There’s camp cooking, and then there’s camp cooking on a thru-hike.
As a car-camping family, we had plenty of experience with camp cooking. It was easy satisfying the hungry crowd with our double gas burner, pots, frying pans, picnic set, bottles of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and spices, fresh food and pantry staples. We’d sit back in our camping chairs feasting after a day of play in the sun—you beauty!
Turns out cooking for a family of five on a thru-hike is a little different. Something we discovered on our six-month thru-hike on the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand.
Sometimes a little bit of ignorance can help keep your cup half full. We didn’t fully realize what it meant to carry all of our food, water and belongings on our backs. Or the effort it takes to set up the family camp each night and pack it away quickly every morning. Yet we’ve still managed to make it a third of the way down the country and are keen to keep going. In our minds, that’s a win.
With about 1250 miles to go to reach the bottom of the South Island, we’ve learned and refined a few things. Here’s everything we’ve learnt so far about camp cooking as a family on a thru-hike.
SAVE YOUR BACK: PLAN YOUR MEALS AND CAMP KITCHEN SET-UP
When you’re carrying all of your food, water and belongings in your backpack for around 12.5 miles a day (over some pretty gnarly terrain), all that weight and bulk adds up.
Since we started a few months ago, we’ve shed a bunch of gear and simplified our camp kitchen to lighten our loads. Everything that makes the cut tends to be lightweight, compact and, ideally, have more than one use. Our food needs to be carefully thought out as well. The best food is full of great nutrition but not too bulky or heavy. Of course, it also needs to survive outside of the fridge.
KIDS NEED GOOD, TASTY FOOD
If we’re having a tough time making it the last 6 miles, we often talk about our dream meal. What would you eat right now if you could eat anything in the world? Our answers are often the same. Goldie craves a mezze platter with olives, cheese, avocado and salami. Joppy wants sweet stuff—ice cream sundae, banana split and a milkshake. Juno has a three-course meal of cheese and crackers, burger and chips and cheesecake in mind. The kid loves cheese.
When you’re hiking with kids, you realize how much they need food to keep them going, and how much they need a delicious meal to look forward to at the end of a hard day’s hike. Not to mention the odd burger and ice cream when you make it into a town.
Think there’s any chance of miscalculating how much food you’re going to need for a section? Don’t run short, whatever you do! An adult is fine to skip a few meals but kids will meltdown and stop moving. We make sure to always have a few extra dehydrated meals up our sleeve.
OUR LIGHTWEIGHT CAMP KITCHEN SET-UP FOR FIVE HUNGRY HIKERS
Simple, lightweight and compact is our goal here. We’ve ditched our plates and now just use our X-Mugs. We had two pots and lightweight stoves to start (which was awesome!) but have sadly cut this down to one. It works. So here is our current set-up for our family of five:
- 5 x X-Mugs. We use these for everything now and find our system works just fine. If we’re having porridge for breakfast, first we’ll boil the water for coffee for the adults, then portion out the kids’ share into their cups. We can just eat our share out of the pot if our coffee is still going.
- 4 x Delta Sporks. These are great. Lightweight, easy to use and proving to be hardy. Hardy is important when your kids are running wild—a spork can become any manner of tool for the latest game.
- 1 x Alpha Light Long Spork. This long-handled spork is absolute gold for reaching into the deep corners of dehydrated food packs to stir, and making sure you scrape up every last morsel.
- 1 x 2.7 liter Alpha Pot. Our meals tend to be one-pot wonders, so having a pot large enough to fit everything in (and mix it) is marvelous. Perfect for family-sized noodles for breakfast too.
- Gas stove and gas canister. Something lightweight and fast cooking that doesn’t extinguish easily in the wind is great. Sometimes they have igniters built in, which is super handy.
Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks. These are great for food storage. You can color code, if you’re that way inclined, and they’re a lightweight, durable way of keeping everything easy to find. They even help keep the possums out of your noodles.
