International Backpacking: How to Cook on the Trail

When gearing up for a big adventure, make sure you’ll be able to stay well-fueled. Eating on trail out of the country can feel daunting, but a little foresight goes a long way. Here are a few tips on what to pack before you go, as well as what will be easy to find after you’ve caught your flight.

What to bring:

First and foremost, pack a backpacking stove. Stoves can run on canister fuel, white gas, kerosene or unleaded gasoline—or a combination of the above. Familiarize yourself ahead of time on what fuel or fuels your stove uses and how easy it will be to find supplies where you’re going. In tourist destinations, you can often track down white gas, and sometimes even fuel canisters. If you’re venturing outside of major urban areas, you can try filling up your own fuel bottle at a gas station. While car gasoline doesn’t burn super clean, it does the job. Pro tip: Remember, you can’t fly with liquid gas.

Once your cooking source is established, you’ll need utensils. A collapsible dish barely takes up any space and can hold everything from tea to pasta, To save weight, it’s best to bring one bowl big enough to fit any meal. You’ll also want to bring along a solid pocketknife for everything from slicing cheese to opening cans or bottles of wine. Many knives will do the trick, but a non-serrated blade is easier to resharpen.

Another crucial component of cooking is water. Although high tech drinking straws are great for on-the-go hydration, they don’t do as well in an outdoor kitchen. A secondary purification system is invaluable. Choose the best water treatment setup for your needs—iodine tablets are the classic choice­—but in a pinch even a little unflavored bleach will do the trick.

Finally, if you’re planning a trip during the shoulder seasons, bringing a lightweight tarp for wind and rain protection can make cooking much more pleasant.

What not to worry about:

If you’re willing to stay with the basics, it’s easy to find staples like rice and pasta shells in most countries. Even places with known food shortages generally have dried food like this. As you shop, consider how much fuel you’re traveling with. Rice will take longer to cook than pasta, and everything takes longer to boil at altitude. (You can always conserve fuel by turning off the flame before your meal is finished and leaving it covered to slow cook the rest of the way.)

But just because you’re away from home doesn’t mean camp cooking can’t be tasty. Most countries will sell dried spices to take the place of Western freeze-dried flavor packets, and some markets have pre-packaged or even bulk containers. If nothing else, you can always find salt. And remember, a little can sometimes go a long way.

An upside for the caffeine-addicted is that instant coffee is widely available. While the flavor may not be the best, it’s greatly improved when your breakfast view is a mountain tarn in spectacular wilderness.

Camping in South America is a good reminder that the investment up front to get the right gear is always a good idea. And it’s also a chance to get back to basics—keep your feet moving, and don’t worry about everything being technical.

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