The high-tech biker’s bivouac
Compact cooking… and cleaning… on the cheap
It was nearly dark when I finally pulled into a campground at the end of a long day on the road. The temperature was dropping and the clouds that had begun to gather earlier were getting more threatening by the minute. I hurried to get my tent set up and my gear inside in case it started to rain. My stomach began to rumble because I hadn’t eaten since late that morning, but the last thing I wanted to do was saddle up again and search for a dining establishment. And I needed a shower. It had been a few days since I had the luxury of bathing. Luckily, I was traveling solo.
Normally, when I would find myself in this situation, I would rummage around in my saddlebags, looking for a power bar or whatever other snacks happened to be stowed away, promising myself that I’d eat a big breakfast after I got on the road the next day. But this time, I’d planned ahead, bringing with me an assortment of camping products made especially for traveling light. In fact, I had several meal options as well as preparation options. With the gear I’d packed in my bags, plus the food that I’d brought with me, I didn’t have to leave the campground all weekend.
$3.95 each (discounts for three or more)
Portable Food Storage System
$29.99 for the Starter Kit
I’d seen a demonstration of Camerons Smoker Bags at an outdoors show last year, and I was impressed with their simplicity and versatility. The Smoker Bags have three layers of foil with flavored wood chips in between. One of the layers is perforated, which allows the food to be infused with your choice of alder, hickory or mesquite flavor. I put a couple of pork chops in one of the Smoker Bags and placed it in the freezer the night before I left. The morning of my trip, I threw the Smoker Bag in one of my saddlebags. By the time I was ready to cook dinner, the pork chops were thawed out and ready to toss on the grill—bag and all. No muss, no fuss—just toss the bag away after your food has been cooked.
The bags can also be used with fish, chicken or turkey, beef and other meats and even vegetables. Several recipes are included on the product packaging, although I thought the pork chops tasted great just from the bag’s built-in flavoring. You don’t even need a grill; you can set the bag directly onto the campfire coals. And that’s exactly what I did on that first night of my trip when it began to rain. It took a little longer to cook, but the food stayed dry and tasted great. And sometimes when I don’t feel like making a big production over dinner at home, I just slide a few pieces of fish or meat inside a Smoker Bag and cook it in the oven.
Cameron Smoker Bags have been endorsed by world-famous chef Emeril Lagasse, and as an added bonus, Cameron Products has introduced a recipe contest with details included in the product packaging. Emeril will select the best recipe, and the winner receives some great prizes. You can order Smoker Bags directly from Cameron’s website, and they are also available at Amazon.com, Sears, K-Mart, and some gourmet stores, hardware stores and supermarkets.
Another product I’ve been using for food storage and transport for campouts is the Zip-Vac Portable Food Storage System. The Starter Kit consists of a rechargeable pump, a manual pump and five (two one-gallon and three one-quart) vacuum bags. On a different camping trip, I put some hamburgers in a one-gallon bag, zipped it, vacuumed out the air and left it in the freezer overnight, transferring it to my saddlebag when I left the next morning. Again, by the time I got to my destination, the hamburgers were defrosted and ready to toss onto the grill. What makes the Zip-Vac work so well is the elimination of freezer burn, allowing your food to keep for a much longer period of time (note that the bags don’t replace the need for freezing or refrigeration). Zip-Vacs can also be used for soups and other liquids, and I’ve used them to store important papers, matches, ammo and other items that I don’t want to get wet when I’m on the road. The bags use a unique valve system, and are puncture-resistant and much stronger than the supermarket varieties of vacuum storage bags. And the Zip-Vac kit is simpler to use and much less bulky than elaborate heat-sealing systems.
I use the rechargeable Zip-Vac pump at home, and the smaller manual pump and extra vacuum bags can be stowed in my saddlebags if I have a need to store food I’ve purchased on the road. The Zip-Vac system, as well as additional storage bags, can be ordered directly from the website, and the homepage will also point you to a store in your area.
