Traveling North America, Megan McDuffie and Michael van Vliet wanted to cook rich interesting meals like the ones they made back home, but modified for a camping lifestyle. The result of that endeavor is their blog and culinary resource called “Fresh Off The Grid.”
By Latria Graham
Megan McDuffie and Michael van Vliet did something most people only dream of. Tired of their desk jobs and relegating their love of the outdoors to short weekend trips, the couple decided to quit their jobs, sell most of their belongings and travel North America in their dark green 2001 Ford Focus hatchback. Eventually, they grew tired of traditional camping foods like hotdogs and hamburgers. They wanted to cook rich interesting meals like the ones they made back home, but modified for a camping lifestyle. The result of that endeavor is their blog and culinary resource called “Fresh Off The Grid.”
“We think about how to cook with two burners and not have a lot of dishes” Michael explains. “At
the time, we didn’t have refrigeration, we didn’t have a cooler or anything, so we had to use a lot of
shelf stable ingredients, which is also helpful for people that are traveling, so it was a lot of criteria. We
wanted these recipes to work and be healthy and to be things we would not get bored of.”
Michael and Megan met in 2012 at CicLAvia, a Los-Angeles based street event. The two had mutual friends in their dodgeball league and the group met up to take advantage of the car-free streets. “It was a pretty epic day,” Megan says. The pair cruised the avenues with their crew, eventually taking in an outdoor music festival.
“The thing that really connected us was talking about how much we wanted to travel. Megan had just done a long hike through the Sierras, and I was doing motorcycle trips around Southern California. We both wanted to get out more and do some slow traveling,” Michael adds.
Slow travel is about taking the time to stop, explore and begin to know a location. “It’s about really digging into a place,” Megan says. The pair wanted to be out there, finding the hidden spots, learning more about one another while pushing themselves to enjoy new adventures.
Over the course of a year, they started saving money and squirreling away the things they would need for a yearlong road trip. They decided to use Michael’s car. “Our thought was that sometimes the best adventure vehicle is the one you already own,” Megan says. In the summer of 2015, they left Southern California. As they made their way across the country, they started posting content of their adventures–beautifully curated shots with breathtaking backdrops.
Their videos and photos gained a following on social media, and they started collaborating with like-minded brands to show that getting outdoors didn’t have to consist of rehydrating freeze-dried meals. Megan and Michael also make sure to clarify that while they do have lots of fun crisscrossing the country, “Fresh Off The Grid” is work. The duties of recipe development are equally shared, but because Megan pursued photography before they hit the road, she takes most of the photos and does the behind-the-scenes tech for the site. Michael, who went to film school, handles the videos and copywriting. “There’s a lot of small business stuff that is sort of ‘all hands on deck,’ but that comes with the territory,” Michael says.
While their arrangement might seem glamorous on Instagram, Megan and Michael are also willing to talk about their failures.
“One [example] that I can think of right away because it was such a ridiculous event is the lentil story,” Megan laughs. The snafu took place on their year-long road trip, and because autumn was upon them, they decided to try a recipe for red lentil and pumpkin curry soup. “Red lentils are such a great protein source,” she adds. “We were tinkering with this recipe, and we thought that we had it done, so we drove from Missoula, Montana up into the Lolo National Forest– probably an hour-and-a-half drive. We found this really beautiful campground that was by a natural hot spring, and we were like ‘Awesome! Let’s make this recipe,’ and we’ll shoot it for the blog.”
Soon after they started cooking, it was apparent something wasn’t right. “The lentils are hard, and we’ve been cooking them for forty-five minutes,” Michael explains, “which is much longer than red lentils need to cook. The light is going down, and we have no other food for the night. We now sort of suspect it’s because they got coated with coconut milk, and the fat inhibited the ability to expand.”
“We didn’t know that at the time,” Megan interjects. “We literally dumped everything from the pot into a trash can, got back in the car, drove back to Missoula, got a hotel room and ordered Kentucky Fried Chicken or something,” she says. By the end of the story, the pair are laughing so hard they have to take a few moments to catch their breath. “Adventuring is putting yourself in a position where something could go wrong,” Michael says.
“I think it’s the introduction of stakes. When you go backpacking or on a big long bike trip, you’re putting yourself in a position where you’re leaving yourself open. It feels like there’s something more interesting happening that elevates the experience.”
Megan agrees. “We talk about the fact that meals just taste better when you make them outside. I’m sure there’s an element of the fact that things went right. When it goes well, there’s nothing better.”
