Off-Road Food Cheats

Many people travelling off-road carry far too much food and often waste a lot of space, and by doing so add a lot of unnecessary weight to a vehicle, but there are a number of ‘cheats’ and quick ways to carry the correct amount of food while reducing space and weight on board a vehicle.

Owners go to great lengths to effeciently pack their vehicles, but often just bundle foodstuffs in a couple of boxes without giving it much thought whatsoever.

Where is the best place to prepare food? Obviously it’s in the kitchen at home where you have the advantage of having all your ingredients accessible and any amount of utensils readily to hand, much better than trying to prepare food on the trail with wind, dust and rain, or the local flying wildlife attacking you.

Many foods have short dates and even the basics such as bread only have 2-3 days of consumption in them, warm weather soon turns milk sour, many boxed or packaged foods such as cereals or meats come in overly large packaging which takes up unnecessary space, fragile items such as eggs are easily broken whilst off-roading. What is the answer?

A nice set-up for sure, but where is the fridge and food containers?

Many staple foods such as pasta or rice can be cooked prior to going on a trip, thus you only carry the amount you need for a trip. Also by pre-cooking these, you use less gas and water as it only needs re-heating.

Eggs can be cracked into a bowl and beaten, and by adding milk or herbs as required, poured into a square plastic bottle (square as opposed to round if possible as they take up less space), where they can be used for omelettes, scrambled egg, or any other variety of egg dishes by pouring out the correct quantity into a pan. Hard-boiling eggs means they won’t break in their box and leave their mess or take up the same amount of room the inefficiently designed egg box does. 

We can take this a step further and make up other liquid items such as pancake or crêpé batters. Again, bottle them in square plastic bottles and pour out directly into your frying pan – this way you have exactly what you need, when you need it. Remember, sweet or savoury pancakes can be made, so in advance you can prepare any amount of savoury ingredients such as mince & onions plus a little veg, simply fry for a tasty filling. The same goes for sweet pancakes/crêpés, where non pre-prepared ingredients such as sugar or honey can be used. Squeeze a little fresh orange or lemon juice on to it, you have a quick almost instant dessert.

Bread is an issue for a longer trip, as it only has a life of just 2-3 days before it goes stale. So along with a loaf of bread take replacements such as tortillas or wraps, as they come in flat packaging and can become a lightweight and compact replacement for bread when it begins to go stale. What about stale bread? As long as it’s stale and not actually mouldy*, it can be toasted or fried, or you can even cut it up and make your own croûtons.

Boxed items such as cereals waste a lot of space, as the internal space is often just air, which of course takes up room. Portion out your cereals and put them into resealable bags, only take what you need instead of a whole box.

Milk, both fresh pasteurised and UHT, is often supplied in Tetra Paks in mainland Europe.

Similarly, the fresh milk we use on cereals needs to be considered. Depending in which country you live, most fresh milk nowadays is packaged in plastic bottles. Some are great for travelling, the 1 lit. square plastic bottle variety in Spain for example have excellent resealable screw tops, while the UK type are more rounded and invariably the screw tops or flip tops often leak. Of course UHT long life milk can be purchased, the advantages being they come in the Tetra Pak cartons which are usually rectangular and have a much better type of lid, the contents last for ages, but they lack the nutrition and taste of fresh milk. For short periods however they can be a real boon.

The screw tops on British milk bottles are next to useless. They only ever work when placed upright in a domestic house fridge. On the road they can leak even when vertical as the contents slosh around. Try laying them down and there’s a good chance you’ll be mopping up the mess later.

Many vegetables can be prepared in advance, so things like celery, carrots, potatoes or anything fairly solid, can be chopped, diced and placed into resealable bags. The same applies to hard cheeses, as these can be grated so they are ready for use; again, this saves time and importantly – space.

Exceptions include onions and garlic, as once you cut and bag them, you cannot get rid of the smell. The odour seems to seep through the bags to make your vehicle smell and taint other foods. There is also a good deal of conjecture about ‘cut onions attracting bacteria’. While the jury is still out on this one, the potential for a smelly vehicle alone is enough to say … don’t don’t bother preparing these in advance, simply take a fresh supply.

