Many of us who lead backcountry service trips like to serve as many meals with fresh ingredients as possible, but preserving fresh ingredients poses challenges. Those challenges can vary depending on the area where the group is working, the agency the group is working with, and whether or not the agency offers pack support. Even if the agency does offer pack support, what the packers are willing to carry in and what type of panniers they use can be factors in fresh food storage. I’ve worked with horse and mule packers in several areas (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Texas, and Colorado). Some packers work directly for the agency, others are volunteers, and some are independent packers who have contracts with the agency. The pack equipment the different packers have varies widely, so if I am working with an agency for the first time I always ask what type of panniers the packers use. If I can speak directly to the packer, that is even better for me. Once I have determined what type of packing equipment the packers have, I can plan accordingly.

The best backcountry cold storage system I have used is provided on the Sawtooth Wilderness trip in central Idaho. Working with this agency is the ideal situation because the packer, Deb Peters, is a Forest Service employee and she also remains with the group and works on our projects with us. For cold storage, Deb provides two large canvas and metal panniers that have removable form insulation on the inside. Two or three blocks of ice fit easily on the bottom of each pannier, and we put cardboard on top of the ice. We then place food on top of the ice/cardboard base. As the ice melts, the water drains out the bottom of the pannier. Ice generally lasts for five to six days, so I feel pretty safe in taking a variety of fresh ingredients with the above system. If an agency does not provide something such as I have described above, I always ask if the packer would be willing to haul in a small ice chest. No packer has ever refused this request. I use the same packing system as described above (block ice on bottom, cardboard, then food), and I make sure to drain the water from the ice chest at least twice a day.

Here’s a recipe using lots of fresh ingredients. I also pre-clean and chop all the veggies in order to save myself time in camp, and I pack fragile veggies such as spinach in hard plastic containers.

Vegetable and Soba Noodle Bowl for Twelve

20 oz soba noodles
4 tablespoons sesame oil
3 red peppers, sliced
1 pkg dried mushrooms, reconstituted
½ cup fresh ginger, minced
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 yellow squash, sliced
2 pkgs. snow pea pods
6 tablespoons soy sauce
3 cups vegetable broth (use 2 veggie cubes)
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
4 green onions, sliced
1 bunch cilantro

Cook noodles al dente. Heat sesame oil with other oil and sauté bell peppers, mushrooms, ginger, and garlic for about 4 minutes. Add squash, soy sauce, broth, and vinegar, and cook another 4 minutes. Stir in snow peas, cilantro, and green onions and cook until bright green. Mix with drained noodles.