Portable Cooking

Serena Mackesy, novelist, journalist, wit, traveller, foodie - but not self-mortifier � on Portable Cooking�.

There�s a school of thought that says that nothing is really valuable unless you have to suffer for it. You see it in acadaemia to justify obscure writing. You hear it from the mouths of spin-class bunnies studying their backsides in changing-room mirrors, and from the mouths of politicians justifying dental charges. And you also hear it from walkers glumly munching their fifth meal of trail mix and soggy sandwiches.

Lots of people accept that a two-or-more-day hike includes the prospect of short, or at least dreary, rations. But it doesn�t actually have to be so. And nor does a hot meal and a decent cup of coffee on your mountaintop need to involve carting kilos of kit. A bit of forethought and bit of lightweight kit, and a decent meal need not weigh much more, or take much more time to prepare, than a grim one.

Walking in fishing county? Take a line!

Note: some recipes below involve more weight than others: choose carefully to suit the circumstances!

ALUMINIUM IS YOUR FRIEND! It really is. It weighs nothing and comes in many forms.

Three things that no walking cook should be without:

  • WITH most of these recipes, I�m assuming that you will have access to a safe water source and at least a small campfire. If the latter�s not a possibility, though � because of a lack of fuel or a fire risk, for instance � you can at least safely boil water with the brilliant Kelly kettle and a handful of dry foliage. It�s basically a double-walled chimney; the water goes in the outer layer and the fuel in the middle. Light a spot of kindling in the interior, keep feeding it grass, and you�ll be astonished how quickly you�ll have hot water. The full kit also includes a small cooking pot, frying pan, lid and very useful little grill rack to sit on top (or use on a fire) and double-up your cooking space. Some basic recipes, below, will let you get something healthy and warm inside you even if this and a mug are all the kit you�re prepared to carry.
  • ALSO INVALUABLE: a pair of lightweight mess tins (or just one), as seen in war films everywhere. Two of these, and you can cook pretty much anything apart from a roast dinner. And eat off them, too. You can also get a mug to go with them.
  • FOIL. You can�t have enough of this. Great for keeping food clean, cooking it, making lids and, if you can�t be bothered to carry a plate, eating off. If you�re not convinced, have a look at the recipes below.


  • A knife. Preferably a Swiss Army knife.
  • A tablespoon and a fork. Not just for eating, but for scraping, whisking out lumps, turning... Metal, though, not plastic...
  • A plastic plate makes prep a lot easier.
  • A metal mug: not just for drinking out of, but for measuring with too, settler-style, and even cooking in.
  • Some cotton wool. Weighs nothing and makes firelighting a doddle. You can make it double-up its use by packing it between eggs in a Tupperware box. Or squeeze on a bit of lighter fluid and double-bag it in...
  • Ziploc freezer bags: these are invaluable. Use them to keep food separate from the rest of your kit, carry pre-measured quantities of dry ingredients, tea, coffee etc, heat things in water without diluting them and to store your rubbish in.
  • Teeny-tiny travel-sized plastic bottles and pots. The size you steal from hotel bathrooms. Essential for wet ingredients. Here�s a lovely set with more than enough tiny pots for any campfire cook. Or buy them at Boots or any other outlet of unguents. Don�t reuse old shampoo bottles: those chemical scents linger and linger.
  • Tupperware. These weigh loads less than tins, jars and bottles, and, being airtight, can protect everything else from things like eggs that are liable to mishap. Decant into them (and put them in a Ziploc for luck) and save yourself a hilltop grief.
  • Some sort of protection for your hands. Metal pot handles get hot.

Smartarses and show-offs might want to add to this:

  • A wire coathanger. But don�t tell Joan Crawford!


Nobody�s suggesting you bring everything. But a few will feed you well.

BASIC: Starches: Here�s the basic rule: dry weighs less than wet. Obvious, I know, but you�d be amazed by the number of people who carry tins of pulses up mountains. The other thing to take into account is cleanup. The less residue, the better. Really useful dry carbs are:

  • Rice � you only need 50g a head
  • Instant mashed potato � much maligned, but fantastically adaptable
  • Instant noodles � make great bases for loads of things
  • The sort of tiny macaroni you find in minestrone � cook in 5 mins, go with everything.
  • Flour � Campfire bread makes you very smug.
  • Lentils � the orange ones, which only take ten minutes or so to cook.

Note: don�t be tempted to cook extra rice to eat the next day. Kept rice is one of the main sources of salmonella poisoning worldwide. Not something you want in distant parts.

