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Edible Expeditions 101: How to Plan, Pack, and Prepare to Dine in the Wild

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food travel

Summer has officially arrived here in Alaska! If you’re like my family – all eight of us – you’re itching to get out to explore the great outdoors. With so many places to venture to across the country, from Yellowstone National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains, chances are you’re going to get hungry along the way. Before you settle for beans and franks again, read up on food travel and some tips for planning, packing, and preparing meals in the wild.

Consider coastal camping.

Not only does camping along the coastline, lake, or other body of water offer some of the best views around, it also comes in handy to mimic the effects of your refrigerator. Our family loves 2-4 day treks along Skilak Lake, Tutka Bay, and Orcas Island, all of which offer pristine waters and majestic mountain views. As soon as you get to your campsite, find a sturdy tree or rock that you can tie your cooler up to and leave it floating in the water. The cooler, glacially fed waters will help keep your meats, cheeses, and other perishable foods naturally chilled.

Forage at your own risk.

No matter how much experience you have in the great outdoors, foraging is risky business. That’s why our clan never leaves home without a book of wild edibles, such as Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods. Written by nature experts Thomas Elias and Peter Dykeman, hard to identify plants are organized by season and photo, and give incredible detail on each plant’s properties, preparation tips, and poisonous lookalikes to avoid.

During our trips to Skilak Lake, we often pick wild mushrooms, spring nettles, fiddlehead ferns, and salmon berries, all of which make their way into the dishes we prepare back at the campsite. If we’re at Tutka Bay, wild blueberries and salmonberries are often ripe for the picking come spring and summer. We’re also fans of clamming there, or if we’re adventuring around Orcas Island, we’ll catch our seafood fresh before cooking it up for dinner.

Time it right.

On the first night of our trip, I’ll often put the kids to work catching as much fish and seafood as they can. Depending on when and where we’re adventuring, mussels and cider, fresh fish packets with roasted garlic, or paella are usually on the menu. The next night is what we call “Hobo Night”, where we get creative with foil packets. Stuffed mushroom caps with crab and cheese and make-your-own pizzas are a great way to get everyone involved and able to customize their meal. On the last night of our stay, we save the best for last. Marinated skirt steak topped with chimmchurri or a roasted whole chicken with lemon that’s been chilling away in the cooler are both delicious options that make for one impressive “ta-da”.

The key to food travel: plan by course.

Being the foodie family that we are, eating is always a main highlight of our trip. However, it can be easy to get weighed down by bulky ingredients and packaging, which is why we plan our meals by course well in advance.

Breakfast

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially when you’re active outside, but it’s also the meal we’re most eager to get out of the way. Dry goods that are light and easy, such as oatmeal, granola, or barley cereal with a side of freshly foraged blueberries or salmonberries are often all we need to get the day started without slowing us down or requiring heavy duty cleanup. On the last day of our trip, we’ll take any lunch or dinner leftovers together to create a breakfast hash that everyone loves. The best part? There’s a lot less to haul out on your back when it’s in your belly!

Lunch

Lunch, even in the wilderness, is all about convenience. Before we leave for our trip, I always like to put together pre-made picnic packs with all the food, snacks, and utensils we’ll need for the day, so we won’t have to return to basecamp – which can often end up being a two hour kayak paddle away or three hour hike back to camp. Good sources of protein like chicken or fish are key for lasting energy throughout the day. I like to pack a few extra servings to snack on, which can be especially handy for that last stretch of the hike in the late afternoon, before we get back to the campsite for dinner.

Dinner

Because cooking with fire, wind, and coals can be especially tricky in an uncontrolled environment, I always have appetizers ready for everyone to dig into before the main course. A salmon dip, brie and baguettes, or warm queso is a great way to satiate ravenous appetites while sides that take awhile to cook, like potatoes or meat, warm up on the coals. Our dinners also look a bit different depending on if the weather is hot or cold; in the summertime, grilled meats and veggies are mainstays, while wintertime calls for stuffed “hot pockets” (pizza dough stuffed with sausages and potatoes) that can linger on the stove and warm throughout the day.

Dessert

One thing I’ve learned when it comes to baking al fresco? Never try to make brownies, cakes, or cinnamon rolls over a fire – unless you like your char trending into full-on burnt territory. Instead, stick to simpler fare like s’mores, fruit cobblers, or pound cakes with roasted fruit that maximize the outdoor grill.

Pack shelf-stable staples.

Unrefrigerated non-dairy alternatives like almond or soymilk are great stand-ins for dairy, which require constant refrigeration. To avoid threats to food safety, pack things that don’t have to be cooled and don’t take a lot of space. Swapping out canisters of oatmeal for packets of barley cream of wheat or bags of fresh coffee for instant can make all the difference on your shoulders.

Drink the water… after you purify it.

Lastly, but most importantly, don’t forget to make water a priority. I’ll never forget the time my son opted for Arnold Palmers over H2O the entire weekend – let’s just say he was in bad shape! Instead of packing bottles or gallons of water that can limit how far you can go, travel light with a filtering solution like a SteriPEN, which uses a built-in UV lamp to eliminate 99.9% of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa that cause water-borne illnesses. You can also opt for tablets that use iodine, or built-in purifying bottles to stay hydrated on your hikes.

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2 comments on “Edible Expeditions 101: How to Plan, Pack, and Prepare to Dine in the Wild

  1. Joseph Rooks

    Sounds like you do it up quite a bit better than I did when I was in the Boy Scouts… Even after seven years of camping as a kid I would still take cans of chicken and dumplings with me and heat them up over the fire. ????

    1. Stephanie Pacillo

      As someone who was raised on a foundation of make-it-up-as-you-go, I have learned do what works! Thanks for sharing 🙂