Gluten-free in the Great Outdoors
I am a 57 year old retired professor and celiac living in Fairbanks, Alaska. The transition to GF cooking was made easier for me because I have always cooked from scratch, whether starting from Alaskan salmon and moose, or fresh vegetables. Living with celiac disease still means good conversation over good food.View all articles by Phyllis Morrow
It can feel scary to venture away from the familiar settings in which you have a high degree of food control. But outdoor activities – and outdoor eating – are too much fun to pass up. With a positive attitude, smart planning, and a measure of trust, you can get out and enjoy camping, hiking, biking, boating and picnicking. That day on the banks of the Colorado, I gently prodded my hunger back into the crowd of emotions, scrounged around for some nuts, and, yes, survived until my dinner returned. Over the next 220 miles of rocks and rapids, I turned my mind to other thrills and chills. And I had plenty to eat.
While not always in such remote surroundings, I regularly enjoy a wide variety of outdoor activities and have, over the years, developed some strategies for going gluten-free from the mountains to the sea. Here are some suggestions that will variously serve from the local state park to the Grand Canyon and the Alaskan backcountry.
First, preparing and eating gluten-free foods outdoors comes with a particular set of challenges. Here are some things to consider.
- Control over food selection – from choosing the menus to purchasing food and beverages – can be especially problematic if your trip takes you far from the road and the grocery store. Unless you plan to trap rabbits and eat wild greens, you’ll need to make sure that you have enough gluten-free food for the duration.
- Keeping cooking surfaces, eating surfaces, and utensils free of gluten contamination takes care when you have little or no hot running water.
- Fellow travelers need to be educated about your needs. That’s important whether they are sharing cooking duty or just helping you keep some ravenous 12-year old from eating up all of the gluten-free cookies (that inexplicably look more delicious than the Oreos packed for the rest of the group).
- Depending on the type of trip, more general food restrictions, such as concerns about perishability or weight, may compound your gluten restriction by narrowing the choice of what you can bring.
- Packing gluten-free baked items (bread, crackers, cookies) takes special care because of their comparative fragility.
- The ability to access your gluten-free food items requires logistical packing decisions; you need to be able to find your dinner for day one on day one, not buried at the bottom of the supplies with items that nobody plans to excavate until day six.
- Accidents and moments of disappointment are bound to occur. Imagine the “oh no” second when someone bumps your elbow just as you are about to tuck into the one and only gluten-free bowl of chili. You watch your lunch cascade, as if in slow motion, into the dirt. At some point, you can expect someone to absent-mindedly put a gluten-contaminated knife in the jam. You can figure on a meal where you belatedly discover gluten on an ingredient label although the cook assured you that you could eat “everything” he prepared.
- Using a separatist approach, you can plan your own menu and essentially eat apart from others. Depending on the duration and complexity of the planned trip, this can be a simple alternative that guarantees you full control over what you eat. For example, I just did a cross-country ski day trip with friends and we each packed our own sandwiches. I brought some gluten-free chocolate cake and a thermos of tea to share, and my friends shared their carrot sticks and nuts. Bingo, everyone was happy and felt sociable. Separatism is generally not a good approach on a multi-day trip, though, where people plan to cook together. For one thing, separate planning and preparation mean duplication of effort. Worse, you’ll be left out of the social interaction of cooking in camp and you may feel like a leper when everyone else sits down to some delicious meal and you are trying to make the best out of a reconstituted cup of gluten-free dried soup mix.
- A second option is to make the outing gluten-free for everyone. This works well if you have the time and the skills to take the lead in arranging food. If you have good taste and are a competent trip/food planner, nobody will be the wiser and, in fact, they’ll generally appreciate having you do the work. Since other people don’t think about gluten one way or the other, they certainly won’t care that they are using mustard or ketchup or soy sauce that happens to be gluten-free. They’ll be perfectly happy with meals based on rice, potatoes, corn tortillas, gluten-free pancake mix, brownies and other gluten-free foods. Tasty and filling meals make most people happy, and unless they are unreasonable (in which case you shouldn’t invite them along next time) they won’t get bent out of shape if they can’t have their favorite brand of sausage in the morning. Bread is the obvious exception, since few gluten-free breads meet the criterion of “I can’t tell the difference.” So have someone else bring the bread, if that’s an issue.
