Most hard-core campers go minimal with their backcountry camping cuisine, but one food-obsessed group goes all out for a wild feast that is both ridiculous and sublime.
It was somewhere around mile eight that I began to question my sanity. My pack seemed to have grown heavier with each passing step. My breathing had become labored. My entire body hurt. And we still had miles, an uphill scramble, and an off-trail, downhill slide to go. Also, there was a vaguely rancid, decidedly fishy smell coming from just over my left shoulder.
“Maybe bringing the homemade kimchi was a mistake,” I thought, before regressing into an almost mantra-like stream of muttered profanity.
Welcome to my family’s annual backpacking trip in Yosemite backcountry. Distance: 12 to 20 miles, depending on how lost we get. Elevation gain: 2,000 feet. Average pack weight: far heavier than the recommended 20 percent of the carrier’s bodyweight.
The four-lettered language flowing from my chapped lips was only partially a result of the sheer difficulty of the hike. Much of the problem stemmed from our stubbornness; every year, rather than prioritizing light, lean provisions, we load ourselves up like pack animals. Why subsist on freeze-dried backpacker meals when you can feast on freshly baked bagels topped with just-caught and smoked trout; kimchi shoyu ramen with creamy-yolked, soy eggs; and a whole leg of lamb cooked over an open fire? As serious campfire cooks, we wouldn’t dream of leaving the cast-iron skillet at home—and we usually bring the paella pan too (for backup). Of course, we need plenty of wine, whiskey, and home-distilled gin (infused with juniper berries foraged during last year’s trip) to accompany it.
Our backpacking crew consists of me, my husband, Alex, my brother-in-law, Nick, and a few like-minded (equally crazy) friends. Our spot—discovered by Nick when he was solo through-hiking Yosemite about a decade ago—is on an alpine lake deep in the Valley, and it’s easily one of the most magnificent campsites I’ve ever seen. Glassy waters reflect mountain peaks, towering pines, and the subtly changing shades of sky. The lake teems with a marvelous bounty of trout that makes successes out of the most amateur of fishermen (read: me). And, in the platonic ideal of a stunning backcountry site, there are rarely many—if any—fellow travelers.
We are, in all situations, a food-obsessed crew. We spend hours or days at a time talking about cooking projects and memorable things we’ve eaten. Meals are never just about sustenance—they’re a way to exercise creativity, collaborate, and enjoy each other’s company. As a food writer, I’ve legitimized my food obsession, giving it professional purpose, but the dynamic would be the same if I covered politics. Food—making it, eating it, sharing it—is our love language.
Still our gastronome tendencies don’t fully explain why, as experienced campers, we would weigh ourselves down with liters of wine, pounds of gourmet ingredients, and, yes, the unforgettable cast-iron pan. That decision usually happens slowly. One year, it started just after we’d cooked a leg of lamb hanging over the Weber grill in our backyard and were full, wine-buzzed, and immensely pleased with ourselves. Someone, maybe Alex, maybe Nick, or maybe even me said something like, “Ha, wouldn’t it be ridiculous if we hiked a whole leg of lamb into Yosemite and cooked it like this, but over the fire?” Eyes widened with a glint of crazy that caught like a wildfire-inducing spark. Before long, we were discussing couscous and cumin-spiced, roasted vegetables cooked with drippings from said lamb leg, and the appropriate tools for hanging the boneless leg over the fire, deeming it an annual tradition and so on. It’s easy to take a joke too far when the blisters have healed, and the pain and exhaustion have faded into memories.
Now, the cycle is self-perpetuating. We egg each other on, suggesting backcountry meals of increasing complexity and absurdity, knowing that we’ll be unable to resist once the idea has entered our hungry, collective consciousness. The feasting and the physical pain we go through to facilitate it have become as much a part of the tradition as the trip itself.
The thing is, when all is said and done, it’s always worth it. Take that dank-smelling kimchi. Some ungodly number of hours later, legs burning, we arrived at the lake, as the sun disappeared behind the western peaks. We collapsed in a heap, laughing almost maniacally as we filled our enamel cups to the brim with wine in celebration. I pulled the kimchi—definitely fishy, despite being quadruple-bagged—out of my pack, along with another, carefully nestled bag of six-minute boiled eggs that had been marinating in a pool of soy sauce since the day before. Flipping open a knife, I sliced the eggs in half, topped them with hearty pinches of kimchi, and passed them around before shoving one in my mouth. Eyes closed, I savored the unctuous richness of the yolk, the umami funk of kimchi, the salty punch of soy, knowing full-well that later there’d be hot bowls of trout-laced ramen around the fire. Or maybe butter-basted quesadillas. We’d drink another glass of wine and decide.
And so we beat on, loading our bear canisters to bursting, hitting the trail knowing with great certainty that before long, there will be pain and regret and probably tears. But for us food-loving backcountry campers, there’s also the knowledge that, at the end of that uphill battle, the greatest meal of our lives is waiting. At least until next year.