Backpack Better: How to Create a Weekend Menu for Less Than $25

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Kiss your days of tuna-mac goodbye

Once you have the gear, backpacking isn’t expensive. A night under the stars is free, and feels freeing. That's just one of a million reasons why I love it. But, take one frenzied lap through your local grocery store to stock up for your weekend overnighter, and you'll quickly see that menu planning isn't quite as liberating. In fact, it's easy to drop more money than you'd spend out on a fancy dinner for two. When I recently spent $80 for a weekend of food, I knew I had to find a better way.

To break myself of the dueling bad habits of overspending or eating nutritionally-suspect, quick-grab foods, I gave myself a fun challenge: Create a backpacking menu I’d be happy with even in the frontcountry, for less than $25. That’s two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners, plus snacks, for one backpacker. My priority was to eat well in the woods, so instead of stressing about weight or durability, I picked items that would create something luxurious. This isn't a meal plan for fastpacking through tough terrain. I mean, there has to be something left for future challenges, right?

And so, after some scheming I went grocery shopping, picked up the following and headed to the trailhead with a big smile and high hopes:

  • Baguette
  • 5 ounce package grated Parmesan cheese (I got the fancy kind)
  • Mozzarella ball
  • 1 small tomato
  • 1 small avocado
  • 1 small apple
  • 1 lemon
  • 6 eggs: four boiled, two raw
  • Instant potatoes
  • Small broccoli head, with the stalk cut off to save weight
  • Angel hair pasta
  • 1 pack of dried mango (plenty for snacking too)
  • 4 packets instant oatmeal
  • 3 ounce package shelf-stable bacon bits
  • Free salt packets
  • 2 packets instant coffee (I’m obsessed with the packets that add cream and sugar)
  • 3 packets olive oil, which you can buy at REI, in a sandwich bag

Total: $24.34 (YMMV)

Packing tips: Yes, many of these things challenge the notion of what’s packable. Here’s how I pulled it off with nary a cracked egg or bruised tomato. A hearty baguette in its bag can easily tuck into your pack’s side pocket like trekking poles—just take care not to tighten the compression straps too much or throw your pack on the ground on that side. The fresh fruits and veggies I carried in my top lid in plastic sandwich bags. The egg were tricky. I boiled four of the six and stored them in a sandwich bag, and the last two I padded with a clean bandana and tucked them in my cooking pot with the mozzarella and housed them deep in my pack. If you’re using a bear canister, it’s easy to store the most delicate items on top and protect them from the rest of your stuff.

Friday Dinner: Caprese With Avocado

Caprese with Avocado

I made this easy dinner at the trailhead while sorting my gear. While eating, I also boiled four out of my six eggs, for Saturday's lunch and less chances of breakage over the weekend. If you have a full work week like me, you’ll dig this plan, conducive to late trailhead arrivals.

Ingredients:

  • Baguette
  • 1 olive oil packet
  • Mozzarella
  • ½ tomato
  • ½ lemon
  • ½ avocado

Directions:

  1. Rip off a large chunk of baguette and slice it in half.
  2. Drizzle olive oil packet over each half.
  3. Layer bottom half of bread evenly with tomato slices, avocado slices and cheese. Squeeze lemon on top (and on other half of avocado to keep it fresh for tomorrow). Add a dash of salt.

Saturday & Sunday Breakfast: Oatmeal With Fruit

I like to keep it simple in the mornings. Honestly, coffee is the first step for me then a quick breakfast, and I’m off.

Ingredients:

  • 2 packets of instant oatmeal
  • ½ apple
  • 4 slices of dried mango
  • Instant coffee

Directions:

  1. Boil enough water for oatmeal and coffee.
  2. Cut your apple and mango into bite-sized chunks. Add to dried oatmeal.
  3. Pour just enough water over your oatmeal to cover. Stir and let sit until mango rehydrates.
  4. Sip coffee until oatmeal’s ready.

Saturday Lunch: Avocado Egg Salad Sandwich

Avocado Egg Salad Sandwich

I saw this recipe in a veggie cookbook months ago, and was mesmerized. Avocado and egg salad! Why didn’t I think of that? It sounded like protein-and-vitamin-packed perfection. It also requires precious few ingredients, making it perfect for this type of culinary adventure. Disclaimer: Things can get messy.

Ingredients:

  • Baguette
  • ½ avocado
  • ½ lemon
  • ½ tomato
  • 2 hardboiled eggs
  • Salt to taste

Directions:

  1. Rip off a big chuck of baguette and slice it in half.
  2. Cut your avocado and eggs into chunks.
  3. Place avocado and eggs in bowl. Squeeze lemon over. Smoosh until it looks like egg salad.
  4. Layer bottom half of bread evenly with egg salad. Top with tomato slices.

Saturday Dinner: Backpacking Carbonara

Backpacking Carbonara

Can you make carbonara in the backcountry? You bet. I can’t say I wasn’t a little nervous—would I end up with raw eggs everywhere in my pack? Would I char the bottom of my pot irreversibly? Would it taste like paste? But what I experienced was an easy and very satisfying meal. It was my favorite dish of the weekend and an absolute keeper. Caveat: This was another messy one. No char, but dish duty was a bit of a bear. Hint: Pack a mini sponge.

Ingredients:

  • Angel hair pasta, broken in half in plastic sandwich bag
  • ½ broccoli head, cut into florets
  • 2.5 ounces (about half a cup) grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 packets olive oil
  • 1.5 ounces (half the amount you bought) shelf-stable bacon bits
  • 2 eggs

Directions:

  1. Boil pasta and broccoli for the minimum cook time. Once cooked and drained, store in bowl.
  2. While pasta is cooking, beat eggs with your camp utensil (spork is better here) in a plastic sandwich bag.
  3. Return pot to low flame. Add oil and bacon until sizzling (this will be very fast). Add pasta, toss to coat. Remove from heat.
  4. Pour in eggs, toss constantly to cook and coat. Be fast—you can end up with scrambled eggs.
  5. Pour in most of cheese, toss to coat.
  6. Top with rest of cheese.

Sunday Lunch: Loaded Mashed Potatoes

Loaded Mashed Potatoes

Simple, ridiculously fast, very filling: Instant mashed potatoes are the best when backpacking. While I’ve been known to eat them cold right out of the bag, this weekend I tried to make them a little fancier. For you.

Ingredients:

  • 1 4-ounce packet of instant potatoes
  • ½ broccoli head, with stalk cut off
  • 2.5 ounces (about half a cup) Parmesan cheese
  • 1.5 ounces shelf-stable bacon bits

Directions:

  1. Boil 2 cups water and drop in broccoli cut into florets.
  2. Put potatoes, cheese and bacon in a bowl.
  3. Pour boiling water and broccoli into potato mixture.
  4. Stir and enjoy.

Results

Success! This was one of the tastiest weekend backpacking trips I’ve ever had. Yes, I packed more weight and had more volume, but it was only for two days and the rewards were well worth it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m already scheming my next backcountry gourmet challenge (and would love to hear what food-related backpacking you'd like solved, too).

What do you think? Do you have any good recipes to share? What should I try next time?

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