Hiking Koko Crater Trail in Honolulu, Hawaii: 1,048 Stairs of Doom

As with all enduring love affairs, my relationship with Koko Crater Trail is both simple and complicated.

It all started back in 2012 with my first Koko Crater summit foray (All tongue-in-cheek, of course; a volcanic tuff cone hardly counts as summit bid fare, I know!). I’d heard veteran hikers’ whispered war stories for years, but the trail was only a mile long. How bad could it be? I thought.

Oh, humble pie!

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say I came dangerously close to tossing my cookies over the better part of East Oahu that summer afternoon. They don’t dub Koko Crater “The Stairmaster from Hell” for nothing. With a whopping 1,048 Stairs of Doom scaling 1,200 vertical feet in half a mile, this Honolulu trail certainly lives up to its devilish moniker of pain.

Attempt #2 ended just as poorly as Attempt #1, save for some small measure of consolation in having stopped before gastric distress induced Code Red status a second time around. Dreaded stair #750 had foiled me again! Third time’s the charm, or at least that’s what I told myself as I headed down the mountain (er, cone?)-side, licking my wounds.

Koko Crater had proven a worthy nemesis; I would never make the mistake of underestimating her again. I trained hard. Did Insanity for a month. Hiked with a vengeance. And the next time I returned, I knew the sweet triumph of reaching the top. I must have been grinning like an idiot that final, fateful step because a fellow hiker greeted me with an enthusiastic high-five and prophetic words.

“First time?” he asked.

I nodded, mostly because I was too busy trying to remember how to breathe to actually answer.

He gave me a knowing smile. “Won’t be your last. Koko Head’s addictive.”

I couldn’t have imagined the truth to his statement then, busy as I was trying not to die, but the kind stranger had foreseen my future with Yoda-like sagacity. In the years since, Koko Crater has become my favorite, most-despised workout regime. 1,048 stairs up, 1,048 stairs down. It’s never easy. It’s always hard. I love it. I hate it. And I am hopelessly and utterly addicted.

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View of Koko Crater from the Koko Head Regional Park parking lot. The faint brown line tracing the left side of the “mountain” is the trail.
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Stair 1–it’s a big one! Erosion has washed away the underside of the first step, so it’s a bit of a climb but a very fitting beginning. 😀

Koko Crater’s “stairs” are wooden railroad ties, vestiges of an old military railway used to transport cargo to pillbox bunkers during WWII. Over the years, the railroad ties have fallen into despair, and though the stairs are neither sanctioned nor maintained by the state, the trail remains popular with both fitness buffs and visitors alike.

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You can see the disrepair here; trail angels have added wooden planks and cement blocks for support to many sections to aid hikers on their climb

When hiking, it’s helpful to consider the trail in three sections: 1) pre-bridge, or the first 500 stairs, 2) the bridge itself, comprising 100 stairs, and 3) post-bridge, the final 400 stairs.

Pre-Bridge, the First 500 Stairs

Stair height varies throughout the pre-bridge section, with most stairs measuring a fairly comfortable foot and a half tall. Hikers tend to fall into two distinct camps here: Team Push and Team Pace. Personal experience lands me firmly on the side of the latter (Summit attempts #1 and #2, I’m looking at you), but others prefer to push early-on to compensate for slower post-bridge times. Both strategies yield success, but it’s important to note that the final 400 stairs are significantly harder than the first 600. Post-bridge, the trail steepens dramatically, and railroad ties are fixed at a near 90 degree angle to the mountain. Slow and steady might mean a little ego bruising while other hikers overtake me here, but anything that keeps puking at bay is golden in my book. I’ve watched enough people get sick after the bridge to remember how close I came to doing the same!

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And…we’re off! Koko Crater Trail, May 2017. Many thanks to my dear friend for humoring me once again with blog photos!
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Stair height and distance between railroad ties varies with each step. Hard on the lungs and legs, but perfect for conditioning
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The trail gets busy with the early-morning and after-work rush. It’s quite narrow, too, so stepping off the tracks is the best way to pass or let others pass

Seeking out the 100-stair “markers” that fellow hikers have inked on the railroad rails keeps me motivated…and ever mindful that Stair 300 is where things start getting real. Luckily, there’s quite a view to be had already, equal parts reward and incentive to spur the weary (ie: me) on.

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Stair 300. Hikers have inked in stair markers in increments of 100 along the railroad ties.

