Mac ’n’ Cheese
It doesn’t get much more simple or easy than a box of mac ’n’ cheese! However, for backcountry use, there are a few tricks you should be aware of. This isn’t so much a tutorial about how to make mac ’n’ cheese, but rather how to alter the directions on pre-packaged meals for use in the backcountry.
I’ll also say this much about mac ’n’ cheese: I absolutely hate the stuff. It’s bloody awful! Except.... I can’t explain it, but I absolutely love it on the trail after a week in the backcountry—and I’ll typically eat it a couple of times each week for dinner. I also prefer carrying one day of extra food just in case it takes longer for me to reach my destination than I expect, so you’ll almost always find an extra bag of the indestructible mac ’n’ cheese at the bottom of my food bag.
During a thru-hike, it’s extremely difficult to eat the calories you need. Hiking 20 to 30 miles each day with a heavy pack over rough terrain means there’s a new rule when it comes to your diet: You an eat anything you want, as much as you want, whenever you want and you’re all but guaranteed to lose weight. (Especially men! Women seem to gain more muscle mass.) So even though the nutritional label says there are three servings in one of these standard-sized boxes, it’s a single meal for me! (Usually followed by candy for dessert.)
You’ll also see two different columns with nutritional information. The “as packaged” column is what you’ll find in the box. The “as prepared” is what you’ll wind up with if you follow the preparation directions on the box—which we won’t be doing. As a result, our meal will likely wind up with closer to 780 calories.
Some people worry about the high sodium content: This meal contains 1,710 mg (73% of the daily recommendation). As a general rule, I wouldn’t worry it. If you’re hiking 20 or more miles each day, you’ll likely sweat a great deal of that out. Not only can you eat 5,000+ calories each day and still lose weight, but you can consume a lot more salt too!
The cooking instructions that come with the box—consider those suggested cooking instructions. You’ll want to follow them where it’s practical, but in the backcountry, we probably won’t be carrying a pan to drain water, margarine or milk.
Powdered milk, however, is easy to find (and carry) and can fill in for regular milk. Some people do carry sticks of butter on the trail but I don’t because it gets messy and I never found a good way to transport it. I’m a little envious of those who do carry it, though! It’s also possible to buy powdered butter, but I won’t be doing that in this tutorial.
This box didn’t include any details about ‘high-altitude’ cooking, but if it’s there and you’ll be backpacking at high elevations, you should note what they suggest doing differently. (Usually, it’s boiling water longer.)
Food sold in grocery stores is not packaged with backpackers in mind. It comes in large, clumsy and heavy boxes. It won’t hold up against rain or the rigors of your pack. The quickest, easiest thing to do: pour it all into a ZipLoc bag.
The Ziploc quart freezer bags are my favorite. The quart size is just the right size, and the freezer bags are thicker and more durable. I’d also advise not using the ones that have a zipper to the bag. Those have a bad habit of unzipping in your pack.
So before your hike, pour out the contents of the mac ’n’ cheese box into a Ziploc bag. Pour enough powdered milk for your trip (or at least a couple of weeks of it) into another Ziploc bag. I’ll usually fill a Ziploc half full with powdered milk and it’ll last me a couple of weeks.
In the Field Cooking Instructions
Step 1: Gather Materials
Gather everything you’ll need together before you start. Once you’ve started cooking, you should never leave the stove unattended. Not just for the safety factor, but so you won’t burn your food either!
Always have plenty of extra water around. If you do inadvertently start a fire that gets out of control, that extra water doubles as your fire extinguisher!
Step 2: Boil Water
Boil about 300 ml of water. The amount doesn’t have to be exact, but 300 ml is a convenient amount for me because it’s marked on the side of my pot.
Ultimately, you need enough water to cover the noodles you’ll be cooking but not much more than that. If you don’t have anything to measure the volume of water, however, you can always add more water later if there wasn’t enough or pour some out if there was too much—so it’s okay to be approximate in your measurements!
