It's difficult enough planning a dinner party for a mixed group of friends. Who has gluten allergies? Any vegetarians? Lactose intolerance?
Doing the same thing when you'll be packing all of your provisions into the wilderness on your backs can be downright frustrating. But the answer is not to let everyone simply chow on their own variety of granola bars for the duration of your trip. It's possible to eat very well in the woods while also keeping everybody (mostly) happy and satisfied.
As a youth wilderness trip leader, meeting students' caloric needs is an important aspect of a successful adventure. If a young adult snubs their nose at a dinner they're not particularly keen on, it's the trip leader that will be picking up their extra weight when they're dragging their feet up a steep incline the next day due to lack of energy.
The solution lies in pre-planning. Although it's possible for experienced backpackers to drop into a grocery store and grab their go-to items for a last-minute weekend on the trail, that becomes a whole lot more difficult when there are more than a couple of mouths to feed.
If you're planning a camping trip with a group, here's how to satisfy everyone's culinary whims and keep the meal process easy on the cook:
1. Figure Out Your Meal Quota
Let's presume that we're headed out for four days and three nights. How many meals does that consist of? You will probably eat breakfast before beginning, so let's assume:
3 dinners (you'll be off the trail mid-afternoon on the last day)
8 snacks (two each day, even the half days)
2. Write Down Options for Each Meal
If you have the luxury of planning in-person with your group (a church or Scout trip, for example), let everyone pipe in with their 'dream menu,' until you have a few more options than you would need for each meal.
Ideas for each meal could include:
Instant oatmeal packets, instant grit packets, pancakes, teas and coffee
Pre-packed sandwiches, goat cheese quesadillas, rice cakes with peanut butter, ramen noodles with French bread, pita with hummus
Cheesy tuna-mac casserole, rice and bean gumbo with summer sausage, potato soup, veggie burgers
TIP: Although eating wild caught fish is a great option when camping near water, don't ever make that your plan, in case you go fishing without doing any catching. Harvested wild items should supplement your menu, but not be its foundation.
3. Discuss and Vote
Everyone in your group should understand that they may not love every meal, but they should be happy with input into their choice.
If you are planning the menu unilaterally, skip this step.
4. Consider Weight
It's not realistic or smart to carry heavy cans or jars into the wilderness. Not only do they add unnecessary weight to your pack, they'll have to be hauled back out (and one of the nice things about the end of a trip is the lower pack weight!).
Health food stores sell bulk dehydrated versions of staples like hummus, black beans and falafel that only require adding water and then cooking. It's also possible to use a home dehydrator to prepare food before heading out, so that fruits and vegetables can be enjoyed without the added weight.
Most importantly, think about the water contained in your food. Put simply, your menu items should not contain water in them, but instead be things that you add water to. Dehydrated milk powder is a great example of a staple that can make your meals robust and filling without necessitating carrying unnecessary weight.
The only liquids that I carry in my pack are water (refilled along the way), a small plastic bottle of olive oil and the small amount of liquid inside the handy snack-size foil packets of tuna fish (easy packaging to carry back out).
5. Share the Shopping
With all of your meals determined, let your group help you with the shopping. Whether that's coordinated via email or in a stop on the way to the trailhead, splitting up the list will mean that the shopping can happen in a fraction of the time it would take one person. Also, it allows everyone to pick out their own trail mixes (those not prepared at home) and energy bars for snacks.
6. Divy Up the Load
At the trailhead or when packing, spread all of the food out in one place, along with plastic bags (or bear canisters if hiking in a place like Yosemite or Glacier National Parks). Use zip-lock bags to label the meals, and then spread them out into piles for the number of people on your trip. The point is to spread the weight equally.
Not only is this fair, it will involve everybody in the cooking process when it comes time for meals. Even if you have a head 'chef,' a member of the group should be the designated helper for each meal. They can be in charge of chopping, mixing and cleaning up. This allows everyone else the time around meals for free time, while avoiding any controversy about whose turn it is to help (plus, even shy participants will get a chance to take part in providing sustenance for the group).
Camping and hiking with a group, while different than heading out alone or as a pair, can be a highly rewarding experience. Meals are a time to come together and recount the day's adventure, and there's no reason they shouldn't be as enjoyable as the flavors of home.