Second Chances – Part 2

If you are planing on a day hike all you really need to take with you on the trail are some snacks and you’ll be set. I talked about some options in my first instalment of Second Chances – showing you how you can easily create your own snacks without having to resort to store bought ones that are full of sugar and other unnecessary ingredients (having said that, if you are really strapped for time one healthy alternative in my books would be the LaraBar). However, if your partner is a crazy thru-hiker you might end up having to accompany him (or her) on overnighters to protect him from various predatory “animals” that might show up on the trail ;-). As a result you’ll find yourself in a situation where snack food is not quite enough and you’ll need some cooked meals with you as well.

Normally, healthy nutrition is not an issue for me – I am quite comfortable in the kitchen – a typical meal would contain baked sweet potato wedges, sautéed onions and mushrooms and grilled salmon. As you can see this is a simple meal that is minimally processed – the food is cooked with the use of natural herbs and spices. However, as you can probably gather – if you have any experience hiking and/or backpacking – a meal like that is not suitable for the trail mostly due to its weight and portability. If you are hiking long distances the goal is to try to minimize the weight on your back, so that you can be comfortable and be able to travel far.  So, my challenge with the meals was to come up with something that meets 2 main criteria:

1. Lightweight –  to minimize the weight on my back (or my partner’s back – depending who carries what) as this directly corresponds to the likelihood of my enjoyment of this activity,
2. Nutrition – to make sure I don’t internally resent the activity for eating foods I normally wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole – of course, I am exaggerating, but I do want to eat as close to my regular meals as possible to help me succeed in making backpacking enjoyable.

I’m happy to say that I think I have found a solution, but in order for you to understand my dilemma let me show you why I don’t want to settle for a typical, no brainer trail food that many hikers /backpackers take with them.

Typically a backpacker’s meal will contain some type of pasta or rice dish that is light and easy to cook. I can only speak for the thru-hiker I’ve observed so his meals are going to be the examples I give. I’ve seen him buy the Knorr Sidekicks pasta or rice dishes as they are quick to prepare, weigh very little and are calorically dense. At first sight there is nothing wrong with a bit of pasta or rice with some added flavour. But if you are like me you will head straight to the ingredient list which is quite lengthy for a pasta dish. I will highlight in bold the ingredients that are questionable to my digestive system for ease of reading.

1. INGREDIENTS: typical trail meal vs. my option

1042-309698-83237996_Knorr_Sidekicks_CreamyParmesan_124g_3DWheat pasta, natural flavour, salt, corn starch, corn syrup solids, modified milk ingredients, dehydrated parmesan and romano cheeses, sodium phosphate, monosodium glutamate, sunflower oil, maltodextrin, dextrose, garlic powder, dried parsley, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, monoglycerides, tocopherol, spices, soy lecithin and sulphites.

As you can see out of 22 ingredients (which is a lot for a pasta dish BTW.) 14 are unnecessary in my books – that’s more than half of the ingredients. I am not going to go into detail of why each of these ingredients should not make it into my pasta meal – I’d rather concentrate on showing  how can get a better meal without them. But just for argument’s sake I will say that if an ingredient’s list contains all types of sugars unnecessary in my savoury meal and if I can’t pronounce an ingredient’s name or don’t recognize it as a food, I don’t want or need to eat it. The entire packet will run anywhere between 400-600 calories with most of them coming from carbs at about 100g-120g.

So to make this dish more up my alley I was initially going to use a veggie soup mix – while ingredient-wise IMG_20160905_142245902_HDR-01it was a perfect choice, I got stumped by the cooking directions that required simmering for 30 minutes (see bullet number 2 for reasoning behind the unsuitability of such a long cooking time). So I decided to assemble my own pasta dish that was both light and contained only the ingredients I am willing to eat and here is what I came up with:

For my pasta I opted for bean based pasta that you can easily find in specialty stores such as the Bulk Barn, but you could also substitute for flour based pasta if you prefer higher carbohydrate content. Since there is nothing in the pasta other than water and the beans there is very little flavour in it per se – so I decided to create my own flavour packet composed of: spices found my my kitchen (salt, pepper, Mrs Dash) + miso soup mix + dried veggies + mushroom and quinoa cream (pictured below). The last one is a very interesting ingredient that will give my pasta dish some umpf and will thicken it up a bit without adding any chemicals, preservatives or sugars. You can really play around with the flavours though – in my book the sky is the limit.

