Outdoors in Maine: Pemmican, the nutritional trail food from the 1900s


Long-distant hikers and backpackers looking for that elusive silver bullet in selecting a highly nutritional trail food might want to take a closer look at pemmican, long known historically as the ultimate survival food. Insofar as I know, you can’t buy traditional pemmican from trail-food manufacturers, but you can make it yourself like your ancestors did.

At its roots, pemmican is simply a ball of dried meat, powdered and mixed with fat. The word “pemmican” comes from the Cree Indian word “pimikan,” which translates to “manufactured grease.”

Pemmican has quite a storied history. Because it is a dense, high-energy food that is long-lasting and light to carry, it became a staple for explorers, trappers and fur traders in the early 19th century Northwest.

A Canadian explorer and fur trader, Peter Pond, is credited with introducing it to the fur trade in the early 1800s. No doubt he learned how to make pemmican from Northwest aborigines, who traditionally carried pemmican made from dried, powdered bison and bison fat.


Pemmican became such an important economic commodity in some parts of northwestern Canada and the U.S. that a governor enacted a Pemmican Proclamation that prohibited the exportation of it to certain areas.

Basic pemmican can be made by cutting lean, wild meat (or beef) thin, drying it along with some blueberries, processing into a powder and mixing with some kind of rendered fat to make a congealed ball.

American pioneers added all kinds of different berries and nuts to their pemmican to jazz it up. A fabled Iowa pioneer-matriarch, Gramma Clemmie Noeller, laced her pemmican with popcorn, molasses, sweet corn, peanuts, butter, bacon grease, bacon bits, fried pork rinds, raisins and any berry that was in season.

How do you eat pemmican?

According to a Google source, pemmican is best eaten Native American style by “popping a little bit into your mouth and chewing it just about forever, sort of like chewing gum or beef jerky. That way you entertain your mouth and extract every bit of goodness from the dehydrated meat, berries and nuts.”

From what I can gather, the more nuts and berries that you add to the pemmican mix may help the taste but in turn these added ingredients lower the shelf life. The backwoods old timers carried their pemmican in a leather pouch that protected it from moisture and mold.

Pemmican would never pass muster with a contemporary cardiologist — too much salt and fat. From a pemmican perspective, all fats are not the same. Beef and deer or moose fat gets hard when it cools, while bear, pig, beaver and bird fats stay in a softer grease form. Ah, food for thought when mixing up your personal stash of pemmican.

In my backpacking experiences, neither modern freeze-dried meals nor military MREs are anything to look forward to. The sodium levels in these freeze-dried meals bring salt intake to a new level. (Read the fine print.) And, with a few exceptions, most MRE meals just don’t cut it, in my opinion.

Since pemmican was a 19th-century mainstay for legendary woodsmen like Rattlesnake Jack McIntyre, Grizzly Adams and Jeremiah Johnson, perhaps this 19th century “power bar” deserves space in your backpack.

The author is editor of the “Northwoods Sporting Journal.” He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program — “Maine Outdoors” — heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on “The Voice of Maine News – Talk Network.” He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.