I stumbled into Burnt Spruce backcountry campsite on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, practically starving. I’d spent the last mile mentally inventorying the food in my pack, grateful for some mood-lifting, gut-filling munchies to be devoured upon stopping. A heavyset, pig-tailed middle-aged woman sat by the fire ring. She was considering her food situation, too. I glanced toward her stockpile, lying atop a stump. Either this hiker was a newbie or on some sort of crash diet — she was settling between 3 pieces of unidentifiable hard candy, a smashed loaf of white bread, and a can of cabbage.

I’d been there before. It’s an evolutionary process to reach the point where your pack contains trail foods that don’t suck.

When you think of trail foods, do beef jerky, gorp, and Ramen noodles automatically come to mind? Or maybe it’s the freeze-dried stuff or prepackaged oatmeal? The underlying philosophy of trail fare is this: you want foods that have as little water weight as possible, are packaged for travel, are nutritious (or at least filling), and are easy to make. But if you are me, you also think of what you can get away with. Drop a grain of salt in your pack when reading this and don’t blame me for food poisoning.

When I started backpacking, I tried freeze-dried and other pre-packaged “add water and wait” meals. Generally coming in the foil pouches into which you add boiling water, freeze-dried meals are much tastier than they used to be. After repeated price shock, I started to experiment, bringing my indoor pantry outdoors.

First of all, why the paranoia on spoiled food? If it smells bad, don’t eat it. The majority of backpackers I know hike no longer than a week on the average, if not just a weekend. So why eat like an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker?

Breakfast. Carry fresh fruit for your first morning — bananas, apples, or tangerines, even if they are heavy. What about country ham, bagels and cream cheese? Toast the bagels over the fire after heating the country ham and you have a lip-smackin’ winner. Make a dried fruit/nut mix of your choosing – blueberries, cranberries, almonds — then add it to Cheerios with some reconstituted dried milk and you’ve got a healthy first meal.