Thursday, February 10, 2011

Food Bartering 101

My friend and climbin buddy Meridy is about to go into the wild, to paddle a river for two months.  Last night I was telling her about how Kevin and I used to barter food around the campfire on our long hikes.  Being in the wild can be psychologically stressful, and food becomes a primary means of surviving and celebrating the emotional ups and downs.  The food helps, but the bartering is also a distracting game, and all in fun.  Usually..
So, Meridy, albeit somewhat tongue in cheek, this is for you:

Food Bartering 101
Or, How to Exploit Your Neighbor in the Wilderness

Before we delve into the details of specific foods, memorize the cardinal rule of food bartering:
Never, ever trade any food one for one.  This will be seen as weakness.  Someone else will always like what you have better.  It’s basic human psychology:  the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and the candy in the other guy’s pack is sweeter than yours.  You can, and must, use this to your advantage.
When bartering food sugar, in any form, is king.  Carry some, even if you personally don’t like it.  It doesn’t spoil, and most Americans are addicted.  Heh, heh….
Forms of sugar that travel especially well are: gum drops, jelly beans and gummy worms.  In short, anything that comes in small bites and involves gelatin will hold up well to the rigors of wilderness travel.
Chocolate gets special mention in the candy department.  Yeah it’s sweet, but it also contains caffeine and potent hormonal regulators.  As such, it is a powerful bartering option.  Any barter of sweets involving chocolate begins at three portions of the other stuff to one of chocolate.  Stand your ground.
Carrying chocolate in the wild is difficult.  Individually wrapped items like Almond Roca or Hershey’s kisses will do pretty well.  If it gets hot and melts, don’t unwrap it!  Put it in a zip-loc baggie and dunk it the cold water of a mountain stream for two hours.  Et Voila.  Make sure the bag is well sealed before you dunk it, or you will be very, very sorry.
Chocolate affects hormonal balances.  This is a family publication, so I won’t comment further on that.
Speaking of beer…  At the beginning of almost every alpine climb I ever did, I and my partner would stash one can of cold PBR each at the snow line.  We’d come down from the summit, sore, thirsty, dirty, exhausted.  Sit down on a rock, dig that can out of the snow and pop the top.  Ohhh, dear…
Be sure you hide it well.  Mostly, marmots can’t manage a pop-top, but mountain climbers are notorious pilferers.

Meat, Fat
As a long-time vegetarian, it is a moral challenge for me to include this category.  But many people crave meat, and the craving for fat is programmed into our genetic code.  As such, these substances are great for barter.
Hard, aged salami travels very well, and it fills both criteria, since it’s about 85% fat.  Hard salami can be used for other purposes as well.  If you’ve just beached a kayak, and cannot find a place to tie up, take a big stick and pound your salami into the sand.  Now you can tie up your boat.  Or, use the Salami to pound the stick into the sand.  Works either way.
Hard cheeses travel well too, but the flavors are not as widely liked, so it doesn’t barter as well.  Be careful! There’s nothing worse than sitting in a trading circle with a big ol’ batch of something that everybody else thinks is gross.
This powerful, psychoactive herb is a great barter item, because it doesn’t spoil, and doesn’t weigh much.  However, one must be extremely careful with coffee.  The addiction is powerful.  If people know you have coffee, and are holding out, they might hurt you to get it.
            Technically, things like potato chips and Doritos are not food, but they can be very good barter items, since they are full of the chemical additives so many of us are addicted to.  I’ve found that corn nuts travel very well in a backpack, and they don’t get crushed like Doritos, potato chips or cheezits.  Animals like ‘em too.  I remember coming up from the lake one afternoon to find a doe with her head buried all the way into my pack.  When she heard me, she lifted her head up, and a bag of corn nuts was stuck to her snout.  She spooked, ran away, and the corn nuts fell to the ground.  “At least I saved my corn nuts,” I thought.  But when I reached into the bag, I discovered they were no longer of any use to me.  They were completely coated with deer-drool.  Ick.
For the first week of a trip in the wild, hardly anyone’s going to be interested in a fresh vegetable.  Wait two weeks, bring out a wilted carrot at dinner time, and people will push each other into the fire trying to get to it.
How though? How can fresh food be kept in the wild for weeks?  It can be done, or at least approximated.  Carrots, beets and apples will keep for months if you wrap them individually in paper.  Don’t put ‘em in plastic.  Sure they’re heavy, but you don’t have to carry a lot.  Remember, it’s the taste you’re after in this situation, not necessarily the nutrition.  One tiny bite of fresh apple, carrot or beet after weeks of deprivation can have you fighting back tears…
Timing is everything.  Don’t bring it out too early.  But if the group’s been out for more than two weeks, a little bite of carrot can be bartered for someone’s ENTIRE remaining supply of coffee, sugar or chocolate.
These foods won’t spoil but they will wilt and begin to look pretty forlorn.  Once again, use the zip-loc trick on ‘em.  Two hours in very cold water, and they’ll look and taste good as new.
Most people don’t know they crave fresh food, because it’s so easily available in our current culture.  After two weeks of deprivation however, you can start to feel slightly deranged with the wanting of these things.  After a week in the wild, people dream about pizza.  After a month, they dream about salad bars.
Remember to be creative in your food bartering.  You don’t have to trade just food for food.  If you have kitchen duty tonight, but you have chocolate in your pack, you might be able to work a deal.
The power of food was brought home to me dramatically one cold September morning at Odell lake in central Oregon.  My hiking partner Kevin and I had re-supplied there on a month-long through hike.  We had met two other through-hikers, Kathy and Annie, coming the opposite direction, and we were enjoying trail talk with them, when a man dressed in camo’s, clearly a hunter, approached us.  This is the dialogue that ensued:

Hunter:  Any o’ you-all goin south?
Kathy:  I’m goin south.
Hunter:  You seen any elk in the high country, north of here?
Kathy:  Sure.  I’ve been following a huge herd for several days now.
Hunter:  Where are they?
Kathy:  What you got?
Hunter:  Huh?
Kathy:  Sir, I’ve been in the woods a long time, living on re-hydrated crap.  I like ice cream.
Hunter:  But we’re twenty miles from the nearest store!
Kathy:  Chocolate ice cream is my favorite.

Two hours later, the hunter appeared, with a half gallon of chocolate ice cream in a Styrofoam ice chest, perched on top a five-pound bag of ice.  Kathy pulled her map out of her pack, and a spoon.  Around gigantic bites of chocolate ice cream, she said,
“yesterday,  I spooked a herd of about twenty out of this lake basin right here…”
Happy trading.  But don’t be too hard nosed about it.  Desperate people can be dangerous.


  1. This is amazing. Very valuable information. Like, State secrets valuable. I'm saving this forever.

  2. Bob! What great advice! I thought about sharing this with my fellow river-mates, but then that would be giving all my tricks away. So, I think I'll save this one for myself.

    Hope you get to climb today, sorry I can't make it.

  3. You are wise to keep these secrets to yourself. They are like the biblical apocrypha.. only for the few. Yep, I'm climbin today, going to do a strength workout. See ya next time,