by Joe Byers - Friday, July 3, 2020
For us, elk paradise lies five miles into Colorado’s White River National Forest where we rent two large tents and basic gear to deal with whatever high-mountain storms send our way. Over the last decade we’ve dealt with hurricane winds, multiple feet of wet snow and, on one occasion, a solid week of rain. We can’t predict how elk will move, yet we can count on one thing: eating like kings.
We learned long ago that whether you’re going on a summer camping, backpacking or fishing trip or a fall wilderness hunt, you need energy to power your way through those multi-mile hikes. Your options are either freeze-dried foods and abbreviated meals like peanut butter and jelly, or you can opt for regular nutritious meals. Our hunting camp is in the latter category. Though no one in my group cooks on a regular basis, over the past 10 years we have fine-tuned our culinary machine so we can hunt from dark to dark, hike miles in between and awake powered to do it all again. The following tips just might make you a hero.
Fuel the Adventure
While in my father’s elk camps during the 1980’s, one Dick Hanson had been a former U.S. Army cook and loved to prepare elk stew more than stalk in the woods. Despite our backcountry camp, we packed in a 20-pound gas bottle, a three-burner grill and at least 10 pounds of onions and potatoes. We began each day with a hot breakfast and returned after dark to a great meal that Sarge prepared.
Now I’ve taken over as camp captain and our group continues with great meals to fuel the adventure. My introduction began in a South Dakota camp where I killed a mule deer just prior to a heavy snowstorm. We skinned and hung the big muley in the barn while my buddies hunted. I peeled an entire loin from that buck, sliced it, added salt and pepper and fried it in butter. We ate it all and went into the storm to get more. What was left, we ate for breakfast.
Create a Menu
Accomplished cooks are also kitchen marshals, so if you have one in your group, allow wide latitude regarding what gets cooked. Otherwise, plan a menu and divvy up camp shores. We always have steak and mac-and-cheese on the eve of the hunt. For the rest of the week, we plan a meat, vegetable and side dish. Breakfasts and lunch sandwiches also are planned. This makes buying and preparing meals easier and you can avoid foods that some hunters don’t like. If the outing includes vegetarians or vegans, they are on their own.
Prepare Foods in Advance
We hunt in Colorado but live in Maryland so there is a lag time before food reaches the table. Initially, we would buy all meats, eggs and vegetables in Craig, Colo., at a local store. Now we buy and freeze our bacon, sausage, steaks and other protein in Maryland stores and take advantage of sales.
We prepare several meals using venison from the previous fall, including elk. One friend’s wife makes killer spaghetti sauce, so we freeze it and some elk stew in advance. We pack a 48-quart cooler with frozen goods and tape it shut and use its insulating properties to keep leftovers from freezing in colder nightly temps.
Through the years we’ve picked up a few tricks that make our camp meals easier and tastier. Here are just a few.
• Scrambled eggs: Packing eggs on horseback or in a backpack can create a mess. Last year we scrambled six dozen eggs and poured the mix into a large plastic pitcher. Whether we needed eggs for pancakes, French toast or scrambles, we just poured them from the pitcher. Hunters also can create their own omelets of choice from lunch meats and vegetables.
• Baked Potatoes: Last fall I got baking potatoes, rubbed them in olive oil and salt, and wrapped each in foil. I baked and stored them in a cooler. In camp I put them in the campfire for 10 minutes and they were ready to serve. Leftovers made great home fries for breakfast.
• Spaghetti and Stew: These power meals help give the body long-term energy. If you don’t have a family recipe, consider “Hamburger Helper.” That meal won’t win any prestige contests, but it has protein and carbohydrates and can be cooked quickly in a single pan.
• Quick Coffee: Before turning in, prepare the coffee pot for morning and set it on the burner so there is one less thing to do in the dark tent.
• Texas French Toast: A loaf of bread can get ugly after it’s been squished in a panyard or pack. Thicker Texas-style bread is ideal for this luxury breakfast. Adding a dash of vanilla to the batter enhances the taste.
• Elk Tenderloin: Finally, if you are on a hunting trip, plan on cooking what you kill. Don’t rely on venison for large portions of your meal plan since you can’t predict its availability. Salt and seasoning are the key to enhanced taste.
Use Top Notch Tools
No cook or mechanic is better than the tools used for the job. Use non-stick pans and spatulas for clean-up ease. Work out in advance who cleans up and washes the dishes.
We always have a full 20-pound propane bottle as an energy source and at least a two-burner stove. Even with quick and easy recipes, you’ll want ample burner power, especially in a cold tent. Although we usually cook in a tent, we love to eat by the campfire when weather permits. Few experiences match the camaraderie of feasting by a crackling fire.
Our first year we brought our own kitchen plates, cups and silverware. The next year we changed to disposable plates, plasticware and cups to minimize dish washing after a long day.
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