Flameless Oven and 72-Hour Emergency kit
$12.30 and $51.50
When I camp, I usually bring a compact fire bowl and grill with me. I’ve been using the Grilliput Compact Fire Bowl and the Grilliput Grill, both of which fold up small enough to easily fit in a saddlebag, Tour-Pak or your luggage. Although these products have been discontinued, they can still be found at several outdoors stores and online retailers. There are a few similar products available, as well.
However, if you want to avoid having to lug cooking equipment around or if there’s no firewood available where you’ve decided to set up camp, there’s a great alternative—the Mountain Oven Flameless Heating Kit. It’s made by Mountain House, one of the most popular brands of freeze-dried backpacking foods. This relatively inexpensive and convenient product allows you to cook Mountain House food without having to use a flame—no campfire required! You will, however, need to have a supply of potable water available. To carry water from its source to your campsite, use a portable plastic container such as the Platypus 4.0-liter water tank. It folds flat and packs nicely, and makes water-hauling much quicker and easier. You can pick up these types of plastic water carriers in many sizes at nearly any outdoors store.
The Flameless Heating Kit contains a stand-up pouch, a plastic storage bag, a plastic bottle, five salt tablets and five heat activation pads. The kit weighs less than a pound, and is 12″ high and 10″ wide—an easy fit in your bike’s storage areas or your personal luggage. The instructions direct you to add the required amount of water into your Mountain House meal pouch and seal it closed, put a salt tablet in the water bottle and combine it with ambient-temperature water, place a heat activation pad at the bottom of the stand-up pouch that acts as the “oven,” add the water mixture, drop your Mountain House meal pouch into the stand-up oven pouch and seal that closed, as well. The steam and odd odor that came from the oven pouch was disconcerting at first, but the product literature claims it’s a result of the chemical reaction and isn’t harmful (nor could I taste anything strange when I sampled the meal).
Each oven kit can be used up to five times (the stand-up pouch is reusable), and I got some extra uses out of it by placing a meal pouch and a vegetable pouch in the oven at the same time. It still worked fine, although I needed to let the food cook longer than the recommended 20 minutes.
For the last camping trip I went on, I ordered the Mountain House 72-Hour Emergency Kit that contained enough food for the entire weekend and then some—three meals per day for three days. The kit includes six 10-oz. lunch and dinner entries: Beef stroganoff, chicken teriyaki, chili mac with beef, rice and chicken, pasta primavera and sweet and sour pork with rice. To complement three of the dinners, you get garden green peas, whole kernel corn and cut green beans. And for breakfast, included is granola with blueberries and milk, scrambled eggs with bacon and scrambled eggs with ham and peppers.
Overall, the meals were quite good, with my favorites being the chili mac with beef and the pasta primavera, but of course it’s a matter of personal taste. You can order these products directly from the Mountain House website, or use the dealer locator to find a shop near your location. There are a number of meal products available, with new ones being added periodically. In addition, Mountain House usually has special offers when you order a certain dollar amount. When I purchased my products, I was also sent four organic dried fruit pouches which are great for tossing into my saddlebag for a quick snack on the road. And don’t worry about any of the food going stale—it has a seven-year shelf life.
Swedish Fire-Steel, Outdoor Meal Kit, Swiss Spice Salt and Pepper, and Extra-Medium Spork
Light My Fire
$15, $19.99, $15, and $3.99
You don’t need the Mountain Oven to make Mountain House meals; just some potable water and a means to boil it. If you do need to start a fire, you can make sure you have dry matches, but I prefer to use the Light My Fire Swedish Fire-Steel fire starter. I use the Mini version which lasts for approximately 1,500 strikes (that’ll probably be a lifetime of camping for me). It’s water-resistant and works under nearly any conditions; even when the weather is damp and cold. It creates an extremely hot spark, and if you have the proper tinder available, it’ll light right away—once you get the hang of it, that is. It took me a few tries to figure out the correct angle and pressure for sliding the included striker against the fire starter.