 

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View from Stair 300, taken in 2012 summer. With winter and spring rains, Koko Crater is lush and green. Summertime views are more brown and parched like this.

Stair 500: The Bridge (a.k.a. You’re Halfway There!)

Stair 500 brings us to the halfway point: The Bridge. The railroad ties continue here without discernible break, but unlike in the previous section, this portion of rail free-floats 15-20 feet above the ground. While the slats aren’t wide apart enough to fall through, they’re large enough to warrant a broken ankle or leg should you slip. Unfortunately, EMS rescues are not uncommon in this area, and though I’d love to cite that as my reason for skirting the bridge and taking a land detour, who am I kidding? I’m the biggest ‘fraidy cat around when it comes to exposed heights. EMS incidents or no, there’ll be no crossing that rickety bridge for me! Luckily, there’s a side path that skirts the bridge’s entirety, rejoining the main trail just past Stair 600. Here, the railroad ties are firmly rooted to the mountainside again. If you look to the right of the bridge, you will see a well-worn dirt path that wusses like me cling to with gratitude. 😀

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The rickety bridge–no, thank you! I considered climbing a stair or two to get a better picture, but decided I liked living better. 😀
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Looking back from the bridge, Hanauma Bay and Hawaii Kai in the distance
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Looking back towards Hanauma Bay from the Bridge. The view is already pretty great from here, and it only gets better!

Post-Bridge: the Final 400 Stairs of Doom

The post-bridge finale is truly a test of mental and physical fortitude. No matter how many times I complete Koko Crater, Stair 750 always, always vexes me. It’s where I consider throwing in the towel, every single time. Here, the stairs steepen from a 45 degree incline to a daunting near-90 vertical climb. Stair height increases dramatically as well. At 5’3”, I often have to lift my legs 2-3 feet between steps, reverting to all fours to hoist myself up. Time and weather have eroded the gravelly dirt between stairs to well below stair-line, and many of the wooden railroad ties are narrow and broken as well, making for sketchy footing. How’s a girl to get to the top? “Eyes on the prize” is a mantra that serves many well, but I prefer to keep my eyes fixed upon the ground–one stair at a time, one foot at a time–until I’m past Stair 900 and safely past my mental quitting zone.

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Stair 750 is no joke, and it only gets steeper from here! Take heart, though–you’re almost there!
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So close and still so far…climbing toward Stair 800. It’s hard to see it here, but the distance between stairs is sometimes 2-3 feet.

But oh, to stand–or collapse, as it were–on the summit! There is nothing more glorious. To experience the beautiful camaraderie found at the top of Koko Crater is to understand the Aloha Spirit indeed. Strangers evolve into friends over fist bumps and high-fives. War stories are shared and commiserated. And always, Koko Crater veterans pay it forward, shouting encouragement to first-timers hundreds of feet below. “Don’t quit now! You’re almost there–push!” is a happy onus to bear.

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The view from the top, Koko Crater Trail May 2017. That mountain on the distant right is the backside of Diamond Head.
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The view from the top, Summer 2012. You can see how different the trail and surrounding hills look during the summer.
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What goes up must come down, and in some ways, going down can be even trickier than climbing up.
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Side-stepping works well for heading down safely. No shame in my game: I have no pride and will frequently use my hands to keep 3 points of contact on the way down.
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Heading down Koko Crater Trail with views of Hanauma Bay and Hawaii Kai in the distance.

True, Koko Crater’s beautiful views of Hanauma Bay, Diamond Head, and the Ko’olaus are without rival, but I’d venture that the hike’s appeal lies less in its views (delightful though they may be) and more in the singular opportunity to challenge oneself. The stairs demand a unique skillset, delivering circuit training, strength training, and interval training in one convenient and grueling package–gorgeous views simply sweeten the deal. Koko Head’s short mile-long length also lends itself to weekly repetition, a boon to goal-oriented junkies who enjoy quantifying fitness gains. Given our hurts-so-good masochistic tendencies, this quad and glute (and lung!) burner has earned a weekly spot in our training regime. There’s nothing more gratifying than watching recovery times between spurts improve or seeing your time to the summit drop to thirty minutes or less! No matter how many times you claw your way to the top, Koko Crater never gets old. Fitness goals may change and evolve, but the challenge itself? Always there.

1,048 stairs up. 1,048 stairs down. It’s never easy. It’s always hard. Love it and hate it–Koko Crater Trail is the stuff of maddeningly sweet addiction.