Protein: You�d be a fool not to restock on protein after a hard day�s walking. The issues, of course, are how to keep it from going off and the cooking times involved. For the first night, fresh is fine � keep it cool by freezing (if doable) your water bottle solid the night before and storing your fresh meat next to it in your pack. The water will melt at roughly the rate you want to drink it at (unless you�re in the Arctic, of course) and keep your food nice and cool at the same time.

  • Any meat but cut into fine strips, as for a stir-fry. Store next to your frozen water bottle and consume within 24 hours.
  • Eggs. Even come in their own sealed packaging.
  • Smoked and salted meat and fish. It�s called preserving for a reason.
  • Tuna. You can get it in plastic pots, like cat-food, which weigh less.

Fruit and veg: You�re not going to die of scurvy if you go without, but they do make life nicer. Issues are: weight, robustness and cooking speed.


  • Onions and garlic: both fiddly and weighty � but spring onions, and garlic in a squeezy tube (you don�t have to take the whole tube) will sort both issues and improve all your food 100%, and both are high in vitamin C.

Robust, versatile, fast to cook and justify their weight:

  • Mangetout
  • Green beans
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Basic mushrooms � nothing fancy � or dried mushrooms, cut up small
  • Baby sweetcorn
  • Spinach is bulky, but weighs nothing.
  • Dried fruit
  • Dried tomatoes - Tinned tomatoes (you can get them in cardboard cartons)

Things to put in a Ziploc:

  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Powdered milk
  • Pre-grated cheese
  • Sugar

Things to put in those tiny bottles and pots:

  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Dried mixed herbs
  • Olive oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Chilli sauce
  • Pre-combined spice mixes
  • Lemon juice
  • Soy sauce
  • Stock cubes � or better, Knorr do a great chicken stock powder

A WORD ON FIRES and basic cooking techniques:

Treat fires like you treat a barbecue. In other words, don�t cook over the flames unless you want everything to turn black (though you can boil water if you don�t mind smuts on the outside of your mess tin), let them die down and cook on the embers.

Boiling water: use your largest mess tin (the greater the surface area the faster the boil), use only the water you�re going to need and fashion a lid from tinfoil to speed things up. And be patient. It�s not a kettle, but it will boil.

MILK: when I say milk in recipes, I mean powdered milk made up with water as per the packet instructions.

And now what you have been waiting for, RECIPES!

Campfire bread or Dampers:

Classic Aussie bush bread. If it's good enough for swagmen, it's good enough for anyone.

Makes 4:

  • Two cups self-raising flour
  • A spoon of sugar
  • ½ cup milk
  • A little bit of oil
  • Some nice long sticks
  • A bit of tinfoil (not essential but nice for the fastidious)

Lightly grease the large mess tin. Cover the sticks in tinfoil. Put the flour in the mess tin, add the sugar, mix in the milk and, having lightly oiled your hands to stop it sticking, knead into a dough. Divide the dough roughly into four, roll them into sausage shapes and smoosh them round the ends of the sticks, leaving a nice long handle. Cook for 10-12 minutes by holding over the embers, turning frequently, until they're golden-brown and sound hollow when you rap them with your knuckles.


Savoury: add some grated cheese to the dough

Sweet: double the amount of sugar and fill the holes with jam or whatever you fancy.


Soup is simple: what you use is up to you. The only essential is onions, garlic, a bit of oil, a starch and some water.

Chop up your onion and fry in the mess tin for five minutes, adding a squeeze of garlic and any herbs or spices halfway through. When they're transparent, add your other ingredients, fry for a couple of minutes more, then add a cup of hot water and a crumbled stock cube. Cover with tinfoil and return to the fire until the ingredients (including any pasta etc) are cooked. Add more hot water (make it as thick or as thin as you like), bring to the boil, bung in a bit of butter, milk or oil for richness, serve.

This is where instant mash really comes into its own. Just before adding the main body of water, add the powder and stir vigorously with a fork. This will make most combinations of ingredients deeply satisfying.

Suggestions :

White bean and smoked sausage � don't use dry beans; decant tinned ones into a Ziploc and they'll be fine for a couple of days. Cut the sausage up small and this will take ten minutes.

Cullen skink � a first-night dish. Vacuum-packed smoked haddock, fish stock cube, instant mash, milk rather than water. Give the fish 15 mins before adding the milk, and don't let the soup boil.

Pea and bacon � either mangetout or real peas, mint. Macaroni is good with this and it's even better with a spoon of dark brown sugar.