A year on the road can take a toll, and they had the added pressure of turning “Fresh Off The Grid” into a viable business. “We know that not everything in life goes smoothly, and that’s not a reason to completely retreat or give up on something that you’re feeling passionate about or something that you care about,” Megan says. “We did have to reset after that particular meal, but I think that is just part of the whole experience of either long term travel, starting a business or just daily life. We weren’t ready to throw in the towel because of one bad meal.” Besides—there were so many other moments that made the trip worth it.
Michael’s favorite moment of that trip happened up in Washington state. “We did this hike to the top of Winchester Mountain, and there is a fire lookout tower on it. You’re able to stay there overnight if no one else is there—sort of first come, first served thing. We hiked up this mountain not really anticipating that we would be able to stay up there because it was a weekend, and we just knew there would be someone else up there. We got to the top, and you can see Mt. Baker, and there were snow-capped mountains all around. No one else was up there, and we were able to stay. That night, we made a really great DIY ramen recipe adapted for backpacking that turned out really great. We got to watch the sun go down, and I remember the weather being totally perfect.”
Megan’s favorite moment is different: “We were camped just north of Vancouver in British Columbia,” Megan says. “There’s an area called the Sunshine Coast, right before the Desolation Sound, and we were the only people there. It was a cliffside campground, and you look over the sound, and there’s Vancouver Island in the distance. This was a spot we just kind of happened upon, and it ended up being our favorite campground in Canada. It was really spectacular, and there was a perfectly placed picnic table right on the cliffside where we got to cook our meal.” Believe it or not, they don’t remember what they cooked for dinner that night near Vancouver, but they will always remember the way that the experience made them feel, and they used that momentum to power through the rest of their trip.
Once their year-long road trip was over, they decided to settle in one of the little towns they fell in love with: Bend, Oregon. They retooled their approach to their work and upgraded their adventure vehicle— they now travel in a camper van, but the premise that started “Fresh Off The Grid” remains the same. In February of this year, they hit the road again full-time.
The couple believes that with a few tips on preparation and organization, creating great tasting meals while camping doesn’t have to be a source of stress. Some of their tips come from trial and error.
“We realized the reason it was so hard to pack the kitchen was because there are so many little gadgets.
Our biggest struggle when we’re going camping is we will forget the spatula or something, Megan says with a laugh. “We just started buying a second spatula to keep with our camping gear. That did make it a lot easier as we started building our camping box, so that we always felt like we had what we needed. We have big bins and boxes that we store everything in, so the tent and sleeping bags are together, and the camp kitchen is one space and our seating another. Making sure things get stored together in one section of the house helped us—you can just grab your camp boxes and go.”
Michael believes that trying a recipe at home to make sure that it works and tastes the way you expect it to is a great way to get comfortable with camp cooking before taking to the road. “Fear creeps in when you’re trying something new. You can take away some of that stress by making that one pot pasta recipe you’re interested in and taking it for your weekday work lunch. The familiarity with the recipe takes the pressure off when you’re trying to feed your family at 7 o’clock on a camping trip. You would never try a new recipe for the first time when you’re hosting a dinner party.” Worried about not having enough food? Even though the two create meal plans in order to avoid food waste and disorganization, they always pack lots of snacks, just in case.
The couple also has some tips for spending time in close quarters with another person. “We live and work in close quarters; we have naturally taken on different responsibilities when we’re camping,” Megan says. “Michael is the fire guy, and I don’t micromanage it. I let him do that, and he enjoys poking at it and shuffling logs around so that it’s perfect. I think sometimes you just need space in what you’re doing too. Being in a new environment can be stressful, and sometimes you just need to go grab a book and sit on a picnic bench and read for fifteen minutes or write in your journal.”
Even though they have traveled across the country off and on for several years now, Megan and Michael still have places they want to go. “We just went RVing in Iceland,” Megan says. “What’s interesting about that trip is that it’s been on our list for years, and we finally got to go. It was awesome, and we’re so glad we did it, but it also made us sort of realize how much we do want to continue exploring in the US and North America.” There are still so many places they want to go.
“Upper Alaska would be cool,” Michael muses, “and the eastern side of Canada would be great as well. There are a couple of spots we would like to do more fully, but one area of the country that we would like to see is the Great Lakes region more in depth. We have missed the South entirely—we made two attempts to get there, but due to scheduling, it didn’t work out.” They aren’t sure where their itinerary will take them next, but one thing is apparent—these two show no signs of slowing down, and “Fresh Off The Grid” will be their way of documenting it all.