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Closer to Home: Hiking Ka’ena Point Trail

Not a cloud in the sky–an auspicious phrase, unless you’re hiking Ka’ena Point Trail with 25 pounds strapped to your back.

Then it’s more of a death sentence, though there’s hardly a better way to go!

With our trip a month away, we’ve been hiking twice a week and had planned Ka’ena as a long backpacking training run with our friends this past weekend. Only an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, Ka’ena marks Oahu’s westernmost point as well as the end of the road–literally! Spanning the western shore of the island in almost its entirety, Farrington Highway comes to an abrupt halt at Ka’ena Point Trailhead. There’s simply no seeing this hidden part of Oahu unless you’re willing to hoof it, and believe you me: this is a trail you want to hoof.

Between November and May, the sun-baked Waianae coast blooms to life in lush shades of tropical green. Warm waters welcome migrating giants, and on a clear day–which is next to always at Ka’ena–humpback whale sightings can clock in an easy dime a dozen in under an hour. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals sun themselves on sandy beaches while Laysan albatrosses circle the shore, their majestic 7-foot wingspans casting shadows across sand dunes and lava cliffs.   

But Ka’ena is also a land of extremes.

Literally “The Heat,” Ka’ena will make you cry uncle under its scorching midday sun. Heed the posted warnings; Ka’ena is aptly named indeed. You can access Ka’ena Point from both Waianae and Mokuleia, though from Mokuleia, the trail measures a hair longer at just over 5 miles roundtrip. We opted to hike the Mokuleia route as it offers more solitude than its Waianae counterpart; it’s also only 2 miles away from Dillingham Airfield, a safer parking alternative to trailhead parking with convenient public restroom access. While safe and free, parking at Dillingham Airfield added an additional 4.5 miles to our hike, bumping our total to a sweaty but satisfying 9.5 miles. 

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Walking 2 miles along Farrington Highway from Dillingham Airfield to get to the trailhead. Many thanks to our friends for being such good sports about blog photos!

Our group set out from Dillingham Airfield at 8 am, each hiker laden with 5 liters of water, gear, and a bottle of electrolyte drink. With the sun low on the horizon, temperatures hovered at a bearable 80 degrees, though the day was already shaping up to be much more humid than we would have liked. We followed the highway for two miles, grateful that the paved road made for speedy hiking. We arrived at the trailhead gate a half hour later–a little sweatier under our floppy sun hats, but ready for whatever Ka’ena had to throw our way.

Beyond the gate, hikers must share the trail with any off-road vehicles brave enough to pit their tires against the heavily cratered red dirt and rock “road.” Not to worry, though–there’s no real chance of getting hit. Driving more than 5 miles per hour would be ill-advised here unless flat tires are the desired goal! Still, it’s good to be aware of the possibility of vehicles and plan accordingly. Countless spur trails beckon hikers to the ocean, and though we managed to resist this go-round, their allure is hard to ignore. We’ve been lucky to spot monk seals on hidden beaches and majestic honu (green sea turtles) just offshore in the past. The main trail, in contrast, is decidedly less comely, all red dirt and rocks for miles on end, but I’d argue that its meditative predictability is precisely Ka’ena’s charm.  

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Follow the endless red dirt road
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Looking back towards Dillingham Airfield; that hint of green is just a small taste of all the beautiful green to come! On a clear day, you can see for miles here.

To hike Ka’ena Point is to embrace the journey over the destination, and we were fortunate to be treated to some of the best scenery I’ve ever experienced in these parts. Recent rainfall left the Waianae Mountains greener than I can remember, and the sky and ocean melded into a seamless sea of blue. All of that blue, though, translated to little cloud cover for shade, and temps soon spiked at a sweltering 90+ degrees–a sticky, unforgiving heat that left us losing water faster than we could replace it. We slowed our stride to allow our bodies a chance to cool.

