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Check out these favorite backcountry recipes by wilderness rangers from Colorado and beyond

October 2, 2017 Updated: October 2, 2017 at 6:29 pm
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National Park Service rangers taking a break to cook? "A good meal is high-carb or high-protein, depending on your need at the time," said Ralph Swain, a Denver-based U.S. Forest Service ranger who compiled a cookbook of backcountry recipes by rangers. "You can't junk-food your way on a wilderness ranger job." Photo credit: Bob Wicks, Bureau of Land Management

Ask Ralph Swain to cook a meal at home, and he'll hesitate.

Ask him to whip up something at his "real" home "in the dirt," and he's game.

"Us backcountry rangers have unique skills," said the U.S. Forest Service's Denver-based wilderness manager. "A lot of us couldn't cook a meal at home if we tried. But here with a one-burner, we not only can cook a delicious meal, but half the fun is leaving no trace. You cook something that's easy to clean up, that's when you know you're doing the best for the land."

The pack-it-in, pack-it-out ethic is central to the Wilderness Ranger Cookbook, the 2014 collection of backcountry recipes that Swain put together in time for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The book has lived on as beloved pack weight for the federal workers who rough it out in the woods.

The 150 recipes cover breakfast, lunch, dinner and desert as well as snacks and drinks. And rangers are assured by the tried-and-true choices that all come from their own.

"Having a cookbook like this really is a great way for us to connect with each other," said Anne Dal Vera, who uses it regularly as a ranger in the San Juan National Forest. She's also one of its contributors.

Swain, respected around the country for his 30 years with the Forest Service, asked wilderness workers from around the country to contribute their cuisine favorites. The book, he said, serves as a guide to the sustenance rangers need on the job.

So in a way, it uniquely sheds light on lives "that not a lot of people understand," said Gregory Hansen, retired after 20 years with the Forest Service.

"We're out there sometimes for 10 days, sometimes more, and you're physically working," he said. "We don't get to go home and take a nice shower, lay down with our wives or girlfriends in a nice bed. We're by ourselves in the woods or in the desert or in the mountains, and man, a lot of people look forward to that meal as the apex of the day. It's pretty damn important."

So every year year Swain hosts an "academy" that includes a backcountry cook-off between rangers-in-training. He teaches them the ways of cleaning and the ingredients that constitute proper grub.

"A good meal is high-carb or high-protein, depending on your need at the time," Swain said. "But (rangers) have to be healthy. You can't junk-food your way on a wilderness ranger job."

They hoof it to remote places where they might clean water bars, for example, "so the rains won't wash out the switchbacks you built last season," Swain writes in the book. "Or you might be collecting native seeds to replant at a camp spot that has lost its groundcover to thousands of footprints," he continues in the account, which he wrote with pen and paper above 13,000 feet. He was working on Square Top Mountain near Idaho Springs.

Through a cough, he spoke on the phone recently from Montana, where he was helping on a wildfire fight. He was craving one of his own recipes from the book: "Burrito Power."

Ralph Swain, a longtime U.S. Forest Service ranger based in Denver, on assignment at Colorado's Flat Tops Wilderness. He collected a book of favorite backcountry recipes by rangers around the country. Photo credit: Ralph Swain 

Here are three more of his favorites, along with three of our own:

Couscous Delight


Yield: 2 to 3 servings

1 cup couscous ½ cup dried cranberries 3 packs apple cider mix 3 cups water ½ cup almond butter or peanut butter ½ cup apple butter


Cook the couscous, cranberries, and apple cider mix in a little more than 3 cups water to a soupy consistency. Ladle dollops of couscous, almond butter, and apple butter into a bowl or mug, stir, and enjoy.

Source: Anne Dal Vera, San Juan National Forest's Columbine Ranger District

Spinach and Black Bean Quesadillas


Yield: 2 servings

4 ounces water 3 ounces dehydrated black beans 3 ounces fresh spinach leaves 4 ounces Oaxaca cheese 4 flour tortillas 1 ounce salsa


Bring water to a boil and hydrate the black beans. Drain the excess water.

Turn the stove burner to low, add the spinach and cheese to the cooked black beans. Stir until cheese is melted. Place a tortilla on your plate and add the cooked ingredients on top. Add salsa to taste. Top with second tortilla.

Source: Derrick Taff, formerly at Rocky Mountain National Park

Jerk Jambalaya

A jerk jambalaya, one of Ralph Swain's favorite recipes as found in the cookbook he authored, compiling backcountry eats by rangers around the country. Photo credit: Ralph Swain 


Yield: 1 serving

1 package spicy beef jerky 1 package sun-dried tomatoes 1 package pre-cooked jambalaya mix, Zatarain's preferred


Cut the jerky and tomatoes into very small pieces. Start cooking the jambalaya mix as instructed. Add tomatoes right away so they soften up. Once the jambalaya is heated, add the jerky pieces. Serve with bread or put on a tortilla for a jerk jambalaya burrito.

Source: Jimmy Gaudry, Forest Service's southern region

Black Canyon Baconuts


Yield: 2 to 3 cups

5 slices bacon ½ cup brown sugar 1 tablespoon chili powder 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard 4 cups mixed nuts ½ teaspoon kosher salt


To prepare at home: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Chop the bacon and mix with the remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Spread the mixture onto a foil-lined pan or baking sheet. Bake for about 18 minutes. Remove from the oven and spread onto a sheet of waxed paper to cool. Break into pieces and pack in a resealable bag.

Source: Christie Vanover, Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Backpackers' Smoked Salmon Marinara Tortellini


Yield: 1 serving

Water 3 to 5 handfuls of dried cheese- stuffed tortellini 1 tablespoon olive oil 1/8 cup dehydrated peppers 1/8 cup onion, chopped 1 packet dried marinara sauce; 1/4 cup dehydrated mushrooms 4-6 ounces smoked salmon


In a pot with just enough water to cook the tortellini, add 3 to 5 handfuls of tortellini (depending on how hard you worked hiking) and olive oil, peppers, onion and the marinara sauce.

Boil until pasta is nearly cooked. Because mushrooms are quick to rehydrate, add them when you think you need about 3 more minutes of cook time for the tortellini. The mushrooms soak up all the excess water so there is nothing to drain. Add the smoked salmon and, if desired, some Tabasco sauce.

Source: Adam Washebek, Bitterroot National Forest

Backcountry Cheesecake


Yield: 8 servings

1 tablespoon margarine 1 box no-bake cheesecake mix (Jell-O or Royal brands preferred) 2-4 tablespoons water 1/3 cup powdered milk mixed with 1⅓cup water About 1 cup strawberry or blueberry preserves


In the pan you will make the cheesecake in, melt the margarine. Mix in the graham cracker crumbs included in the cheesecake mix. Add just enough water to make stiff paste and press the crust along the bottom of pan. Combine the milk with the filling mix. Pour over the crust. Set in a cool place (a snow bank is great) for about 15 minutes. Garnish with your favorite strawberry or blueberry preserves.

Source: Linda Merigliano, Jedediah Smith Wilderness

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