Essential Guide to Food in the Backcountry
In most of our cultures, food is often the center of attention. We plan parties around food, we visit different countries and part of the cultural experience is food. For many of us, it’s also a source of weight gain or loss, it’s something that brings us happiness and we sometimes seek comfort in it during bad days.
But in the backcountry, food is fuel. Your body digests it and uses it for energy to help you make it up and over a hard pass, to the summit, to camp for the night, to your destination and then back to the car. This is the best way to think of food for the backcountry. This will also help you finetune your meal prepping skills!
Here are a couple of things to understand when planning your meals.
Backpacking is not a place to skimp on calories. So if you typically follow a low cal diet at home, don’t worry about following it for the backpacking trip and then keep going once you get back!
When backpacking I burn roughly 3,000 to 4,000 calories depending on miles, elevation gain, pack weight, and so forth. This number will vary for everyone depending on you, but this is just to give you a better understanding of the importance of calories. The best way to find out how much you’re burning per day is by wearing a fitness watch with a heart rate monitor like a Fitbit, Garmin or AppleWatch. This will factor in how many calories you’re burning by living for your gender, age, height, weight, etc. and your activity level.
Regardless of the exact specifications, you don’t want to skimp on calories because you’ll be limiting your bodies fuel supply.
At home, it may seem easy to have 5,000 calories. Have a couple of pizzas and go to In N Out a couple of times too. But in the backcountry, you don’t have that luxury (without dragging the extra weight).
When meal prepping, focus on calories per ounce of weight. Aim to carry 1 to 1.5 pounds of food per day. Foods like freeze dried meals, mac and cheese, trail mix, candy, Hot Cheetos, cheese, and tortillas are good options. Below I list out my backcountry meal plan.
Even if you’re vegetarian, vegan, keto, gluten-free, etc. you can skill backpack and fuel your body around your dietary restrictions.
If you’re planning on starting the diet (like keto) before a backpacking trip, it’s best to wait to give your body a chance to adjust and for you to learn how to balance your diet. I hiked, backpacked, camped and traveled as a vegetarian for 8 years! Totally doable. It’s just about maximizing calories and macronutrients.
Breakdown of Macronutrients
Your body processes carbs including sugar, as quick release energy. But not all carbs are created equal.
Refined carbs such as candy are processed quicker by your body and give you a boost of energy to help get you up and over a difficult pass or to the summit.
Unrefined carbs like quinoa and brown rice are released slower which help keep your energy levels sustained for the hike and helps prevent a crash.
Your body processes fat and uses it as a sustained energy source. This will fuel your body for the long duration needed to sustain energy on backpacking and hiking trips. When you go to the gym, you go for an hour, then you go home, and rest. But when backpacking and hiking, you’re putting physical stress to your body often for 6-12 hours, and back to back for days. Fat fuels your body continuously for a long duration. Low fat diets are a trend, but the trail is not somewhere you want to go low fat.
Just like with carbs, not all fats are created equal. There are healthy fats and bad fats. Bad fats like hydrogenated oils, trans fats, and shortening promote inflammation which slows recovery. But omega-3 rich foods such as flax seed oil, coconut oil, avocado, bone broth, nuts and nut butters, olives and seeds help combat inflammation, decreasing joint pain, stiffness and swelling.
Protein helps your body and muscles recover and rebuild from the physical stress of hiking. You don’t just need to wait until the end of the day to have protein, have it throughout the day. Add protein powder to your breakfast coffee and oatmeal, jerky, peanut butter, tuna packets, chicken packets, etc. to your meals to ensure you get enough grams of protein per day.
The typical recommendation for protein intake is (0.8 gram of protein) x (weight in kilograms). Since you will be exercising, you should eat more than this recommended dose. Consult your doctor for more specific recommendations for your health needs.
Even if you’re vegetarian or vegan, make sure that you’re getting enough complete protein which contain the nine essential amino acids per day. With a primary plant based diet, eat a variety of beans, grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts. You don’t need to eat foods that contain all nine amino acids per meal, as long as you’re eating them throughout the day.
Amino acids contribute to your body being able to develop protein and are important in promoting wound repairs and encouraging healthy tissue in muscles, bones, skin and hair.
The nine essential amino acids are Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Valine, and Histidine. Foods that contain all nine include soy, whey, quinoa, chia seeds, fish, chicken, beef, eggs, buckwheat, pumpkin seeds, and black beans.
On the hike usually, you won’t be too hungry. Sometimes I’ve had to force myself to eat dinner even when I wasn’t hungry just to help my body recover, because I know if I don’t, the following day I’ll feel weaker and move slower.
