“A hungry stomach seldom scorns plain food.”
Food tastes better in the outdoors. I guess it’s a combination of fresh air, beautiful surroundings and all that exercise you’re doing. It also represents the most regularly anticipated and most commonly fantasized about subject that occupies a hiker’s mind………….yep, even more than that other one.
In keeping with its exalted status, it stands to reason that no matter whether you are a gourmet, spartan or somewhere in between, food will play a significant role in your hiking plans. There are three main factors to consider when formulating a backpacking shopping list:
- Length of hike (Quantity)
- Nutrition (Quality)
- Personal Preference (Taste)
On shorter trips of a week or less, our body’s natural reserves are such that we can pretty much eat anything and still be relatively OK. However, for longer walks, nutritional (ie. vitamins and minerals) needs come into play, thereby necessitating a little more thought and planning in regards to our on-trail diet.
How much food you need depends on multiple factors such as metabolism, level of exertion, age, sex and climate (you need more in cold weather). Your own personal experiences in the outdoors will ultimately be your best guide. As a general reference point, it is estimated that for three-season (ie. summer, autumn, spring) travel the average hiker needs to carry approximately 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of food per day, roughly equating to 4500-5000 calories. How that quantity is divided up will dictate your energy levels and ultimately your overall health out on the trail.
- The Breakdown: Food consists of three main elements: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. To achieve optimum hiking efficiency, we need to strike a balance between all three. For extended hiking trips, Dr. Brenda Braaten, Ph.D, nutritionist and long distance hiker, recommends the following caloric breakdown: 45-55% carbs; 35-40% fats; 10-15% protein. For shorter hikes, where potential weight loss is not so much of an issue, you can decrease the amount of fatty foods you carry and increase the quantity of carbs and proteins. For a detailed look at the caloric requirements for hiking, see the following link from Bushwalking.org.au.
When it comes to food, long distance hikers can be a very demanding bunch. They want nutrition, but they want it to come in a compact, lightweight, easy to prepare, high caloric density package. Almost forgot………..preferably it should be economically priced as well! For an in depth overview of the nutritional side of backpacking foods, see Dr. Braaten’s excellent series of articles, Pack Light, Eat Right.
Bring food that appeals to you. You may have ticked all the boxes in regards to nutrition, high calorie density and overall weight, but the fact is that if you don’t enjoy the items you have packed, it’s like a metaphorical black cloud is looming over each and every meal. Find a balance.
Unless you can subsist on the same food day after day (and many ultralight hikers do), plan on packing a variety of options. Don’t underestimate how easily you will become bored with certain foods.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
During longer treks, bring along easy to prepare items (eg. quick-cook pasta & dehydrated foods) which require little preparation time. At the end of a long day, you want to be spending your time eating and relaxing rather than slaving over a three-course feast. Remember, even the most simple foods usually taste great when you are outdoors.
EAT SMALL & OFTEN
Snacking regularly (i.e. every one to two hours), as opposed to three big set meals a day, is conducive to a more efficient hiking approach. You are not as weighed down with a full stomach, your muscles won’t be as stiff because your breaks aren’t as long and it’s better for your digestive system. Most importantly, by feeding your body small amounts at regular intervals, it is easier to maintain your energy levels throughout the hiking day. Tip: Keep your day’s snacks near the top of your pack for easy access.
Whether on trail or off, fresh organic foods will always be nutritionally superior and provide greater energy than processed and refined fare. Unfortunately for backpacking purposes, fresh foods are generally heavy and have a limited use-by date. If you choose to carry fresh items, eat them in the first day or two of your hike, thereby eliminating the heavier items straight off the bat. Personally speaking, whenever I leave a town stop during an extended journey, I invariably pack out a few pieces of fruit, carrots, tomatoes and a bag of spinach. If possible, I also try to throw in half a dozen boiled eggs.
Generally speaking, you will not have the same range of choice that you do back home. That being said, hiking staples such as nuts, raisins, chocolate, tuna and porridge are available in most places. It comes down to perspective. Rather than focus on what isn’t available, try looking at what is. Think of it as a culinary adventure and an exercise in adaptability. Dive in and try as many new things as your palate and stomach can stand!