Winning Fixings for Hungry Campers

Simple, lightweight ingredients that require little preparation are key for trips into the great outdoors

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHILE camping in Palm Valley, outside of Alice Springs, in Australia, I received the bounty of Australian hospitality: a pan of ''damper'' baked just for me.

Damper is a rough bread that hardy explorers and surveyors made while on extended trips into the continent's vast red center. Flour and salt were mixed with water. The dough was formed into a ball and thrown into the coals. Presto! Survival food.

The family that took pity on me camping alone decided they would make a modern-day version of the bread. This time raisins were mixed in, and it was placed in a covered, cast-iron pot that was shoved into white-hot coals. About 45 minutes later, we dug in.

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Not everyone's idea of camping includes hauling around a cast-iron pot or eating bread caked with ashes. But if the idea of carrying around simple lightweight ingredients is appealing, there are ways to make just about anything.

Breakfast bites

Breakfasts these days tend to be on the light side for many campers. Gone are the bacon, eggs, and potatoes gut-stuffers. ''I go with bagels and oatmeal, English muffins, Pop Tarts, granola bars. You can bring peanut butter, honey, and apple butter in plastic containers,'' says Shawn Delaney, the Appalachian Mountain Club's Youth Opportunities coordinator, who organizes camping trips in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

For lunches, pita bread is Ms. Delaney's basic sandwich material. ''Tuna [cans are] heavy, but if you make a sandwich ahead and have it on the first day, it's OK. My favorite is a block of cheese and pepperoni with mustard.

''Our motto here is: Lunch begins after breakfast and ends before dinner. We eat all day and drink all day.''

Robin Jacoway, manager of Eastern Mountain Sports outdoors store in Boston, recommends that people cook one big meal a day: dinner. ''Bring high-calorie snacks for lunch: beef jerky, cheese, sausages, crackers,'' Mr. Jacoway says. ''Grapes are great. Just fill a Nalgene (a brand of plastic container that doesn't smell like plastic and is leakproof) with them.''

Delaney advises taking things you can find around the house.

''I take pasta and rice because they're light. Anything that can cook in one pot - like pasta with chicken, chicken bouillon, and vegetables. Or stir-fries.

''On my last trip with adults, I put fajitas on the menu,'' Delaney says. ''We fried chicken strips and vegetables in a pan and made the rice separately. Then we took tortillas, cheese, and salsa, and [rolled] our own fajitas.''

Fresh chicken? On a camping trip?

''We took frozen chicken, wrapped it in our ground cloths, and used it the first night,'' she explains. ''As long as the days aren't too hot, the chicken will last for a day.''

Those who want less bother or less weight might opt for freeze-dried food. Such items have been around for years and the quality is steadily improving. As Jacoway says, ''They have a lot more taste; they're much less like flavored cardboard.''

With many of them, you can pour boiling water right into the bag, fold the edge over, and wait. They'll cook in seven minutes.

Natural High makes freeze-dried dinners with names like ''Teriyaki Chicken,'' ''Honey-Lime Chicken,'' and ''Chicken and Broccoli.''

But several experts point out that while the packages say they serve two, hungry campers can wolf down one each.

Campers don't have to skimp on dessert either; carrot cake, cobblers, even Mocha Mousse Pie are available.

One major drawback to freeze-dried products is cost: Most entrees cost around $6, desserts around $3. Some campers don't use them unless they're on an extended trip into the wilderness where every ounce counts.

Packaged mixes

A new company, Traveling Light, makes packaged Outback Oven Products, such as Spinach, Mushroom, and Cheddar Quiche, as well as a variety of desserts. These are essentially mixes, not freeze-dried foods, so they are heavier but also serve more people. And they're less expensive. But to cook them, you need a lightweight camp oven.

Cheaper alternatives abound. One favorite is to use packaged noodle soup, like Top Ramen, as a base, and add chicken or egg and vegetables. Or packaged lentil soup. Packaged noodles with sauces are also good but require a pan, milk, and some stirring time.

A compact camp stove with pots and lids tucked inside is handy and a necessity in areas that don't allow you to make fires with wood. Don't forget a clamp to pick them up with.

But if the urge to have real food while on the trail just becomes overwhelming, you can do what one twenty-something camper did: Send one strong person, at the end of the day, to run six miles down the mountain (and back) to get ... a pizza.

''It was still warm!'' he marvelled.

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