CAMPERS across the country are gearing up for what could be one last trek into the wilderness before autumn's cool air settles in. Backpacks may be bulging with state-of-the-art equipment, but still barren of the most basic of provisions: food. Stocking supplies for campfire cook-outs can be baffling: How much to bring? How well will it keep? Will it taste good?
Coming to campers' aid are an abundance of outdoor enthusiasts. Although their experiences vary from hiking in the Himalayas to rafting rapids on the Arkansas River, adventure travel experts agree: One need not sacrifice taste for simplicity, they say, and - with adjustments - one can eat on the trail the way one eats at home.
Tim Rawson, who for 10 years was a trip instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo., says ``The first lesson of every trip is to get people tuned in to not having to eat slop just because they're in the wilderness, but that it's possible to eat really good food.''
NOLS students, whether in Alaska, California, Utah, Kenya, Mexico, or Chile, are encouraged to cook spontaneously and creatively, free from the constraints of a meal plan.
NOLS rations manager Claudia Lindholm says that fostering creative cooking not only pleases the palate, it boosts self-esteem: ``It's very much of a confidence-builder to go out and make a loaf of cinnamon bread that they've never even made in their ovens at home.''
With some guidance, NOLS students are even encouraged to cook indigenous foods. ``In Kenya, we eat goat that we slaughter; in Mexico, fish we catch. Wherever we are, we pick spices,'' says Mr. Rawson.
The Outward Bound School, which aims to stretch the individual beyond limitations in all facets of outdoor life, applies this philosophy to cooking as well.
When Sharon Harvey led a recent Outward Bound mountain climbing trip in the California desert, she and her colleagues tested their students' shopping skill. Minutes after the group of 11 met for the first time, they were shuffled off to a grocery store in Joshua Tree National Park to spend a total of $100 for their four-day expedition.
NOT only did this help teach students how to work together in considering weight, spoilage, and differing tastes, but also how similar shopping for outdoor foods is to shopping for home.
Student Werner Baeckelandt learned the lesson. ``We ended up buying a lot of the same foods we'd eat at home - fresh vegetables, oranges, apples, rice, trail mix, cereal, and meat - all at an ordinary grocery store,'' he said.
The instructors, who had been waiting in the van, were pleased with the group's choices. Especially approving was Ms. Harvey, whose only concession to freeze-dried foods is refried beans to fill a burrito. She insists on using a variation of fresh produce and grains for all trips. ``It's a common misconception that one has to use freeze-dried food,'' she says. ``All it takes is some creativity and trying not to feel limited being away from the familiar stove and fridge.''
Other experts say fresh foods are welcome, but not practical for a trip exceeding one week.
``Freeze-dried foods are lightweight, but they taste bland on their own, so I like to supplement them with fresh cheeses, pasta, and spices,'' says Jo Schairer, who teaches wilderness cookery clinics at Adventure-16 Travel Outfitters, a retail chain with stores throughout Southern California.
While Los Angelenos sip freshly brewed coffee or hot cider during her evening clinics, Ms. Schairer feeds them tips for the trail. ``Most folks are from the old school of thought that all food should be freeze-dried,'' she says. ``I like to teach them to take the time to do some really good cooking, perhaps combining the two. ... They can even bake!''
Sierra Club staffer Laurie-Ann Barbour's job as cook for the San Francisco base camp allows her a different approach to meal planning. With pack animals to carry food into the campground, Ms. Barbour practically ignores the weight issue.
But even when camping with her friends, without pack animals, she still uses lots of fresh foods and grains. After nine years of camping together, Barbour and her buddies have become confident cooks who enjoy concocting dishes from their own inspiration or adapting recipes.
Those traveling with Bear Basin Ranch in Westclift, Colo., also have the advantage of pack animals. Staff member Carol Brown says that meal planning for short family trips isn't much different. ``There's still no need for freeze-dried foods; they are costly and the ease of preparation doesn't warrant buying them,'' she says. Instead, she packs perishable foods in ice, or brings frozen meats to thaw on the trail.
After riding 30 miles by horseback into camp and pitching their tents at sunset, first-timers at Bear Basin build hearty appetites. ``People expect hot dogs and beans, but we don't serve anything like that,'' says Brown. ``We might serve steaks the first night, and clam linguine the next.''
ALTHOUGH savvy to a different form of outdoor adventure - canoe camping on Maine lakes - Nancy Ritger, education coordinator for the Appalacian Mountain Club, also attests to the ease of eating well in the wilderness.
Ritger says that meal planning outdoors is the same as at home - with two possible exceptions: ``We aim to cook with only one pot, and we double portions since people tend to get hungrier.''
Rusty Brennan, Asian Operations Coordinator for REI Adventures, took his friends on a 23-day trek through Nepal. They also realized home could be re-created by the campfire. Inventing an oven with coals and pots, they baked the quintessential all-American dessert: apple pie.
``It wasn't bad for being two weeks into our trip,'' Brennan boasts, adding ``...and 17,000 feet up Mount Everest.''