release some of the pressure. You’ll be able to hear some of the pressure escaping from the bottle. 
  • Keep the pump unscrewed for just a couple of seconds, then re-screw the pump on the bottle. Set it back down next to the stove, open the fuel valve, and relight the stove. You may need to give it one or two more pumps if too much pressure escaped.
  • If you want an even lower flame intensity, repeat the process.
  • Playing around with new stove techniques can be dangerous, so practice this for the first time under the supervision of an experienced Whisperlite simmer-er.


Cooking at NOLS Patagonia
Halfway through a trip is not when you want to discover you didn't plan your food and fuel rations properly. Photo by Mauricio Clauzet.

Food stress happens for a reason: running out of food while in the backcountry truly is a food disaster. Luckily, with proper planning, you can prevent this nightmare from becoming reality. If you’re planning your own rations for an expedition, take some time to calculate enough food for each day. Consult NOLS Cookery or another guidebook to determine your caloric and nutrient needs, which can be calculated in relation to your physical activity intensity level, temperature, altitude, height, weight, etc.

You can get as scientific as you want with this process to prevent food shortages. Consider pre-bagging each meal and labeling them Dinner 1, Dinner 2, Dinner 3, etc. Alternatively, if you want to leave some room for creativity in the kitchen, understand the contents of your ration well enough to know the approximate food-per-day average.

One more tip for preventing food shortages: leave trail foods for the trail. It can be easy to snack on trail mix and granola bars when hanging around camp, but by saving trail foods for the trail, you won’t have to sacrifice breakfast or dinner foods as you move during the day. This way, you should almost always have a solid, hot dinner to look forward to at the end of the day.

With a strong understanding of your rations system, you should have enough food to fuel your body, and hopefully you will never go to bed hungry.

5. Running out of fuel

Falafel suddenly isn’t tasty anymore if it’s cold and liquid. Using up all your stove fuel can make much of your backcountry rations hard to stomach or even completely inedible. Determine how much fuel you’ll need on your expedition based on weather conditions and food ration plans (Will you want hot water bottles to keep your feet warm at night? Will you be cooking one, two, or three hot meals per day? How many days will you be in the backcountry?).

Understand how much fuel you’ve been rationed each day, and do your best to not over-do the hot drinks and hot water bottles beyond what you’ve planned for. Additionally, instead of draining your hot pasta water into the dirt, you can get two uses out of it by draining it into water bottles for hot chocolate or tea.

See a few of our favorite recipes for the trail here.

Editor's note: post updated 4/12/18

Written By

Megan Mackenzie

Megan was a NOLS Rocky Mountain Intern and graduated from a Southwest Outdoor Educator course in 2013. She recently graduated from Colby College, where she studied Psychology, Environmental Studies, and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She enjoys eating vegetables and is learning to mountain bike.

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