No matter how much you love to travel, few people can afford to do it full-time. But that same itch for excitement and exploration can be scratched by seeking out and participating in activities that can be done as a day trip. That was exactly my goal when I joined a Disaster Preparedness group headquartered about an hour and a half from my home. The first event I attended was on Primitive Backwoods Cooking. Our instructor was formerly an Infantry paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, and he had a whole host of information to share and teach.
Our Challenge for This Particular Primitive Backwoods Cooking Event
The event was held in a forested area outside of Richmond, VA, and as luck would have it, it snowed the night before and much of the day during our event. Richmond, VA, doesn’t usually get much snow, but on this particular day it got about eight inches. In some places where it had drifted in between the trees there was more than a foot. This added to our challenge and the event transformed into an opportunity to learn much more than just primitive backwoods cooking. I had to keep telling myself that this was perfect … because when a disaster occurs, it’s not always going to be 70 degrees and sunny!
Division of Labor for Primitive Backwoods Cooking
We had a total of seven people at the event, so we were able to divide tasks to be more efficient. One team gathered firewood, one built the shelters and one started and tended to the fire. As the day progressed, we traded tasks so everyone did a little bit of everything. The cooking did not begin until the shelters were up and the fire had provided a nice bed of hot coals. The gathering of firewood continued until near the end of the event, because we used it to keep warm in the 19 degree temperature.
Shelter Building for Primitive Backwoods Cooking
Unless you’re lucky enough to have perfect weather, a shelter is often one of the first steps when setting up a primitive work space. It certainly was on this day. In fact, we needed two shelters – one to keep our wood dry and another to allow us to warm up from time to time. Since we were only planning to be there for a few hours, we constructed our shelters using tarps and parachute cord.
There were plenty of trees to anchor our ropes, so we made two tarp lean-tos. Starting from the bottom, we tied off each side of a tarp at ground level and then worked up. Any leftover tarp could have then been run horizontal to the ground at the top to form a roof. We skipped this step because our tarps went up at an angel and a roof was not needed. One of our team members had brought a large reflective mat, so we placed it on the ground under the first shelter and stacked our wood on top of it to keep it off the wet ground.
Fire Building for Primitive Backwoods Cooking
Starting a fire is obviously essential for primitive backwoods cooking. We had hoped to use dry pine needles as tender, but they were all covered in eight inches of snow. Instead, our instructor used a tender bundle made from a cotton ball saturated with petroleum jelly. To ignite the tender bundle he used a self-contained fire starter with a steel blade and magnesium rod. When he pushed down on the outside cylinder, the steel blade scraped against the magnesium rod resulting in a spark.
Our biggest challenge in making the fire was ensuring all the wood we used was dry. It is very important to be patient and only use the driest of wood for the beginning of the fire. Otherwise it will smoke a lot and extinguish itself before it really gets started. Once you have a nice, mature fire it is OK to burn wood that may be a little wet or green, but you will still get a lot of smoke.
Because we wanted a fire to cook on and keep us warm (as opposed to one needed for light), we kept it small. Once we had a good number of red hot coals, we manipulated the fire, scraping the coals to one side. We cooked over those coals while we kept a nice flame going for warmth and to produce a continuous supply of coals for cooking.
Foods Conducive to Primitive Backwoods Cooking
If you’re out for a day trip and the weather is dry, you can cook almost anything while primitive backwoods cooking – you’re basically only limited by what you can pack in (and out). But if you will be backpacking for multiple days you will obviously need to plan on mostly dehydrated, lightweight foods. Since we were there for only a few hours, our menu was venison stew.
Our instructor brought a large cast iron Dutch oven as well as the venison. Each of the other attendees brought various vegetables to add to the stew. We had broccoli, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, etc. All ingredients were added into the pot along with water to cover, a couple beef bouillon cubes, salt and pepper.
Now, if you are a fanatic about having all your vegetables cooked to perfection, primitive backwoods cooking is probably not for you. Simply by its nature, some of the veggies may be overly done while others will remain crisp-tender. (I’ve seen people who mind the pot so frequently that everything gets cooked perfectly, but it’s a whole lot of work and very little fun.) We judged our “doneness” by the tenderness of the venison.
Instead of bringing an additional veggie for the pot, I brought an appetizer of ginger-miso crickets. Stay tuned for a future blog post where I’ll detail how to prepare them – from purging the live crickets to roasting them over the campfire.
Looking Back on My Primitive Backwoods Cooking Event
In retrospect I never would have believed I was only an hour and a half away from home. The experience couldn’t have been more satisfying had I flown half way around the world to get there. That proves that you don’t have to have a lot of time or money to travel. Distance doesn’t have to be the determining factor.