Although one can eat right out of the Mountain House meal pouches, I prefer to set the picnic table and dine like a human being, using plates and utensils. The Light My Fire Outdoor Meal Kit is the most practical and compact dishware I’ve found. It’s got a nifty triangular shape that not only looks good but saves space. Each side is 7 1/2″ long and the entire kit, which stacks together like a set of Russian nesting dolls, is only 2 1/2″ high. It contains two plates, a 300-ml spill-free cup with measurement lines (comes in handy for the Mountain House meals), a combined colander and cutting board, a Spork (combination spoon and serrated fork) and a small, round waterproof box for things that need to stay dry. The Spork is made of polycarbonate material and the other pieces are made of polypropylene. All pieces are quite durable, dishwasher-safe and environmentally friendly, and, true to the Scandinavian design, come in nine fun colors.
The Spork is a great invention, but just try to cut that steak with a single utensil. So, I got another Spork, also made by Light My Fire but slightly larger than the one in the Meal Kit, and designed especially for eating out of freeze-dried food pouches (you will avoid sticky knuckles with this). It comes in several colors as well, and there are a few other models and sizes listed on the company’s website. You can even buy Sporks in bulk for group campouts.
There was only one more element needed to make my meal complete. As good as the Mountain House products taste, they can usually use some seasoning. Light My Fire also sells the Swiss Spice Salt and Pepper shaker, a humidity-proof container for salt and pepper (it ships already filled). It’s small, durable and light and can also be used to store other small items that need to be kept dry.
There are a number of other camping products on the Light My Fire website. Note that these products are also sold on Amazon.com and the Campmor, EMS, REI and Gander Mountain stores and websites.
Energizer Trailfinder 2-in-1 LED Light
Light My Fire
An adequate lighting product is high on the list of my camping needs, and the Energizer Trailfinder 2-in-1 LED Light fits the bill nicely. The dual-purpose light measures just over 4 1/2″ long when used as a flashlight and about 5 1/2″ long when extended for use as a lantern. I’m not usually a fan of LED lights because I find that they’re not as bright and focused as traditional incandescent bulbs. However, the Trailfinder has a powerful beam that’s over 12 times brighter than standard LED lights. It’s a big help when the sun goes down and I still haven’t washed my cooking and eating implements. And it’s great for hanging inside the tent when I need to find something or go somewhere in the middle of the night.
I’ve found that my MicroMaid Campack Towels have become nearly indispensible for camping. They’re quite handy for wiping down those dining utensils, but even better for drying yourself after your shower. I bring two of them with me; a medium that measures 16″ x 17″ and a large measuring 23″ x 25″. The towels are made of a microfiber that’s incredibly lightweight and surprisingly absorbent and fast-drying. Each towel clips into its own carrying pouch that has mesh on one side to promote fast drying even when it’s packed, and has a carabiner clip that attaches the towel to your luggage or your bike so that your towel can dry on the road. The towels pack to about 2″ x 2″, so you can stow them almost anywhere.
The Campack Towels also have something called Dr. Bacty antibacterial protection that’s supposed to eliminate nearly all bacteria, fungus, mildew, mold and yeast as well as boasting odor-repelling properties. I use the large towel after a shower plus the medium towel for drying my hair. I was surprised to find that these rather smallish towels were quite adequate for shower duty. When the towel gets saturated, just wring it out and it will absorb even more moisture. They’re machine washable, but don’t throw them in the dryer because they’ll lose some of their magical properties.
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These are just a small sampling of products that can make your camping experience easier and more enjoyable. With the advent of so many online retailers, not to mention the plethora of outdoors stores in most areas of the country, you can probably find some of these products for less than the MSRPs listed here. The money you’ll spend on camping gear will actually save you cash in the long run by not having to stay in motels and eat in restaurants every time you travel. And in most situations, I’d much rather sit by the campfire, cook a simple meal, eat outside at a picnic table and slumber under the stars than bring takeout food to my motel room and watch cable TV until I fall asleep.