• Views from the Continental Divide Trail on the Montana and Idaho border near Monida Pass. Photo by Meg Killen

Volunteer Camp Cook Guide

Photo by Meg Killen

Volunteer Camp Cook Guide

A guide to filling bellies and winning hearts

An Overview

Behind every happy and hardworking trail crew is a Camp Cook serving hearty and nutritious meals. Preparing tasty dinners and keeping a safe, organized kitchen is imperative to the success of any MWA trail trip. Your support as a volunteer Camp Cook will ensure our crews remain productive and healthy. THANKS FOR YOUR HELP!

This page should give you a better idea about what it means to be a Camp Cook for MWA. There is guidance on daily responsibilities, typical meal selections, cooking gear and managing dietary restrictions. Please read through this guide carefully and let us know if you still have anymore questions or concerns.

The online Menu Guide to select meals for your trip is available here.

Project Availability

Below are the projects which we could use the help of a Camp Cook! If one (or two) fits your schedule please email mwa@wildmontana.org so we can talk about getting you into the field.

Project Name Dates Location Cook Needed? 
West Fork Fish Trap June 26-30 Beaverhead Deerlodge YES- 2
SlagAMelt Lake July 23-29 Beaverhead Deerlodge YES-2
MacDonald Pass Sept 5-9 Helena-Lewis&Clark YES-2
Centennials Sept 11-15 Centennial Mountains YES-2

Camp Cook Responsibilities

PRE-TRIP
  • Review this webpage to get a better understanding of what it means to be Camp Cook
  • Coodinate with your trip Crew Leader and start talking grub
  • Pick which meals you want to prepare from our list of pre-approved crowd pleasers.
  • Stay in touch with your trip Crew Leader! The CL will keep you informed of any dietary restrictions or allergies amongst the crew. This will inform your menu-making decisions.
IN THE FIELD
  • Plan what meals to cook on which day, prioritizing meals with ingredients that spoil to be cooked earlier in the trip. Our Crew Leaders are pros at this and will be there to help you decide.
  • Cook! You'll be in charge of prepping all crew breakfasts, lunches, dinners and deserts. This means having coffee ready at 6:00 AM, putting out lunch fixings in the morning and dishing out hot dinners.
  • Delegate prep cooking tasks to the crew. Remember, you're the kitchen boss and we're here to help.
  • Inspect kitchen in the morning and evening to ensure LNT practices are being followed, food is safely stored in compliance with Bear Regulations and no trash or food particles (attractants) are left out. Read more about Safe Food Storage and LNT Practices in the corresponding section below.
  • Tolerate the heaps of excessive praise and gratitude showered upon you by famished trail dawgs.
  • Enjoy your free time during the day while everyone else is working! You can go for a short hike, fish the river, read a book- whatever you decide just make sure you're communicating your whereabouts with the crew leader.
YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES VS CREW LEADER RESPONSIBILITIES
TASK CAMP COOK CREW LEADER
Grocery shopping and paying for food             CL
Menu Selection       CC  
Repackaging for storage and backcountry travel             CL
Supply all kitchen and cooking gear             CL
Delegating cooking tasks in camp      CC  
Collect dietary restrictions /allergy info from crew             CL
Keep track of food quantities and minimize spoilage      CC           CL
Maintain a clean and organized kitchen      CC           CL
Ensure all food storage regulations are adhered to      CC           CL 

Menu Planning

Planning every meal for a week for a backcountry trail crew presents many challenges. In the interest of making life a little easier for Camp Cooks, Crew Leaders will tackle to bulk of the pre-trip meal planning and grocery shopping. However, MWA wants to make sure our camp cooks still have ownership over the meals they'll be cooking. That's why we've created this handy form that allows you to select which dinners, deserts and hot breakfasts you'd like to dish out during the trip. Submit your form after reviewing this page and talking with your crew leader.

On a budget of $12/person/day, we strive to supply a variety of substantial meals that taste great after a hard day's work. There are quite a few limiting factors- packability, shelf life, weight, expense- but with careful planning we can still eat like kings twenty miles in the backcountry! Here's a little more about each meal:

  • Breakfasts- the majority of our breakfast offerings will be "continental" style with an emphasis on convenience and nutrition. We'll have several options each morning including yougurt and granola, oatmeal, bagels and cream cheese/peanut butter and of course, yesterday's leftovers. We will have 1-2 hot breakfasts on mornings when we plan to sleep-in. The camp cook will pick and prepare the hot breakfasts.
  • Lunches- each morning we put out our lunch fixings for volunteers to pack a lunch for the trail. These lunches typically include sandwhich fixings (with bagels/tortillas, not bread), a salty snack, a piece of fruit, some sweets and a granola bar or trail mix. The Crew Leader will be responsible for planning and shopping for all the lunch meals.
  • Dinners- Camp cooks will choose from a list of 12 pre-approved crowd pleasing dinners that are nutritious and practical for the camp setting. Crew leaders will determine the apporopriate quantities to purchase and make any substitions neccesary because of allergies or dietary restrictions on the crew.
  • Appetizers and Deserts- most evenings we have a pre-dinner snack and a desert to end dinner. The Camp Cook can make requests on what we'll have for these in the online form.

