I stepped onto the Pigeon Roost Trailhead at 4:45 P.M. on Friday June 25th, 2021. I had no idea the evening I was about to have.
I made it to my campground at about 6:10 in the evening. I was drenched in sweat (it was close to 90 degrees F that afternoon), and ready to rest in the woods for the evening. I set up my tent while listening to an audiobook recording of Tristessa by Jack Kerouac. When my tent was complete I settled in to have a beverage and make myself some dinner. It was a quick backpack meal of mashed potatoes and Spam. I love the single serve portions of Spam for backpack meals. It has a good amount of salt, fat, and protein. When added to a high carb dish like mashed potatoes, you quickly begin to feel like yourself again after eating. The rest of my food (oatmeal and coffee for the morning), I hid out in the woods far from camp so even if a critter finds it they won't associate it with my camp.
After dinner I sat down to write a rough draft of a poem and watch the day turn into night.
Around 9:30 I crawled into my tent to sleep. BUT! But, about ten minutes after getting into the tent I heard a visitor enter my camp. It sounded like a racoon or two, something small looking for food. After about ten minutes the noise went away and I started sinking into a light sleep.
About 11:00 I was awakened by my second group of visitors. From the sound of the footsteps, I am pretty sure this group was deer. They were around for a few minutes, just long enough to wake me up, before they galloped off into the woods.
About midnight I was awakened again. This one scared me. I mean scared me.
The footsteps on gravel were deep. This was a very large animal. A very large animal. And it wasn't keen to leave despite my speaking and noise making. It wasn't afraid of my voice or the noises I made. It looked through my camp for a few minutes and left.
Well, it left for a little bit, but it decided to visit my camp again about an hour later. I heard the same deep, weighted footfalls into my camp. I listened closely to hear where it was at any point, but just when the noise seemed to disappear, the scariest part of all happened. Four distinct sniffs then a pause before another four distinct sniffs just at the rear of my tent. It was sniffing me to see if there was anything (besides me) to eat.
Surprisingly enough, I wasn't petrified by fear. With my wits still about me, I calmly replied to the sniffs that there was nothing to eat in the tent. I then took my two knives and smacked the blades together to make noise. Deciding that nothing in the tent was worth going after, I heard footsteps move away from the tent and, eventually, out of my camp.
I laid back down in my tent. By now it was close to 1:30 a.m. I waited for the loud footsteps to return, but I finally fell asleep and I was able to seep through until about 5:00 a.m. when I woke up and waited for the sky to be light enough to pack up and leave.
When the sun was up, I left my tent to look for my food pack. It was nowhere to be found. Something found it in the night and had a treat.
With no coffee to get me going, I packed up my belongings, strapped them to my back and did the four mile trek to the Trailhead.
For the last year I've been using this simple can-turned-Sterno-stove to heat water while camping. It is simple, much easier than starting a campfire, and worked well to make coffee, and oatmeal in the mornings. Especially when the camping is over and all you want to do is heat some water for coffee and breakfast before you tear down your tent. I have enjoyed having the my little hobo stove. It was cheap to make out of a 50 cent can, and Sterno is only a couple bucks per can. I've always brought a small, 20 oz, pot with me to heat my water. I already had it so there was not monetary investment in case I decided I didn't want to camp, and it is very easy to keep clean.
However, the prospect of backpacking got me looking at other stove options. I browsed alcohol stoves, gas stoves, and a few Sterno stoves. Although most people online seem to gravitate toward the gas stoves, I decided to stick with my Sterno stove. I've been using Sterno since my early days as a caterer, and I feel comfortable with it. When someone posts that Sterno won't boil water online (I've seen it), don't believe them. Sterno provides a nice, strong, blue flame and will boil water if lidded properly.
I did decide to ditch the homemade can burner. I purchased a metal stove that can be broken down and folded up for easy storage and transport. So far, I really like it. It is simple, does what it is intended to do, and was less than ten bucks delivered to my door. Additionally, instead of using the pot with a large handle I grabbed an 18 oz Ozark Trail stainless steel cup, and I purchased a lid to fit it off of Amazon. My entire cooking unit costs $20.00 including a can of Sterno heat. I'm happy with that investment.