Step 3: Add Simmer Ring
Once the water is boiling hot, bring your stove to a simmer. Without reducing the heat, I have a difficult time not burning the noodles. (I only learned this step from trial and error!)
For my soda can stove, I use a simmer ring made from the top of a soda can.
Step 4: Add Noodles
Now add the noodles! Spread them out evenly in the water and if the water doesn’t fully cover them, add more water until all noodles are under a good quarter inch of water.
Noodles will absorb water and expand as they rehydrate so don’t just cover the noodles—make sure they’re under a good quarter-inch of water.
If there’s too much water, this is also a good time to pour some of it out. It’ll take longer to cook with too much water, and its wasting your stove’s energy anyhow.
Step 5: Stir Noodles
And at this point, stir the noodles constantly. The ones at the bottom of the pot will burn if you aren’t constantly stirring. Keep cooking and stirring until the noodles soften to the consistency you prefer—usually in about 10 minutes.
I’ll try to cut a noodle in half with my spoon on the side of the pot. If I can do it easily, they’re done!
The mix will thicken as the noodles absorb water and water evaporates. If it becomes too thick, the noodles will clump and become much more difficult to stir. There’s an easy fix, though—add a little water and mix it in.
Step 6: Add Cheese Powder
Add the cheese powder to the noodles and mix it in thoroughly.
When it’s mixed, check the thickness of your mix again. If it’s becoming too thick and the noodles clump too much, add a bit more water.
Step 7: Add Powdered Milk
Now add powdered milk and mix it in thoroughly. How much powdered milk? It doesn’t really matter, but I try to aim for roughly same amount as powdered cheese I had added.
If it’s a little more or less, though, it’s not a big deal. If I’m running short of powdered milk on the trail, I’ll add half as much as usual. In a pinch, if you’re out of powdered milk, just skip this step completely.
Step 8: Eat!
At this point, if the consistency of your mac ’n’ cheese is too thick for your liking, you can add a bit of water and mix it in.
If the consistency is too thin because you had already added too much water, you can continuing simmering your meal (stir regularly!) to boil off the extra water and thicken the mix.
If your mix is just right, however, dinner is done! Eat up! =)
The Dirty Pot
Dinner is done and—hopefully—you’re stuffed. Now it’s time to clean up. The nice thing about cleaning up mac ’n’ cheese is that it’s pretty easy to do with nothing more than a bit of water a couple of fingers. No soap required!
(I met a health-inspector thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail once upon a time who was appalled at some of our hygiene habits, but I’ve never gotten sick on the trail after 10,000 miles of hiking so I figure this method works well enough.)
Step 1: Clean the Spoon
Hold your water bottle in one and the spoon in the other, then slowly pour the water out of the bottle onto the spoon while rubbing off the detritus with the thumb of the hand holding the spoon.
Do this over your pot so the pot catches the water running off from your spoon. Recycling water! We’ll use it to clean our pot too!
Step 2: Wash the Pot
Washing the pot comes down to nothing more than rubbing the cheese goop off the bottom and sides of your post with a finger. I do the bottom of the pot first because as the water grows murkier, it’s difficult to see what’s clean and not clean through all of the water. If you burned noodles, they’ll be difficult to scratch off the bottom of your pot but they’ll come loose eventually.
Then I move to the sides of the pot, tilting the pot just enough to get the side of it in water where I can rub off the goop but not spill out the water.
The mucky water left after you’re done is called gray water, and if you’re a hard-core Leave-No-Trace fan or severely short of water, you’ll drink it. It’s disgusting, though, and I’ll usually find somewhere to throw it out unless I’m hiking through a hot desert and the next water source is 20 miles away!
Step 3: Rinse the Pot
Washing your pot gets it pretty clean, but you’ll probably still find small pieces that the washing missed, so let’s do a rinse. Add more clean water and use your finger to rub out any areas the washing missed. When you’re done, the water is practically pristine and I’ll usually drink it because, why not?!