Many fruits and some vegetables can be left whole and not bagged. Same goes for chilled and skinned fruits such as apples or pears, some exotic fruits like mangoes, avocados and pineapples, and citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons or limes. All these have good peel which protects the fruits, meaning they will be fine for a couple of weeks; pears being the only exception as they are susceptible to heat, if they are too ripe they can turn very quickly.

Meats are a different issue as many come in oversized semi hard plastic packaging, which will crack in general off-road conditions. The result can mean blood and juices oozing out and contaminating anything they come into contact with – plus once again you are transporting a lot of air, so wasting space. Never pre-cook meat and store it, as pre-cooked meat dries up when you reheat it and tastes like cardboard.

Condiments are something often overlooked as they come in a range of sizes. For expedition use you are better off buying the smallest size glass/plastic jars available (or small recycled jars you may already have indoors), cleaning the jars out before a trip, and refilling them from much larger cost-effective jars you have in the kitchen at home. Many condiments such as salt, vinegar, Worcester Sauce, mustard, salad cream, brown sauce (Editor’s note: strictly a British thing, made from molasses – it’s a culinary icon I’ll have you know!) tomato ketchup and mayonnaise to name a few, can be purchased in sachets which are either in a roll which you tear a sachet off, or come a box of individual sachets where you can take a few out of each for the condiments you require, then store them in your vehicle as they are long-lasting.


Containers and Packaging

Many different types of container exist and for me the shape is important for packing. Personally I only ever use square/rectangular packaging or containers as they are the most space efficient, while resealable bags often called ‘zipper’ or ‘snap lock’ bags are my bag of choice. With these types of bags you can put your foods in them and expel most of the air and seal them shut. When you take some food from them they become smaller, you simply expel the air and seal them again. Also, being flexible in consistency it means they can be squeezed into tight spaces where rigid containers couldn’t possibly fit.

Tins are a no-no for me as they are heavy and usually round, so take up unnecessary space. However, I do accept people like them and they do have benefits. The varieties of pre-cooked foods they contain are endless, from chicken in various sauces to sausages, so I do carry a few, but try to minimise the amount as much as possible.

Compartmentalised food containers are ideal for transporting pre-prepared foods. Photo: California Home Goods

Of course plastic containers can be purchased, but as plastic packaging can be recycled, why spend good money on them when you can get a variety of sturdy pop bottles or other food containers in a variety of designs and sizes? As long as they are the correct shape and reseal properly, these make perfect sense. It’s good for the planet AND your pocket! Simply clean them well and when they become worn, replace them.

Not so long ago, the only place vacuum packaging machines could be found were in industrial food kitchens, but in recent times prices have plummeted as domestic versions have hit the market. These devices are both practical hygiene-wise and money-saving, a boon to any kitchen.

Vacuum packaging is great for storing/transporting meat. In conventional bags, many meats such as beef will last just over a week, pork lasts under a week, and poultry only lasts a couple of days, but now you can vacuum pack them with a simple machine and a few bags. In days gone by, because of high cost and bulky size, these useful machines were only available within the food industry. Nowadays however, mini domestic vacuum packaging machines start from under 5€ / £5 – so every kitchen can and should have one.

Simply place your cut of meat in the bag and insert it into the machine, switch on and it sucks all the air out of the bag and heat seals it with a crimp. Meat lasts a lot longer, beef such as steaks last up to 8 weeks, pork lasts up to 4 weeks, chicken roughly 1 week, bacon and sausages around 4 weeks. For other meats, it’s best you refer to the manufacturer’s websites for their individual recommendations, as different countries favour different meats.

Pretty they may be, but on the move storage jars like these are highly impractical. Best keep these at home!

Food planning is essential. If you plan what meals you are going to have on a particular day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then portion out every meal, you can get the exact number of portions packed in the exact quantities for your entire trip. There are serious advantages in adopting this system. If you portion your food and have a bag burst or rupture, you have only lost one portion for one day, not a large quantity of food for an entire trip.

If you do decide to portion every meal, you will also need a contingency supply of food and water. Many people become stuck off-road, everything from becoming bogged and cannot immediately recover themselves, being hit by rain and swollen rivers or creeks and cannot cross them, to even simply travelling slower then planned because of adverse conditions.

