Gourmet in the backcountry | VailDaily.com

Gourmet in the backcountry

Cassie Pence
Vail CO, Colorado
Illustration by Dawn Beacon/Vail Daily

In high school I went on a camping trip to Logger Head Key for biology class. We snorkeled around a reef, explored life in the mucky mangroves and dove for lobsters. But it’s the peach cobbler that I remember the most.

A mix of peaches, cinnamon and sugar, a slice of butter, all topped with biscuit dough, is cooked slowly over hot coals in a Dutch oven. Starving from a day in the ocean, we sat patiently around the cast-iron pot listening to it burp and gurgle. Its sugars boiled over, loosening the lid just enough to release a fragrant, caramelized steam across the Florida Bay.

I’ve eaten some of my most memorable meals around a campfire.

“Half of camping is setting up camp and having a good dinner,” said Jason Brown of Gorsuch Outfitters, a flyfishing shop in Edwards.

Whether you are backpacking with minimal gear or stationed outside of your car, food is essential to a successful trip through the outdoors. And camping food has come a long way since peanut butter and jelly. It just takes a few basic tools, a little bit of preparation and creativity to cook up gourmet meals in the woods.

Brown prefers solitude when camping, so he grabs his pack and heads out on the trails less traveled. To eat well off his back, he freeze dries ingredients at home using a dehydrator and then adds water when he gets to camp.

“You use separate Ziplock baggies for each ingredient and then put it together for stews, soups and spaghetti,” Brown said. “It tastes just perfect.”

Red Cliff artist Brooke Burgee, who’s hiked the Long Trail from the border of Massachusetts and Vermont to Canada, 296 miles along the spine of the Green Mountains, also builds a pantry in her backpack.

“I put all my food in plastic bags, tie them off at the top. Things like flour, pasta, spices and herbs, so it’s like cooking in a kitchen with a backpack stove,” she said.

Burgee’s favorite camping food is pizza and pineapple upside-down cake, two recipes sure to impress, she said, which she learned while camping with NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School.

“For the pizza, you take your dough ingredients, mix it in a bowl, put it in a plastic bag, tie it off and put it some place warm, like under your shirt or in your sleeping bag, so the yeast can rise,” Burgee said. “You spread the dough on the bottom of your pan and put it on your stove.”

A classic camping dish is the “hobo dinner,” individual meals self-contained in foil pockets, which are thrown on hot coals to cook. Ingredients are cut and prepped at home, and the only cleanup on site is to crumple up the tin and throw it away.

Fill it with anything and everything from meat and potatoes to Asian vegetables, and because they are individual portions, chefs can tailor each hobo meal to a specific camper’s tastes.

“Salmon or chicken works great in these tin foil pockets,” Scott Rella says. Rella is a chef and ice sculptor based in Wildridge. “Potatoes need to be preboiled, so its more like heating them up. But onions, parsley, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper, veggies ” like zucchini cut in half lengthwise, cherry tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, bok choi ” all work really well.”

The Vail Daily’s resident gourmand Wren Wertin, special sections editor, makes fondue when camping. She buys the ready made version packaged in foil from City Market, thins it with some white wine she packs in a Platapus, cooks it over the fire and serves it with bread, chicken apple sausage, bell peppers and green onions.

“It’s unexpected,” Wertin says. “It’s the ultimate communal meal. We all gather around this little pot and you have to take turns.”

Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 748-2938, or cpence@vaildaily.com.

Noodles with

spicy peanut sauce


1⁄2 cup peanut butter

(creamy or chunky)

2 tablespoons tamari

4 teaspoons crushed garlic

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 teaspoons brown sugar

1⁄2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

1⁄2 cup chopped fresh cilantro or 1 tablespoon dried cilantro

Salt and pepper to taste

12 ounces soba noodles or your

favorite pasta


At home, mix together all ingredients in a bowl except noodles. Pack in a plastic container or bottle (recipe makes 11⁄2 cups sauce). Note: The sauce will keep for two days unrefrigerated; the vinegar in the recipe acts as a preservative.

In camp, cook noodles or pasta; drain 1⁄2 cup hot water into measuring cup and scatter the rest. Empty sauce into pot, add hot water, and toss thoroughly. Serves two.

Jason Brown,

Gorsuch Outfitters

Campfire pizza


Yeast crust

1 teaspoons dry yeast

1⁄2 cup lukewarm water

1⁄2 teaspoons sugar

1⁄4 teaspoons salt

1 cup flour


Quick crust

1⁄2 cup baking mix

1⁄2 cup flour

1 tablespoons margarine


1 tablespoons dried onion

1 tablespoons dried green and red peppers

11⁄2 cups water

4 to 6 teaspoons tomato base

2 tablespoons powdered milk

1⁄2 teaspoon oregano or basil

1⁄4 teaspoon black pepper

1⁄2 teaspoon garlic

Possible toppings

Fish, wild onions, bacon or ham bits, jack, cheddar, mozzarella


For yeast crust, dissolve yeast in warm water with sugar and salt. Add flour and mix to make a stiff dough. For quick crust, mix margarine into flour and baking mix with fingers. Mix in water to form a dough. Oil a frying pan, spread dough in pan with oiled fingers to form a crust. Turn up edges to hold sauce. Pour sauce over crust, top with cheese or any other toppings. Cover and bake on a stove on low heat until crust is golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Or use a twiggy fire on the pan lid (see note*) which helps the crust cook from the top and bottom. Be sure to move the pan clockwise in quarter turns to bake all parts of the pizza.

“NOLS Cookery”

* Note: Gather a pile of pencil-sized or smaller twigs. Light your stove and let it run at its lowest heat. Put the baking pan, with secure lid, on the stove, and build a twiggy fire on the lid. Spread the fire out evenly on the lid, and feed it enough wood to keep it burning. It’s almost impossible to generate too much heat on the lid. Every 4 to 5 minutes rotate the pan clockwise to assure even baking on the bottom.


upside-down cake


Basic cake

11⁄2 cups baking mix

1⁄2 cup flour

1⁄2 cup powdered milk

2 level tablespoons powdered eggs

Pinch of salt

4 tablespoons brown sugar or honey

11⁄2 cups cold water (approximate, for a pourable batter)

2-3 tablespoons margarine, melted

1 teaspoons vanilla

Mix all dry ingredients. Add liquid ingredients and mix until lumps are gone. Pour in greased, floured fry pan.

Melt 2 tablespoons margarine in 12-inch fry pan. Mix in 3 to 4 tablespoons brown sugar, and spread over bottom of pan. Place dried fruit (pineapple) on sugar mixture. Pour batter over fruit. Bake, using twiggy fire, for 15 to 25 minutes.

“NOLS Cookery”

The right tools

Here’s what cooking tools NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) recommends bringing when camping:

1. MSR whisper light stove.

2. Fry bake pan.

3. Stainless steel pots.

4. Pot grip (pliers).

5. Dip cup, for dipping hot water. Must be non-meltable.

6. Spatula.

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