eating on the trail

Eating on the Trail

So much has been written about the subject of backpacking/hiking and nutrition that I was hesitant to tackle the topic.  After all, I’m not some ultra trail runner or thru hiker. I’m also not a dietitian or doctor.  But as I think back over the research I have done on trail food over the years, I figured maybe I can simplify it for people out there like us: backpackers who aren’t counting ounces or calories who just want to make food as easy as possible on the trail.  After all, after hiking 12+ miles with a heavy pack and then setting up camp, the last thing you want is to have to spend a ton of time and energy on dinner.

Most of my discoveries about what works for me have happened when I was desperate. While hiking the Narrows, I was cold and needed both hands on my hiking poles as much as possible to avoid breaking an ankle in the river. I needed a steady stream of calories to help keep me warm and motivated. My love affairs with wild berry Skittles and peanut M&Ms were solidified right then and there. Mike could care less about Skittles, but he can throw down a giant bag of peanut M&Ms in a weekend.

I have a food dehydrator which makes awesome beef jerky and dried strawberries. My love affair with jerky waxes and wanes, but I will ALWAYS eat dried strawberries. I’ve tried making some other dried things in the dehydrator, but I always end up going back to jerky and strawberries. Before our trip to Yosemite, I spent a solid 2 days drying enough strawberries for the week. They are lightweight, calorie dense, and take a little work to eat (they can be chewy), so I can walk along happily munching on them all day long. I like dried apples too, but they are harder to transport and tend to end up being a bag of crumbs. I usually bring a really small amount just to add to our oatmeal when we eat that.

As we have done more and more long distance trips, we needed to add in some sort of dehydrated meals. I buy the big variety pack tub of Mountain House meals from Amazon and that has saved us a ton of money and time, as we always have a few on hand to grab and they end up being around $5.50 per pouch.  If we bought them as we needed them, they are between $7.50-9.00 each, plus a trip to the store. We probably save on average more than $50 on 12 meals by buying them this way.  There are other dehydrated meals out there, and some we really want to try (Paleo Meals To Go look amazing, but at $12.99+ per serving, we just haven’t justified buying them yet), but we know now which Mountain House flavors we like and they are consistent and filling. I’m a fan of the beef stroganoff, Mike loves the spaghetti. We both have unpredictable digestive systems (I have no gall bladder), and neither of us have had any issues with MH meals. I also appreciate Ramen noodles, but my partner does not share my love of them, so I don’t often make them on the trail.

We both appreciate a jolt of caffeine to wake us up or keep us going, and neither of us are big coffee drinkers. Plus coffee means bringing more stuff. We LOVE the MiO Energy mixers that we can add to our water. We also really like the MiO Fit mixers that have electrolytes, especially when we are low on water and need to maximize our hydration (like when I accidentally drained my whole 3L Camelbak bladder inside our tent on top of Cloud’s Rest. Oops.).

Another item that has been a big hit with us (especially Mike) are the little single serving peanut butters.  We have eaten them with a spoon and also spread on Honey Stinger waffles (yum!), and they offer a good amount of calories for their small size, as well as having some protein and sugar for short term and sustained energy.

For breakfast, we usually have some instant oatmeal. Neither of us really likes oatmeal all that much, but it’s great on a cold morning. Easy to make, easy to eat, light to carry. When camping in warmer weather, we prefer something like the Mountain House granola and milk, or even just some sort of bar (more on our ambivalence toward bars below) just to get us on the trail with something in our bellies.

For Yosemite, I was very paranoid that we would be super hungry and not have enough food, so as a result, we brought way more food than we needed or wanted. It was good to have the variety though, and it was a good lesson in how much we actually need under strenuous circumstances and will help us pack better in the future. With Mike, one of his big values is redundancy, so we always have an extra fuel canister and more food and water than we need. If one of us sustained an injury or we got stuck in bad weather, we know we would be able to continue to nourish ourselves and have a way to heat water to drink to help stay warm. This results in slightly heavier packs, but much lighter worries. As we left Yosemite, we couldn’t take our leftover fuel on the plane, and we didn’t see the point in dragging all our leftover food home, so we swung by Camp 4 and made some dude’s day. I’ll never forget his excitement or gratitude. “Even the M&Ms?!” he asked incredulously.  “Yeah man, even the M&Ms”, Mike said with a smile.

Other items I love to bring: Slim Jims. Yeah, I know, they are gross, but I love them. Trader Joe’s Sriracha Bacon Jerky. I don’t think I need to explain any further. Wasabi Soy AlmondsStarburst (especially the reds).  White TicTacs or peppermint lifesavers. I can’t explain my obsession, but it’s bordering addiction at this point.

Now for the things we have realized we don’t really need.

Powdered milk. This is great to add a little protein and creaminess to our morning oatmeal, but is pretty unnecessary and I’ll be pretty picky about when we bring it again.

Bars. Cliff bars, Power bars, Lara bars, whatever bars….we tend to avoid them.  Don’t get me wrong, we will eat them because they are easy, but we usually come home with almost as many as we brought.

Trail mixes. With the exception of the one from Trader Joe’s that has yogurt chips and cranberries, I haven’t found many I like. Neither of us like raisins, and most mixes are pretty heavy on raisins. So we tend to avoid eating them.

Condiments. In the past, I have optimistically brought along a variety of seasonings to make our food more delicious. With the exception of salt and pepper, I’ve never used them. If I have room, I’ll bring some Sriracha (seriously, how cute are these to go bottles?!),but it’s really only if I know I’m stuck eating Mike’s fave, spaghetti. I like it spicy. Leave the ketchup and mayo packets at home. If they explode, it’s just gross and you don’t need that on the trail. You are already gross enough.

Hot chocolate, hot cider, hot anything. Only needed in the very coldest weather.

Gels, goos, etc. Totally understandable for trail runners or marathoners, but for those of us with a pack, there are much better options to get some calories in our body that taste good and are enjoyable to eat.  Like candy.

The bottom line is to bring things you love to eat, that you won’t get tired of, and that pack a lot of calories for their size/weight. Don’t bring things that you “think” you should bring but don’t really like, because you won’t eat it and you will get hungry and grouchy and that is no fun for anyone. My rule of thumb is to bring what I know we will eat, plus a few hundred extra calories per person in case of an unexpected day or night on the trail or a spike in hunger. The last thing you want is for you or your hiking partner(s) to get hangry on the trail.  Good food=good mood in our world.


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