Backcountry Cooking: Joys and Sorrows

I am deeply passionate about good backcountry food. While quick missions have me eating ramen and oatmeal packets, I typically stick to “real food” in the backcountry. Cooking is creative, interesting, and just plain fun. Little beats the satisfaction of feeding backcountry partners (and myself!) well, and little beats the peace of watching a wilderness sunset while eating truly delicious food.

However, all things camp kitchen and backcountry eating are major sources of injury and heartache for backcountry travelers. A delicious (or merely necessary) meal can quickly cut short a trip or even require emergency evacuation. Buckle up for a few cautionary tales from the experiences of friends, family, and colleagues – names omitted, of course!


“I’m going to have to cancel.”

The tailgate of the truck, pre-dawn, somewhere at a backcountry trailhead. Carhart-clad legs kicking gently over the edge. It’s cool enough to wear a fleece and a light puffy, quiet, and nearly time to head out on a big 1-day mission to the top of a tall peak. Coffee time. Jetboil boiled, he removed the lid and rotated to pour the water into the Aeropress, FUMBLING THE JETBOIL to dump nearly a liter of still bubbling hot water into his lap.

Result: under-harness burns bad enough to call off 10+ days of climbing plans.


The Smell of the Wild

The Sierra Nevada in the winter, absolutely frigid, with gusty winds keeping them tent-bound even to cook. It’s a smash-and-grab trip with just a canister stove & dehydrated meals. With the water boiled, they work together to fill a few Mountain House meals, mix them, zip the tops, and tuck them inside each of their 3 sleeping bags. “Ouch! What the—!” She rockets out of her sleeping bag, holding the Beef Stroganoff packet up as it oozes lava-hot half-cooked sauce from a small, previously unnoticed puncture in the packet.

Result: Beef Stroganoff-scented sleeping bag and tent. Gross, but not trip-ending.


Under Pressure

High camp, a week into an expedition-style trip in the Himalaya. The pressure cooker comes off of the stove, and without checking the indicator widget, he cranks open the locking lid, hungry for a day of acclimatizing. Steam FIRES from inside the still very pressurized container, spraying him across the chest and face.

Result: significant burns to the chest, an incredibly uncomfortable night, and an end to his expedition the next day.


Fire on the Mountain

A masterfully-crafted camp kitchen in deep winter snows. Standing to put snow on to melt, one of the skiers opens the fuel pump valve to allow liquid fuel to collect in the priming cup. Distracted by music from Bluetooth speaker, he overflows the priming cup. Thinking little of it, he fumbles for a lighter. He turns and flicks the lighter at the priming cup, igniting a 3-foot white gas vapor fireball…straight into the fabric of the single-walled pyramid.

Result: an expensive tent ruined with a face-sized hole, and a much colder, less-pleasant series of nights with wind gusting into the group shelter.


Apple Slices

An alpine ridgeline bivy near Mount Rainier. Splitter weather, clear skies, and pleasant temps. The day was a stellar cruise through forests and up into some scrambly terrain. With an apple in one hand an a razor-sharp knife in the other, she dissects the apple piece by piece as a pre-dinner snack. Leaning on her elbow, she makes to slice off another chunk, but her pad slides off of the rock beneath it. The knife scythes into the space between her thumb and first finger, cutting deeply.

Result: her partner quickly sacrifices a Buff to staunch the flow of blood. After wrapping it tightly, they retrace their footsteps in the gathering dusk, eventually driving to a hospital for several stitches.


Quinoa a la Fuel

A beautiful, windswept beach along the coast of Chilean Patagonia. Kayaks parked and unloaded, they break out the dinner bag to begin preparing dinner. With the bag located, she unzipped it’s watertight zipper and was smacked in the face with the odor of white gas. Locating the MSR fuel bottle with the pump still attached, she rotated the fuel valve back to a closed position and started to sort the bag.

Result: elimination of 75% of the fuel-soaked food in the bag. What little food was recoverable bestowed foul “white gas burps” for hours when eaten.


Don’t Feed the Wildlife

Mid-morning, just above Sandy Camp on Mount Baker. As three climbers descend the final roll into their camp, they notice trails of food and plastic strewn around in front of their tent. Firing accusing fingers back and forth, they bickered about who had been in charge of bird and animal-proofing their food.

Result: hours after returning, the group finished picking up food and trash and descended, exhausted and hungry. Lunch had been shredded by birds who easily found the lazily placed food in their tent vestibule.


Poor Storage, Poor Sleep

Midnight on Mount Shuksan’s Sulphide Glacier. Both climbers sleep peacefully, hours away from an early wake up. Above them, the silhouette of a mouse is visible in the moonlight, creeping up the tent door. Head popping over top of the vented door, the mouse drops onto a sleeping bag to join it’s kin, who has just chewed through the tent’s body to access the trail mix in the tent pocket. Intent on getting into the nut butter Clif Bar stashes in the lofted gear pocket, a third mouse climbs along the ceiling seam. Losing it’s footing, the mouse falls onto a climber’s face. Waking up with a screech, the climber feels the wriggle of the mouse, thrashes for a headlamp, kicks his partner in the face, and after a few minutes of flailing they chase the mice from the tent.

Result: a $600 tent has a quarter-sized hole through the body into the side pocket, neither climber is able to sleep the rest of the night, the gummy bears and trail mix are contaminated.


So…what went wrong?

From wildlife finding food that isn’t properly contained (consider a bear canister or UrSack – and always follow local food storage requirements!) to stoves causing mayhem when used improperly, a million different things can go wrong in and around the backcountry kitchen. In all of the above situations, a few steps would have prevented every single issue. We like to control everything we can control in the backcountry, because so many theings are not within our control, like the weather.

So, next time you’re eating or cooking in the backcountry, pause for a moment. Consider what you’re doing, and what easy steps you can take to ensure a pleasant meal rather than an unpleasant, trip-ending surprise.

Matt Miller, Director of Operations
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