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These are the pasta options I am picking from. The Black Bean Spaghetti as well as the Organic Soybean Spaghetti you see on the left and on the right are both from Explore Asian Authentic Cuisine and they contain nothing but beans and water – you can get them locally at Bulk Barn and a package will run you about $4.50, so a bit more expensive than regular pasta, but keep in mind I will only use them for overnight hikes. What I like about them is that they make a complete meal on their own – they contain high protein (about 20g per serving) so you really don’t need to add any animal protein to it, but if you wish to do so I highly recommend the Rip’n Ready Pouch Tuna as it will also add a nice combination of flavour to your meal . I have added some for more volume and flavour couple of times and one time I just ate the pasta and both times I felt satisfied. The cooking time is very minimal – once you boil your water ( am only using enough water to cover the pasta, not the recommended 8 cups) you will need to simmer the pasta for about 5 minutes stirring it occasionally. The reason I am only using enough to cover the pasta is that I don’t want to have to strain the pasta and I only need enough liquid to help thicken the dish with my flavouring packet. So, this pasta meets with my approval as it’s technically just beans and spices, it is also very light (I use a serving of 50g) and requires minimal cooking time – which both meet the hiker prerequisite.

 

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To flavour my pasta dish I am using spices (duh) found on my spice rack, Tofu Miso Soup Mix and this little gem from GoGo Quinoa which is just a soup mix on its own, but I am using a serving of 20g to add to my pasta. The ingredients in this soup mix are short of spectacular for their simplicity: Organic amaranth flour, organic quinoa flakes, organic white and/or red and/or black quinoa royal grains, chopped mushrooms, mushroom powder, organic quinoa flour, carrots, organic onion, parsley, salt, organic garlic, organic turmeric.

And this is what my meal looks like assembled and prepared on the trail:

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The unofficial weight of this complete meal is about 80g which is lighter than the conventional store bought pasta dish from Knorr which can weigh anywhere between 130-150g.

 

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Here is my meal in all its glory. It doesn’t look like much in the picture, but it is actually quite satiating at 314 calories, 41g of carbs, 4g of fat and 29g of protein. Couple of times I’ve added some tuna to it and other times I decided to crumble some of my home made Seed Crackers (recipe coming soon) into it for a bit of a crunch and higher fat. I could not be happier with the outcome of this dish.

Let’s move on to my other cooked meal which is breakfast – it is still a work in progress, but an improvement on the typical instant oatmeal that you see people eat – instant oatmeal such as the Quaker Harvest. The ingredients in these packets are as follows:

32631039001_HHM_FNO_6ct_EngMultigrain blend (whole grain rolled oats, rolled barley, whole grain rolled rye), sugar, chopped dates (dates, dextrose), whole grain rolled wheat, whole flaxseed, brown sugar, roasted pecans (pecans, cottonseed oil), oat hull fibre, oat flour, salt, natural flavours (milk), guar gum, cinnamon, calcium carbonate (thickener).Vitamins and minerals: iron (coated with hydrogenated soybean oil), niacinamide, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), folic acid.

The problem in here is high content of sugar in various forms. I know you need energy while preforming physical activity and sugar will give you lots of energy, however with simple sugars it will be short lived – you will experience so called sugar crash. In addition, oats are already a complex carbohydrate that will provide you with the energy you need to push through during your hike or other physical activity, so why would you want to spike your blood sugars unnecessarily high and then crash and crave more sugar? Even my thru-hiker admitted to his breakfast being cloyingly sweet and he has a sweet tooth.