Next to decide on which backpack to take. I could carry my old faithful external frame pack, or I could move to my brand new internal frame pack. Oh, the decisions!
"What's for lunch?" I wondered as I wandered the grocery aisles. I wasn't thinking about that day, but about my very first backpack trip. The trip was actually still weeks away, but I was excited and I wanted to have everything planned as best it could. So, I wandered through looking for some kind of inspiration. I wanted something substantial but not hot. Getting out my sterno hobo stove (more on that in a coming post), heating up food, and waiting for the sterno can to cool down to pack back up seemed like a huge time suck that could be spent hiking or just relaxing on the trail.
I found a product called Cochinita Pibil by a company called Chata in the Mexican foods section that looked promising. It is a stewed pork product served in pouches much like single serve tuna pouches. I decided to try it with flour tortillas to see if it would taste alright at room temperature. And it did! It is actually really good. Apparently, Cohinita Pibil is pork that is marinated in citrus before being wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked with annatto seeds. The only issue I had is the amount of product. While my dehydrated soups could be re-packed in plastic baggies for smaller portioning, I couldn't do that with meat. And there is no way I could eat all of a pouch in one sitting. I'd hate to have to waste the food on the trail, and I couldn't save it for later so this product was out.
Luckily, on my next grocery store visit I found barbecue pulled pork in a similar pouch only in a smaller, single serve portion. A couple tortillas topped with pulled pork sounds just right for a quick lunch on the trail.
I think I'm going to eat quite a few tortillas on the hike. I found single serve peanut butter pouches which will work great, spread over a tortilla, for a snack, and I found some similar packs filled with vanilla almond butter and honey cinnamon peanut butter which will work great for a pre-bed snack (I can't sleep on an empty stomach). I should have known that peanut butter would be largely involved on this hike. I absolutely love peanut butter. I've loved it since I was a child. Plus, it is shelf stable, calorie dense, and comes in pretty convenient pouches.
Meals are pretty much decided! I'm going to eat a nice, hearty breakfast before hitting the trail, have barbecue tacos for lunch (side item tbd), and I'm having Idahoan creamy potato soup with Spam for dinner. Snacks will be beef jerky, peanut and almond butter on tortillas, and, honestly, probably some candy. I'm thinking some M&Ms and a Payday will be my choice. With those two it would mean no melting if it turns out to be warm on the trail. The next morning will be some instant oats with cinnamon, raisins, and dry milk for breakfast along with a cup of instant coffee. Now, to decide tent or hammock. For that, I think I'm going to need to go car camping at least once before my hike.
I love following Instagram accounts that produce absolutely beautiful meals over open fires and bushcraft stoves in front of equally beautiful mountainous landscapes. And I've always thought that I would do something very similar on my first over overnight backpack trip. However, now that I am planning a trip, my ideas for food have been shrinking down to a much shorter goal:
Keep myself from going to bed hungry.
I turned to an issue of TrailGroove Magazine for inspiration. They had an article in issue 46 about ultralight food options. Now, I'm not going to be "ultralight" backpacking. I have Wal-Mart and Acadamy Sports not so light equipment that will get me through the journey with relative comfort. I'm even considering taking my not so light external frame backpack for the sole reason that I love it. It is huge, old, and bulky but it was my first camping purchase from a thrift store. The zippers barely work. The main pouch has two tears in the bottom. I've had to install velcro to help keep the top flap down. It is a mess, and I have a new internal frame pack, but I'm still tempted.
So, anyway, it won't be an ultralight overnighter. I do, however, want as much food as possible while keeping the weight low. Between running, lifting weights, and skateboarding activities I need calories to maintain my 200 pound frame, and I eat a lot. I mean a lot. I'm sure hiking over five miles will make me pretty hungry too. Some of the ideas I'm using from the TrailGroove article involve instant oats for breakfast which is kind of a no-brainer as I always do instant oats for breakfast when camping. Much like I already do when camping, I add dried fruit and instant milk for added calories and protein.
