Lightweight Keys to Great Backcountry Dining

One Mere Pound for a Week of Magnificence

By Wells Shoemaker MD

Winemaker, Salamandre Wine Cellars

Summer 2010


We’re all concerned about carrying excess weight these days—under our belts and behind our backs.  As our personal physical capabilities inexorably decline, even slowly, we’re paying more necessity. However, along with maturity, many of us have acquired a taste for more tantalizing flavors than the usual freeze dried food choices.

Here is a bag of items that pack a real punch at dinner time, vaulting your meal to standards to match your surroundings…for under a pound for at least a week’s worth.  You’ll notice a powerful Mediterranean influence…which could be expanded with imagination. 

  1. 1. Olive oil.  4-6 oz will make this the heaviest item in the bag…but it is essential! 

  2. 2. One whole garlic.  Nothing substitutes for the aroma of sizzling garlic in the woods, and no powder can replicate the flavor.  It weighs practically nothing. Dried onion flakes are practically weightless, cheap, and they serve their masters.

  3. 3. Dried mushrooms.  These are expensive, but soak a few into plumpness, then use that infused water to boil your pasta in magnificent flavor.  Enjoy the mushrooms in the sauce, of course.  A half ounce of porcinis, morels, chanterelles, or shiitakes can please your companions for 3 meals.

  4. 4. Red chili pepper flakes.  The little packets that come with pizza can do marvelous things for rice, beans, mashed potatoes, or even ramen.  A couple jalapenos will do the same…with a bit more weight.

  5. 5. Capers.  A few capers take anything in a frying pan from ordinary to exotic in a blink.  You can find these packed in salt as well as the equally appealing standard vinegar.  Either way an ounce of capers will be worth the lugging.

  6. 6. Sun dried tomatoes.  Talk about bang per ounce!  Use in sauces, as a garnish over pasta, or for a snack.  If you like tomatoes, you can pack more without trespassing too far above that one-pound limit.

  7. 7. Sesame seeds and celery seeds. An ounce of these guys can surprise the most jaded hiker.

  8. 8. Oregano, Basil, and Dill flakes—for negligible weight, you get kitchen rich flavors.  A sprig of rosemary will make your backpack smell great, and even a few leaves will enliven that trout in your pan.

  9. 9. Dried mustard.  What a secret!  Reconstitute with water or simply use the powder to season a mountain salad or your potatoes.

  10. 10. Soy sauce.  A few packets left over from your last take-out meal will really change things!  Try with a dash of olive oil and sesame seeds over miners’ lettuce or water cress with slivered wild onions.

  11. 11. Olives.  This may sound indulgent, but an ounce of pre-sliced kalamatas will make spaghetti sauce jump up and sing.

  12. 12. Balsamic vinegar—a little dab makes a big impact.  Bring an ounce.

  13. 13. Pine nuts. Just a few make a big difference.

  14. 14. Dry, hard cheese such as Parmesan, Asiago, Manchego or Dry Jack. Maybe easiest to bring a chunk and shave it parsimoniously over nearly anything you cook.

Now, for more indulgent tastes:

Note that small cans, while counterintuitive for lightweight packing, actually weigh very little and are easily flattened and packed out.  If you are willing to carry another pound of moist, high flavor impact foods, try these:

1.3-4 oz cans of baby shrimp, crab meat, anchovies, or smoked salmon will make pasta sauces amazing…or set you up for a mountain paella that they’ll still be raving about.

2.4 oz can of tomato paste.  There is very little water weight in these, and the return for the wee bit of lugging is genuine flavor

3.A 6-8 oz dry salami.  A person can live a week off one of these marvels, and shavings over pasta make things jump with flavor.  Keep away from bears….