- A third, often very practical, option falls somewhere between these two extremes. In this case, you participate in the menu planning and make sure that as many staples and other items as possible are gluten-free (e.g., peanut butter, condiments, canned goods). Where planned meals call for some gluten-containing items, you provide gluten-free equivalents for yourself. You label each item visibly (e.g., a masking tape label with black permanent marker reading “Gluten-free Bagel for Susie”) and pack it so that it will be accessible for the appropriate meal. So you make sure that the spaghetti sauce purchased for the entire group is gluten-free but you include a package of gluten-free pasta for your own meal. You bring your own bread, cookies, cereal and crackers for all meals and snacks. You also participate in cooking so that you can avoid cross-contamination and, where necessary, set portions aside before gluten-containing ingredients are added. For example, if everyone else wants their fresh trout dredged in flour, you just reserve your portion, dredge it in cornmeal, and fry it in a separate pan. You also request to serve yourself first before others accidentally contaminate a dish.
The second trip provisioned by strangers turned out to be an unexpectedly relaxed and gourmet experience for me. In this case, it was not possible for me to participate directly in the food planning. But I was touched and surprised by the kindness and care of my traveling companions. I found out that the two men who had volunteered to take food responsibility were doctors (as well as fine cooks). A phone conversation and e-mail exchange during the planning period reassured me that they understood about celiac disease. They went out of their way to make meals that were safe and delicious. There was another unexpected benefit to that trip. A physician’s assistant who was also with us contacted me a few weeks after we all returned home. She told me that having just traveled with me made her pick up on some likely symptoms in a young patient. A celiac diagnosis was confirmed, and she had called to ask for some advice on contacts and reliable sources of information, which she passed on to the patient.
Implicitly, I’ve brought up the need to educate your fellow travelers here. In general, it’s a good idea both to describe your gluten-free needs in advance and to participate in cooking and clean-up during the trip. Unless and until you can trust that other cooks and food-handlers “get it,” you’ll want to be in or near the food action most of the time. There, you can demonstrate what’s required, take care of cooking portions separately when necessary and serve your own food. While maintaining a scrupulously uncontaminated washing environment is tough while camping, I strongly suggest that you at least reserve one cooking pot for water only. That pot will never get pasta residue or other gluten scraps stuck to the bottom and you will always have a source of clean hot water for cooking (i.e., for hot beverages or adding to instant foods) and washing up. The others may appreciate this rule, too, since it will prevent their morning hot chocolate from having oatmeal or bits of last night’s curried lentils floating in it! If you are lucky enough to have a pre-educated friend along, or if your traveling companions are quick and considerate learners, at times you’ll be able to relax your vigilance. Whenever my husband is cooking or washing-up, for example, I can go help out with other chores – or sit down with a glass of wine and a book.
Because your companions are likely to be gluten-oblivious, though, you can expect an occasional mishap. For those moments of disappointment, when your dinner has just been ruined or has driven off in the cab of the pick-up truck, you should keep an easy meal in reserve. Make it something that you like (how about that Annie’s gluten-free Mac and Cheese?) so that you don’t feel too deprived. Or set aside a favorite dessert so that if you have to make do with a minimal supper you can at least have a special sweet.
Whether you are supplying your own food or relying primarily on others, a few tricks will help you keep your edibles edible. There are things that I always carry with me: at least one thin, flexible plastic cutting board; one or two plastic containers; and a set of utensils. The light plastic cutting board allows you to create an instant clean surface for food preparation or consumption anywhere you go. In fact, I keep one or two in my suitcase for ordinary travel and they are also essential in my home kitchen. If the mats you purchase are too large for convenience, cut them down to a size (6” x 8” or 8” x 11”) that fits easily into your backpack, bike pannier, or food box. They are so flat that they take up virtually no space and you’ll have solved the problem of gluten-y picnic tables (or airline trays or food court counters, for that matter). The mats are very easy to wash, rinse and dry and can be kept clean in a plastic bag for the next use; you might want to size yours to fit into a half-gallon Ziploc bag. Having your own set of utensils is useful for obvious reasons, but for camping and picnics a good pocketknife is essential. When someone else takes out his or her knife to cut food for everyone, volunteer yours for the purpose, since you can be sure it’s gluten-free. Plastic containers will help you keep your gluten-free baked goods intact, particularly if you try to pack them just tightly enough that the goods will not rattle around inside. I find a couple of sandwich-sized plastic containers very useful, as well as a few others of assorted sizes. Small containers that fit into a waist pack or day pack will protect your lunch much better than a plastic bag. Mark your containers “Gluten-free foods only” so that they do not become mixed up with containers for general food storage.
