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Food Planning For Wilderness Trips

By Gordon Peterson

[Gordon Peterson has been leading backpacking trips for the Sierra Club since 1965. He has been a regular staff member on our annual leader training trip. The following is a condensed version of a lecture he has given on food and menu planning.]

It is the trip leader's responsibility to provide meals that are tasty, fulfilling, simple to prepare, and inexpensive. This area of trip leadership is the one new leaders often have the most trouble coming to terms with, yet planning a proper menu is no less important to a trip's success than laying out a trip route or screening applicants. Trip members have a reasonable expectation that they'll find good tasting food on our trips, and enough of it, just as they have a resonable expectation that you'll have selected a route that is interesting and practicable, and have screened trip applicants to ensure that only those who meet the qualifications for the trip have been accepted.

Complaints about food are by far the most common complaints trip members have about trips. Letters to the Club, surveys, and comments from people who have been on many Club trips confirm that food is the one major gripe that trip members have. They remember the trip for such reasons as the leader did not use salt, therefore there was none in the commissary for anyone else. Or, he or she served oatmeal every morning, which didn't go over at all well with the oatmeal haters and others for whom two days worth was one day too many.

Common complaints have been: The food was too heavy, too bulky, too much thrown away, not enough to eat, and too much at one meal and too little the next. Or, the food went bad, and meals took too long to prepare. The latter problem is attributable to two different shortcomings - lax orientation given the inexperienced cooks, and inexpert handling of camp stoves. Poor planning and poor preparation are sure to cause complaint, as well as wasted food and the burden of disposing it.

A bit of history
On early backpack trips all camp cooking was over wood fires. In 1959 Jim Skillin planned one camp above tree line. His meals in that setting required no cooking, but he took one stove for hot water. In 1963 Jim Watters planned a trip with three days travel in an area without wood. The trip cooked over wood fires except for the three days above timberline when stoves were used to prepare simple meals. Because it was difficult to shelter the stoves from wind, the trip members endured long delays in getting fed. By 1967 Gordon Peterson had devised a windscreen and stoves were used for all cooking for the first time. Stove cooking was proven to be practicable and preferable to cooking over fire for several reasons. From that point on, the Knapsack Subcommittee abandoned cooking over wood fires. Today, Agency regulations prohibiting fires above a certain altitude require the use of stoves - or having cold meals - to be able to travel through and enjoy most of the desirable High Sierra.

In planning food, Leaders should be aware that at the beginning of a trip appetites are suppressed by altitude and exertion. It is common to have too much food wasted during the first day or two.

Another concern to be recognized during the planning process is that the ages and gender balance make a difference with food. Men tend to want more to eat than most women do. Young adults may eat much more than their elders. Teenagers, especially boys, bring nearly unlimited appetites. Children can be picky.

We do not want every trip to have the same Menu. There should be variety, but any personal preferences that are unusual should be clearly stated in your Brochure. One leader tells participants that "you must be prepared to eat what is offered as we will not be able to cater to any dietary preferences". Other leaders will make small concessions to trip members dietary concerns. A Vegetarian trip should clearly state it is vegetarian and also to what extent.

It would be quite easy to plan food as early Sierra Burro Trips did. They had a shopping list - Ten pounds of sugar, Five pounds of flour, etc. There was no Menu. If you were on cook crew, you looked to see what was available and then cooked dinner. It was a chaotic method of meal planning! However, trip members were much less inclined to complain in those Old Days.

In the following sections there are ideas that can help make planning and packaging food easier, quicker, and more accurate.

Gordon Peterson
May 1998

Menu Planning Timeline
The following is a flexible timeline on food planning and preparation that must be observed to enable you to meet the objectives of Basic Food Planning.

  1. You plan a menu and prepare a shopping list at least two months before trip time. If your trip is not yet full, estimate the number of people you are likely to take with you.

  2. One month before departure: Send food order to supplier(s) for special food items. You must know and confirm the supplier's schedule. Few suppliers will welcome last-minute orders.

  3. Two weeks before departure: Purchase grocery store items, except those that must be bought fresh just prior to leaving. Use the Master Shopping List!

  4. One week prior to departure: Make corrections in Menu because some items were not available and you made substitutions as you did your shopping.

  5. Two to Five days prior to departure: With a (hopefully) stable trip roster in hand, repackage and insert directions with the food.

  6. Day before departure: Lay out food in Menu order to ensure nothing has been forgotten.

  7. Day of departure: Check refrigerator to see if you forgot anything!!

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