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Trail Food: Keeping it Interesting and Energizing

The basics of selecting trail food that is appetizing, energizing, and easy to prepare.


by Rosaleen Sullivan | 2005-04-12 03:00:00-06

Picture this:

You and a friend are hiking. About supper time, you pull into a shelter and find other hikers who have also just arrived. Busy with your own cooking set up, you don't pay much attention to the third hiker who is sharing your table. As you start eating, you realize he is staring at your food. Then your hiking partner starts staring at your food. OK, what are you doing that is getting all this attention?

On another occasion:

You have two tables at a site. While you are busy with your supper preparation, you look up to see others munching jerky while waiting for their pots to boil. Maybe some have freeze dried food packets or a package of ramen noodles.

From near by, you hear, "You mean you actually cook out here!?"

"Um, you mean you don't!?"

I've experienced both of the above scenarios at one time or another. The mystery as I see it is - not that people have interesting and varied food on the trail, but the fact that they don’t. Do I carry a whole kitchen and lots of fresh ingredients? Of course not! Once in a great while, as when I can pry hubby away from his favorite leisure pursuit and we aren't going a great distance, I'll bring more "stuff," like fresh meat and vegetables. I have a collection of camp cooking toys to rival many people's home cooking gadgets. I confess to being a chronic gear-head, experimenter, and "tinkerer." But nearly all of my gadgets stay home, unless I am car camping. When I'm backpacking, the "less is more" philosophy kicks in. When one's gear must be carried all day, that gear suffers fierce scrutiny. No, I'm not giving up a comfortable bed, bug protection, or my "sensitivity protection" toothpaste. I'm middle aged and plagued with the chronic inconveniences that life can bring to it. I want to enjoy my wilderness time, not merely survive it.

So, how does one have enjoyable food on the trail without a lot of weight (or wait!)? Homework, homework, homework! Study up on reasonably decent nutrition, food preparation, and food safety. Any hiker who can find a trail and plan a trip should be able to understand the basics of feeding himself. Understanding energy usage at the body’s molecular level may seem to be like "rocket science," but the basics are simple. The body burns carbohydrates (OH, YES! Carbs!) for fuel, and needs protein for tissue building and repair, as well as for some processes. As far as energy use goes, fats and proteins can be burned for energy, but first they have to be broken down. The leftover substances are excreted. Vitamins and minerals are used for all sorts of bodily processes from energy burning to heartbeat regulation. The hiker who wants to have a safe and enjoyable trip may not need to understand the details, but should at least understand enough to attempt reasonable nutrition.

Rosaleen Sullivan having a trail meal
Dual use: the author warming her hands while her mini-juice can alcohol stove heats water for dinner in a beer can pot.

For any hike, one of the hiker's greatest concerns is having enough ready energy to get him from point A to point B. Some sort of electrolyte replacement might be good insurance. Sweat contains mineral "salts" that are important for heartbeat and nerve impulse conduction among other things. Usually, people should get needed vitamins and minerals from their food. Two problems with hiking and other endurance activities are that the appetite can be curbed, and much of the blood can be shunted to the extremities and away from the stomach. With less blood flowing to the digestive system your body can’t move needed nutrients such as sodium in jerky or potassium in banana chips out of the foods and to your leg muscles where it is needed.

OK, now that the hiker is familiar with his or her bodily fuel needs, the next step is to understand a bit about cooking. What does cooking do for food? Here is my high school "Home Ec" answer. Cooking can make foods more appealing, more easily digestible, and kill unsafe organisms.

What doesn't have germs on it? Unfortunately, bacteria thrives on food as much as people do, so they can multiply rapidly to a population that might make people sick. Heat kills bacteria. Once a cook is familiar with one technique, with a little practice, he or she can transfer that skill to other heat sources. Modifying techniques can adapt most recipes so that an experienced cook can use anything from sunlight to a campfire to a microwave to produce a meal.

The environmental conditions of a hike play a major role in deciding what food, in what form, to take on a hike. Just as one needs a summer or winter sleeping rig, one needs to make food accommodations with the temperature changes. Raw vegetables and fresh bread may keep for several days in cool weather, but quickly spoil in the middle of summer. Freezing some meat to have the first or second day of a hike may work, if the hiker is willing to carry the weight and the weather is not too hot. The can of fish carried in the summer can freeze solid in the winter.

My solution is to rely primarily on dehydrated foods. Most dehydrated foods last from months to years under the right storage conditions. Two bonuses are that dry foods are lighter and take up much less pack space. I burned through three or more cheap dehydrators before I decided to "bite the bullet" and buy a top quality dehydrator. I have not regretted the purchase.

