Trail food: “What's in your backpack?

One of the most asked questions I hear is: “What do eat on the trail?” I started to write some Tweets about this yesterday:

Tweets, by their very nature are brief and can lack refined grammar structure, but you get the idea. Men and women on the trail eat many of the same things, but the women do have a strong leaning to things chocolate.

Deciding what to bring along for subsistence on a long hike can be challenging. More often than not, it is dictated by one's economical situation. For those with limited funds, the choices are very limited. First there is the decision around whether to cook meals or just carry cold foods. Cold foods have distinct advantages on the trail: there is no need to carry a stove and fuel, plus, one can eat quick meals. The downside of eating cold is obvious, it can prove boring and in cold weather, the additional heat from warm food can be a real comfort.

In my own case, I did carry a stove and would often have a warm meal at night. On a few occasions I even stopped along the way to make hot tea or cocoa. On some of the colder mornings, I would prepare hot oatmeal, and I have to admit, really appreciated it.

Most mornings laziness won out and I would gobble down a Pop Tart (cold) or bagels and cream cheese or peanut butter. I'd wash it down with Gatorade. It all really depended on my mood and how rushed I was.

Lunch was almost always, cold. If I could carry something from an overnight stay, it would be a deli-prepared sandwich. Otherwise it was usually more bagels, or tortilla flat bread, and tuna or canned herring. To make things more interesting, I would also allow myself the luxury of some good grade cookies for desert.

Snacks along the way were usually a candy bar, such as Snickers, Milky Way, or Paydays. In normal, everyday life, I never eat these things, but on the trail, I had them often. The body just craves calories.

My evening meal was typically pasta or bean based. Most often, due to availability and cost, the side dish meals won out. Even though the packages indicate cooking times of 15-20 minutes for many of them, I found that if I boiled water and then just let the meal sit in the water, with the stove turned off, they would still cook adequately. Instead of the recommended butter or margarine, I used olive oil. Olive oil is high in calories and worked well as a substitute. The biggest difficulty was finding small enough quantities of olive oil to carry in the pack. When in town, I would usually try to find other hikers that were also looking for some olive oil and then we would split the container. Often, containers of olive oil could be found in the hostels along the way.

The evening meal was always the largest meal of the day. Accompanying the pasta or beans, I would have something bread-based, as well as packaged meat or fish, such as tuna, sardines, corned beef, or pepperoni. I tried to have variety. As the hike up the AT progressed, I found myself cooking more and more and really enjoying it. Best of all, it takes very little cooking energy and yet offers tremendous nutritional energy. In my mountain bike racing days, I always had on the day before a race, and it proved a valuable ally. I preferred the because it came with a flavor packet. I would remove it from it's box, since the boxes are half empty and would take up valuable backpack space, and repackage the in a plastic zip bag. The bags could be used over and over again.

Each hiker finds what works for him or her. I heard of one fellow that hiked the entire AT eating nothing but peanut butter. It does have most of the nutrients needed, but I would think it a bit boring. To each, his or her own.

What I ate on the trail worked for me. I'd love to hear from you readers, what works for you? Write a comment and let the rest of us know.

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  • 10/30/2012 9:39 PM Bob wrote:
    Hi Dennis,
    I read your last two posts with great interest. First the hammock, I was wondering about sleeping on your stomach and dang if you did not answer that one. It is such a cool way to sleep in the mountains, I sent the Hennessey Hammocks link to another ham who wants to do some camping and outdoor ham operating too. He was jazzed with the prospect. I must admit, after your description on the blog, I am thinking one of those bad boys might be right for me too.

    Next was food. I was expecting you to talk about freeze dried food from REI or such. Of course after looking at the price of the stuff, I can understand why you went cous cous and pop tarts. The last time I went backpacking, I had way underestimated the the amount of food/calories I was craving. Summer before last at the 2011 Salmoncon, I went on a day hike with a bunch of hams on a SOTA activation and I was surprised at myself. It was just a day hike, but when we got down off the mountain, I could not stuff enough food into my face. This last summer, I re-read Three Hundred Zeros and I think the food aspect was what created the most questions for me. I was glad to see your post on food, it answered a lot of my questions.
    Bob AD7BP
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