If you love to cook creative backpacking meals, then you have probably wondered about bringing butter on an outing. A dash of butter while sauteing meat and veggies can take an average dish and infuse it with flavor.
But for the backcountry chefs among us, the thought of carrying butter into the mountains where there’s no refrigeration can seem a bit absurd. So that raises the question: “Can you take butter backpacking?”
Good news: You absolutely can take butter backpacking, and it makes for a great cooking tool in the backcountry. Since butter has a high fat content and low water content, it can stay shelf-stable for months (especially if you use salted butter). However, you should carry your butter in a leak-proof container, just in case it melts in the heat.
If you’ve never brought butter on a backpacking trip before, the idea of carrying around something that many people refrigerate can seem daunting. Thankfully, we’re here to put your culinary worries at ease with this complete guide to all things butter and backpacking.
Bringing Butter on a Backpacking Trip
Yes, you can bring butter on a backpacking trip. Unless you have a dietary restriction that stops you from eating dairy, butter is actually one of the best foods you can bring on a backpacking trip because it gives your meals flavor and much-needed dietary fats.
That said, many people shy away from bringing butter into the backcountry because they think that butter always needs to be refrigerated or else it will go bad. This fear of un-refrigerated butter isn’t irrational, of course, as dairy products can go rancid. But the good news is that certain kinds of butter can survive just fine at room temperatures.
Although you’ll get a longer shelf life by putting it in the fridge, studies show that salted butter, which has a low risk of bacterial growth, can last at room temperature for many months. This means that you can generally bring butter on your backpacking trips without worry.
But here’s the catch: Butter melts.
This is no groundbreaking statement, but it’s important to keep in mind if you’re going to hike in very warm environments. If you’re expecting temperatures to go above about 75ºF (24ºC) during your camping trip, you need to be prepared for your butter to melt while you hike by packing it in a secure container.
Butter can melt and solidify many times without issue as you hike. However, if you notice that your butter has an odd smell or taste after extended exposure to high heat while backpacking, it’s best to play it safe and avoid using it in your dishes. That’s why it’s always a good idea to bring a little bit of oil as a backup on a camping trip.
How Do You Carry Butter When Backpacking?
The best way to carry butter while backpacking is in a sturdy, hard-sided, leak-proof container, like a quality Tupperware.
Although hard-sided containers aren’t ideal from a packing perspective, they’re much less likely to leak than a plastic baggie. We can personally assure you that having partially melted butter leak out of a tiny hole in a plastic bag onto all of your gear as you hike isn’t ideal. So, playing things safe and opting for a leak-proof hard-sided container is usually the best move.
We personally like to use Nalgene’s storage containers for our butter. They come in many different sizes, but the 4 oz Nalgene container is great for weekend trips while the 8 oz Nalgene container is ideal for week-long adventures.
Is There Powdered Butter?
There is powdered butter (check out this option from Hoosier Hill Farm), and it’s a great option if you want to add flavor and fats to your recipes either at home or in the backcountry.
Using powdered butter is generally fairly straightforward as you usually just need to mix the powder with water. Most powdered butters have a 1:1 powder to water ratio, so it’s easy enough to figure out in the backcountry.
However, powdered butter really isn’t as popular in the mountains as you might think, even among thru-hikers and ultralight backpackers. For many people, the extra hassle involved with having to re-hydrate powdered butter isn’t really worth it because there are so many other options to choose from.
Butter Alternatives for your Backpacking Trip
Some versatile powdered butter alternatives to consider include:
- Olive Oil – If you don’t want to deal with the extra weight and bulk of butter or the (very low) risk that it could go rancid, consider using olive oil instead. Olive oil, or any other plant-based oil for that matter, offers great bang for your buck as far as weight and calorie density are concerned. These oils might not be as tasty as butter, but they do tend to be a bit more nutritious.
- Coconut Oil – Like butter, coconut oil does melt in the heat, but it takes a very long time to go bad. This makes it a great backpacking food choice for people who can’t eat dairy or for anyone that simply likes the taste of dishes cooked with coconut oil. As is the case with butter, it’s best to store your coconut oil in a hard-sided, leak-proof container while hiking.
- Ghee – Ghee is a kind of clarified butter, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s butter without the water and milk solids. It originated on the Indian subcontinent but has since become a relatively popular cooking tool in many countries around the world. Ghee is a superb option for backpackers who are hiking in hot environments as its low water content makes it very bacteria-resistant. Plus, most people find that they love the rich flavor of Ghee, so it’s worth considering if you’re looking to up your culinary game in the backcountry.
Butter For Backpacking: Yuck or Yum?
Many backpackers shy away from bringing butter into the mountains out of a fear that it will go bad during their adventures. While there’s always a risk of butter going bad when exposed to high heat over an extended period of time, this generally isn’t a problem on most backpacking adventures.
If you’re looking for a way to pack your backcountry meals full of flavor and much-needed macronutrients, butter is a sure bet. Alternatively, consider bringing olive oil, coconut oil, or even ghee as your cooking fats for your backpacking meals. There are pros and cons to using each of these different oils and butters, so the key is finding the one that works best for your culinary style.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.