Kenwood backpacker writes cookbook for those who love good food in the great outdoors
Inga Aksamit is a North Bay-based backpacker who loves hiking wilderness trails and making tasty food, two hobbies that don’t usually overlap.
The Sierra Club backpacking leader and Sugarloaf Ridge backpacking teacher has honed her cooking skills in her kitchen and tested them on the trail, producing a couple of cookbooks for serious hikers who like to eat well and are willing to plan and work ahead to enjoy good food in the great outdoors.
The cookbooks reflect her own quest to eat healthier, heartier fare while adventuring in the backcountry and offer a wide array of dietary choices — from breakfast bowls and lunch wraps to cocktails and curries in a hurry — as alternatives to packaged trail food.
“I like to cook, and I like to eat healthy food,” Aksamit said at her home just off the Kenwood Plaza. “My bias is to try to eat foods as close to the whole food as possible. I like the taste of vegetables, grilled and sauteed, and simple meats.”
Her latest cookbook, “The Hungry Spork Trail Recipes: Quick Gourmet Meals for the Backcountry” (Pacific Adventures Press), came out in 2019 and won first place last fall in the Best Outdoor Guidebook category of the Outdoor Writers Association of California Excellence in Craft Awards.
The self-published book is filled with about 50 “just add water” recipes and techniques to make nutritious and delicious meals while wandering in the wilderness. The recipes include spice blends, sauces and dishes from all over the world, including Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, the United States and Southeast Asia.
Aksamit was born in Los Banos in the San Joaquin Valley, but her family started moving around when she was 4, settling in countries as far-flung as Pakistan and Peru, Bangladesh and Indonesia due to her father’s career in international irrigation.
“I love a good curry and spicy food after living all over the world,” she said. “I had quite a few global recipes, so I made it a goal to have each of the major cuisines of the world included in the cookbook.”
A late bloomer on the trail
Although she didn’t get started hiking until she was 45, the lifelong athlete took to the sport immediately.
“At different points in my life, running, mountain biking and rock climbing were frequent summer activities, but now I spend more time hiking, backpacking and paddling,” she said. “I have a love of travel, too, my favorite places being the remote nooks and crannies of the Western U.S., Canada and the Pacific Rim, including South America and Southeast Asia.”
In the winter, she focuses on skiing and divides her time between her Kenwood home and her Tahoe cabin at Alpine Meadows.
Her first foray into the world of hiking started off simply, with a one-night trip into the wilderness near the Lake Tahoe Basin with some friends.
“I asked to go out for one night and sleep under the stars,” she said. “I talked them into hiking the Granite Chief Wilderness ... and I let it all unfold after that. We all got into it.”
With her husband, Steve Mullen, Aksamit quickly graduated to three- and five-day hikes, then expanded her repertoire to punishing treks that included hikes along the 72-mile-long High Sierra Trail and 170 miles of the 213-mile John Muir Trail.
Along the dusty, boulder-strewn trails, she figured out that eating commercially packaged meals with a spork was not going to cut it for her.
“At first, I didn’t mind the freeze-dried stuff that you get at REI,” said the hiker, 63, who retired two years ago after working 15 years as a nurse then finishing her career with biotechnology pioneer Amgen and McKesson, a distributor of pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and health information technology.
Health has always been important to her, and she was interested in eating meals on the trail that would provide enough nutrition and calories to replenish her body after a hard day of hiking.
But when Aksamit looked closely at the nutrition label on a pouch of a prepackaged lasagna with meat, sold by a well-known producer, she noticed that it had preservatives. Also, the two-serving-size pouch provided only 280 calories per serving.
“I thought, ‘Steve’s going to die. He can’t survive on that hiking all day,’” she said. “And if you eat the two servings, the sodium content is astronomical.”
A compass to eating cleaner
So she started inventing her own kitchen hacks, based on a diet she had followed before hiking the John Muir Trail. That diet gave her a compass to follow to cook without using processed foods, additives or preservatives.
After buying a food dehydrator, Aksamit started mixing her own trail meals, blending ingredients she dehydrated with plain, freeze-dried vegetables and meat that she bought. The DIY pouch meals ended up being healthier and more filling, with less salt and chemicals and more protein and flavor.