Menu Planning for Healthy Backpacking: How to Plan Meals for Your Hike.

Although there are many aspects of a thu-hike that would be considered “difficult, (planning for unpredicable weather, stream crossings, bringing enough TP, etc), for me the most stressful planning was food preparation. What if I run out of food? How do I know how hungry I’ll be? How do I find a quick-cooking gluten free breakfast? What if I become vitamin C deficient from lack of fresh vegetables?!?! Ahhhh!!!
My stress might have been lessened by a good JMT-food planning guide, but I couldn’t seem to find one that really spelled it out. So, I decided to write my own so that your food-planning stress may be reduced. And, of course, there is special attention paid to those hikers with dietary restrictions (gluten and dairy allergies, vegetarian and vegan, etc.)

First things first-Calories!!!!
A simple but effective way to plan your daily meals is by caloric consumption. You will be burning up to 6,000 calories a day, so plan for more calories than you would usually consume. (Don’t know your normal calorie consumption? Spend a few days keeping a food journal, and add it up! There’s some online programs that will average calories for certain dishes.)
Plan for about 2,500 calories of food a day. If that isn’t enough for you, I will list ways to amp up the calories in your meals.
There’s a few ways to do it…I would lay out a breakfast, lunch and dinner for each day, and add up the calories. My partner simply added all his food for each supply, and divided it by the number of days. (So for a 7-day food supply, he would add all the calories and divide it by 7 to get the average number per day.) Just make sure you have enough energy to get up those overpasses.

Weight/Dehydrated Food:
People seem divided over pre-made dehydrated food meals. They save a TON on weight, which will make a big difference. They also save on space and planning, since you don’t have to bring extra spices and ingredients. They also save fuel, since usually they only require boiled water. (Instead of having to boil or cook for an extended time.) They can save on having to do dishes, since certain ones can be cooked in their package, although that can create more waste. Some are chemical-free, which I can’t say for the standard grocery store dried mashed potatoes. Also, you can MAKE YOUR OWN dehydrated food, which is probably the cheapest option. (More info below.)
Cons: These meals can be VERY pricey, some $10-$12 apiece. (Certain brands are cheaper than others, and you can find sales on gear sites.) Also, since they are pricey, you may not be able to taste taste them before you go. If you’re picky, that may be hard, since you may get stuck with meals you don’t like.

Dehyrated Food Sources:
Outdoor Herbivore: Best for food allergies, vegetarian/vegan diet, organic, etc: This website and its meal options are simply awesome. Everything is certified organic and chemical free, and they pay special attention to dietary needs and nutriets hard to come by on the trail. The meals are also suprisingly calorie packed for veggie food, more so than even the meatier brands. There’re many gluten free breakfast options (brown rice farina with dried fruit, chia seed breakfast with dates and coconut.) For the nutrition junky, they don’t miss much. Many of their meals have nutrional yeast (B vitamins!) and special spices for imflammation and blood sugar regulation (tumeric and cinnamin.) The prices are the cheapsest that I’ve found, especially since you can get a double serving size for only $2 more. Only flaw…there is a lot of onion and garlic in their dinners, so if you’re sensitive be careful.
Mary Janes Farms: Best for taste and vegetarian items. This is one of the tastiest organic meals, even the  non-health concious backpackers really loved them. (ahhh, chili-mac…) They have a lot of veggie options, and they are organic and chemical free. Downside? Definitely one of the pricier brands, so watch out for on-line sales.
Pack Lite Foods: Another vegetarian dehydrated food site, with some tasty entries. I didn’t get much from them this trip, (I opted for the higher calorie choices from outdoor herbivore), but I will try more next time for variety.
My least suggested? The most popular brand, carried by most outdoor stores, is Mountain House. As a nutrional connoisseur, I coudln’t bring my self to buy a single package. Hyrdogenated oils, anyone? Many of the people I met ate them and said they were good, but they’re also pricey, and I think they are much better brands to choose from.

