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On trips I lead, we always split up into smaller cook groups, yet I did have one occasion a long time ago where we cooked as one large cook group. Long enough that I don't remember if it worked well or not.

On extended trips into the wilderness, whether it be backpacking, kayak trips, etc, what are the advantages of cooking together as one entire group? Conversely, what about the advantages of splitting up into smaller cook groups? Would the type of trip, and environment be a factor in the advantages?

Let's say we have a group size of 9 people, and the trip is 10 days, no resupplies, and it is a temperate, forested environment.

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Thought of answering this myself but wanted to get some input from you guys. I feel like self-answers can sometimes discourage other answers. And feel free to make suggestions or improvements to the question. –  manoftheson Apr 21 at 21:08
    
Circa 1970, it was believed that backpacker's diarrhea was caused by contamination of backcountry water with various microorganisms, especially Giardia. Nowadays that's been pretty thoroughly debunked, and it's believed that backpacker's diarrhea most frequently results from hand-to-mouth contamination due to poor potty hygiene. Since people's bodies have resistance to their own gut flora, this probably happens when your food is contaminated by your hiking partner's poop. For this reason, I generally prefer to cook and handle my own food while backpacking. Cook group=1. –  Ben Crowell Apr 22 at 6:12
    
@BenCrowell - According to this, cook group=1, how would you go about organizing a group's needs though? Should each person bring their own stove, fuel, and pots...? I understand your point, but not sure about the practicality and logistics when taking a group out, many of whom have never been backpacking before. And good hygiene on the trail is something I heavily emphasize (enforce) to groups for the very reason you mention. –  manoftheson Apr 22 at 6:53
    
Hi @manoftheson, I see no problem with this being a self answering question. If your want to discuss the pro's and con's I'd suggest you open a meta question. There are several on this topic already, including one I asked a while ago –  Liam Apr 22 at 9:49
    
@manoftheson: Hygiene isn't the only consideration. It's just one consideration. One can also share equipment without risking hand-to-mouth contamination. In freezer-bag cooking, you boil water in a pot, then pour the water into a freezer bag holding the ramen, oatmeal, or whatever. –  Ben Crowell Apr 22 at 18:50

2 Answers 2

Cooking as a large group is bad for a variety of reasons:

  • More work to coordinate roles, responsibilities.
  • Limited cooking resources (stoves, pots, etc.) means waiting, frustration, idleness, or carrying more than one of everything.
  • More likely to waste fuel.
  • Waste of energy/misuse of downtime e.g. Instead of cooking every 3rd day/meal you're cooking every meal.
  • Harder to build consensus on menu, cooking methods, etc.

Here's the technique that has worked best for any group that I've been in, whether for a 3 day trip or a 10 day trip, 4 people or 25 people:

  1. Break group up in cooking teams For example, for 9 people I'd probably do 3 teams of 3.
  2. Each team is assigned one ore more meals. We usually assign breakfast and dinner.

    Its easier for people to manage their own lunch/snacks, mostly because people might split up or lag behind during and/or have different eating habits during the day. By keeping lunch light/simple it also helps avoid lunch becoming a 2 hour break on a busy day.

  3. For dinner, the meal must consist of:

    • appetizer lets people satisfy hunger quickly while the team prepare the main dish. In a back country hut appetizer might be vegetables, bread, dips, meats and cheese, or in a more remote location it might simply be instant soup and crackers.
    • main dish the hearty main course, could be anything from pasta to beans and rice to mexican, or just a bunch of freeze-dried packets cooked together.
    • salad (optional) usually reserved for nicer conditions. People need roughage.
    • dessert

    This allows each team to further break down responsibilities (you do salad, I'll do dessert) but more importantly it creates the conditions for a calorie complete meal (ever have a team bring some instant soup and say that's supper after a long day?), it offers variety for the picky eater and eliminates the risk that a 1 dish meal fails (burnt, missing ingredients/fuel, over salted, poor cooking conditions, etc.) which would leave everyone hungry.

  4. One of the other crews volunteers to do dishes/cleanup afterwards.

  5. The team that cooked the meal packs out the leftovers/garbage, putting better emphasis on portion control.

Coordinate teams in advance of the trip so that they can arrange menus and do their shopping.

  • Assign teams and the meals (but not the menu) they will be making. Don't forget to share email addresses! Provide some suggestions for menus if you've got newcomers.
  • provide them with the above instructions.
  • Have anyone with dietary concerns speak up in advance and share those dietary concerns with all teams.
  • Have each team post their menus in advance so that there can be feedback/synergy and to make sure you're not eating canned beans 3 meals in a row.
  • Arrange cooking supplies in advance: pots, stoves, fuel, etc. so that it leverages efficiency and keeps weight to a minimum.

I find this process tends to create positive one-upmanship as people show off their culinary prowess. It also lets teams that have done this before share simple recipes/tips for those that are doing this for the first time.

Downsides

The only downside to this method is that if you've never cooked for a large group before it can be a bit daunting. The first time I cooked for 25 people in the backcountry I tried the meal in advance with 4 people at home, measuring and portioning meticulously, and worked out the portions from there.

Some tips for cooking for large groups

  • practice a smaller version of your meal in advance to perfect portions
  • measure everything in advance, at home.
  • make sure that you'll have enough pots to feed everyone efficiently. You can't feed 25 people with a 1L pot in 1 hour.
  • manage portions yourself for the first serving, then let anyone go back for as much as they want.
  • make sure everyone else is fed one serving, THEN serve yourself and THEN let people go back for seconds, thirds.
  • put an extra portion or two in and you'll avoid not having enough. Someone will have the appetite for seconds.
  • everything tastes better in the woods when you're tired and hungry. Don't sweat it!
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Wow, thats one nice answer. I also like the way you are handling it! –  Paul Paulsen Apr 27 at 1:12
    
Great answer! And 25 people in one group in the backcountry?! Man that would stress me out. I like for them to stay under 10 myself. –  manoftheson Apr 27 at 5:11

To get the hygiene part out of the way, everybody needs to bring or have access to good (alcohol based) hand sanitizer at all times.

For deciding on the size of cooking groups: how large is your cooking pot?
At scouting we either set up a base camp where we'll cook for the entire group (25 persons) or when hiking we use smaller gear and would split up in groups of 8 or smaller depending on how much each person in the group eats and how large the pots are.

It's always more efficient to cook in groups as large as possible so you can share the weight of stoves, fuel, pots and food (and remember that you can fit food and gear inside a large pot).

Also, eating with the entire group at once can boost morale a lot.

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