My first take on breakfast on the trail is a mix of oat bran and quick oats with the addition of protein:

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The prepackaged meal weighs about 100g which is something I am working on improving. I was actually pretty annoyed once I found out the weight that I wasn’t able to stay under 100g, but I am already researching ways to improve this. The smaller bag is a mix of 30g of oat bran and 10g of quick oats and the bigger back is my flavour packet that contains 30g of protein powder, 5g unsweetened cocoa powder, 2.5g of cinnamon, 10g of walnuts and 10g dried figs. I decided to separate the 2 components same way as I did with my pasta dish for the feasibility of cooking. I found cooking the oat bran and oats mix separate from the flavour packet made it more efficient at deciding when the meal is thoroughly cooked. What I would like to improve upon in this meal is the use of the protein powder which depending which one you pick, it might have extra unnecessary ingredients. I’ve been looking into the possibility of acquiring powdered yogurt for the protein content in my breakfast, but it was tad too late prior to our Outport trail adventure.

 

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Forgive the post-backpacking picture featuring my breakfast, but it seems that I have forgotten to snap a picture of my breakfast en route,  so I had to make a serving at home – oops. So, if you are wondering if I carried that monstrosity of a bowl on my back the answer is: “Hell no!” 😉 The reason I forgot to snap a picture of my breakfast while backpacking is simple: I was more concerned with inhaling the food and taking advantage of the good light to take pictures 🙂 In any case this is what my breakfast looked like on the trail, minus the bowl. I ended up crumbling a quest bar into this mix – this is the part I would like to improve upon, as well. Quest bars are little devilish creatures that I learned about from the fitness industry. They are not entirely good for you as they are heavily processed but they taste so darn great and I have a weakness for them. They become so melty and gooey in hot oatmeal that I couldn’t resist indulging. But what ends up happening is that the protein content of this meal goes through the roof with a quest bar in it – about 60g and that’s just not necessary and makes you bloated and toot-y 😉 The whole meal with the questbar is worth 573 calories, 64g of carbs, 20g of fat and 54g of protein – pretty darn filling.  

2. COOKING TIME AND WEIGHT:
Another issue to consider is the amount of cooking the food requires which directly corresponds to the fuel you’re going to need to carry- and the more fuel you need the more weight you will carry. So when considering the food, you need to keep in mind the duration of cooking. So for example brown rice would be a clear choice for anybody who cares about nutrition (brown better than white for the fibre content). However, I cannot bring brown rice on the trail because it needs a simmering flame for about 20 minutes! So I needed to come up with something much less fuel dependent and maybe even modify the cooking method to use as little fuel as possible. Both my meals required a cup of water to be brought to a boiling point and then for the main meal I had to simmer for about 5 minutes and for my breakfast I had to simmer about 2-3 minutes. So all in all minimal time on the stove. Plus, we alternated between an isobutane-based stove and an alcohol stove to make best use of both fuels.

You might be thinking that you could eliminate the cooking time on the trail by cooking rice/oats/pasta at home and packing it already cooked. Trust me, I’ve thought of this as well just to be told it’s a good idea in principle but not in application. By cooking a relatively light ingredient such as rice you’d be adding weight to it and that will make your pack heavier. Try it –  weigh a cup of dry rice, cook it as per directions on your bag of rice and weigh it cooked – it will be much heavier because you’ve just added water to it. Backpacking commandment number 1 is to never carry water – it’s heavy – instead you find your water sources on the trail and treat your water.

And this is how I made sure my hiking experience was a positive one – I made my trail food meet my nutrition goals.

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Here is a snapshot of all my meals for a 3 day backpacking trip to the Outport Trail in Terra Nova National Park. Plus 2 Larabars and required coffee.

I do have to add, though, that I had taken too much snack food with me and did not really mathematically determined what exactly I would need to eat during this backpacking trip – the same way I do it at home. The reason for that is my inexperience in hiking long distances. I’ve naturally overestimated the food I would need to consume to keep walking. While at home and preforming my regular activities such as work and gym training I know exactly what my body needs, but I don’t know what it needs to feel good and at highest performance when hiking. So, there were moments when I ate just became the food was there and needed to be eaten, rather than because I needed the nutrients. A lesson for the future – bring only what you need, not what you think you will need. This will minimize both the weight on my back and prevent from an expanding waistline 😉

Stay tuned for my final word on whether or not hiking is in the cards for me…

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