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November 2023 Issue
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The great taste of tramping

In the great outdoors sustenance and taste are greatly appreciated. Photo: Mark Watson

On the trail, no combination of ingredients is too outrageous and everything tastes delicious. By Claire Nelson

It’s possibly the best cheeseburger I’ve ever tasted. We had just condensed two days of Te Araroa’s thru-hike into one. It was an epic 46km power push from dawn till dusk through the squelching marsh and knee-deep mud of Southland’s Longwood Forest. That night’s meal at a rural pub was a gastronomic highlight, one we still talk about fondly. But I know the burger wasn’t all that remarkable. It was the exertion that made it so.

To eat on the trail is to eat when you’re genuinely hungry. In the words of ancient Roman poet Horace, ‘A hungry stomach seldom scorns plain food.’ And this acceptance that physical activity brings to the most basic of meals is one of the reasons I enjoy tramping. I’m not ashamed to admit this. Isn’t one of the very motivations for getting out into the backcountry the desire to strip away excess and find joy in the simplest things? 

In The Worst Journey in the World, explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard tells of a harrowing trek through a blizzard when, hungry and exhausted, he and his team prepared ‘the weirdest meal’ of pemmican (dried meat and fat) boiled in melted snow, the smell of which was ‘better than anything on earth’. He describes the pemmican, ‘full of hairs from our bags, penguin feathers, dirt and debris, but delicious’, and how the blubber left in the cooker gave the tea a burnt taste. But in the gruelling conditions, all this was a pleasure. ‘None of us ever forgot that meal,’ he wrote. ‘I enjoyed it as much as such a meal could be enjoyed.’ 

While I’ve never had to resort to bottom-of-the-bag pemmican, I’ve eaten my share of ‘weird meals’ in the wild. And, they were always enjoyable. Instant noodles with dried mushrooms and peanut butter, or a tortilla stuffed with pocket-knife slabs of jerky and cheddar. Any need to be resourceful makes it more satisfying. Innovations can be shared over hut tables and camp stoves, fellow trampers swapping and collecting tips like trading cards. Someone insists on a ‘game-changing’ Japanese curry paste. Another recommends a particular brand of yoghurt powder. Food is, as ever, a social and cultural exchange. 

Plus, there are no rules – trail food is free from the usual drag of guilt or judgement. No combination of ingredients is too outrageous. Fats and calories are welcome. Considerations tend to be more about what’s lightweight, what transports well, and what you’ll be hankering for after hours of traversing ridge tops in a headwind. It’s an entirely different way of eating and one that, for me, brings immense satisfaction from its limitations, and pleasure from its freedoms. 

And of course, this is al fresco dining at its finest. Alpine air and birdsong have a way of elevating whatever’s in your lunch bag. I still recall my brother and I tucking into slabs of Mum’s bacon and egg pie while deep in the beech forest of the Tararua Range. And the savoury warmth of the cup ’o’ soups a Queenstown friend conjured from their pack on a frosty trail with a prime view of The Remarkables.

For all the things I enjoy about tramping, trail meals remain way up there. It’s in the great outdoors, in that sweet spot between survival and comfort, where sustenance seems most mindful and taste most greatly appreciated. The place where instant noodles, a greasy burger or a dusty hunk of pemmican become a meal to remember.

– Claire Nelson is a freelance writer, keen hiker, and author of survival memoir Things I Learned From Falling.