BY ELISA WIRKALA
After four years of travel, frugal adventuring is pretty much my full-time gig. Whether riding the continents, hiking across countries or climbing granite walls, I get a big appetite!
And when I’m out on a long journey, I’m just not okay with fast food, especially for weeks or months on end. Our bodies are the most important tools for these adventures, and need to be fueled with good stuff. But if I want to keep it up, I need to watch what I’m eating, but also watch what I’m spending.
And because I’ve so often been asked what I eat while on the desolate road or trail (especially as a vegetarian), I’ve put together a grocery list of all the ingredients I find are generally easy to locate in western grocery stores. These are the things I take with me on long treks, too. I’ve even taken many of these staples abroad to start me off on a long trip in a new country (just check the border restrictions of where you’re off to, and consider repackaging or consolidating any items once there so border security can see products in their sealed, original packaging). In vegetarian food-deserts and desolate places like Patagonia, the Nullarbor, or the steppes of Mongolia, simple things like the Hunger-No-More Oat Bowl with real coffee, The Starving Artist or chocolate with peanut butter do wonders at keeping energy stores and spirits soaring. (Though it’s also important to mention that in places where food is readily available and inexpensive, you’d be a sucker to not try the local cuisine, and add in new and local ingredients when you can!)
And because almost all of these things are lightweight, I can carry a ten day supply of much of the below food and fuel on my own back, or store them in a small pannier on a bike, while savoring delicious, cheap meals.
I’ve added a few recipes to tweak to your own liking, too.
A Simple Grocery List
Bulk instant oats w/
Dehydrated milk (or coconut) powder
Coffee (real ground beans)
Sharp cheddar cheese*
Peanut butter* (the most natural one available)
Bulk hummus mix
Bulk banana chips or soft dehydrated bananas
Bulk nuts or trail mix, with your favorite goodies added in
Dehydrated mashed potatoes (the one with the fewest ingredients)
Salt and pepper (combined in a small ziplock)
Pre-shredded parmesan cheese
Asian-style noodles (not the instant single-serve packets)
Dehydrated instant refried beans**
Dehydrated instant rice**
Miso soup packets
Instant soup packets or dehydrated split pea soup (the more natural, the better)
Fried shallots (often found in the Asian section of supermarkets)
Tortillas or wholewheat wraps
“Hardtack” Scandinavian crackers
Fresh fruit and veg (carrots, bell pepper, avocado, snap peas, tomatoes, apples)***
Favorite oil (olive, coconut, avocado, vegetable) in a trustworthy (small) plastic bottle
Wine (in an empty plastic water bottle) for true decadence****
*Though heavy, these two are great caloric bang-for-your-buck items I won’t hit the road without.
**These two items I found for a few bucks each at wholesale grocery stores.
***Only when motorcycling, not for long hikes as they’re too heavy.
****Not something I carry often while trekking (though sometimes I do!), but setting up camp with a cup of wine is always a treat.
Coffee drinkers, unite!
Coffee is sometimes one of my bigger expenses. These days, I always try and make my own, and always be prepared for the roadside coffee emergency. I prefer real ground beans to instant packets, which I’ll make in a half Turkish-style method, by bringing water to a simmer, turning off the gas, and putting in a couple of spoonfuls (user preference), then waiting for grinds to sink. I once crossed Australia with an actual Turkish coffee maker, and another time with a small Italian percolator (the most delicious method, but definitely requires a bit more space).
Hunger-No-More Oat Bowl
Though I used to sort of despise oatmeal as ‘boring camp food’, I’ve now grown to love it with a few of my favorite ingredients added. Here are some ideas, but you can always add a variety of other ingredients, like shredded coconut or even chocolate chips or cocoa powder, to get a combination you’re happy with.
In a sturdy ziplock bag, pre-mix bulk instant oats, cinnamon, raisins, seeds (I like chia, sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds), dehydrated milk or coconut milk powder and a bit of salt. Seal it up and give it a shake. Once cooking, add a bit of diced up apple to the water while it warms, or banana to your bowl for some natural sweetening.
Lunch and Snacks:
For lunch, I always have a bag of trail mix handy as a good protein source, but I do get a bit bored of it. These days, my favorite lunchtime snack is banana chips with peanut butter, 85% dark chocolate with peanut butter, or a wrap with peanut butter and dehydrated (soft) bananas, or regular bananas if weight (and squishing) isn’t an issue.
I also love simple cheese on hardtack, with a quick dehydrated hummus mix that can be prepared with cold water. The hardtack doesn’t break as easily as other crackers and they last a long time. Make sure to give them a try at home first, as they do seem a bit like cardboard at first!
