Welcome to the ‘Pack With Me’ series, where we hear from some of The Cairn Project’s women-owned brand partners about their path to the outdoor industry and their ’10 essentials’ for adventures near and far. First up is Shannon Waters, chef and Founder of Gastro Gnome, a backcountry food company based in Bozeman, MT.
Shannon Waters makes a lot of really dry food. Gourmet, backcountry dry food. But long before Shannon started creating trail provisions, she worked in the San Francisco culinary scene, training under some of the country’s best chefs.
Outdoor experiences can inspire other parts of our lives, and for Shannon, this couldn’t have been more true. “It started small, like a walk on Sausalito’s beach, or a hike in Tomales Bay. But when I realized my most serene and happy moments were when I edged closer to the wild, I knew I needed a change to steer my direction in the right course.”
This change came slowly, first in the way of starting her own business – helping other people build the restaurants of their dreams. This allowed her to step away from the 24/7 stress of big-city restaurant life. A stint of living and working in Bozeman while opening a brewery provided an opportunity to meet people who also sought the outdoors for serenity and excitement. Shannon started tagging along on their adventures. A handful of overnights with elaborate meals and packable cocktails were the gateway to a handful of multi-day packraft trips. While Shannon quickly fell in love with packrafting, extended trips outside – in Montana’s bear country – meant carrying elaborate meals was no longer feasible. “My first dehydrated meal on a packraft trip in Montana was also my last one. As a person who poured over ingredient selection and spent time connecting with the farmers who grew my vegetables and ranches who raised my meat, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would consume so many synthetic and industrialized ingredients. I wake up thinking of flavor combinations and dream of delicious meals. Eating another one of those meals was against everything I believed in.”
My first dehydrated meal on a packraft trip in Montana was also my last one. As a person who poured over ingredient selection and spent time connecting with the farmers who grew my vegetables and ranches who raised my meat… Eating another one of those meals was against everything I believed in.
In between running a consulting company and teaching at Montana State University, Shannon took to creating backcountry recipes of her own and inviting friends to take a ziploc bag of her experiments onto their adventures. Nearly three years of R & D later, Gastro Gnome launched its flagship menu. “For every minute of every day that went by, I knew I was destined to change what was possible for food in the backcountry and I couldn’t turn back.” True to Shannon’s culinary ethos, Gastro Gnome meals are processed from raw ingredients, cooked from scratch, and packed in their headquarters in Bozeman, Montana.
When she’s not experimenting in the Gastro Gnome kitchen, you’ll likely find Shannon in the water. “I love packrafting- it’s by far my favorite medium of enjoying the wilderness. Looking on maps and finding a way to use your feet to access a remote place with few people is probably the most excited I get about planning! One of my favorite experiences packrafting was when she convinced 5 of my girlfriends to go on a 2 day hike in, boat out trip for my birthday. There was a lot of learning, teaching, pack-list sharing, and demos. Half the fun was just watching everyone hop in a tiny boat for the first time and paddle out into the unknown!”
“I’ve been the person without rain gear on a thru-hike, the one who forgot a spoon for the tasty meals ahead or followed the wrong trail for a few miles too many. Being prepared isn’t a gift, it’s a checklist.”
These days, Shannon has a goal of making the outdoors feel comfortable for everyone at every level. For her, that means sharing her knowledge of the outdoors with those who are just starting to enjoy those spaces.“Learning the hard way is so last decade. I always think about it like – be the gate opener, not the gatekeeper.”
As someone who helps write the packing lists for group outings, or double checks them 100 times before venturing out on her own, Shannon knows that forgetting a crucial item isn’t fun. “I’ve been the person without rain gear on a thru-hike, the one who forgot a spoon for the tasty meals ahead or followed the wrong trail for a few miles too many. Being prepared isn’t a gift, it’s a checklist.”
