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Spring 2004 Issue
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30 Years of the NOLS Cookery
By Erica Krug

Claudia Pearson has been teaching students how to eat well in the woods since 1977.
Photo: Brad Christensen

This year, NOLS celebrates 30 years of the NOLS Cookery, its backcountry cookbook. The first edition of the book, published in 1974, featured recipes, information on ration planning, advice on nutrition and an introduction by NOLS founder Paul Petzoldt.


“This book is the result of experimentation done by many NOLS Instructors — and even some students’ mistakes that turned out well enough to be included in the recipes,” Petzoldt wrote.

The fifth and newest edition of the book, published this year and edited by Claudia Pearson, rations manager at NOLS Rocky Mountain in Lander, Wyoming, contains much of the same information as the original, including some of the same recipes. “I haven’t evolved too far away from the original plan,” Pearson says. “Paul definitely had an idea — and his idea for cooking worked. He was a pioneer.”


Many concepts have stayed the same, but the NOLS Cookery has undoubtedly changed over the last 30 years, and the latest edition has 100 more pages than the original, including extensive nutritional information, new recipes and illustrations. Pearson says that while the original NOLS Cookery was primarily for NOLS students and instructors, the newer editions are “also used by so many outside of NOLS.” Backpacker magazine agreed, saying in one review, “without a doubt, this is the most complete book for beginners.”


Pearson, who worked as an intern in the food room at NOLS Rocky Mountain in the summer of 1977 and began managing the room in 1979, says that what was revolutionary about NOLS’ idea for backcountry cooking was that you did not have to take special foods on the trips. NOLS wanted to teach people to save money by taking basic foods and then experimenting once they were in the mountains. “That’s what Paul felt — take a bag of macaroni and learn how to cook it 10 different ways using a spice kit,” Pearson says.


NOLS does not send students out with a specific meal plan. “The less structure, the more creativity. By not having a meal plan you can get really creative, especially toward the end of a ration period,” Pearson says. And that is how new recipes find their way into the NOLS Cookery. “We get recipes submitted from the field on whatever people can find — pieces of ensolite pad or scraps of paper,” Pearson says.


While the original NOLS Cookery included nutritional information, the latest edition has an entire new chapter dedicated to the topic. It also features nutritional analyses of all the recipes and a section on combining proteins to teach people how to get the most protein out of the rations.


Many of the food items that people take into the field today are the same as when the first NOLS Cookery came out, but the re-rationing system works a little differently. Today NOLS rations are brought in by everything from planes to horsepackers, but Pearson says she remembers one way it used to be done. NOLS used to fill cans with bags of food and crank the cans closed every August. The cans were then placed in Army duffel bags and driven out to Yellowstone or the Wind River Mountains in October and hung from trees or placed in boxes. This was the “cache” system. When the NOLS winter courses were out in the field, they would locate the cache and re-ration themselves.

Pearson says the way NOLS issues cheese has also changed over the years. For a period NOLS rationed powdered cheese, or they’d send 40-pound blocks of cheese into the mountains for the students to cut. Pearson says now they make things easier and more sanitary by using vacuum-sealed one-pound blocks of cheese.


With the years come new ways to refine the art of backcountry cooking, but the basic need to eat well in the backcountry remains the same. Pearson offers her best advice: “Eat often, eat a variety, and hydrate.” Pearson then picks up a copy of the original NOLS Cookery and turns to Petzoldt’s introduction. She laughs and reads the section out loud in which he told people to “never become hungry or thirsty… eat when you want and what you want.” Timeless advice from the experts for anyone heading into the backcountry.


Erica Krug, a 2003 graduate of the Gila Range Backpacking course, is currently an editorial intern at NOLS headquarters in Lander, Wyoming.

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