The Starving Artist
If you’re having a more leisurely lunch break, heat up some couscous, and throw in your favorite instant soup packet for added flavor (pumpkin is my favorite), or use your salt and pepper mix with herbs, with a little oil. Wrap it all up in a lunchtime couscous and cheese wrap for a delicious and quick meal. Tired of couscous? Heat up some dehydrated beans instead, and make a bean and cheese burrito. I’ll often prepare a bean or couscous burrito in the morning, so that my lunch is ready to go when hunger hits.
If you’re hungry and can’t wait for dinner, heat up a bit of water and throw in a miso soup packet as an appetizer. It’s hot, salty, and will tide you over until dinner is ready. Apples and peanut butter is another classic snack combination.
Anytime I’m on a hike for more than three days, I suddenly find my metabolism skyrocketing and I crave a lot more calorie-filled, carbohydrate rich foods. And when I’m freezing on a long motorcycle ride, this cheesy potato dish really hits the spot!
Before you leave for your journey, pour dehydrated mashed potatoes in a sturdy ziplock baggie with salt and pepper to taste, and a good portion of dehydrated milk powder. Once you’re on the trail, heat water to a simmer with a helping of dehydrated peas. Let peas simmer for a couple of minutes, or if you need to conserve fuel, turn off your stove and let the peas sit in the hot water for 5 minutes, or until they’re nice and round again, without many wrinkles. Once peas look re-hydrated, add dehydrated mashed potatoes and stir slowly. If it seems too sticky or gooey, you need more mashed potato flakes. Don’t whip, but stir gently for best results. Add in fried shallots at the end for some texture, and either parmesan cheese or cheddar cheese on top.
The Flightless Scavenger
For a variety of flavors on different nights, I’ll often add a bit of split-pea soup mix to the mashed potatoes, or one of the soup packets, and even a little couscous to bulk things up. I’ll eat it as is, or wrap it all up in a wholewheat wrap with a few more slices of cheddar. If I’m traveling with a big enough pot, I’ll put a little oil in the bottom and pan-fry my burrito concoction to a nice golden-brown.
For this one, just bring a pot of water to a simmer with dehydrated peas for more nutrients, then add your miso soup packet, one portion noodles per person, and simmer until noodles are tender. I always buy noodles that take no more than 3-4 minutes to cook, to conserve fuel. When it’s cooked through, remove from heat and sprinkle with fried shallots for added flavor and crunch. If you’re traveling with eggs, try poaching an egg directly in the soup for added protein.
Cuban in a Blizzard
…Or at least the backpacking equivalent of this, got me through 120 miles of a glacier ski-expedition in the Wrangell-St. Elias range in the Yukon. This very simple meal is hearty, filling and warm, and packed with carbs and protein. Cook a pot of dehydrated rice with plenty of extra water (that’s very important). Once the rice is done, add in the dehydrated beans, stirring quickly and covering so as not to let out too much heat. You’ll have to wait at least 10 minutes for the beans to rehydrate, so in the meantime, chop up a handful of soft dehydrated bananas to throw into the mix, plus salt and pepper to taste. If you find your beans are still too hard and there isn’t enough water, just add a bit more water and bring to a quick simmer before letting the beans soak up the extra water. The beans and rice go a long way to replenishing your energy stores, and the bananas add in a sweet and tasty twist.
When motorcycling, I don’t need to worry about weight as much as when I’m hiking. For this reason, I usually travel with a few hardy veggies and fruit (avocados, bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes in a tupperware) to add to any of my meal plans. When I’m feeling really decadent, I’ll throw in a can or bag of coconut cream and a red curry paste to make a quick and yummy camp curry.
Curry in a Hurry
Heat up a bit of oil in your pot, and spoon in a generous helping of curry paste. Warm up the paste until it’s fragrant, then add in chopped bell peppers, carrots or anything else that doesn’t take long to cook. Stir to coat, before adding coconut cream and a cup of water (more or less depending on how thick you’d like it). Simmer for 10-15 minutes, longer if you have veggies like potatoes or squash, which should be cut small to preserve fuel. I add snap peas in the last few minutes of cooking. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve over instant rice or wholewheat couscous.
A Note on Fuel and Stoves
Don’t forget to take a camp stove, set of camp pots with lids (1 is doable, 2 is easier), suds, cutlery and sponge. Since losing my MSR WhisperLite stove somewhere in Central America, I now use a small $20 MSR stove that’s incredibly light and simple, though I don’t love the non-refillable fuel canisters. It does the trick in a pinch though, and choosing a simple, easy to set up system will definitely save you money over time. It becomes a pleasure to pull up to a lovely spot and make yourself a quick meal or a good cup of coffee.