Mushroom and any smoked meat you feel like - dried mushrooms soaked for an hour in hot water (use the soaking water for flavouring); or fresh mushrooms; onion, garlic, sage, parsley, stock cube, milk

Chicken noodle: lots of garlic, onion, thinly-sliced chicken, soy sauce, chilli sauce, instant noodles.


Classic Raj comfort food; everything comes sealed, and kippers are preserved, so keeping should not be an issue.

  • Boil-in-the-bag rice
  • Boil-in-the-bag kippers
  • Spring onions, squeezy garlic
  • A small pot of curry powder (and any other curry spices you like)
  • An egg each
  • Fish stock cube for preference
  • Oil or, better, a knob of butter

Check the cooking times on the packs, but basically:

Get a full pan of boiling water. Put the kippers and eggs in together, leave for 10 mins. Fish the eggs out, and leave them to cool, put the rice in. Cook 10 mins more.

Meanwhile in the other pan, fry up the onions, adding the garlic, curry powder and the crumbled stock cube if you have it after a few minutes.

Take everything off the heat. Cut the rice and kippers out of their bags, break the kippers up and stir into the onion/spice mix til thoroughly combined. Peel, slice and add the eggs. Dress with a knob of butter if you have it.


  • Corn cobs with the husks still on
  • Butter/oil

The best way of all to cook corn. Soak the corn for a minimum of a hour in clean water. Put the damp cobs directly on the embers and cook for 10-15 minutes, turning occasionally. Peel off the charred husks and eat with the butter. Delicious.


Protein, carbohydrate, fried: few things nicer.

  • Tin tuna/salmon/crab
  • Instant mash, made up quite thickly
  • A tbsp flour
  • An egg
  • Small pot containing pinches of ground coriander seed, dried coriander leaf, parsley, ground cumin
  • Oil for cooking
  • Lemon juice

Drain the tinned fish thoroughly. In small mess tin, smoosh it all up with the mash, flour, egg and herbs/spices, salt, pepper. Put a bit of flour, salt and pepper on plate. Take spoonfuls of mix and roll into balls in your hands, then squash flat into ½� thick patties and dip either side in the flour. Heat oil � you don't need much - until really hot (if you drop a crumb of mix into it, it fizzes and browns) then put the cakes in. Cook for 5-10 mins on either side until golden brown. Eat with lemon and whatever edible leaves you can find.


Make a stew and freeze it, taking it out and putting it into your pack just before you set off. It'll be nicely thawed and ready to heat by the time you're ready to cook, and act as a cooler for everything else in the meantime.


A classic boy-scout recipe. Cut an orange in half and eat it with a spoon, keeping the peel intact. Break an egg into one half of the orange, and put the other half on top as a lid. Wrap in foil and leave in embers for 5-10 mins.


Great, sustaining peasant food:

  • Sausages: any kind
  • Tinned tomatoes
  • Lentils (the orange ones � half a cup a head)
  • Onion, garlic
  • Dried mixed herbs
  • Stock cube

Fry onions, garlic, sausages for 10 mins in large mess tin. Add lentils, herbs, and fry for a minute. Add tomatoes and stock cube and a couple of cups of hot water for every cup of lentils. Make a lid from tinfoil and leave in the embers for a minimum of 20 mins � but the longer it goes the better it is. Make sure to scrape the caramelised crust off the bottom of the tin and eat it � it's the best bit of all. Cheese is also good on this.


If you catch one, or have one:

  • One fish, or fish fillet (but make sure it's fresh and safe to eat!)
  • Oil or butter
  • Lemon juice
  • Salt, pepper
  • If you've got any, a couple of tbsp booze � cider or white wine is best
  • Any herbs you happen across � sage, basil, thyme, sorrel are particularly good
  • Some foil

If you don't have a grill rack, put a large flattish stone in the fire some time before you want to cook so it gets nice and hot. Take a large piece of foil, four or five inches longer than the fish. Fold it in half, then fold the ends over and over to form a liquid-proof baggie. Put in the fish, the oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, herbs, booze, then fold over the top several times to seal. Put the bag on the stone and leave for 20 minutes or so. It will be steamed and succulent.


This is so cool for children it almost validates carrying the potatoes.

  • A baking potato
  • Some clean mud

Wash and dry your spuds. Pack the mud thickly round them so they're totally sealed. Put the lumps of mud in the embers and leave for an hour. The spuds should be ready when the mud is dry and hard. Let it cool for a few minutes before you break it open.


