There are two schools of thought when it comes to food on a short backpacking trip:
1) Pack light: hike hard enough and long enough, to beautiful enough places and you will be too tired to care about food. Even freeze dried mac and cheese will taste good at altitude.
2) Make room for it: you’re already sleeping on the ground, in the cold and the dark so eating well is essential to the joy quotient; good food is worth every ounce of room and weight it takes up in your pack.
I know these rules, yet I can’t seem to get behind either theory. I never nail quality – I’m not a gourmet cook at home, so my pint sized stove and nesting camp pots don’t do me any favors. And I’m too paranoid to pack just granola and water. So I go for quantity and it makes my pack heavy. I cannot function without coffee. Or GORP. Or cheese. Or Aidells chicken sausage in my penne. I also need emergency food: inedible instant oatmeal and MRE castoffs in case snow holds me tent bound and rabid.
A few weeks ago I carried my heavy pack into the mountains one last time before winter. I hiked with good friends – all strong women with big laughs and candid opinions. We moved quickly when we weren’t talking too much. We did stop often: to finish a story, to drink water, to rest. Each time we set our packs down we passed around trail mix and shared water bottles.
We shared our lunches too. We sat near a high mountain lake with our day packs in our laps comparing food stuffs. My friend Julie stood thigh deep in the lake icing her sore knees while she snapped carrots and downed summer sausage. I swapped my mayo for extra tuna and crackers. There was chocolate for dessert and mints for my tuna breath.
By supper time we’d hiked double digit miles and we were tired. We sliced cheese for hors devours and passed around plastic bottles of wine. We boiled pasta and sliced sausage. We tinkered with the stoves and pumped gallons of lake water through our filters. Campfires are prohibited inside the Cloud Peak Wilderness, so we huddled around the camp kitchen instead. We made a feast.
It’s a problem that only accompanies prosperity – this talk of backpacks heavy with too much food. I am lucky to have such minor things to worry about. But I notice that food is at the center of so many conversations. We worry about what we eat and how we eat it. Is it full of fat or gluten or vitamins? We talk about diets and restrictions and cooking on Facebook, at parties and on TV, even on the mountain. But as another writer friend pointed out to me recently, food may be complicated, but meals are about community. It is a chance to gather and commune with our most basic needs: people and nourishment. If we are lucky enough to have something to eat, the occasional opportunity to share it makes us more human.
My backpacking trips offer solace and escape – I crave time outside away from the busyness that we all know. But I especially enjoy time in the backcountry when I see it with people I cherish. And meals around a campfire – or a tiny stove – inevitably deepen those connections. I load my pack with marginal food out of habit and paranoia, but the food I carry helps make those trips something more. Food is essential to the joy quotient.