Backpackers should carefully consider the foods they carry

All day on the hips, a moment on the lips

Posted: Friday, June 30, 2006

Backpack any of Alaska’s many mountain trails and you will be rewarded handsomely for hours of huffing, puffing and grunting beneath the weight of your pack. However, you may not realize this until just when you think you can’t pull your pack up one more foot of elevation, and you reach the crest of a mountain where valleys and glaciers emerge before your eyes and beg you to stop and inhale the wonders of the wilderness.

“Click” goes the plastic clasp holding your pack’s hip straps around your waist and “thump” goes your pack as it drops from your shoulders to the ground. And as you plunk down to rest your legs and feast your eyes, it is at about this moment that your stomach remind you it has been patiently waiting for a feast of its own.

After a long haul on the trail beneath a heavy pack, almost anything you eat will taste gourmet. A handful of nuts and chocolate chips may surpass the fanciest chocolate cheesecake you have ever had, and a piece of beef jerky may rival the juiciest steak you ever pulled off the grill.

Nonetheless, taste may be an important consideration when you prepare food for your trip. However, backpackers should also carefully consider several equally if not more important food factors when packing for a trip, including durability, weight, nutrition and cost.

Inside of a pack, densely crammed with camping gear, space is valuable. And a hiker who packs foods that squash easily may be disappointed later when to discover the bananas have been reduced to Jello, or a loaf of bread has become a brick of dough.

This does not mean that one’s cravings for bread or fruit cannot be satisfied on the trail. But hikers may want to think a bit more broadly when choosing meals and snacks for the trail.

“Bagels are always a good thing because of the squash factor,” said Scott Slavik, a backcountry ranger with the Kenai Wildlife Refuge. “They hold up pretty well.”

And instead of bananas, one might want to consider banana chips or a wide variety of other dried fruits available in grocery stores.

Of course durability must be balanced with other factors. Although canned foods, for example, are very durable, you might want to think twice before packing that can opener and consider yet another important factor, weight.

Although cans of meatball spaghetti sauce and black olives might taste great on spaghetti next to the campfire, hauling canned foods and other heavy items in your pack may result in misery. As your delightful spaghetti meal may be, moans of delight may mix with moans of agony as you also rub your lower back and feet.

When it comes to planning meals that won’t make you feel like a pack mule, dehydrated foods may become your best friend. An amazing array of dehydrated foods are available. Everything from milk and eggs to humus and tabouli can be found on shelves and in food bins lining grocery store aisles.

Backpackers who think outside of the box may find great, lightweight backpacking foods waiting in some unconventional places.

In the baby food aisle, for example, dehydrated cereals and yogurts packed with vitamins, minerals and nutrients can be found in a variety of surprisingly tasty flavors. And as a bonus, dehydrated baby foods can be prepared using warm or cold water, making them easy to prepare on the trail when you don’t want to drag out the stove or light a fire.

When considering weight, backpackers may also want to carefully consider how much food they need, Slavik said.

“Most people bring food out of the field with them,” Slavik said. “I think they just overestimate what they are going to need.”

Although it may be wise to pack little extra food in case your trip lasts longer than expected, the weight of an excessively packed meal bag can make your bag heavy and your hike difficult to enjoy, he said.

“Meals in the wilderness can be one of the most enjoyable and controllable aspects of your outdoor experience, provided the planning occurred before you left your kitchen,” said Slavik, who as a refuge ranger supervises park maintenance crews and helps them prepare for multi-day trips into the backcountry.

Slavik said that rather than just throwing a collection of separate food items directly into his food bag, he prefers to separate his food by meal, placing the ingredients for each meal into a Zip-loc bag.

“It helps me plan and prepare with more accuracy,” he said.

In addition, prepackaging meals can make accessing what you need to prepare each meal easier, he said.

Instead of having to unbury three or four food items from your bag to prepare a meal, you will only need to unbury one bag, which can be particularly convenient at lunch when you are not going to want to empty your bag to get to hard-to-extract items from your pack.

If money is not an important factor, you may also want to look for meal options in outdoor gear stores.

Everything from dehydrated beef patties to dehydrated cheesecake can be found in single or multi-serving bags, ready to throw into a backpack and hydrate on the trail using nothing more than cold or hot water.

In most cases the meals don’t even have to be removed from the bag to be prepared — just pour the water inside and wait. But the meals don’t come cheap: a two-serving bag of chicken stew, for example, can cost $6.49 and two-serving bag of noodles and cheese, $5.99.

These meals come in a great variety and offer hard to beat convenience, but with a little extra poking around the grocery store hikers can find equally satisfying lightweight meals for a fraction of the cost, Slavik said.

And with a few minor additions, some basic dehydrated meals, such as ramen soup, can be turned into a variety of delightful dishes, he said.

“It’s amazing where you can take that simple little thing,” Slavik said referring to dehydrated ramen soup.

Slavik said one his favorite things to do with ramen is to add a dab a peanut butter and spices, transforming it into a dish similar to pad tai.

“It seems creativity is the best skill for cooking in the backcountry,” he said.

When it comes to nutrition, getting enough vegetables into one’s diet may be the most difficult aspect of preparing food for a trip.

“That’s one thing that I’ll find myself missing in the field after a couple of days,” Slavik said.

He said his strategy is to bring enough vegetables to eat for a day or so and eat them early in the trip before they spoil.

“I kind of live large that first day,” he said.

Slavik also recommended hikers forage in the wilderness for greens and berries.

“Alaska is bountiful when it comes to being being able to eat the wild flora,” he said, and urged hikers to learn which plants are safe to eat before leaving for their trip.

Also, vegetables can sometimes be found hiding in dehydrated bean stews or rice dishes. In the health food sections of most grocery stores, clear plastic containers labeled “Just Veggies” and containing 4 ounces of dehydrated carrots, corn, peas, bell peppers and tomatoes are sold for around $5. These make nice healthy snacks and can be rehydrated with meals for a little extra nutrition.

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