There is one caution about keeping your foods separate that I can illustrate with a little story. On one overnight biking/camping trip, I forgot to remove my gluten-free snack bars from my bicycle pannier. When I saddled up the next morning, I discovered that small campground thieves (probably squirrels) had chewed right through the fabric to get at them. My bag was ruined, but at least we weren’t camping in bear country that night…a reminder that wild animals are just as happy to eat gluten-free as anything else.
Camping foods usually need to be relatively compact even if you have the luxury of carrying a lot (in a car, RV, motorboat or raft). Weight is, of course, an additional issue if you are backpacking, bicycling, or kayaking. Depending on which activity you’re doing, you can pick and choose among some of these easy options:
- Trail mix: It’s a snap to make your own with gluten-free dried fruits, nuts, coconut, chocolate chips, and/or gluten-free cereal. Just use care in your selections. For example, while whole dates are usually gluten-free, chopped dates are often dusted in barley flour so that they will not stick together.
- Snack bars/energy bars: Take some of your favorites (check the nutrition/health food section of your grocery store as there are an increasing number of possibilities out there) or, if you are so inclined, you can even make your own granola bars based on gluten-free granola, such as Bakery on Main or Trader Joe’s brands, or by using gluten-free rolled oats.
- Boil-in-bag foods and pre-cooked foods: If weight is not an issue, these are convenient and non-perishable. Heat up a pan of water, slip in the pouch, cut it open and eat: if you are worried about keeping pans clean, this completely solves any cross-contamination problem. Tasty Bite makes a variety of gluten-free Indian and Thai foods packaged in “smart pouches.” They are commonly available in regular grocery stores. To save packing room, toss out the boxes at home and bring only the pouches, but be sure to label them with a permanent marker if the pouches do not have the contents printed on them, since they will all look alike. Pre-cooked polenta rolls are similarly convenient.
- Instant cereal: For gluten-loving campers, instant oatmeal in individual serving packs is a standard breakfast item. I don’t know of anyone marketing gluten-free oats this way, but an equivalent for gluten-free campers is quinoa instant hot cereal, similarly packaged (Altiplano Gold makes several flavors that can be ordered on-line). You can also pre-measure quick-cooking cereal, such as rice cereal, in Ziploc bags with a little salt and flavorings (cinnamon, sugar, etc.) of your choice. Pre-measure in the drinking cup that you plan to bring camping with you. Then you can use the same cup to measure water proportionately. I use the same method for measuring and packing other dried foods such as rice, quinoa, or polenta, often including herbs and spices: mark the contents, amount of water needed, and cooking time on the plastic bag.
- Cured or dried meats: Freybe makes salami-type sausages that are compact and keep well. Shelton makes gluten-free turkey jerky. Though quite expensive, it is very lightweight.
- S’mores: A facsimile of everybody’s camping favorite is easy to make. Marshmallows are typically gluten-free (find a brand that is labeled as such), as are plain Hershey’s chocolate bars. Substituting gluten-free cookies for graham crackers makes gluten-free s’mores even more decadent than the originals.
- Dried foods: A variety of dried foods, such as bean flakes, potato flakes, and vegetables are available in gluten-free versions and make packing light and camp cooking quick. As always, you need to read labels. Rice (including brown rice) that has been partially pre-cooked and dried does not take long to prepare. If you are using a small camp stove, quick-cooking items save on fuel weight, too.
- Dutch oven baked goods: If your trip is such that you can carry an aluminum (lighter than cast iron) Dutch oven and some charcoal, you can turn out cornbread, brownies, and cakes that will make you the hit of the crowd. Bring your favorite gluten-free mixes, or mix up your own dry ingredients from your favorite recipes. Don’t forget to bring the necessary wet ingredients, too, of course. Search for Dutch oven camping recipes on-line to learn the basic technique. It’s not hard.
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