This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of Backcountry magazine.  Thanks to Raymond Ford of the Peninsula Tramping Club and Dan Clearwater, FMC Development Officer who collated this resource.

Food for the hills

No one can deny  the joy of tucking into a delicious meal at the end of a day in the hills. Although they say hunger is the best spice, everyone will have had a few fantastically memorable meals, and other feeds which they would rather forget.

 Whilst there are many recipes available to guide you through the process, there’s a skill to backcountry cooking, especially when it is for a bunch of eager club-mates. Here we take a look at some of the cultures within clubs, when it comes to meal planning and preparation.

 There appear to be three main approaches to catering for meals:

  •  Every person (or couple) for themselves.
  • Arranging a couple of cooking “teams” within the party.
  • One big dinner for the whole group.

 It’s certainly fair to say that for the group leader, simply asking everyone to cater for themselves requires the least input.

 The same leader might expect that as the number of people to cater for increases, so does the complexity (and stress) for them as trip -organiser. But Raymond Ford, of the Peninsula Tramping Club would argue that whilst the complexity of coordinating the menu increases, so does the sense of shared companionship, and the per person cost and effort decreases.

 The Peninsula Tramping Club, one of Christchurch’s larger tramping clubs, runs trips into the South Island backcountry, including many into alpine zone where light weight, fuel efficient meals are a necessity  It is standard practice on their club  trips to cook for the whole group at dinner time, whilst individuals DIY for the other food. Responsibility is delegated for each evening meal, and once dietary requirements are known, the delegates will prepare and pack a meal. The  club  has produced a cookbook to help new chefs with ideas for meals  and quantities. When the trips are a little longer, the trip leader will guide them to an acceptable per person meal weight. With a ball-park budget of $3-$5 per person per meal, they will be in charge of buying the ingredients and where weight is an issue cooking and dehydrating the meal.  They will also re-pack them into suitably sized bundles, which they carry themselves or spread among the group as appropriate.

 When the tents are pitched and the day is done, the cook sits behind the group stoves (usually 2 of them for ease of cooking and redundancy) and boils the brew water first whilst co-opting a helper or two with some of  the preparation tasks. The PTC has a collection of club gear including medium to large sized billies, and this simplifies  whole-group catering.   The math generally goes, 1 billy for the ‘sauce’  and 1 billy for the ‘carbs’; choose the billy size based on the group size. Add another billy for the brew water, if space allows, plus a serving/stirring spoon per billy.

 While the meal is cooking, the rest of the group are free to relax, but generally they enjoy a brew or soups and talk about the (literal) highs and lows of the day. The chat continues as the meal is served, and forms a real social landmark for the day’s activities.  

 I’m sure we’d all agree that the group dynamic can make or break a trip: Raymond is convinced that these shared meal times cement the camaraderie built through shared challenges, joys and hardships felt through the day. And although the cooks work a bit harder, the rest of the team has the time to chat together, rather than attend to their own individual (or small team) meals.  This is especially beneficial when you have newer trampers in the group, who might be apprehensive about camp cooking for themselves. Plus it allows those who love cooking to step up, whilst those who don’t can enjoy a better meal than they’d have self-catering.

 It does take a bit of extra organising beforehand, but a club cookbook makes it easier for  potential leaders or organisers who might otherwise be put off leading a trip because of group catering anxiety. PTC took inspiration from cookbooks of the Wellington TMC and Tararua Tramping Club, but such written wisdom is just the tip of the club cultural iceberg. It is the oral traditions of the club and knowledge of the members which is passed on at meal time. Both by observation and story-telling among the group as they share their kai with their club-mates.

The A to Z of club cookbooks

If you’ve got any links to add (or fix) please get in touch!

Dehydrated and Freeze Dried meal options