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I’ve never seen Ka’ena so green! In a few months, this area will be parched and brown.
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We didn’t follow this spur path all the way down, but you can see people fishing off lava cliffs in the distance
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Stopping for a water break and admiring all the blue and green. And look! There’s even a mini-rainbow against the mountains!
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We didn’t see any whales this time, but the water is so calm here–ideal for whale watching

At the 5 mile mark, we came upon a cacti and sisal “forest” that preceded our turnaround point–Ka’ena Natural Area Reserve, a wildlife sanctuary established to protect nesting wedge-tailed shearwaters and Laysan albatrosses. Cordoned-off footpaths meander the birds’ burrows, allowing visitors an up-close view of these large and fascinating seabirds. Unfortunately, we arrived at the tail end of nesting/migration season, so stragglers numbered few and far between. During the winter, however, visitors may see hundreds of nesting albatrosses circling and diving for fish–quite the spectacular sight! Equally impressive is the expansive and rugged relief of the Waianae mountains to the south of Ka’ena point, hidden from view until you reach the lighthouse. In a sprawling metropolis like Honolulu, I’m thankful that there are still pockets of untamed wilderness like this to be found–miles upon miles of unsullied blue and green, the way Hawaii was meant to be. 

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Flowering sisal, a type of agave plant. These guys are huge! They towered over us.
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Looking back from the Sanctuary gate
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Entering Ka’ena Wildlife Sanctuary
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Laysan albatross; they’re so much bigger than they seem here. They’re so huge that their wings cast noticeable shadows when they fly overhead
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Laysan albatross nesting in the sand dunes
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I spy an albatross nesting in the grass

Tempting as it was to linger under the shade of the lighthouse tower, it was already 10:30 am. The 90 degree high we’d noted earlier would rise within minutes as temperatures continued to climb. We hoisted our packs–a few pounds lighter now thanks to some serious water guzzling during our break–and headed back to the trailhead. Scorched arms and sweat-drenched shirts hastened our pace. In spite of slathering SPF 50 on every square inch of skin just two hours earlier, it was clear we were beginning to resemble broiled lobster. The time for admiring views had passed; we needed to get out of the sun and quick.

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The final stretch before the lighthouse tower. Nothing terribly exciting, but then you turn the corner, and….
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This is what’s hiding on the other side! Beautiful, untouched blue and green
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Ka’ena Point–the westernmost tip of Oahu. It was so hard to leave this view!
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Soaking in the view at Ka’ena Point before heading back to the trailhead. It doesn’t get much better than this!
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The view from the lighthouse tower at Ka’ena Point
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Heading back to Dillingham Airfield

It was such a relief to reach the trailhead! Free of the Ka’ena inferno, sea breezes made for tolerable temps. But out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say: where ocean breezes offered blessed relief, our achy feet were definitely worse for wear. Though not our first training hike, this was the heaviest weight we’d practiced with this month. Coupled with the 11 am heat, my feet were suffering Honolulu Marathon flashbacks (for reference, a one-and-done stint). 😉

Conversation took a back seat the last two miles, each of us digging deep to gather some inner resolve for the final push. Food fantasies have always done the trick in this past, and thankfully, this time was no exception. ‘AC and plate lunch’ became the mantra that got us back to the car, and boy, did Loco Moco Drive-Inn ever deliver! With an abundance of AC, good friends, and good eats, mochiko chicken plate lunch* never tasted as delicious as it did that day. Come for the hike and stay for the food–Ka’ena Point will leave you hooked.

*Local-style “plate lunch” is comfort food in Hawaii. 2 scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and some type of gravy-covered or Asian BBQ meat is standard plate lunch fare. Smothered-in-brown-gravy-or-soy-sauce is a popular option, though many places (like Loco Moco Drive Inn) now offer low-carb plates, substituting tossed salad for the rice and mayo-heavy macaroni salad. My favorite option of all is the mini plate lunch–with 1 scoop of rice, 1 scoop of macaroni salad, and half the meat of a regular plate, it’s just decadent enough to sate hiker hunger and feel like a treat!          

DIY Freeze-Dried Backpacking Meals: Pros & Cons of Freeze-Dried Food + DIY Menu Ideas

The countdown for our summer trip is on! Adding to our excitement, we recently learned that we were granted a 4-night permit to backpack 41-mile Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park. After visiting Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite in 2014, we’d hoped to return to explore the beauty of the High Sierra someday. We’re thrilled to finally have the opportunity to backpack both Rae Lakes and a 31-mile segment of the John Muir Trail this summer! Wilderness permits were even more competitive than I’d anticipated: with only 40 people allowed to enter the trail per day, we emailed our application in one second after the 12 am opening for permit applications for the season and didn’t receive our first choice route. It’ll mean hiking Glen Pass and Rae Lakes in a steeper counter-clockwise direction, but I have no doubt that the achy quads will be well worth the pain.