Okay, in such circumstances you need a contingency food supply, but what if you have an under-vehicle water tank which gets damaged and leaks, leaving you with only a small secondary source of water? Clearly you need to carry water in with your contingency food supply.

This contingency supply needs food with long dates, plus lots of sugary items to keep your calorie and energy intake up. It could happen where you may switch from three, to two, to even just one meal a day, so you also need foods which can be eaten raw or cooked, and all without too much fuss.

Yes they are glass, so not ideal for off-road overland travel, but not everyone can get on with plastic products. At least they are square, so maximise the storage space on board your vehicle.

Bottled water usually has a long life. Several bottles are good to carry (the square type of course) and not more than I litre each – in case of puncture, losing 5 litres is wasteful and very messy. Canned meats such as chicken in various sauces only need heating & stirring, while hot dog sausages in brine only need tipping to a pan with its brine to cook them, thus saving cooking water. You can even get tinned burgers or other meats in gravy. Again, for sure they won’t be the tastiest or nutritionally balanced foodstuffs around, but in a crisis they will suffice.

The same is true of tinned vegetables. Instead of one single vegetable , go for peas and carrots or mixed veg in brine which include several varieties of veg – again you’ll save water when boiling. Instant Chinese style noodles are also good, which only want dropping into a small amount of boiling water for a few seconds, or you can get the sachets of rice. You can also get dried soups in sachets such as the various Knorr soups and other brands around the world – simple emergency food which is light and small in bulk, so easy to store and transport.

When buying tins of fruit, go for the smaller sizes. Various creams and milks also come in times – sometimes in small Tetra Paks too. Open a tin of mixed fruit and drain out the syrup into a cup, remove the lid and add some of your tinned cream and you have a fruit & cream drink. You may even have some fresh fruit left, this can be cut into chunks and cream added for an instant dessert.

Containing oats, nuts and fruit, health bars such as these are a must in times of emergency.

Never forget to take a quantity of health bars, as you may be down to one meal a day so want something to nibble on when you get peckish. Beware of these however as some have very long sell by/eat by dates while others are mush shorter. Plus go for the type with oats, nuts and fruit in, as the oats expand and fill you up.

Other things to add are miscellaneous items. These include a couple of cigarette lighters in a one bag, a couple of boxes of matches in another, a large bag of dry kindling and a couple of firelighters. All these need to be in sealed bags.

So now should you run out of food you have spare food, run out of water you have extra water, run out of gas you have the means to start a camp fire and the ability to cook. Another useful tip is to take a slice off of a firelighter instead of using a full one.

Most cans of fruit and veg are standardised, so acquire some 75mm plastic lids for cans. If you only use half a tin of vegetables you can top it up with brine (brine is only salt and water), or fruit in syrup (syrup is only sugar and water). Keep a spare fork or two in your contingency box along with a good heavy-duty hunting knife, and don’t forget essential items such as a tin opener.

Hardly hôte de cuisine granted, but you’ll survive!


If it’s mouldy … bin it! Products like bread made from grain and nut crops become inedible when mould forms, and can prove harmful to your health. Online we’ve never seen anything to dispute this theory, thus it’s pretty much conclusive. Err on the side of caution we say – AVOID AT ALL COSTS!!!

* There are many websites that advise … “do not eat mouldy bread”. Even cutting off the mould on the crust is not good enough, as harmful bacteria can via the roots bury itself deep within the loaf. Eating mouldy bread can cause allergies and respiratory problems. In some cases, moulds produce mycotoxins, a poison that makes people, livestock and other animals sick. And guess where one of the most notorious mycotoxins – aflatoxin – grows? That’s right: on grains and nut crops – two things that make up many breads!

Source: HowStuffWorks – Science



Our thanks to Regular Contributor ‘Assassin’ who penned this article – “Off-Road Food Cheats”.

If you would like to contribute a single article to Europe 4×4 Mag, or even a series and become a Regular Contributor, simply contact Tom McGuigan (Editor) via … the world is waiting to hear from you!



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Tom McGuigan