“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. 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 (i.e. vitamins and minerals) needs come into play, thereby necessitating a little more thought and planning in regards to our on-trail diet. Ideally a balance should be struck between quantity, quality, taste, variety and simplicity.
How much food you need depends on multiple factors such as metabolism, level of exertion, age, sex and climate (i.e. 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 (i.e. summer, autumn, spring) travel the average hiker needs to carry approximately 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of food per day. How that quantity is divided up will dictate your energy levels and ultimately your overall health out on the trail.
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, nutritionist and long distance hiker, Dr. Brenda Braaten, Ph.D, 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.
Eat Small & Often
Snacking regularly (say every hour-and-a-half 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.
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. Oh yes, 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.
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 couple of days of your hike, thereby eliminating the heavier items straight off the bat. TIP: When leaving towns/resupply stops during longer hikes, I will generally try to pack out a bag of fruit and vegetables along with half a dozen boiled eggs.
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.
During longer treks, bring along easy to prepare items (e.g. quick-cook pasta, freeze dried & 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 in the Great Outdoors.