A long time ago (OK, it was like the summer of 2002) I was getting heavily into backpacking. I was on the trail a lot then, often 3 days a week and out on trips 3 to 4 weekends a month. Like many hikers in that time period I knew of two choices: buying the (then) nasty commercial meals (which never tasted great and were always gloopy) or there were a few backpacking cookbooks that were mostly for those who were still living in the glory days of the 1970’s with striped knee socks on. I wasn’t. As I went out more I couldn’t afford to buy that many meals – and I also couldn’t stand eating them anymore. I started pulling together meals I could make with just hot water, and in 2004 FBC was born (Freezer Bag Cooking). Before that, there were some recipes in books (it was often called zip loc bag recipes or turkey bag recipes back then) and the early days of the internet, but in my recipe developing overdrive, I created 1000’s of recipes in the years after. Kirk and I wrote five cookbooks for the trail along with our hosting of TrailCooking website online. As the years went by we expanded and developed other recipes for the outdoors, including one pan (where there was actual cooking involved) and even baking methods. I have published a smattering of backpacking recipes on Never Free, and realize it might be confusing when I list all the cooking methods, so below is an explanation of what each method is.
And most of all, these recipes and methods work for long-term food storage, prepping and travel meals as well.
FBC (Freezer Bag Cooking)
When we started developing recipes for outdoor cooking and backpacking, nearly all our recipes the first couple years were for the method called Freezer Bag Cooking™, or also known as FBC.
When asked “What is FBC?” the answer is it is making your own meals, just the way you want. Consider them to be similar to commercial freeze-dried meals, but without the cost, and you can customize them exactly to how you want. Have dietary restrictions? No issues. Want a smaller or bigger appetite? Easily changed.
How to do FBC:
Most people who do the FBC method will package their meals at home before the trip. You will want to note on each bag what the meal is and how much water is required. Some will tuck a tiny note inside, others use a permanent marker on the outside.
When getting ready to “cook” your meal, bring your water to a near boil. Pour the water into your cup to measure, then add it to your freezer bag. This way you avoid the chance of burns, adding too much water, or touching your freezer bag with a burning hot piece of metal – and having the small potential of melting the bag. You DO NOT need boiling water to rehydrate meals! Boiling is at 212°, 180° water will work just fine. If you need to boil your water to remove any chance of water born pathogens let it cool for a couple of minutes and then proceed.
Stir with a long-handled metal, wooden (bamboo) or heat safe plastic spoon. After you have mixed it well, zip up the bag tightly and wrap in a fleece hat, jacket or cozy made for the purpose. Then let sit for 5 to 15 minutes (the recipe and altitude will determine how long), make yourself a drink and wait for your meal. Once ready, stir well and eat. We usually put our freezer bag into our cozies before we add the water (since we use a dedicated cozy), this works well as we don’t have to hold the bag upright while the water is added.
What is a cozy?
Any dedicated insulating layer to wrap around your bag(s). We developed a fabric cozy and sold them for many years, before setting that business free and letting others do it.
A Note On Squeezing/Kneading Bags:
If you squeeze or knead your bags to mix up the food, be very careful – be sure you have pushed out all the air before you do this. The steam from the hot liquid can cause a build up and your kneading could cause the bag to pop open. For items like mashed potatoes and stuffing kneading if done carefully works well.
The “How Do I Eat Out Of The Bag?” question:
This can take a little practice, but after your food is ready, roll the top 1/3 of the bag down (imagine you are cuffing socks). This will make your bag into its own bowl. If eating soup or chowder, be careful. With a sharp camp knife cut off the top half to make a “bowl”.
The “How Do I Feed 2 People?” Question:
Many of the recipes are listed as feeding two people, which might make one wonder, how do you feed 2 our of 1 bag? My answer to this has to been to bring two bags with me – an extra bag (usually recycled from having held dry food before). After the meal is ready, I do the final stirring, then divide the meal between the two bags.
Insulated Mug Method
The insulated mug method is very similar to using the FBC method, but using an insulated mug instead of freezer bags. The mug acts as a cozy for you, keeping your food hot for you. Follow the FBC method if a recipe does not mention using a mug.
The method works best for solo meals for one in the range of ½ cup to 1½ cups water added.
It will depend of course on what size mug you carry while backpacking/traveling. Do you take a 12 ounce mug? Or a 18 ounce one? A 12 ounce mug works best with no more than 1 cup water added to dry ingredients. A 18 ounce mug should be 1½ cups or less water added. You will need room for your food to expand!
If super hungry, there is always the Super Grande coffee mugs found at truck stops across the country. You could fix a meal for a logger in one of those puppies!
You can take any sturdy (yet light) mug that you prefer but you will want a good tight-fitting lid. Be it plastic or metal, either is up to you. If you use metal be warned the interior will be cold in winter. Preheating with hot water will be needed to not chill your food. As well, you will want to ensure your mug is double walled, so as to retain heat.
Add your dry ingredients to the mug, along with oil and meats if called for and then add the amount of boiling water called for. Stir well, cover the mug tightly and let sit for 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the time called in the recipe. Stir well and eat.
One Pot Method
The most traditional method of trail cooking is the One Pot Method, using a lightweight pot to cook your meal in. By incorporating the methods of FBC (Freezer Bag Cooking) into it you can avoid lengthy cook times (and pot scrubbings), as well you can save fuel. This method is attractive to long distance hikers, and to those avoiding the use of plastics. It also works well for cooking larger meals, and when making meals when there is power outages that require boiling of water.
To save time, at home bag each meal up. You can use snack and sandwich bags for this. Be sure to mark with a permanent marker or tuck a small note inside that notes what the meal is and how much water is called for. You can also store dry meal mixes in mason jars and store in a cool, dry place.
Add the water called for, any oil and meat to your pot. In some cases the recipe will call for the dried vegetables or the dried ingredients to be added as well. Follow the recipe directions to be sure. Bring the water to a boil, turn off your stove and add in the dry items. Stir well and cover tightly. At altitude or in cooler temperatures you will want to consider using a pot cozy to insulate your pot (it retains quite a bit of heat in). You can make your own easily out of metallic bubble wrap.
The cleaning of your pot is easier this way than if you do regular cooking, where you simmer for a lengthy time, such as 10 to 20 minutes. When done, wipe out with a paper towel and then rinse with a mild mixture of outdoor safe soap/water. If you use a non-stick pot you often won’t need a scrubby pad unless you have added a lot of cheese – and wiping with a paper towel really removes cheese if you do it before it gets cold.
No Cook Method
No cook trail meals can make great lunches, an easy meal in bad weather when backpacking, and also they have been extremely popular with long distance hikers looking to save weight on fuel. They also are great for road trips, car camping, even in hotel rooms when traveling. None of the recipes require a stove or heat source.
Pack your meals at home in a snack, sandwich or pint/quart freezer bag (whatever you prefer). Note the amount of water on the bag in permanent marker and what the meal is or tuck a small note inside.
Depending on the recipe rehydration will be nearly instant to up to 30 minutes. Add in cool water, seal the bag and knead or shake gently. Set aside till ready.
Simple eating on a cold day, you can make some meals in advance and carry them till lunch time. Or for nights when it is raining or snowing, and you don’t want to sit outside for 20 minutes while it dumps on you (however NEVER eat in a tent if in bear territory).