A NOLS Instructor’s Favorite Backcountry Meals
You deserve better than freeze-dried stroganoff
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After a long, hard day on the trail, the body doesn’t just crave fuel. It wants a warm, delicious, and nourishing feast. “Eating well in the backcountry makes such a world of difference,” says John Sims, rations manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Rocky Mountain campus in Lander, Wyoming. He’s seen it firsthand: “I remember one day last fall when I was working as an instructor. We had moved for a number of hours to camp, and all the students were tired, hungry, unhappy. The instructor team encouraged people to start making food right away, some instant soups and ramen. As soon as people started getting those calories, their mentality and the whole atmosphere of the camp turned around. We went from a grumpy, unhappy group to a pretty lively one.”
Since it was founded in 1965, NOLS has been known for refining backcountry meals, as evidenced by its cookbook, NOLS Cookery, now in its seventh edition. In addition to field-tested recipes, the book contains advice on on how to pack and ration supplies, as well as nutrition tips for long-distance hiking. As rations manager, Sims likes to make sure his programs’ students go out into the field with versatile ingredients. “We don’t send out a specific meal plan or recipes for students,” he says. “Instead we send them out with a bunch of options for food items, and they get to make their own meal plan in the field.” One of his favorite staples is flour. “Working with it in the field is the same as working with it at home,” he says. Another: “We send them out with a dried tomato powder—tomato paste that has been dried and powderized. You can make a lot of things with it.”
“We have a lot of students who come in who don’t really know how to cook,” he says. “Showing them how to make a pizza or cinnamon rolls is cool.” That said, when it comes to his own backcountry cooking, Sims prefers keeping it simple. “For myself, I like things that are on the easier side—things that are pretty quick and don’t require a lot of prep.”
Here are four of his favorite recipes, ranging in difficulty from straightforward, upgraded ramen to chef-worthy buttermilk pancakes.
This recipe is a great way to spruce up a go-to backcountry meal. “My favorite way to do ramen is boil the noodles like normal, add in spices, and add some instant potato pearls or flakes and make a thick stew,” Sims says. “On top of that, you can add cheese, summer sausage, a number of salty fatty things, and it transforms ramen from a lighter appetizer meal into a pretty full, thick, filling meal by itself.” This recipe is one of his favorites if he’s only bringing a Jetboil or another backpacking stove.
1 ramen packet (any flavor works, but Sims likes Koyo’s Garlic Pepper the best)
3 ounces instant potato flakes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 packet shelf-stable chicken (like Starkist)
Follow the directions on the ramen packet, and cook the noodles until soft. Remove from the heat, slowly add the potato flakes, and stir. The consistency should be thick but still thin enough to drag a spoon through. Add the olive oil, chicken, and ramen seasoning, stir, and enjoy.
Vegan “Creamy” Mushroom Polenta
If starting your morning with something sweet leads to bonking, try polenta. “This savory breakfast is delicious whether you’re vegan or not,” Sims says. It also makes for a comforting dinner.
3 cups water
8 ounces polenta
8 ounces cashew milk powder
1 handful dried mushrooms (Sims orders from Harmony House)
3 ounces nutritional yeast
2 packets powdered vegetable bouillon
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoons olive oil
Bring the water to a boil. While stirring, slowly stream in the polenta, cashew milk powder, mushrooms, nutritional yeast, and broth packets, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir continuously for about five minutes, or until the mixture is smooth and thick. Turn off the stove. Add the olive oil, cover, and let sit until the mushrooms finish hydrating, about two to three minutes.
If your go-to après meal is a big slice of pie, you’re in for a treat. “This NOLS classic has fed and uplifted the spirits of thousands of students and instructors alike,” Sims says. Pizza is one of the meals taught during every NOLS course, in addition to cinnamon rolls. You’ll need a basic cooking kit as well as a few specific pieces of gear: a stove with a simmer function (NOLS uses the MSR Whisperlite), a flat-bottomed pan with a metal lid, and a pile of small twigs—the largest should be about the size of a pencil. Measure, mix, and bag the dry crust ingredients (except the cornmeal) ahead of time, so they’re ready to go when you’re in the wild.
For the crust:
6 ounces white flour
3 ounces powdered milk
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1½ cups water
½ ounce coarse ground cornmeal (optional)
For the sauce:
3 ounces tomato powder
1 ounce dried onion
1 ounce milk powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder
6 ounces sliced or shredded cheese
In a bowl, mix all of the crust ingredients (except the cornmeal) together, and roll into a firm ball about the size of the palm of your hand. Use your thumb and fingers to pinch, stretch, and flatten the dough until it’s about the thickness of two quarters. Light the stove and reduce the heat to a simmer—the lower the better. If using cornmeal, sprinkle it onto the bottom of the flat-bottomed pan. This will lift the dough enough to help keep it from burning. Place the flattened dough into the pan, and cover with the metal lid. Place some of the small twigs on top of the lid and light them. This is called a twiggy fire, and it simulates the top burner in an oven. Keep adding twigs to keep the fire burning for five to seven minutes. While the dough cooks, mix the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl or mug, and season to taste with salt and garlic powder. Blow out the twiggy fire, and carefully remove the lid. Once the dough starts to turn golden, cover it with the sauce, cheese, and toppings. Cover the pizza with the lid, and restart the twiggy fire. Cook until the cheese is melted, about two to three minutes. Slice and enjoy.
Buttermilk Pancakes with Buttermilk Icing
This recipe is one of Sims’s recent discoveries. “Making backcountry buttermilk is well worth the time,” he says. “These pancakes are a delicious twist on a classic and are guaranteed to make your friends envious of your backcountry baking skills.” You can measure, mix, and bag the dry ingredients ahead of time, so they’re ready to go when you’re ready to cook.
For the icing:
1 cup butter
1½ cups buttermilk (recipe below)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the pancakes:
3 tablespoons egg powder (OvaEasy Whole Egg Crystals works great)
9 tablespoons water
1 cup white flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1½ cups buttermilk (recipe below)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Butter or oil for pan, plus butter for topping
To make the icing: Combine all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan and mix over medium heat, stirring constantly. Once the ingredients have melted, simmer an additional minute or two. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for five to ten minutes before serving.
To make the pancakes: In a mug, combine the egg powder and water, mix until smooth, and set aside. In a bowl, combine all of the remaining dry ingredients; or if you did this step at home, empty your bagged dry-ingredients mix into a bowl. Add the egg mixture, buttermilk, and vanilla, and stir until smooth. The pancake mix should be thin and runny enough to pour off a spoon. Turn on your stove and heat up a pan. Once warm, add either butter or oil. Pour roughly half a cup of the batter into the pan, and cook until small bubbles form on the surface. Flip and continue cooking until golden brown. Serve with butter and buttermilk icing. Makes 10 to 12 pancakes.
1 cup water
½ tablespoon vinegar
4 tablespoons powdered milk
1½ ounces lemon-juice powder (True Lemon packets work well)
Add the water, vinegar, and lemon juice powder to a bowl. Mix to dissolve the lemon juice powder. Slowly add the powdered milk while stirring, breaking apart any clumps. Makes 1½ cups.