Go back to the homework idea. Have you looked at the prepared foods sitting on the grocery shelf? Pick up, say, dried pasta and a dried sauce packet, and one of those heat and serve prepared pastas. Which pasta meal feels lighter? Which package says the contents must be refrigerated after the package is opened? How many servings do you get for that weight and price? What do you want to carry? Look some more at the dried prepared foods. How many require only boiling water and a holding time, or just a brief cooking time? Consider your personal tastes and buy some to try at home. The ones that you like and that agree with your system are candidates for trail food.

Once you have some cooking skills, you can start looking at the ingredients in the mixes and either supplement the packaged foods or concoct your own. Get really whacky and experiment. Do you like Thai food? Try adding some meat or fish, vegetables, peanuts or peanut butter, soy sauce, and catsup to ramen noodles. Taste the concoction, and add garlic, curry, and/or ginger to your taste. Maybe another time, crumble dry ramen into a jar or bag, add your choice of dried vegetables, maybe some dried tuna or chicken, and a little water. In a couple of hours, add a packet of mayonnaise or some Italian dressing and Parmesan cheese. Trail pasta salad!

Or, add protein and vegetables to a couscous mix. Use the ingredients list or meal ideas on the box to help decide what might blend with the contents. An early successful trail meal with a couscous mix for me started with a tomato and lentil variety. There were bits of carrot in the picture, as well as in the ingredient list. To boost the vegetable and protein content of what started as a "side dish," I added cooked and dehydrated lentils, dried shredded carrots, chopped (store bought) sun dried tomatoes, and some dry flavorings like curry and garlic powder. I had this "add hot water" dinner while that cold-MRE-eating Newbie watched with wonder. My trail partner for that section had watched similar meals for days and declared that I would be the meal planner for our next trip. Big pieces of the homework needed for contented taste buds and tummy on the trail are knowledge of personal taste, and what foods are available.

Another huge factor in making food choices for your hike can be the time and effort required to prepare, eat, and clean up after the meal. Frankly, after hiking all day, I am not in the mood for exotic or laborious cooking, never mind the clean up. If I can do all the washing, chopping (food - not wood!), cooking, and big clean up for a trail meal at home where I have an assortment of conveniences, including hot running water, why not take advantage of this? I might just cook an extra portion of something I’m preparing for my family and dehydrate it for the trail! Home dehydrated foods let me control ingredients and proportions.

Sometimes I buy commercial dehydrated bulk foods if the price is right. Commercial freeze dried meals can be great or awful. The meal packets are bulky and expensive, adding to your weight cost as well as dollar cost. I have bought some large cans of dehydrated or freeze dried foods for convenience. Repackaging them into home prepared mixes can be a worthy compromise for advance planning. After hiking, I'd much rather savor the anticipation of that night's supper as I lounge in my site as opposed to slaving over a campfire or stove. While I have brought prepared shish kabob to impress hubby or test a backpacker's grill, it isn't what I want to do on a regular basis. I want to boil water, dump it onto my food, and ignore it for a while before eating. Some nights, I may not even want to do that much.

Be careful not to fall into the trap of being too tired or hungry to eat well at the end of the day. Remember the marathoners who "carbo load" the night before a big race? The big "night before" pasta meal has a chance to be assimilated and get glycogen (muscle fuel) stored in the muscles so it is ready to power marathoners through the day. I've stumbled into a site at dusk, too unambitious and food ambivalent to want to make dinner, settling on a meal bar. Well, the next day, I had no energy. I thought, "What was different?" Then I remembered the marathoners. I had depleted my stored glycogen and didn't replenish enough calories the night before. The next time, I had a backup meal that included the meal bar for the basics, but included a candy bar and trail mix to add to the energy available for storage.

Homework again! I learned what I like, and what I am like when hiking. I believe I understand what I need for fuel, and how to accommodate my appetite or lack of it, to perform the following day. You might benefit from doing the same thing. Try paying attention to what foods you like at home and while hiking. Notice how you feel as you adjust to walking a long distance under varying conditions and consuming different foods. Apply the knowledge learned comparing your performance and enjoyment of one hike to subsequent hikes. This is advanced homework that can take the mystery out of trail foods and make your next trek even better. You might be the one hearing, "You cook?"

About the Author

Rosaleen Sullivan

Rosaleen has been cooking and car camping since childhood. The tradition continued with her husband and three (now grown) sons. The backpacking bug bit while helping with her sons' Boy Scout Troop and the fever continues.


"Trail Food: Keeping it Interesting and Energizing," by Rosaleen Sullivan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-04-12 03:00:00-06.