By: Hope GatelyCooking food in the backcountry is one of the most enjoyable aspects of backpacking. However, as wildfires continue to grow in frequency and scale, particularly in the arid western and southwestern states, all backpackers need to have a fundamental understanding of fire safety. We’ve asked MYSTERY RANCH’s Fire Ambassador Sasha Berleman, director of the Fire Forward Program at Audubon Canyon Ranch, a non-profit nature conservation organization, to share tips and tricks for fueling adventures without fueling wildfires.
Keep It Simple and Delicious
Sasha doesn’t focus on fancy outdoor cooking recipes, especially when she’s working. Sometimes, fully cooked meals aren’t a reality when backpacking, and it’s better to opt for a simple and delicious snack to keep you going. There’s little time to cook anything fancy when Sasha is on the fireline, but that doesn’t mean that she neglects flavor.
“Grabbing a peanut butter snack bar and a juicy apple and alternating bites back and forth to put them together. It’s a DELICIOUS combo on the fireline! Not to mention, after getting so many Uncrustables in the fireline lunch bags, I actually get excited anytime it’s possible to make myself a real PB&J on bread with real chunky peanut butter and real jam on it!”
Some other easy packaged foods that Sasha keeps on hand:
“I keep fruit snacks in my pants pockets at all times for any moment I feel like I need a super quick pick-me-up without having to sit out for a break. Applesauce pouches are good for that, too.”
For trips that allow for more provisions, Sasha’s pack of choice is the MYSTERY RANCH Women’s Stein 65. “If I’m going big, the Stein is comfortable for however far my feet take me!”
Enjoy Coffee and a Flash Boiling System to Boost Morale
Mornings can be cold and uncomfortable in the backcountry. Waking up stiff or with aches from the previous day’s excursions can leave an adventurer feeling low. But there’s nothing like a hot cup of joe made safely with a flash boiling system to perk you up.
“It’s always a good team builder to offer quality coffee to the folks, so I keep a boiling cylinder and fancy coffees with our rigs so when there’s downtime, we can lift the team’s spirits. It never fails! Also, an old quick favorite of mine was instant oatmeal packets cooked by pouring my hot coffee over the top to make coffoatmeal.”
Tea, hot chocolate, and mac and cheese are other foods/drinks that can be quickly and safely with a flash boiling system.
To MRE or Not to MRE?
Whether you’re trying to go light, keep things simple, or deal with fire bans, MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) can be a quick, delicious, and even a nutritious method to fuel your body in the backcountry.
Like most pre-packaged meals, Sasha explains that some are better than others. “Cheese tortellini is delicious! I try to always have that one stashed in the bottom of my pack, so I know that if I end up in a tight spot, I’ve got something tasty to lift my spirits.” Some are not as good. “Definitely not a fan of the Beef Enchilada. Yuck.”
Know Before You Go
Checking fire restrictions before (and during your trip if you have service) is the responsibility of every
backpacker. Fire bans are typically issued on a county or regional basis, depending on your state. While it can be a bummer to plan a backcountry trip only to discover that there’s a fire ban, there are plenty of alternative cooking methods to utilize, such as flash boiling systems and small propane-powered cookstoves.
Sasha has this to say about being informed before and during your trip:
“Keep an eye on fires, weather warnings and evacuations. If you see smoke, don’t wait to get out. With the dry conditions and recent winds, fires are moving fast. Don’t wait for someone to tell you to leave; stay ahead of things and get out of the way.”
To check for fire bans currently in effect for national forests, visit the USDA Forest Service website. Most states and counties also have designated websites with detailed fire restriction information. Finally, don’t forget to utilize national park rangers, forest service rangers or wildlife management officers. These professionals are knowledgeable and helpful when it comes to protecting our wild places and can typically offer up-to-date local information that you may not be able to obtain if you’re out of cell service.
In-Field Fire Safety Tips
Man-made wildfires are often entirely avoidable. Typically, these fires occur because campers and backpackers didn’t follow certain safety precautions. Sasha gives expert advice that every backpacker should follow when utilizing fire in the backcountry.
“Clear vegetation and flammable debris well away from your heat source. Make sure that if you’re using a stove, it’s stable and not going to tip. If you’re cooking over a campfire, make sure you completely extinguish your fire when you’re done with it, which means not just pouring water on it but stirring and scraping the coals until they are fully and completely out. Water alone will evaporate, and heat can rekindle. Those embers have to be stirred with the mud. Hand-feel your campfire when you’re done to make sure it’s cold.”
Finally, education is invaluable to every serious backpacker, so consider taking a fire safety course. These courses are often provided by national parks, hunter safety programs, and local outdoor community businesses.