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Yosemite Valley, as seen from Glacier Point 2014
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View from atop Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park–can’t wait to explore Kings Canyon’s beautiful backcountry this summer!

With wilderness permits and campsite reservations out of the way, our focus has shifted to food. Namely, how do we plan and execute meals for a 7,000-mile road trip with 20 nights of backpacking and 20 nights of car camping? Factor in 1) flying in from Hawaii with backpacking gear and 2) renting a compact car, and the challenge becomes clear. Space and weight are at a premium, as are time and money. Throw in food preferences and dietary sensitivities, and the challenge compounds. Your food considerations may differ, and that’s okay. My intent is not to push some personal agenda, but rather to consider the factors driving our decision and share some food ideas that I hope you might find useful wherever your travels may lead you.  

Space: With backpacks holding our clothes, tents, and camping gear, any remaining items must fit into 2 carry-on suitcases when we fly. Are additional or larger suitcases options? Sure. But each additional suitcase means less space in an already compact trunk and more luggage to keep track of at the airport and on the road. In an effort to keep our packs manageable, we’ve streamlined our travel wardrobes: 3 short-sleeved tech/merino tops, 1 long-sleeved performance top, 2 pairs hiking pants, 2 pairs of sock liners, 3 pairs of socks, 1 thermal base layer set, 1 fleece pullover, 1 rain jacket, and 1 puffy per person. I realize this list may sound austere for 45 days, but handwashing clothes nightly saves us space and weight, enabling us to dedicate 2 carry-on suitcases to food…which brings us to factor #2. 

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The view from Glacier Point, Yosemite…this time from a slightly different angle. We’re excited to hike to Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness this year!

Whole Food/Dietary Preferences: Could we exclusively purchase fresh whole food on the road and keep everything chilled in a cooler? In theory, yes. But experience has taught us (and again, this is just us) that buying a hard-sided cooler upon arrival means spending inordinate amounts of time and money on ice maintenance. Our itinerary has us in the desert for three weeks, and keeping raw chicken and eggs cold in triple-digit heat is a tough proposition without a Yeti (it’s on our wish list, though!). Entirely possible–but not something I’m keen on focusing my energy on.

Without refrigeration, our food options are limited. There’s processed/canned food, oft vilified but not without its merits: shelf-stable, convenient, and imminently available. This is not insignificant considering that the bulk of our itinerary will take us through small towns with limited grocery availability. But while I’m not opposed to an occasional processed meal (I crave junk with the best of ‘em!), I know from experience that extended junk consumption affects my mood, performance, and morale. Similarly, our standard salami and cheese hiking fare tends to weigh me down after 2 weeks. For an extended 45-day trip, I wanted to stick closer to our everyday protein staples–nuts, beans, hummus, chicken, fish, and tofu. I also wanted to maintain our veggie and fruit intake and limit MSG and processed items.  

But how to circumvent the lack of refrigeration? DIY dehydrated meals sounded ideal, but with zero backpacking opportunities here on Oahu, the investment vs. return in terms of startup costs (dehydrator, vacuum sealer, O2 absorbers, mylar bags, etc) would leave us in the red for a few years. Freeze-dried food began to pique my interest.

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Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park 2014

Time and Money: For better or worse, being a compulsive itinerary-crammer means we’re often scrambling to find grocery stores and shopping under the gun in order to maximize time at destinations. And while I’ve mentioned that it’s important for us to limit expenses by cooking meals on vacation, what I didn’t mention is this: I enjoy cooking at home, but I don’t love cooking on vacation, especially after a long day of hiking. I love that other people enjoy gourmet experiences in the backcountry, but I’m not fond of fiddling with ingredients and spices on the trail. Chopping and cooking when tired is a surefire recipe for one hangry mom!

Fortunately, companies like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry offer delicious freeze-dried meals with just-add-boiling-water convenience and significant time and fuel savings. They’re shelf-stable, lightweight, and compressible, making them ideal for bear canister storage as well. However, that convenience comes with a hefty price tag. At over $6 per person, I couldn’t justify the cost for 20 nights, let alone 45. I wasn’t keen on the high sodium content and additives, either. DIY freeze-dried meals started sounding like a more viable option for us.           

