Getting into camp every afternoon means achieving a brief sense of accomplishment which is followed by a flurry of activity. Backpacks have to be emptied of Troop equipment. Water has to be filtered. Bear bag trees need to be located. And most important for most, dinner has to be prepared and eaten.
Meals on a backpacking trip assume an inordinate importance to Scout backpackers. During the long afternoon climbs, everyone thinks about what they are going to eat. Then as soon as dinner is finished, hikers start to talk about what is on the menu for the next day. Changes in the plan, delays, short rations, confusion, or just plain bad food can send even the most mature backpacker into an temper tantrum. How the hikers eat is a critical component of planner for a group backpacking trip, and every unit has their own strategies for dealing with them.
Many backpacking groups believe in communal cooking and eating. If there are twelve hikers on the trip, one meal is prepared and eaten by everyone. This fosters camaraderie, promotes equality, ensures consistent calorie consumption, and provides a common experience. No one is better off than anyone else and everyone has a vested interested in making sure the one meal is tasty, well prepared, and served efficiently. With communal eating, one of the cook’s critical jobs is making sure everyone gets a fair and equal portion of food, so discipline and leadership become critical components of every meal.
With shared meals, the menu must take into account every hikers eating preferences and dietary restrictions. Shopping can be done together and a trek planning session can include repacking the food to eliminate wasteful wrappers and boxes. Group leaders decide who has to carry each meal, based on their experiences during the practice hikes. Stronger hikers carry more. Slower hikers carry less or are assigned to carry meals that will be consumed earlier in the trek, thus lightening their load.
Communal eating requires at least two large and sometimes dirty pots that have to be crammed into backpacks along with the clean (and often not so clean) clothing of the person assigned to the task. Sometimes, the large cooking pot is tied to the outside, providing a shell for the sleeping bag attached to the bottom of the pack. At the end of a meal the large pot is perfect for washing dishes.
On the other hand, some units reject communal eating as too restrictive or difficult. They break into smaller eating groups of four or five hikers, each with their own menus. Typically, each team is responsible for buying their own food, repackaging it for the trail, cooking it, serving it, and cleaning up afterwards. This eliminates the need for large cooking pots and makes menu planning and food shopping easier. Team systems work well if there are strong feelings about food (I won’t eat canned chicken) or dietary restrictions (Vegetarian or Kosher food requirements). However, it is much harder for trek leaders to be sure that everyone is eating enough nutritious food to keep them on the trail all day. Some groups eat better than others.
There are, of course, many variations on these two basic arrangements. For example, a hiking group may decide that breakfasts should be communal and dinners eaten by small teams. Sometimes in older groups, lunch (or daytime calories) becomes every man for himself with no central planning or coordination. In this scenario, hikers bring their own food, sometimes sharing or trading with others on the hike.
It’s rare and somewhat odd for hiking groups to decide they want to travel together but eat separately for every meal. Part of the experience of a long backpacking adventure is working as a group and eating together after a long day on the trail. This is the perfect time to wind down, discuss the day, and think about what everyone is going to have for breakfast.