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
Wheat 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 it 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.
And this is what my meal looks like assembled and prepared on the trail:
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:
Multigrain 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:
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.
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…