Backpacker Meals and Car Travel

We Bring Along Backpacker Meals*

We don’t do wilderness backpacking anymore but we are never far from backpacker meals at home and when we travel.

Last May we drove to Casper, Wyoming, with plans to set our tent up at Nebraska’s Smith Falls State Park the first night and the Forest Service’s Toadstool Campground the next. Normally, we’re camping softies. After setting our tent up we choose to go to a nearby town and enjoy a restaurant meal. That didn’t work in Nebraska.

GoodTo-Go backpacker meal display

Try some tasty meals.

After arriving at Smith Falls Park, we set up camp and walked to the surprisingly tall waterfall. Gorgeous! Worth a visit. Then, it was dinner time and we were hungry. But no town or restaurant was within miles and we’d already spent too much time in the car that day. So, we pulled our GoodTo-Go backpacker meal bin out of the car.



Our small bin contains these things:

  • A few backpacker dehydrated meals that keep well. We also use Right On Trek.
  • A tiny backpacker stove and fuel bottle – and matches!
  • A bottle of water and a small pot.
  • Utensils and bowls.

Within minutes we had our Pocket Rocket stove beneath a pot of boiling water.  Soon our dehydrated meal was ready to eat. It hit the spot, cleanup was easy, and we had enough time before darkness for a birding walk.

Dehydrated Meals

Many types of dehydrated meals came on the market decades ago. They were OK and fine for hungry, backwoods backpackers but hardly delicious. That’s changed. Today several companies make meals that are easy to prepare with simple camp equipment and are nutritious and quite delicious.  Although marketed for backpackers they are perfect for keeping in the car in case there’s no cafe nearby. They’re also outstanding to keep in a basement emergency bin in case a storm knocks out power.

Camp Stoves

Various stoves and foods

Note the size difference in equipment

Like dehydrated meals, camp stoves have evolved from heavy cumbersome pump-up models of years ago to lightweight compact, and effective backpacking stoves. Ours is called a Pocked Rocket made by MSR. It takes up only a tiny space in our bin and boils water quickly. A fuel bottle lasts for several meals. No pumping is required. Remember matches if the stove lacks an igniter.

Other Things

During COVID-19 we ended up with many disposable knife/fork/spoon sets wrapped in paper napkins packed along with carryout meals. We put unused utensil kits in our meal bin along with a couple of bowls.

When we travel, even to visit friends or relatives knowing we will stay with them, we always stow our backpacker meal bin in the car. Usually, we don’t need it. We eat with friends or a cafe is close to the campground. However, like what happened at Smith Falls, having simple-to-cook meals and a micro stove makes the difference between enjoying a pleasant meal or going to bed hungry.

* Winding Pathways remarks are our own. We make non-paid, independent evaluations unless otherwise noted.

Meet The Confusing Tree Sparrows

Tree Sparrows. Two species. What could be more confusing?  Well, there’s more. Both look like common House Sparrows (formerly known as English Sparrows.

Meet the American Tree Sparrows

Marion glanced at our feeders recently and noticed what looked like a Chipping Sparrow in the midst of a flock of House Sparrows. But it wasn’t. It was an AMERICAN TREE SPARROW. This bird nests in far northern Canada and is almost always spotted in winter. Why it doesn’t keep flying south and winter somewhere warmer than Iowa is a mystery to us. The bird does look like a Chipping Sparrow, but it’s bigger and “chippers” left long ago to winter where it’s warmer. We won’t see one again for a few months.  So, a rusty capped sparrow in winter stands a good chance of being an AMERICAN TREE SPARROW.

Meet the New Tree Sparrows

Rich looked out the window a few days later and spotted an odd bird. It was near House Sparrows but looked slightly different.  A dark spot on its cheek revealed it as a EURASIAN TREE SPARROW. What was it doing in our Iowa yard?

Back in 1870 a box of wild birds arrived in St. Louis from Germany. Inside were 12 Eurasian Tree Sparrows that were released. They slowly spread outward.

According to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s ebird the bird spread north slowly and took about 150 years to reach our yard. It’s been widely spotted across the United States, but mostly along the Mississippi River.

Differences in Habitat Preferences

It looks like a House Sparrow at a quick glance. House Sparrows are at home in urban areas while the European Tree Swallow is more a denizen of brushy areas outside town. Sometimes they mingle. See a flock of House Sparrows. Take a close look.  One may be a European Tree Sparrow.

European and American species share one trait. Both prefer feeding on the ground.  Why they’re called tree sparrows beats us.

Learn More!

For accurate information on birds check out the Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Can You Tell History from Syrup Tap Scars?

Slice of a box elder tree with healed syruping holes

A slice of history.

Scars in a tree at the Indian Creek Nature Center reveal maple syruping history.

Back in 1979 Rich Patterson and volunteers approached a husky Box Elder tree, armed with a drill, spile, and buckets. It was early March. Nights were cold and frosty, followed by warm sunny days. Syrupin’ weather.


Oozing Out the Sap

As soon as the drill’s bit cut through the tree’s bark, clear watery sap oozed out.

Rich gently tapped in a metal spile and hung a bucket under it. By day’s end, two gallons of clear sap nearly filled the pail ready to be boiled into syrup.

If not overdone tapping just harvests a small percentage of a tree’s sap. It’s sort of like a person giving blood. Taking a little does no harm. Healthy trees quickly create a scab over the tap hole, somewhat like a human body heals a scratch. As the tree grows and its trunk diameter swells, wood forms over the old tap hole. It’s fine to tap that tree again next year, the year after, and every following year.

Syruping season ends when night temperatures don’t drop below freezing. That’s when spiles are pulled, leaving the hole for the tree to heal.

