Food and cooking
As with everything, food and cooking requirements should be suited to the task. The basic food requirement is obvious and pretty hard to avoid – your body needs enough fuel to burn. How you apportion and carry the various food items requires some consideration. Cooking may be something of a luxury, so balancing your desire for comfort versus carrying extra bulk and weight should be considered. I consider cooking burners and hardware elsewhere, so lets focus on the 'what and how to' cook side of things.
Everyone has their preferences for food so I won't labor this. Suffice to say, when hiking I like to have lots of complex carbohydrate (pasta, rice, potatoes), proteins (generally meats, but also pulses), and vegetables - ie. lots of everything. I'm not a big fan of simple sugars and sweets, although I keep some on hand in case I need a quick rush. How you carry all this is where we need to think about weight.
Yes, it generally tastes like pet food - particularly when eaten cold - but tinned food has its advantages. It is easy to carry, easy to heat, but because it contains its own water it is heavy. Tins are also bulky, and the the packaging contributes weight and bulk even when empty (we always carry packaging out!). Apportioning rations is fairly straightforward – a breakfast carbohydrate such as spaghetti or baked beans (both of which I personally despise), with a lunch-sized noodles or small can of stew or similar, and a larger stew for the evening is enough. As one who likes spicy food, a spice kit of pepper, Tabasco, and chili sauce are indispensable. Another argument for an open shelter, rather than a shared tent, if your digestive system has mixed opinions about spicy food.
Some dehydrated food types are almost edible (even army ones). There are a wide selection in camping stores, and in my typical way I will rail against them. They are very sexy looking and sounding, and they are also horrendously expensive. The Mountain House range pictured are around the $8 mark per meal. On the plus side, they often (but not always) taste marginally better than canned food. They are light, because they do not contain water, and do not occupy much space. The packaging is also light and compact. Other items to consider are dehydrated foods such as potatoes, rice, or (if you don't like your tent-mate) dried eggs. These can be thrown in with tinned food to bulk it up. Cooking dehydrated meals is easy – just add boiling water – so like tinned food they are economical on fuel usage.
A cunning trick I've often used is to make, dry, and seal my own food. A few days before a trip I will hit the kitchen, make my own stew, chilli con carne, chicken curry with rice or whatever tickles my fancy - which I then dehydrate and vacuum seal. Of course, I didn't invent the idea. There are quite a few websites on how best to prepare meals for hiking. Glenn McAllister's site
has good hints and shamelessly promotes his admittedly good book.
Inexpensive dehydrators are relatively easy to find, as are food sealers. While the longevity of these may not be as long as the commercial products with various sulfides in them, they are perfectly reasonable for weeks if not months.
While technically dehydrated food is dried food, I use this to refer to uncooked forms such as rice, pasta, and pulses such as chickpeas, beans, lentils. Of special notes are couscous, bulghar wheat, and polenta (for those of you who can drag yourself out of the pasta and potatoes mindset). Couscous is great. It's a pre-cooked cracked wheat and cooking it is dead easy. Just add boiling water or stock, cover, and it's ready to eat in a few minutes. Alternatively, just throw it into a stew mix. Bulghar is another form of cracked wheat. Just add water for an hour or so (eg. in a container in your pack) and it's ready to go either uncooked (usually) or thrown in with everything else at the last minute. Dried foods are very robust items to carry. They store well, don't contain their own water so by themselves are light. However, they require water for preparation and, of considerable importance, fuel. They (with the exception of bulghar) need to be cooked. I'll consider this below, but a useful trick is to place the planned evening meal dried food and water in a waterproof bottle in the morning, carry it around during the day and lo and behold all it will need is heating after absorbing the water. This cuts the cooking time to about one quarter. As a word of warning – don't do this with red kidney beans. The soak water from these beans can cause some nasty stomach cramps. Your stomach and tent-mate will hate you.
Perishable foods can be considered for the first few days. They will be heavier though, and of course are of limited life so only take what you really need. There is no point carrying something you won't end up using. Preserved smallgoods such as salami have a reasonably good shelf life and are worth considering. Jerky is a very good and light protein to carry. Even bacon can last quite a long time, although after two weeks it tends to look a bit green.
One burner cooking
Fuel is typically at a premium, so fuel usage should always be optimised. Here are a few tips when cooking with, say, only one burner.
1. Prepare your space first. In culinary terms, prepare your mise en place. Hey, even bush-dwelling barbarians appreciate cooking good food. Make sure your cooking space is clear and not likely to tip over and/or ignite the bushland; ensure all pots are in level spots and not going to tip over; make sure all food items you intend to turn into something resembling a meal are within reach so you don't have to get up and clumsily kick something over; and importantly prepare all food before turning the burner on.
2. Plan your cooking. Rice and pasta take time to cook. Get them on first. If you have pre-soaked your food, this won't take long. Think carefully about this. The pasta packet tells you to boil for 20 minutes, but the pasta will still cook even when it's off the stove. Bring it to a boil for a few minutes, take it off, and let it continue cooking off the heat while you cook the other stuff. Occasionally swap pots back and forth to keep the heat up on both. Effectively you are cooking two pots at the same time with one burner. Yes, you will look a bit like Yanni on keyboards, but that's the way it goes.
3. Serve it quickly. Most camp cooking sets are aluminium. They are quick to heat, but equally quick to cool down. When the air temperature is only a few degrees, don't wait on ceremony – dish it and eat. Serving 6 portions with the best linen and crockery, saying a few words of grace, and reminiscing about the day and your happy times on a wing and a prayer in the boy scouts before allowing folks to eat will just generate grumpy campers with cold food in front of them.