- Super concentrated Wilderness Wash to wash our hands (bodies, hair and clothes too!). You only need the teeniest bit. We try to just use water on the dishes when we can. Maybe a bit of sand if it’s around.
- Medium sized Airlite Towel to dry up. This doubles as a towel for the five-year-old and we use it in place of dishrags in many scenarios. Easy to wash and dry–and also proving to wear very well.
OUR FAVORITE HIKING MEALS AND SNACKS
Noodles for breakfast is the moniker we’ve chosen for social media. Sadly, though noodles for breakfast is delicious and fun, they don’t keep you going for long. More often than not, we have porridge or a low-sugar muesli bar so we can get going faster. When we can get to the store, we’ll have boiled eggs the next day. Often we stay with locals who have chickens and offer us fresh eggs, which is awesome.
We’re mostly gluten intolerant so bread and wraps are tricky. We haven’t found any great GF alternatives yet either. We love crackers and find the ones full of seeds are great to chew and make you feel good and satiated.
For a bit of protein and fat, we rotate things like peanut butter, tuna sachets and jerky for a treat (we try to do some days without meat). If we’re fresh out of town, we’ll indulge in fresh food like raw broccoli, avocado, cheese, tomato and nectarines. You’ll be amazed at how willing you are to eat squashed fruit or warm sweaty cheese when you’re very hungry.
The kids eat every few hours so we always have heaps of snacks. We eat plenty of nuts and seeds (you can find all sorts of great things in the bulk food bins over here in New Zealand). We mix up our own scroggin/trail mix of salted and roasted nuts, raw seeds, dried fruit and maybe some peanut M&Ms. Any sugar in our diets gets burnt off quickly but we find that it makes us feel a bit low after the high, so we don’t find much value in popsicles.
The kids dream about treats all day, so we do make sure to give them plenty of rewards for their hard work. They love chocolate, dried fruit, GF cookies and ice blocks (when we get to town). Sometimes they even earn a can of soda.
Dinners for five are bulky and heavy. Even one bag of GF pasta isn’t enough, so we need two. It also takes quite a lot of water to cook pasta well, so we need to make sure we have enough on us or a water source near camp.
Dehydrated veggies are rarely found on supermarket shelves. The only thing we usually find is ‘surprise peas’. So we often buy packs of freeze-dried vegetables designed for backcountry use.
Rice generally takes too much fuel to cook so we’re experimenting with cold soaking it first or letting it cook after the gas has been turned off.
If we’re carrying any more than two days’ worth of food, it really needs to be freeze-dried. Not many companies make family-sized portions but we’ve found that Back Country Cuisine makes a variety of family-sized meals—and we have extra dehydrated mixed veggies to go with it.
On a side note, we can’t wait to see companies innovating with less packaging, biodegradable packaging and family-sized portions so we don’t need five packets for every meal.
GET THE KIDS TO HELP OUT AT MEALTIMES
One of the challenges of thru-hiking with kids is the effort of setting up and packing everything away every day. Setting up camp takes us about half an hour to an hour. Pack up in the morning, including breakfast, takes more like two hours. This makes it pretty hard to get an early start.
We’re working on having jobs the kids do every day so they can get into a routine (and so we don’t have to herd them like cats). Some days are better than others!
Our 12-year-old is great with camp cooking and knows how to be careful with the stove and boiling water. Often she’ll get onto dinner while Tom and I set up the rest.
The little ones are always desperate to play at the end of a full day walking so we try to give them a bit of freedom. But they’re pretty good at helping with some of the more fun things, like collecting water for filtering or blowing up the mattresses in the wind.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Food is incredibly important on a thru-hike. And most hikers know all too well that, once you’re about a week in, ‘hiker hunger’ hits—that almost insatiable yearning for food. Our kids can’t skip a meal or eat the same thing over and over. They often don’t realize they’re hungry until they’re hangry. We need to remind them to feed themselves regularly.
With a little pre-planning, a few treats and a bit of teamwork, you’ll be able to keep everyone fed, happy and hiking!