Shannon’s recommendations? Create shared checklist for adventures and share it. On that note, here are Shannon’s ’10 Essentials’ for every packrafting trip:
- REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Jacket. “You only need to do it once to know you never go on any trip without rain gear, no matter how hot, sunny, and zero percent chance of precipitation there is! I’m a big fan of multi-use items so I dig this rain jacket for its lightweight, packability! I like the orange because I do a lot of hunting and need a multipurpose coat. Plus, high vis is great no matter the medium during heavy weather. It’s technically a men’s jacket, but does it matter?!”
- Katadyn Steripen Ultra UV Water Purifier. “I’m Never without 2 ways to drink water. No matter what sport I’m out doing. If one fails, it could be dangerous at worst, or at best, a trip ender to run out of clean water. I carry this baby, which is AMAZING and fits in the top of a small mouth Nalgene! (we have Gastro Gnome branded ones!) It’s also easy to read with smiley and unhappy faces to tell you when your water purification is complete. It’s way better than little blinky lights!”
- Jetboil Flash Cooking System. “That second water purifying option which doubles as your stove, or maybe your stove is just doubling as your water purifier. I’ve had the Jetboil Flash for 10 years. I’ll never waver. It does exactly what it needs to do, exactly how you expect it to! Some folks will opt for the smaller version, but you end up having to boil twice and using more fuel than you would expect. Just opt for a the regular sized, you’ll be grateful.”
- Maple Roasted Pecan and Banana Oat Bowl. “To the above, I would never enter the woods without a Gastro Gnome freeze dried meal. My favorite for packrafting is the Oat Bowl for two reasons. First, it’s about 25% less food than our average dinner, as it’s meant for breakfast. Secondly, it’s also savory enough to be a dinner, and sweet enough to be your morning oat bowl. I burn less calories packrafting than the other activities I do, so I tend to bring this option out for meals. It’s also insanely tasty. And that shouldn’t be overlooked as a top reason to bring it!”
- Trekking Poles. “Especially when carrying a boat on your pack, things get a little unstable, and as I age…er…whatever this is, my knees really love extra support on the downhill. I wouldn’t go anywhere without these babies.”
- Baby wipes. “I know. It seems silly. But for washing your face, or taking a “bath” it’s more refreshing than you can even imagine! Pro tip, boil a little water in the morning and dip them in for a hot washcloth! I’m a Burt’s Bees sensitive kind of girl!”
- Salt & Stone Tinted Sunscreen Stick SPF 50. “THIS is it when it comes to sunscreen on the water. Putting on the liquid stuff and then trying to paddle simply does not work. Your hands are slippery, can’t grip the paddle and if you do, it leaves the paddle greasy until you can find hot soapy water again. I opt for this stick and keep it in my fanny pack or top of my bag to get it easily, swipe it on and keep going.”
- Snacks! “Can we just throw in the amazing trail mix we collaborated on with The Cairn Project designed for women on the trail?! Honey, coconut, rosewater, turmeric, pretty much all I need to hear to throw this in my pack and refuel with healthy, satiating nutrients in the wilderness. A thoughtful supply of energy is often overlooked, but packing snacks that will produce crash won’t make the trip any easier or more enjoyable. Soft on your digestion, and good for your energy and inflammation, we really had a blast making this packable treat!”
- A waterproof/windproof/rechargeable lighter. “I can’t tell you the amount of times I pulled this out and saved the day. Talk about being prepared!”
- Lenz heated socks. “I’m not kidding when say this piece of gear changed my life. I’m able to do things I simply couldn’t before. It changes what could be a miserably cold paddle to a totally warm one.”
A former chef, restaurant consultant, and culinary school professor, Shannon has spent a lot of time in kitchens. Formally trained at The French Culinary Institute in New York, she went on to hold positions at some of the best restaurants in the country and gain skills and technique from renowned Chefs. Gastro Gnome got its start out of a desire to enjoy great backcountry adventures and eat delicious packable meals. Shannon now eats a lot of really dry food in far flung places accessible by packable boat, mountain bike, or skis. When she’s not out there, she’s right here in the kitchen of Gastro Gnome.