Backpack Space and Weight: Finally, we have several 3-5 day treks that require bear canisters (space). Given the base weight of packs and gear (20 lbs for adults, 10 for kids), we anticipate 20-35 pounds per person with food. With the kids under 90 lbs each, we wanted to keep our food as light as possible. DIY freeze-dried meals seemed to offer the best opportunity for lightweight, shelf-stable, mostly healthy food with time and money savings.

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We absolutely loved Yosemite Valley and can’t wait to hike a portion of the JMT near Tuolumne Meadows!

Luckily for us, there’s a wealth of DIY freeze-dried meal information to be found online! Most sites recommend assembling freeze-dried/powdered ingredients in freezer bags for ease of “cooking” (add boiling water and seal for 5-10 mins), so we’ll likely be going that route in addition to simply rehydrating meals in a communal pot.

Are there drawbacks to freeze-dried food? Absolutely. For one, freeze-dried ingredients are not readily available in retail stores. For us, this meant having to plan and order 6.5 weeks worth of food months in advance. The upside, however, is that I was able to scour Amazon and wait on the best deals. Ordering food in advance also gave me an accurate handle on our food costs–a budget area that’s generally grayer than I’d like for trips. Also, there’s no denying that freeze-drying is a type of processing in and of itself, and natural/organic options are limited. The whole grains and fiber we crave don’t always translate, either, but I’m okay with these tradeoffs. Will we still be stopping to pick up fresh fruits and veggies weekly? Definitely. Will we break down and buy a cooler at some point? Very probably. Does our menu include processed food? Some. But I feel satisfied knowing that the bulk of our food needs are covered in a way I’m mostly comfortable with.

Road Trip 2017 includes menu items like: (* indicates freeze-dried/powdered items)

  • BREAKFAST
    • Granola, blueberries, and powdered milk/soy milk*
    • Oatmeal with blueberries, walnuts, and chia seeds*
    • Scrambled eggs*
    • Tortillas with eggs, bacon and cheese*
    • KIND bars, Larabars, ProBars and the like

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      A sample of our breakfast items: cheese powder, egg powder, peanut butter powder, powdered milk, freeze-dried blueberries, single-serve SPAM and Nature’s Path Oatmeal. We also ordered powdered soy milk and will buy granola once we arrive.
  • LUNCH (we prefer not to cook at lunch; when we’re not backpacking, lunch also includes whole fruit)
    • Whole wheat/spinach tortillas or bagels with pouch tuna or chicken
    • Seeded crackers with pouch tuna or chicken
    • Pita and hummus with cucumber, carrots, bell peppers
    • Whole banana rolled in PB whole wheat tortilla
    • PB with seeded crackers/pita/tortilla* and veggie sticks
    • Hummus and seeded crackers with veggie sticks
    • Bagel with pouch salmon and cream cheese
    • Pita with tomato paste, pepperoni, and cheese
    • Trail mix alone or eaten with PB, Honey Stinger waffles

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      Some lunch protein options: dehydrated refried beans, peanut butter powder, shelf-stable hummus, PB/almond butter packets. We’ll pick up seeded crackers, tortillas, and tuna/chicken/pepperoni after we land
  • DINNER (based on personal taste preferences)
    • Parmesan couscous or cheesy polenta with chicken and veggies*
    • Refried beans, rice, and cheese (with/without tortillas)*
    • Angel hair pesto pasta with chicken and veggies*
    • Soba/udon noodles in miso broth with shiitake, shelf-stable tofu and wakame*
    • Mock fried rice with veggies and chicken*
    • Peanut rice noodles with chicken and veggies*
    • Jambalaya with chicken, rice, and summer sausage*
    • Curry couscous with chicken and veggies*
    • Thai/Japanese curry with shelf-stable tofu, veggies, and rice noodles*
    • Orzo n cheese with broccoli and tuna*
    • Chili chicken rice with veggies*
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      A sampling of our dinner ingredients: freeze-dried chicken, freeze-dried veggies, udon noodles, natural chicken base, freeze-dried cilantro, Sriracha, soy sauce, peanut butter, non-MSG fried rice seasoning blend, tonkatsu sauce for flavor

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      Also on the dinner menu are: refried beans, wakame, miso paste, and spring roll rice wrappers or rice noodles (whichever is available once we land). All starches, shelf-stable tofu, and summer sausage will also be purchased after we land

We’ll supplement daily with hardier veggies and fruits that can withstand backpack and car wear-and-tear sans refrigeration. Thankfully, carrots, sugar snap peas, celery, cucumbers, bell peppers, apples, oranges, pears, and bananas all fit the bill here. We’ll buy yogurt where available to keep our digestive tracts humming. Also, gross as it may seem, you know the menu has to include at least a little SPAM as an homage to our island roots. 😀 Fresh shrimp/sausage/corn hobo packets on market days and Idahoan Loaded Potatoes in the backcountry are also likely to make a dinner appearance or two. All things in moderation, right?

