Hiking all day causes a person to expend a lot of energy. To keep healthy and feeling good while you are out in the wilderness, you need to consume a higher amount of food and water than you normally do. An average backpacking trip with a normal level of exercise requires a calorie intake of 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day. For cold weather backpacking with strenuous exercise, that number can be as high as 6,000 calories a day. Generally, a person will need 2-4 quarts of water a day.
It is equally important that you eat a balanced diet while on the trail. This includes carbohydrates, fats and proteins. A good amount of fiber should also be included to help keep you regular. (It’s hard enough to have a bowel movement in the wilderness without getting yourself constipated and feeling miserable the whole trip!)
The carbs are easy to get from fruit, grains, pasta, candy or energy bars. The fats can be obtained from nuts, oil or margarine. Proteins are obtained from meats, milk products, nuts, eggs and fish. Fiber can be obtained from vegetables, some grains and cereals, and fruits.
Backpacking trips in hot weather or long trips play a factor in being able to bring fresh food with you. Generally, several food types will last a few days in the heat, but it is a good idea to know what will keep if you are not inclined to eat freeze-dried food the whole trip.
Fresh fruit is a treat on the trail, but it is probably better to stick with the harder fruits like apples, oranges or tangerines. These will vary on how long they last with apples being the longer lasting of these. Dried fruits will last a long time. Cheese can be taken on a trip, but keep in mind that the lower the moisture count in the cheese, the longer it will stay fresh. Parmesan cheese does not need to be refrigerated as it has a low moisture count. If you enjoy cheddar, Colby or Swiss, get the wax covered wheels or bricks and they will last about a week out of the refrigerator. Most backpackers will carry dried milk, but if water is a problem where you are going, you can carry cans of the ultra-high-temperature pasteurized milk. Once these are open, they should be refrigerated, so plan your meals to use the whole can. Meats that will last a while without being refrigerated are hard salami, smoked meats, jerky and pepperoni. Of course, canned meats will last until they are opened. Eggs will last 2-3 days on a trip. You can carry them cracked open in a water bottle that is topped off with water to remove air, but then it can sometimes be difficult to separate individual eggs for different meals. I like taking them in the plastic containers you can buy especially for eggs as this gives more versatility. You can also carry hard boiled eggs for a few days if the weather is not hot and you have an insulated water container. Just drop the peeled eggs into a wide-mouthed water container and pour cold water with a few ice cubes over them.
It is probably a good idea to have your menus planned out ahead of time to save you laboring over what you want to make for supper after a long hike. If it is a simple meal that can all be cooked together, pack all the ingredients into a Ziploc bag. Then when you get to your camp site, you can just pull it out and drop it into a pan, adding water as needed. Be sure and label the bag so you are not guessing what it is towards the end of your trip. You can also package the appropriate amount of pancake mix for breakfast in separate Ziploc bags. The same thing with macaroni or other pastas. Try and get rid of any bulky boxes before you leave by re-packaging in plastic bags.
One-pot meals are the easiest to cook and work well for a group. You can check out our camping recipes for ideas. If you can only cook with a stove then you will need to pick meals that are fairly quick to cook. If you have the luxury of having a fire or a grill then your choices are almost unlimited. You can always make meals ahead of time and freeze them, but they should probably be used within the first 24 hours. It works well to place it in a hard plastic container that is well secured.
Bring cereals that you like, but that maybe don’t crush easily. Instant oatmeal packs work out well. If you like a healthier version, simply place serving-sized portions of regular instant oatmeal in a Ziploc bag and add brown sugar, a little powdered milk, cinnamon, raisins, dried apples, or anything else that takes your fancy and when you are ready to make it, just add the right amount of hot water.
If you want bread that travels well, pick hard crusted breads such as baguettes or crusty sourdough loaves. Smaller breads that do well are bagels, English muffins, tortillas or the flavored wraps and pita bread. Left over pancakes can be carried and used that day for rolled sandwiches-sweet or savory. Don’t forget peanut butter, jelly, squeeze bottle margarine, and honey. Avoid any glass jars and use squeeze bottles as much as possible to save on utensil use.
Minute Rice, Ramen noodles, small pasta like macaroni, instant mashed potatoes, dehydrated vegetables, beans, and Risotto are all easy to carry. Canned beans are heavy, but dried beans take a longer time to cook, so weigh your options. (No pun intended.) Dried beans can be soaked in a water bottle while you are hiking and be ready to cook by dinner time. Be sure and bring plenty of spices so your meal will be palatable. Salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion salt, chili powder, oregano, basil, cumin, sweet curry (my husbands favorite spice used even on eggs), cayenne pepper and any other spices need for your menu.
Don’t forget sweet treats. You can bake/make things ahead of time-cookies, marshmallow treats, or bar cookies. The small Jell-O-brand Jell-O or pudding packages can be taken, but remember you will have to pack all your trash out, so keep this in mind. Energy bars or cereal bars will also work.
There are several miscellaneous things you should bring. Olive oil, soy sauce (try to save the packets from your Chinese take-out as this should be refrigerated after opening), ketchup, mustard, Tabasco sauce, vinegar, vanilla, whatever sugar you prefer, syrup for your pancakes, tea and coffee and powdered drinks such as cocoa, lemonade, Gatorade, iced tea, or Tang.
If you are backpacking in higher altitudes, remember that water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes. Add 1 minute of cooking time for each 1,000 feet of elevation for foods that normally take 20 minutes to cook. If it takes more than 20 minutes to cook, add 2 minutes per 1,000 feet of elevation. This will impact the amount of fuel you carry.
You don’t have to eat expensive freeze-dried food if you take a little time and effort to plan ahead and have your meals semi-prepped before you start out. If you are not hiking long distances or are car camping with day hikes, you can carry a Dutch-oven and cook great meals and even bake bread or biscuits. Learn to eat well even in the backcountry!