When choosing food for the trip, remember that weight should be one of your most important considerations. Avoid cans; they will be heavy and their smell will attract animals. There are many different makers of the newer, much-improved dehydrated backpacking meals available at most outdoor supply stores today. Many are very good if somewhat pricey. For the ease of preparation and cleanup, however, they are a screaming deal. If you would like to get more creative, see the recipe books in Camper’s Cookbooks.
One site impresses me enough to want to share it. TrailCooking.com offers excellent alternatives to the pricey dehydrated meals I mentioned above. The meals are lightweight, tasty and easy to prepare, and you can tell they were “designed” by an actual backpacker who carries her gear on her back! The site also includes excellent tips and guidelines on dehydrating, meal planning, gear, and packing.
Breakfasts and dinners are the easiest meals to plan since you are usually at camp where you are set up to cook a meal. This is where the prepared meals excel. Even with these meals, be sure you read the directions before the trip to make sure the preparation is uncomplicated. Sometimes the directions call for frying something in oil. First of all, you are taking quite a risk carrying oil in your backpack, and second, a frying pan is best left at home or used while you are car-camping. If you do carry any oil, be sure to use a reliable container, such as a small Nalgene bottle with a solid screw cap, and then put that into a Ziploc bag. I know many wise people who prepare at home the meals they plan to take on their trip. You can’t run out to the local market to pick something else up if you change your mind!
Lunch and snacks are often much more difficult to plan, but let me stress that variety is extremely important! Don’t just pack several pounds of trail mix and call it good. After your trip you may never be able to even look at the stuff again! The same goes for all those energy bars on the market. I wouldn’t plan on eating more than one a day on a multi-day trip; they get old real fast. What sounds good to you will also vary with what conditions you will be hiking in. For example, if you are hiking in warm temperatures you will perspire, your body losing valuable salts. Therefore, you will crave salty foods much more than the sweets that taste so good at home. Even chocoholics lose their craving for chocolate while hiking in warm weather. The sweets will still sound good in the evening after dinner while you are relaxing, but not during the middle of the day. If you are hiking in cold weather, your body will require more calories to burn—something that sweets provide quite nicely. Since most people will be hiking in warmer temperatures, I will cover the snacks that satisfy the salt needs and cravings.
During the day while you are hiking, stick to food that is easy to digest. Your muscles require good blood flow during physical activity. When you eat, your digestive track also requires blood flow to digest the food you’ve ingested. The heavier the food, such as proteins and fats, the longer digestion requires. Your muscles will hog the blood flow, leaving your stomach to fend for itself. Your stomach puts digestion on hold and the food will just sit there, unless of course it decides to throw it up! Not really a very pleasant thought, is it? Doesn’t feel too great either…
One of the worst culprits is often salami. Salami has tons of fat and is high in animal protein, which makes it extremely hard to digest at the best of times. If you must have them, save these items for dinner time when your body will have a whole night to digest them. If you do eat meat on the trail, I recommend that you have the jerky and sticks that are made with turkey or chicken; they are much easier to digest than beef or pork.
During the day, stick with high carbohydrate foods, such as crackers, pretzels, and granola that provide energy without weighing you down. For some protein during the day, the majority of the people I’ve been with seem to tolerate peanut butter and string cheese reasonably well. Instead of carrying a jar of peanut butter, get one of the refillable tubes that open up at the bottom for filling. You can find these tubes in many outdoor stores and can purchase them from outdoor supply stores such as Campmor, REI and others. Then you don’t even need anything to spread it with—just squeeze it on! Buy your string cheese individually wrapped; they last much longer this way.
Another staple of hikers has always been dried fruit. That’s fine if you are drinking a lot of water at the same time. Your stomach must re-hydrate the fruit in order to digest it; therefore, if you don’t drink enough water, your stomach will actually steal the fluids from the rest of your body to complete digestion. This in turn will dehydrate you and make you light headed. If you don’t replenish the fluids, you can get very sick with cramps and headaches, which eventually lead to fainting! In the desert, water is hard to come by, so it is wise to save the majority of your dried fruit for camp when you have water more readily available. Putting your dried fruit into oatmeal at breakfast is a good way to include fruit in your diet, since cooking re-hydrates the fruit along with the grain. And it adds some very nice flavor to your breakfast.
Another mistake people commonly make is in the amount of food they’ll carry and cook. It seems everybody is afraid they will starve to death on the trail. Actually what happens is they don’t eat nearly as much as they think they will. If you’ve ever done aerobic exercise, you know that you are not hungry afterwards. Guess what folks, backpacking is an aerobic exercise! On the trail, I always have to encourage people to snack often to give their body the quick energy it needs. Hikers will often buy the two-person size meal to feed just one. It’s a good idea to cook a smaller amount than you think you can eat, then eat crackers or cookies to satisfy your appetite. In backcountry areas, once you cook the food you either have to eat it or carry it out. It’s horrible to have to force the food down once you feel stuffed or eat it for breakfast the following day! That’s also the best reason to test food before you hit the trail. You certainly don’t want to have to eat something you are sick of. The trail is not the place to experiment!
