The mountain experience . . . includes not only victories on peaks but such small joys as a nice cup of tea. Good food gives a festive touch, improves the scenery and keeps up spirits during days of storm and fog. Bad food makes trails steeper, beds lumpier, sunsets paler and friends harder to get along with.
From "Mountaineering, the Freedom of the Hills," a book by The Mountaineers, a Seattle alpine club.
WHETHER you are going winter hiking for a day or camping for a weekend or a week, there's no reason to put up with bad food. With a little imagination and planning you can eat very well indeed on the trail or in camp.
In the winter, there are special problems. Water bottles can freeze and so can your food. (Have you ever tried to separate pieces of frozen cheese?) At the same time, the body craves more food because it needs more to keep warm, and you and your fellow diners are apt to appreciate good cooking even more than in the summer.
The increased need for food for body warmth is startling. The Appalachian Mountain Club's "White Mountain Guide" declares, "For a full day with a full pack, a hiker will need around 5,500 calories. Candy, mintcake and the like provide quick energy. Fats, like butter, provide prolonged energy." Since that calorie count is more than twice what an adult man normally needs, it's a great excuse to pig out!
Much as in the summer, winter-camp cooking will be limited by the amount you can carry and the stove you will be using, which should be small, to hold down weight. A stove is a must, since open wood fires are prohibited in many areas and, frankly, are an awful lot of trouble. (My favorite is the WhisperLite made by Mountain Safety Research of Seattle, about $40 at camping supply stores. It's both light and quiet and comes with a foil windshield that really works.)
Holding down weight usually means eliminating as much liquid as possible from food you carry. Dried soups, pasta, cereals, pancake mix, rice and the like allow you to carry a lot of calories without a lot of weight.
My food planning often starts with a trip to a well-stocked supermarket or a specialty food store, such as the Cash Grocer, a health food store at 1315 King Street in Alexandria. Look closely at the items on the shelves and ask yourself: Does that look good and would I like it after having cooked it over a small stove while camping? Then check the cooking instructions. Those savory dishes that require an oven or 30 minutes of simmering are best eaten at home or left on the shelf. Remember, you have to carry the fuel for the stove, too.
One great find this year at the Cash Grocer was a mix for tabouli, a Middle Eastern dish of Bulgar wheat and spices that requires no cooking. Using a large plastic bag, you combine the mix, water and olive oil and let it stand. For winter eating, you can add pine nuts, fresh or dried onions and raisins, and then heat it.
Rice makes a good base for a wide variety of camp dishes, such as a tuna fish curry or meat with gravy prepared at home and frozen. Remember to check the frozen food section at the supermarket also. In winter you may be able to keep the packages quite well, or you can plan to eat them not long after they thaw.
I don't care for the quick-cooking varieties of rice, so I was pleased to discover the ease of fixing couscous, another Middle Eastern dish. It is another type of wheat that you can buy precooked. All you do is add some margarine, butter or oil to water and bring it to a boil. Remove it from the stove and add the couscous, let it stand for about 15 minutes and then fluff with a fork.
My most important find this year, however, was pesto sauce mix. Pesto is a blend of sweet basil, cheese and garlic. I won't say the mix is as good as pesto made from fresh basil, but it is still delicious. The Mayacamas brand requires only that you add hot water, butter or margarine and grated parmesan cheese. You spoon the sauce over your favorite pasta, toss gently and add more cheese.
If you're going out just for the day, weight is not that much of an issue, but again, keeping warm is. On a snowshoe trip a year ago in New Hampshire in deep, new powder, I discovered that when it is really cold -- that day it was well below zero on the summit -- the best thing to do is to keep moving. There was no lunch stop at which everyone would become thoroughly chilled as their bodies cooled. Instead, we stopped briefly to snack, usually with the food pulled from some convenient pocket rather than deep in the pack. (You can keep food warm by putting it next to your water bottle that you have filled with hot, not cold, water.)
The snacks were the usual mixtures of "gorp" -- that combination of nuts, chocolate or butterscotch bits, sunflower seeds, raisins, or whatever else appeals to you -- cheese, crackers, salami or other sliced meats, sandwiches, Granola bars and the like.
While those are all fine, if you're prepared it takes only a moment more to reach into your pack and pull out a Thermos with hot soup or, say, hot macaroni and cheese. And that beats them all.
If you cooked it at home, the soup can come out of a can, a package or be home-made. If weight is an issue, just pause and look at the steadily growing number of more interesting dry soups at your supermarket. For instance, Lipton's is selling a line of "International Soup Classics" that includes clam chowder, minestrone and lobster bisque, among others. They're expensive, but they are light and very tasty.
Hot drinks hit the spot as well. Few hikers seem to take along coffee. Tea or hot chocolate are the standards, but think about hot cider or hot lemonade for a change.
If you have to be up and on the trail early, breakfast in camp is apt to be something quick, perhaps a hot cereal, jam and bread (try a dense wholewheat sourdough bread available at many specialty food stores; it is tasty, full of protein and can't be crushed in your pack). Add margarine or butter to the cereal to provide some of that fat you need for warmth.
With more time, nothing is better than pancakes and bacon. (I carry the fresh eggs for the batter wrapped in toilet tissue inside my smallest cooking pot and they have never broken.) Take along some frozen fruit, perhaps blueberries, to make the pancakes something special.
Remember: Let your imagination roam, plan carefully and do as much of the food preparation as possible -- including repackaging in plastic bags as necessary -- in the warmth of your own kitchen. For instance, add the necessary quantity of dried milk to the measured pancake mix and stick in a small note as a reminder about how much water to add.
Finally, think about some of the special ways in which winter can help you. If you want food to stay cold, it will stay cold or frozen. That opens up new vistas for desserts. If you got into camp early enough you could try the ultimate: home-made ice cream. Mixes are available, as is the salt, and the ice is all around you.