For lunch they have rehydrated salsa with chips listed, but that doesn't really sound like a lunch to me. for dinner they suggested a ramen with parmesan. It was another meal that got me thinking that wouldn't really satisfy me. I know when I eat ramen at home I am a little picky. I like a boiled egg, some scallion, carrots...sometimes even a little drizzle of truffle oil (try it sometime, it is amazing). In a pinch I'll put some frozen veggies in it. I just don't care for ramen noodles in broth by themselves. So, I went to the grocery store, started looking around for some new ideas, and found a few interesting things in the soup aisle.
Here are the first three combos I have come up with:
1. Bear Creek Vegetable Beef Soup (with reduced sodium Beef Jerky)
I chose this soup because it has dehydrated vegetables and a larger variety of ingredients from other dehydrated soups. It has pasta, lentils, rice, carrots, and peas in a beef broth. Because of the sodium amounts in the soup I chose reduced sodium beef jerky. One packed of soup says it makes 8 servings but really it makes 4 (16 oz) servings. Add a few ounces of beef jerky crumbled into bite sized pieces and it packs a good protein punch as well. The real downside of this soup is that it takes fifteen minutes of simmering to be ready. Not a deal-breaker, but other soups cook in a third of the time.
2. Idahoan Creamy Potato Hearty Soup (with Spam)
This one has a better flavor than the beef soup and, because it is thick and hearty, it gives a more full feeling. One package makes two (16 oz) servings, and the spam is easily diced up and added to the soup as it cooks. One serving with one pack of Spam. I will say I was pleasantly surprised with the Spam. I have only tasted Spam one other time in my life and I remember not liking it at all. I really enjoyed the flavor in this soup. The one thing needed to make this soup just right is some hot sauce. I'm looking around for some portion controlled packs of sriracha for the hike.
3. Idahoan Cheddar Broccoli Hearty Soup (with Chicken)
The third soup I chose to try works pretty well with Spam or chicken, but I put chicken on the list for varieties sake. It is another potato based soup, but does have a different flavor from with the addition of cheese and broccoli. Don't expect it to be overflowing with broccoli, but the bits of broccoli are dispersed evenly throughout. Like the creamy potato soup, this is screaming for some hot sauce (or buffalo sauce).
All of three of these make for a good entree option for my overnight backpack trip at Devil's Den. Since this trip is just an overnight, and I don't want to unpack my stove to cook lunch, I will probably opt to only take one of these with me. My money is on the creamy potato soup with Spam. I think it was probably my favorite. I'll keep the beef jerky as a high protein snack option during the hike, and I might find a way to incorporate chicken at room temp for lunch. In fact, next up on my agenda is figuring out lunch.
It has been a little over a year since I started camping, hiking, and trail running and it is time to up the ante. I've been considering a backpack trip to explore more of Arkansas, but I haven't had the courage to just go. All of that is changing in October. I'm planning my first overnight hike/backpack trip to Butterfield Trail at Devil's Den.
I chose Butterfield because it isn't that long, just 12 miles, and could be done in a day if someone so chose . I've read online where folks do the full hike in 7 hours (which seems a little too quick to enjoy) so it seems a good place to start. In fact, as long as things go well and I don't get eaten by a bear or mountain lion, I want to make a backpack trip an annual event in October of every year. I was born in October and I can't think of many better ways to celebrate, but to get out in nature.
I can admit, always being a "car camper" and "day hiker" so far, this trip (despite being relatively short), is a little daunting. Walking out into the woods with nothing but the pack on my back is something I've wanted to do for years, but never seemed like something I would actually do. The time, however, has come. So, you'll see a lot of posts in August and September about planning the trip. In fact, the first thing I thought about was, what will I eat, and those planning posts will start popping up on the website next week.
David Thornton is a two time national award winning writer, chef, husband, father, and fitness enthusiast.