Other food sources:
Regular grocery stores carry things like ramen noodles, powdered mashed potatoes, and mac & cheese. These are usually not the most chemical free, but they can be a lot cheaper. (And Whole Foods often has its own versions.) Just be careful of cooking time, you don’t want to burn up your fuel. (Regular pasta noodles often need to boil for 10 min or more.)
Raw Food snacks: There are some caloricly dense raw foods containing nuts, which can also have some good nutrients (like dried kale, seaweed, raw almonds, coconut butter). These can be pricey, and some aren’t worth the weight/price/to calorie ratio. Remember, you have limited space in your bear canister!
Trader Joes: TJ’s has some of the best trail mixes! Get a variety, so you don’t have to eat the same combo every day. They also have the best prices for dried fruit (sans sulfites) and raw nuts.
Fishing and Gathering: I do not trust my plant-skills to forage for my own food, but many people go this route. Some people also brought tiny fishing poles, and caught some very fresh trout. If you live in the L.A. area, there is a guy named Christopher Nyerges who conducts edible plant workshops and wilderness survival classes. They’re very reasonably priced, and it’s a good skill to have.

Electrolytes and Missed Nutrients:The absence of fresh food can leave a backpacker without some important nutriets. This is not just important for health, but for energy and performance. There is a great article on Outdoor Herbivore that goes into detail of the foods that give specific vitamins, and here are some of the important ones:
Electrolytes: You may have heard a lot of hype about this little guys, but they are actually quite important to keep from muscle cramping and dehydration, and the body loses them as it sweatss. The tubes of tablets are more weight/space efficient, (compared to the individual packets), and can be added to your water bottle throughout the day. (The right amount makes you have to pee less and absorb more water, but be careful, too much can have the opposite effect!)
Potassium:  Potassium is an electrolite, but since you’ll probably be eating a lot of salt (from dried meals) be sure to keep up the potassium. You’re potassium/sodium balance keeps you probably hydrated. Potassium can be found in many dried fruits (like bananas) and potatoes.
Omega 3: Most nuts are really high in Omega 6, so you’ll have to purposely add ingredients with Omega 3 to keep yourself healthy. Omega 3 is important for energy and joint health. Include walnuts, avocado, hemp, chia seeds, or flax to certain meals.
Vitamin C: This is present in fruits and veggies, but can be lacking in dried dinners. Either eat a decent amount of dried fruit, or bring some Emergen-C packets with you just in case.
Dehydration: Water may seem like an obvious thing, but most people do not drink enough of it. At dry, high altitudes this can literally be dangerous. Drink continuously, even if you’re not thirsty. (You don’t need to go crazy, just sip all day.) Make sure the water is clear coming out, dark urine can be an indication of dehydration.

Doing your own dehydrating!
My hiking partner bought a dehydrator, and made his own beef jerky, pineapple, and apple rings. They were some of the tastiest dried fruit I’ve ever tasted, and he saved a lot of money doing it. You can even dehydrate your own full meals, so the sky’s the limit if you feel like going this route. You can try using a regular oven, or there are dehydrators for under $50.

Variety: I thought that I would be so ravenous after burning 3,000 calories that I would eat just about anything. So I packed one kind of trail mix, a couple kinds of dried fruit, and the same few dinners. This was a huge mistake. Hungry or not, you will crave variety and flavor. Pack a different trail mix in each resupply with different ingridients, and a mix of meals. Bring different freeze-dried fruit to add to your oatmeal (bananas, blueberries, strawberries, etc.) Bring a variety of sides to go with dinner. This is especially important if you have altitude sickness, since I had no appetite in the first place. Trying to choke down the same trial mix every day was torture.