Great because you can basically put anything you like in. I like to chuck in a handful of dried shrimp at the end for extra chew.

  • Macaroni
  • Bacon or any other meat, cut up very small
  • Onion, garlic
  • Dried tomatoes
  • Any robust veg, cut up small: whole cherry toms are very good, as are mangetout, beans, broccoli,
  • A big handful of salad leaves if you have them (rocket particularly good)
  • Oil
  • Cheese

Boil the macaroni in one pan. Keep covered to stay warm. In the other pan, fry onions, garlic, bacon and toms for five mins, add the other veg, cook for another 3-4 mins. Take off heat. Drain, the macaroni keeping back a couple of spoonfuls of the cooking water. Throw the lot together, with the cooking water and a glug of oil, throw in the salad leaves and some cheese, stir together so the leaves wilt.


  • Tinned tomatoes
  • Onion, garlic
  • Dried herbs: basil and oregano are good
  • Salt, pepper

Fry the onion and garlic with the herbs. Add the tomatoes, break them up, and boil fiercely, stirring often, for as long as it takes the pasta to cook. Add some dried toms if you have them. A great base to add pretty much anything to; or just lots of grated cheese.


Really this is just a tortilla. If you make extra, let it cool, slice it and wrap it in foil, it sorts out lunch as well.

  • Anything you would use in a Full English, cut up small so it cooks faster
  • Cherry toms, cut in half
  • A spud, sliced thinly
  • Eggs
  • A little oil

Double-line the large mess tin with foil (for ease of turning out), oil it lightly then fry up everything (Start with the potato and give it five mins before you add anything else) apart from the eggs with plenty of pepper until it's cooked. Break the eggs into the mug and give them a whisk with the fork, then pour them over the top of everything in the tin, making sure the egg gets into as many nooks and crannies as possible. Cook for a further five minutes until the egg is set. Just as good cold as hot.


You can prepare these ahead of time and simply chuck them on the fire.

  • A tortilla bread each
  • Jam or tinned pie filling to taste
  • Peanut butter, to taste
  • Dried fruits, fresh fruits, to taste
  • Chocolate chips, to taste
  • You get the picture.

Tear off a square of foil a bit bigger than a tortilla, and lay a tortilla on it. Put your choice of filling in, just off-centre. Don't overfill, because you want to make a nice secure package. Roll the tortilla up, then fold over the ends. Wrap it all up, loosely but well-sealed, in the foil. When you're eating your supper, put the foil packages either onto a grill rack or into the ashes on the very edge of the fire and let them melt. Eat straight from the foil.


Fresh cake! In a mug! This is one of those recipes you find on internet entertainment sites, shriek and move on from, but it actually works. It's meant to be for a microwave, but amazingly enough it also works on a rack over a camp fire.

A metal mug (not if you're microwaving!)

  • 4 tbsp flour
  • 2-4 tbsp sugar depending on your taste
  • 2 tbsp cocoa
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tbsp milk
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • Chocolate chips if you want

Mix the dry ingredients in the mug with a fork. Add the egg and mix vigorously. Add the oil and milk and mix vigorously again to beat some air in. Add chocolate chips. Put the mug over the fire and watch it rise in astonishment. Takes about 10 mins.



The walker's time-honoured standby. Does not, in fact, grow in pre-wrapped bars in specialist shops. This makes quite a lot, but it keeps.

  • 1lb sugar
  • ¼ pint milk
  • 1 tsp peppermint essence

Line a shallow baking tray with greaseproof paper. Have a bowl of cold water standing close by. Combine all the ingredients in a thick-bottomed pan � non-stick probably a good idea, but use a wooden spoon. Bring it gradually to the boil, stirring continuously, and cook until a drop of the mixture, dropped into the cold water, can be rolled into a firm ball between your finger and thumb. Pour into the baking tray and mark into bars with a knife after it's cooled a little but is still soft.


For weak moments...

  • Dried fruit, as you like
  • Nuts, as you like, but almonds, walnuts and cashews are traditional
  • Sunflower seeds, shelled
  • Pine kernels
  • Chocolate chips for luck

Mix, salt, put in a Ziploc bag.

And finally, what to do with that COATHANGER


Pull it apart and refold so that the hook hangs down over a stable base that you can put into the fire. You can then use foil, oiled � and your water bottle as a mould � to make packages for simple things like eggs, bacon, or things that just need heating, to hang off the hook over the heat. Eggs take about 3 minutes this way; but the kudos is enormous and it's easier to carry than a grill rack. Here's a vid showing how to make the stand .

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