Aging Out of Production

That’s what happened to the Nature Center’s tree. Box Elders are true maples capable of producing sap for quality syrup, but they are short-lived. An 80-year-old Box Elder is, well, elder and near life’s end. After being tapped for  40 years in a row the Nature Center’s box elder reached the end of its days converting solar energy into sugar. After its death staff felled it, revealing at least 30 tap scars. The oldest ones are closest to the center of the tree’s trunk.

Syruping is a fun late winter activity.  To learn more visit the Indian Creek Nature Center during syruping season. It holds a fun Maple Syrup Festival in late March each year. For details check out Indian Creek Nature Center’s website.

Thanks, box elder for sharing some of your sap all these years.

Winter Travel – Foiled By Blue Northers – Almost

What Do You Need to Know About Winter Travel?

Guest Bloggers, Nancy Sauerman and Bruce Bachmann

I have gone to conferences in the winter but that involves flights, motels, and schedules arranged by someone else.  I have had my share of winter travel within the state for short visits or to care for relatives.  During our working years, we took our vacations after school semesters ended and before summer class teaching started. After retirement, we still took vacations in the spring or fall — before and after major gardening and food-preserving time and pre/postseason.

Finally, we took a winter travel vacation in January, mainly to visit our sister-in-law, who has Alzheimer’s. We wanted to spend time with her while she still knew us.  As longtime campers, we took our basic camping equipment and supplies.  After all, we were going south — way south.

What We Learned About Winter Vacations

The days are short.  There is less daylight drive time.  Driving in the dark in the lethal cold in the middle of nowhere isn’t smart. And so much of the Midwest and Southwest IS the middle of nowhere! Shorter days also mean less time for walking, hiking, and touring.  Businesses and museums often have reduced hours. In tourist areas, some restaurants and many campgrounds tend to be closed for the season. Likewise, services such as restrooms and water sources were closed or unavailable (once because of a water pipe break). Roads and trails were blocked. Knowing all this, we didn’t let our gas tank go below half-full. It was too cold to camp.

Where We Did Stay

We stayed at the northern Arkansas farm of our sister and her husband for a couple of nights. While hiking around the farm and learning about their easements to protect the riverbed and banks, old-growth trees, and going through the market gardens, we wore winter coats and wraps. A stiff headwind buffeted us through Oklahoma as we headed to Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle to camp. Although we have camped down to 30 degrees, with lows predicted to be 24 degrees that night we decided that was pushing it.  Also, that state park has the Red River winding back and forth over the road in half a dozen spots. At that temperature, the River would be ice or the roads icy.  Dicey!  So, we got a motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico.  Off-season rates made it more palatable, and it was certainly safer and warmer.

Blue Norther’

We enjoyed seeing the mountains, including snow-capped ones. Some hikes we took on our way to Las Cruces, NM, included the Valley of Fires lava beds, petroglyphs, and White Sands. All in winter coats. Our brother and his wife hosted us for several days in a comfy setting. Again, we bundled up in winter coats and wraps on our walks, hikes, and trips to the store. Lows at night were in the high teens or low 20s. This was less than an hour from the Mexican border! Winter coats and wraps are cumbersome but better than frostbite.  One bonus — no mosquitos, ticks, rattlesnakes, or scorpions! We had only one overcast day and it snowed. So most days we applied sunscreen to our faces; this part of the country has an average of over 325 sunny days per year.


For several days we had high wind warnings.  When we finally drove north to Santa Fe, NM, for a few days of culture, history, and adobe architecture, the wind was so strong that we dodged huge tumbleweeds racing across the highway. Whoever was driving would gasp as some, three feet in diameter, even whacked the car.  These were not lightweight, stripped-down, bleached tumbleweeds floating across the road.  They were full, sturdy balls of Russian thistle whizzing full speed. The wind certainly also cut our gas mileage while we headed west.  Our gas mileage was better when we headed back east but the wind wasn’t as strong those days.

Cold Culture

At 7,199 feet above sea level, Santa Fe is the highest elevation state capital. It was cold!  One morning we woke to 10 degrees.  Needless to say, no camping.  The casita where we stayed just a half-mile from downtown had a fully-equipped kitchen, so we were able to cook meals and take breaks between walks to and from the Plaza area with all the museums and historical buildings. Our coats and wraps kept us warm.

Keeping an Eye on the Weather

As we readied to head home, weather predictions showed a major winter storm brewing over the Great Plains and ready to plunge into the Upper Midwest.  So, winter in America means watching the weather and plotting a safe course of travel, which we did. Staying south and east to avoid serious wind chill warnings, we arrived home a half-hour after the first snow of that storm sifted down. We had expected to have to stay another night in a motel but we slept in our bed that night. Phew!

So, short days, cold, wind, and storms.  We will think twice before planning another January Road trip.



Amusing Winter Squirrels

Squirrel stretches to feeder

Squirrels are athletic.

Winter squirrels are amusing as they scout out food resources, navigate high wires to cross the road, and forage at local feeders.




Diane and Frank Olsen feed birds, and squirrels, daily and enjoy the antics and dexterity of the neighborhood amusing winter squirrels. Frank noted, “After they raid the bird feeders we have for the juncos, black-capped chickadees, and sparrows, our squirrel friends snarf down the peanuts-in-a-shell that Diane puts out.”

Our cousin to the north has “battled” squirrels for years and watched in awe as a squirrel foiled a winter hawk by jumping into the squirrel trap.  The hawk contemplated the situation and then flew off to find easier prey.

Where Are the Squirrels?

We’ve not had much luck foiling squirrels over the years. But, recently we’ve had NO squirrels!  They are greedy and do chase off the song birds, but they are fun to watch and usually forage on wild nuts, box elder seeds and other natural delicacies. They also know how to shelter from storms as you see in this summer video.