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We love fresh fruit on day hikes. Apples, pears, and oranges are especially hardy and do well without refrigeration. Bananas and grapes are a little more delicate but always appreciated.
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We stocked up on four bags each of these freeze-dried fruits and veggies as fresh produce is generally weight-prohibitive on multi-day treks. Freeze-dried produce is lightweight and fits easily into bear canisters if repackaged into Ziploc bags 

Many of our dinner recipes were inspired by freeze-dried meal recipes found on Pinterest. If you decide to go the DIY route, I highly recommend testing recipes at home first. Some ingredients and recipes took much longer to rehydrate than advertised–a definite problem at altitude with limited canister fuel. Others required flavor tweaking (again, just a matter of personal preference) or involved fiddly steps like mixing and frying dough (not my jam, but I bet a lot of people love it!). Testing recipes was also a tasty and fun solution for gauging proper portion sizes for our family. And for those who’d prefer to forgo freeze-dried ingredients altogether, substituting tuna or chicken pouches in place of freeze dried chicken is always an option, as is substituting pre-flavored sides, such as Near East Couscous, Annie’s Mac n Cheese, or Thai Kitchen noodles for any of the starches.     

My biggest food tip? Save condiment packets! They’re lightweight, easily packable, shelf-stable, and add infinite variety to your backpacking and camping meals. Here’s a short list to get you started:

Condiment Ideas:

  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Relish
  • Salt and pepper (Available at diners, movie theaters, and gas station food marts)
  • Mayonnaise (Less readily available–I found these at theaters and gas station food marts)
  • Soy sauce (Chinese/Japanese takeout)
  • Hot sauce (Sriracha, Tapatio, Tabasco, etc.; I found Sriracha on Amazon, and minimus.biz is another good resource for condiments)
  • Taco sauce (think Taco Bell or Jack in the Box)
  • Salsa (sometimes served with breakfast burritos)
  • Tonkatsu sauce (sometimes available in Japanese bento)
  • Jam/jelly (many diners carry these; my sister found them consistently at Denny’s)
  • Honey (this one’s harder to find in packet form except for places like KFC or Popeye’s, but it’s readily available in organic straws off Amazon)
  • Sweet and sour sauce/ BBQ sauce/Ranch/Honey Mustard/Sweet Chili containers (this one’s pretty specific to McDonald’s and other fast food places that serve chicken nuggets)
  • Olive Oil (I ordered these off Amazon to boost calories as needed)
  • Syrup (fast food breakfast chains are your best bet)
  • Red pepper packets/parmesan cheese (pizza/Italian takeout)
  • Hot mustard (Chinese takeout; Panda Express has a lot of these)
  • Wasabi (from sushi or poke takeout)

    IMG_20170508_094256
    Small sample of seasonings and condiments: non-MSG dashi powder, Creole seasoning, natural chicken base, tomato powder, freeze-dried cilantro, Sriracha, hot mustard, yellow mustard, jelly, ketchup, relish, soy sauce, mayo, and taco sauce. 

With the help of family and friends, we’ve been lucky to amass a nice condiment haul over the last few months. Fortunately, freeze dried food compacts well, leaving plenty of space for condiments in our 2 carry-ons. And anything that helps us stay on track for cooking our own meals helps to save time and money in the long run. For example, even though we’re fried rice fanatics, the mock fried rice we tested left us less than wowed. We found ourselves craving the oyster sauce umami punch that soy sauce alone lacks. Down the line, this might lead to abandoning the meal altogether for costlier restaurant fare or processed items. Adding hot mustard and soy sauce to the mix, however, instantly made the rice more interesting. And a packet of sriracha changed the flavor profile completely! With a few condiment packets and a little imagination, it’s possible to elevate any meal from ho-hum to crave-worthy. So, save those condiment packets–they definitely come in handy!
Do you have a favorite camping or backpacking meal? I’m always looking for new food ideas…I’d love to hear about your favorite food strategies and tips for camping and/or road trips!