Often when we return from a backpacking trip or a long hike, we experience hiker hunger. Longer hiker like thru-hikers may experience this on the trail. Because our bodies are under so much physical stress from the back to back hiking, and we are fairly calorie deficient during the trip compared to how much we burn, our bodies will basically be extremely hungry. You’ll want to eat everything and anything, this is totally normal, it’s just our bodies refueling and recovering. So when you get off the trail, treat yourself. Have fruit, have a burger, fries, a green juice, an omelet, and help your body recover.
Preparing Backpacking Meals
When car camping, you often have a campfire, can bring a heavier stove, add pots and pans, bring a cooler with veggies. But backpacking you need to focus on foods that won’t spoil and that are easy to make. Tuna packets and tortillas are fast and for freeze dried meals and ramen you just boil and add water.
There are a variety of options for cooking sets. From Sea to Summit pots to JetBoils.
Here is what I use in my cooking set.
This stove option is probably one of the more popular options among backpackers. It’s lightweight, small and very easy to use. You need to use an iso propane tank with it and you’re all set for boiling water to re-hydrate meals, making backcountry eggs, brewing coffee, and so forth.
Iso Propane Tank
You can’t buy this online, but make sure it’s iso propane, not just propane. I made that mistake once. MSR and JetBoil are the common ones you’ll see in REI. There are a variety of sizes depending on how many uses you’ll need. Either brand works with the MSR Pocket Rocket Stove.
There are a variety of different ones all depends on personal preference! I have the humangear GoBites Uno Spork. All I need on the trail is a spoon and a fork, so this solves that need. It also comes in fun colors (aqua is my favorite) and it weighs .5oz!
Sea to Summit makes compressible bowls, cups, and pots. This is such a huge space saver in your backpack! This one is specially designed with a metal bottom so you can put it over the fire on your camp stove. It’s only 1.3 liters and large enough to re-hydrate two freeze dried meals. You can also make your ramen or other pasta straight in the pot! It’s also easy to clean on and off the trail.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Repackaging your backpacking meals from their original packaging into basic Ziplock bags will help you shed some weight, but mainly it will help you save space. If you’re camping in an area like Yosemite where bear canisters are required, stuffing 7 days worth of food in a BV500 canister can be a challenge in addition to all of your toiletries, but repackaging food will help.
Keep one or two of the baggies that the freeze dried meals came in and just rinse and reuse for your meals. Or empty the container into your pot and cook and eat straight from there. To rinse either one, just use some filtered water and clean the baggie or the pot and dump the excess into a cat hole away from water sources.
Bring spices, a small bottle of hot sauce, ketchup or mayo packets, etc. These little additions can help give backpacking meals a kick. Especially when you’re going on longer trips and the meals can get boring.
Fresh food adds weight and often can be a problem since you won’t have refrigeration and it doesn’t hold for very long. But on a shorter backpacking trip, or even for the first few days of a longer trip, you can bring things like apples and carrots to get some nutrients. Remember to leave no trace and pack out the apple cores and carrot ends.
Leave these at home. Cans add unnecessary weight, especially since you can either repackage everything, find a not-canned alternative, or a freeze dried alternative. Instead of tuna or chicken cans, opt-in for tuna or chicken packets. Instead of canned chili, get a freeze dried or dehydrated chili.
Instead of buying pre-made dehydrated or freeze dried meals, you can make your own! This will give you more control of what to eat and what goes into each meal. But can be a time consuming process.
Meal Plan Ideas
Coffee with coconut oil
Half of a freeze dried meal
Granola or Cereal
Pizza! Tortilla, pizza sauce, cheese and salami or on longer trips, leave out the pizza sauce.
Tortilla and hummus
Ramen and other instant soups
Instant mashed potatoes
Burrito - add something like the Chicken Fajita Bowl to a tortilla
Salmon rice bowl (rice and Patagonia Provisions Wild Pink Salmon)
Jerky and other hard meats
Candy (Peanut M&Ms are my choice)
Easy Greens from Naturgel (They don’t do much for calories, but if you eat healthy at home, they’re a great way to add a boost of nutrients such as wheatgrass, goji berries, spirulina, and so forth).
Cheese (WorldMarket sells individually wrapped cheeses that aren’t refrigerated).
Nuts and seeds (almond and peanuts)
Dried fruit (I like AlpineAire Foods Strawberry Bliss Freeze-Dried Fruit)
Fruit leather strips
Crackers (Goldfish, Triscuits, etc.)
Water enhancers (I like adding NUUN hydration tablets to my filtered water)
Nut butter (I like Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter).