Backcountry Cafe: DIY Mashed Potatoes with All the Fixings

Photos and Story by Laura Lancaster

We had just turned the corner on the final ridge of the day when my husband stopped.

“You’re sure there’s a lake?”

I checked the map again. It was a scorching day in late summer, and we were both hot and tired after a full day of backpacking in Northern California’s Russian Wilderness. We’d been skirting an impressive granite peak for the last hour, switchbacking around ridges and crossing steep talus fields. For the last five miles I’d been eyeing deep blue mountain lakes hundreds of feet below the trail. I desperately wanted to jump in, glacial melt be damned, but I had my eye on Paynes Lake. The map showed it 300 yards in front of us, and right on the trail. But the trail in front of us was continuing to edge around a steep slope, with nary a lake in sight. I was beginning to doubt Paynes existed at all.

Photo 1

It was already 6pm, and my stomach was starting to growl. The meal in my pack for that evening, DIY Mashed Potatoes with Broccoli, packed an impressive 850 calories at only 7 oz per serving, and was one of my favorites.The pieces of Freeze Dried Broccoli from North Bay Trading Co. meant that it had texture, flavor, and nutrition–almost as good as twice baked potatoes in the front country and for a fraction of the cost of namebrand freeze dried backpacking meals.

We could stop on the side of the trail to eat dinner, but what better way to end the day than a lakeside setting, when the sunset would be turning the granite cliffs pink and golden? As we got closer to where the lake was supposed to be I saw a short, maybe five foot, hill on the inward turn of the slope. Could the lake be behind this hill? I dropped my pack and scrambled up to the top–a beautiful, serene mountain lake was spread out in front of me. Just what we had been looking for. Ten minutes later we found a side trail that led us directly to the lake. We chose a campsite near the waterfront, and marveled at our luck in snagging such an ideal spot.

“There’s no one else here,” I observed. “Do you think it’s because the lake is so hard to see from the trail?”

“Maybe,” my husband said, “but what I’m noticing is that it’s July and there are hardly any mosquitoes. We could cowboy camp.”

We made a plan–he’d set up our camp, and I’d make dinner. Then we would go for that swim.

Photo 2

I found a flat rock jutting out into the water to set up my cooking operation on, and while I was waiting for the water to boil, I noticed something moving in the water. I leaned over the edge and saw two salamanders lazily backstroking in circles, watching for bugs. So that’s why there were no mosquitoes! Though it turned out that we were not alone after all, I was happy to share the lake with neighbors like these.

And thus I proceeded with DIY Mashed Potatoes with Broccoli:


Ingredients (per person):

Instant Mashed Potatoes: 2 cups

North Bay Trading Co. Freeze Dried Broccoli: 1 cup

Dehydrated minced onions: 1 tbsp

Powdered Cheddar Cheese: ⅓ cup

Salt: ½ tsp.

Bacon Bits: ¼ cup (optional)

Powdered Sour Cream: 2 tbsp (optional)

Powdered Butter: 2 tbsp (optional)

Chili Pepper Flakes: a pinch (optional)

Olive Oil: 2 tbsp

Photo 3


Add all ingredients, except the olive oil, to a mixing bowl, and stir until incorporated. Make sure to break up any hard clumps of the powdered cheese, powdered sour cream, and powdered butter.

Photo 4

Scoop the mixture directly into a gallon size Ziploc Freezer Bag.


Light your stove–I love my MSR PocketRocket because it fits easily into my cooking pot along with my fuel canister and sporks–and heat up half a liter of water per serving in your pot.

Carefully pour the water into your Ziploc Freezer Bag after it’s cooled slightly from the boil. Stir until the ingredients are completely mixed and the desired consistency has been reached, adding more water if necessary. Partially seal the bag. After a couple of minutes add the olive oil and stir to mix.

Photo 6Comfort food is what backpackers want, and nothing saying comfort in the backcountry like a meal full of carbs and fat that comes together in a snap and doesn’t leave any dishes! Despite the distance we’d travelled that day we still had time to enjoy a leisurely swim in Paynes Lake with the salamanders.

Laura Lancaster started backpacking at the age of 12 and hasn’t let up since. After eating her vegetables every day while thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014, she is currently a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, WA. Laura has work forthcoming in Survivor’s Edge magazine.