Kitchen Supplies & Cooking Gear

MWA packs an extensive kitchen kit for food prep. While our gear is servicable, keep in mind that we won't have all the conveniences of your home kitchen. Here is what our typical kitchen kit includes:

  • 1 Coleman stove; 2 burner
  • 5 gallon propane tank. Should last a week, no problem
  • 1 5 gallon pot, 1 3 gallon pot, and 1 small sauce pan
  • 2 large frying pans
  • 1 skillet
  • 2 5 gallon collapsible water containers
  • 1 MSR whisperlite stove and fuel (for emergencies)
  • 1 MSR hand pump water filter
  • 1 MSR gravity water filter
  • 2 percolator coffee pots (1 for coffee, 1 for hot water for tea/oatmeal)
  • Kitchen tarp and ropes
  • 3 wash bins
  • Camp soap and hand sanitizer
  • Mesh bag for drying dishes
  • Matches and lighter
  • Large serving spoons, regular and slotted
  •  Spatulas
  • Serving forks
  •  Tongs
  • Can opener
  • Knives w/sheathes (variety for chopping and cutting foods)
  • Extra dish set in case someone forgets
  • Aluminum foil
  • Plastic Baggies for packing lunches (sandwich and gallon sizes)
  • Garbage bags
  • Paper towels

​Possible items: (depends on packers and if there is room)

  • Stove stand
  • Camp tables
  • Dutch ovens
  •  Coolers

Food Storage and Keeping a Clean Camp

A safe and responsibly run kitchen is imperative to keeping our trail crew healthy and minimizing our impact on the land. As Camp Cook you will work with the Crew Leader to ensure our crew is following food storage regulations and is keeping a clean camp. You can prepare yourself by reading up on the linked websits. Here are some (but not all) important things to keep in mind when running a working kitchen in the backcountry:

  • No food, attractants or garabge can ever be left unattended. This means if we are not in camp, all food, trash and attractants must be stored in an approved bear-proof container or on a bear hang that is up to standard (10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from tree). MWA will provide sufficient food storage and bear hang supplies. In the frontcountry, attractants can be safely stored inside a vehicle.
  • Any spilled food, crumbs or dirty dishes must be cleaned up and stored properly. A large part of cooking in the backcountry is ensuring you aren't making any messes that you don't clean thoroughly.
  • You will start out with clean dishes, and it’s important to work to keep them clean throughout the week. You should use a three bin system for doing dishes. 
    Bin #1: warm soapy water
    Bin #2: warm water a couple drops of bleach added
    Bin #3: plain rinse water (doesn’t have to be warm)
  • Your dish water does not need to be filtered or treated, but make sure the dishes are dry before using them again.  The mesh bags provided make it very easy and convenient to dry the dishes
  • Make sure you strain your dirty dish water and dispose of all food particles either in the trash or in the fire.  Also look around camp to make sure you haven’t dropped any food scraps while preparing meals. Do a nightly sweep of camp to take care of this before securing all your food and trash for the night
  • Cleaning the stove on a daily basis is key to keeping the odor attractants down, but it is one step that is often forgotten.  The stove tends to become one of the messiest pieces of your kitchen equipment, and it’s not easily stored in a bear proof container, so be sure to clean it.  Simply take your dish scrubby with soapy water and wipe it down and dispose of food particles. 
  • Set up a hand wash station.  Your kitchen kits should include a dromedary bag that can be hung, and offer an easy way for the crew to wash up before meals.  Strongly encourage everyone to wash hands before eating.  Folks can have some nasty bacteria that they don’t want getting into their food, so it’s important to make this a normal process of each meal.  Hand sanitizer should also be readily available.
  • Organize!  Keeping your food somewhat organized will help to keep the bear boxes and coolers cleaner.  Separating the foods by meal helps, and keeping perishables in their own cooler or bear box is also a good idea.  You will most likely need to re-organize at least once or twice throughout the week, as things  get moved around and disorganized quite easily

Leave No Trace Ethics

MWA strictly adheres to the principles of Leave No Trace in order to minimize our impact on the land. The kitchen is one of the most important areas to conduct ourselves thoughtfully when in the backcountry. Here's how you can help as Camp Cook to ensure our kitchen is a bastion of LNT:

  1. Plan ahead and Prepare: The Crew Leader will do their best to ensure we plan meals properly and are bringing in just the right amount of food- enough to last but not so much that we need to pack it out  Know all the current regulations of the area you are visiting, which includes any fire restrictions.  Don’t assume you can burn your garbage.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: The kitchen in particular will see the most traffic throughout your stay in the backcountry. Keep this in mind when you arrive at camp and choose the spot where you will set up the kitchen.  Your Crew Leader will assist with this.  If there is already a spot at camp that is mostly worn down to dirt, than set up here, instead of a fresh grassy spot. No need to turn a grassy spot into another dirt spot.  When in a large group, we will dig a sump hole for all grey water to be disposed in.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Regarding kitchen waste, this mostly pertains to dish water.  Dishes should be done away from lakes, rivers, or streams and NOT in them. Never place a dirty dish directly into your water source.  Dirty dish water should be strained, and poured into the sump hole.  The food particles should then go into your trash or burned.
  4. Leave what you find:  This doesn’t really pertain to backcountry cooking, but is important to know anyway.  It’s all about preserving the area, and not causing any new impacts.  Leaving plants, rocks, and any other cool pieces you find.  Also make sure you’re not leaving behind any new structures such as fire pits, or trenches.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts: Fires are great to have while camping, and they pretty much go hand in hand, but it’s important to be responsible about it.  When gathering wood, only take what’s dead, down, and detached from trees. Use established fire rings, and keep the fires small…no need for bonfires in the backcountry.  Burn all the coals down to ash, and then scatter the ashes when it’s time to leave camp. 
  6. Respect Wildlife: Respecting wildlife is important when keeping a backcountry camp. We observe from a distance, and never approach any animals.  It’s also important not to leave any food for animals to come into camp and consume.  This is one more reason we store our food and trash appropriately.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors: Making sure your camp isn’t directly on the trail, and making sure to leave room for other possible visitors.  Keeping noises to a minimum, and being courteous to other visitors is important to everyone’s experience in the backcountry.