Altitude Sickness:
I thought this would be a rare condition, but I suffered from altitude sickness the WHOLE HIKE, and met others who had the same issue. You feel dizzy, nautious, and fuzzy headed. The most dangerous side effect is that you can lose your appetite…which definitely happened to me. I had to force-feed myself every bite, and usually threw away my dinner after a couple bites. (When my hiking partner wasn’t looking, of course.) There were a few days I ate less than 800 calories for the whole day (even after hiking 12 miles.) To keep yourself from losing energy or becoming malnourished, you should keep eating small amounts. Listen to your body, and don’t stuff yourself when nautious, but eat little bites of things all day. Put protein mix in water, and add olive oil to your meals. And most importantly, don’t panic. Although I was eating half as much as normal, I actually did fine on the hike. Just recognize when your truly sick or need help.

Meals:
Frequency and Calorie dispersement: Go with your appitite, but I had a specific way I ate my meals. We all forced ourselves to eat something decent in the morning, so we weren’t hiking on zero energy. But I feel sluggish and bogged down if I eat too much before hiking up a hill, so I ate a decently light breakfast. Throughout the hike, we took breaks and snacked every hour or two. We would munch on a few handfulls of dried fruit and trail mix, the quick sugar in the fruit helped to give me immediate energy, and the nuts kept me full longer. I’d also eat the occational protein bar for the same reason, plus the variety. Then, after we’d set up camp, I’d eat over half of my calories for the day, since I didn’t have to worry about being bogged down or tired. I would sometimes eat an entire rehydrated meal, plus a side of soup, rehydrated potatoes, or rehydrated dip and crackers. Sometimes we’d even eat twice after setting down for the evening.

Breakfast:
Normal: Oatmeal with freeze-dried fruits added, dehydrated eggs with a tortilla, dehydrated breakfast meals, protien powder and water, almond butter w/honey and tortillas, quick-cooking pancake mix.
Gluten Free: Chia seed coconut mix, dehydrated egg/veggie mix, NuGo Go free chocolate energy bar, MacroBar, brown-rice farina, rehydrated blueberries and brown rice.

Lunch-Cooking vs. Snacks:
It’s important to be realistic…the only meal I usually heated and cooked was dinner. (And sometimes breakfast.) For the entire hiking part of the day, you probably won’t stop and bust out your stove set. So a large portion of your calories should be in the form of ready-to-eat, dense snacks.
Normal: Kraft cheese and crackers, mini pack of fig nutens, snickers bars, peanut butter and tortillas, fruit roll ups,
Also, those little snack-packs you ate in lunch when you were little are great. (They don’t need to be refridgerated, and they’re decently high calorie.) Starchy snacks won’t be enough, you really need the caloric density of a walnut, not a cracker.  And be realistic…more than a third of your daily calories will come from these trail-ready snacks! Bring enough.
Gluten free/Vegan: Brazil nuts, dried pineapple, dried apples, trail mix, dried ginger, chili mango, TJ’s Fiberful fruit leather, dried seaweed, and protein bars.

Dinner:
Normal: One of many dehydrated meal choices, regular mac&cheese, ramen soup, re-hydrated potato flakes, pasta with dehydrated Alfredo sauce, dried pasta sauce packets. 

Gluten Free and Veg Friendly: One of the many Outdoor Herbivore Meals (Freckle burrito, chickpea pasta, vegan mac&cheese, pesto pasta, etc.) A Mary Janes meal: (ChiliMac, pesto pasta, etc.), rehydrated chili soup, bean dip and crackers.

Treats!
There are many dehydrated desserts, (cheesecake, freeze dried ice cream, fruit crumble, etc), but you may get pretty sick of your dried food. When you pick up your resupply package, a good idea is to put a treat for yourself. It can be something that would be too heavy to carry (like a pudding), but you’ll be eating it when you arrive so it doesn’t really matter. I put chocolate macaroons, a gluten free brownie, and other goodies in my resupply. Variety will keep you from sponaeously throwing your meal off a cliff due to extreme food boredom.

Please see the “Packing List” post for fuel usage.

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