What you drink is important as well. Coffee, alcohol, tea, and sodas that have caffeine can actually dehydrate you. If you’ve ever noticed how often you have to urinate after drinking these beverages, you can see that your body is not just unloading what you’ve just finished, but is actually stealing fluid from our body and disposing of it as well. When you are engaged in physically demanding exercise, you need high quality fluids to replenish what your body is losing.
You never see athletes drinking a Pepsi or Mountain Dew on the sidelines at the games, do you? No, you see them drinking Gatorade or some other electrolyte-replacement drink. Most of us at the Grand Canyon mix our electrolyte replacement drink half strength. So if the package says that it makes two quarts, we actually make four quarts with it. Water is just fine too; just make sure you are eating enough salty foods at the same time.
Many people I’ve hiked with suffer from caffeine-addiction and will get a headache if they don’t have their coffee in the morning. I always stress that they try to keep it to one cup to lessen its diuretic effect. Herb teas without caffeine are great for hiking trips. Cocoa has some caffeine, but it also has a substance called theoophylline which actually relaxes the your smooth muscles and overrides the stimulating effect of the smaller amounts of caffeine that cocoa contains. This makes it great as a drink before bedtime, and it does often hit the spot!
For some good cookbooks for backcountry meals, visit my Camper’s Cookbooks page. You’ll find cookbooks actually geared towards backpackers—not someone whose going to be carrying a cast iron Dutch oven!
Interested in the ease of some of the dehydrated meals? You can find them at most outdoor stores, such as REI and Campmor. Amazon also carries an excellent selection of Backpacking Food which includes Backpacker’s Pantry, Mountain House, Harmony House, AlpineAire and Natural High.
- Campmor – Campmor does have a retail store in Paramus, NJ, but the vast majority of their business is done through their mail order catalog. The catalog is not fancy, just newsprint with drawings, but their huge selection of food, equipment and clothing, and good prices make it a wonderful resource. They always have clearance items for remarkable prices available only online. Worth checking out.
- REI (Recreational Equipment Inc) – A cooperative store carrying a huge selection of backcountry food and outdoor adventure gear and clothing-everything from climbing, backpacking, bicycling, whitewater and sea-kayaking gear to the clothing needed to be comfortable in your outdoor escapades. They now have stores throughout much of the country as well as catalog and mail order sales. Be sure to check out their outlet site for some great deals.
- Wilderness Dining – Camping food, backpacking food, experts in adventure cuisine! Freeze dried and dehydrated food, and cookware for backpacking and camping. They carry Mary Jane’s Farm, AlpineAire Foods, Backpacker’s Pantry, Cabin Cuisine, Camp Foods, Enertia Trail Foods, Just Tomatoes, Natural High, and Portion Pac brands of backpacker’s food.
Here are some of the major brands you’ll find for outdoor cuisine:
- AlpineAire – AlpineAire Foods manufacturers the finest, all natural, shelf-stable foods in the world. We produce freeze dried, dehydrated and “self-heating”, ready to eat, entrées for long term food storage, emergency preparedness, backpacking, camping, hunting and fishing.
- Backpacker’s Pantry – Backpacker’s Pantry has been producing meals for outdoor adventurers since the 1950’s. A great selection of imaginative entrees feature simple add-boiling-water preparation and innovative stand-up pouches for in-bag preparation. They have succeeded in finding ways to offer a variety of food textures in their meals — something hikers often crave. Crunchy nachos and succulent pineapple chunks are some examples.
- Harvest Foodworks – Harvest Foodworks offers a extensive selection dried and freeze-dried meals. Their Alfredo Primavera is consistently rated one of the most popular meals in comparison taste tests conducted by Backpacker’s magazine. The meals are produced in Canada, and are noted for their large serving size, and excellent value.
- Mountain House® – The Mountain House line of freeze dried foods include breakfast, lunch and dinner entrées; vegetables; meats; snacks and desserts.
- PackIt Gourmet – All meal packs are designed to generously feed two hearty appetites (I’ve read that this is optimistic—test before you head out on the trail). Taste, texture and appearance are all carefully evaluated before an ingredient can be become a part of our menu. Organic and natural ingredients are used whenever possible.
If you are going to be hiking outside of the Corridor (Bright Angel, North and South Kaibab Trails), you will need to carry some form of protection for your food. Although “ammo” cans will remain in place for food storage at Indian Garden, Bright Angel, and Cottonwood Campgrounds, the Park Service has removed them from all other inner canyon campsites due to hikers using them as trash cans. This is a common problem that never ceases to amaze me. When I worked at Phantom and Indian Garden ranger stations, people would periodically leave their trash instead of packing it out. Argh! So, if you are heading to Hermit or Monument or one of the other campsites outside of the Corridor, you’ll need to carry some sort of rodent-proof food storage system. Hanging your stuff sacks on a bar or tree will simply not be enough protection!