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What to Eat When Backpacking

There is no better way to cut all ties with city life and reconnect with nature than heading out on a backpacking trip. Whether it's a short weekend getaway, a week-long section hike on the Long Trail, or an AT thru-hike, you'll experience the simplicities that come with living out of a hiking backpack.

With this, though, comes a need to change how you see food. Don't expect gourmet meals and multiple courses, but rather, a few key food items that will give you the necessary energy to keep going day after day without weighing you down or becoming a nuisance. That isn't to say every meal should taste like bark, though. When you're on the trail, you'll find that the right balance between taste and convenience can provide more than energy - it can be a source of comfort, strength, and motivation.

Keep it Light

As is the case with any backpacking item, make sure the food you choose is lightweight and requires little camping cooking equipment. When planning your trip, assume food will take up as much as 25 percent of both your pack's weight and bulk. As a general rule, don't exceed two pounds of food per person, per day.

A very popular option is to stock up on freeze-dried foods. This may be the most expensive way to eat, but it's also the most convenient, and when you can get a taste of Louisiana red beans and rice or fettuccine Alfredo just by adding water, it's quite a treat at the end of a long day. If you don't go the pre-packaged, freeze-dried route, try to pack dehydrated foods. This includes grains, pasta, bread, and similar items, as well as dehydrated fruits and vegetables.

Flavor packages are a great way to enjoy warm, tasty liquids and soups, take up little space. Hot chocolate, coffee, tea, ramen, and bouillon cubes all work well for this.

Keep it Organized

Backpacking takes detailed planning, and your food should not be any different. Choose foods that not only are lightweight, but are packed with calories and are tasty, as this will give you a boost in motivation when your muscles start yelling for you to stop. Before your trip, separate and organize all of your meals into categories, such as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You'll thank yourself later when you don't have to rummage through all of your camping gear just to get to breakfast.

Bring Enough

The great thing about backpacking is that you don’t have to worry about eating too much. Make sure you take in enough calories every day to sustain yourself, which will typically be between 3,000 and 4,000 for a moderate trip, or as many as 4,000 to 5,000 calories if you are pushing hard. You can achieve this by mixing foods that provide quick boosts of energy—such as breads, cereals, and grain—with foods that will keep you going in the long term. Fats and proteins are ideal for this, and include chocolate, nuts, cheese, and dried meat.

Plan Ahead for Extended Trips

Planning becomes even more detailed when you are preparing for a trip that will span weeks or even months. This entails using a trail guide to find how far away certain towns are, plotting where you'll stop, and shipping your food in mail drops ahead of time to these locations. For example, you could plan to hit a town every week or so. Anything more than a week’s worth of food is hard to carry.

Mix it Up!

If you are on a long trek like an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, don’t make the mistake of packing every mail drop with the same menu (i.e., no mac ’n cheese for seven days in a row).Those steep mountains and long-mileage days become much easier if you know the reward will be an exotic tasty dinner. Look at some of the freeze-dried meals that are available, and try to pick a wide variety.

A Few Suggestions

Since you'll be planning out all of your meals ahead of time, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Breakfast: A hot meal can be a great way to start the day, but try to avoid food that takes a long time to cook. Instant oatmeal and dried fruit, coffee and a cereal bar, or even rice make for energetic and easy meals to get you going.

Lunch: You may not have enough time to cook lunch. Go with high-calorie, energy-packed foods like energy bars or granola, crackers or chips, or packaged/dried meat, like tuna or jerky. Stuffing vegetables into a pita also makes for a quick and easy lunch on the go, and adding peanut butter will throw on the calories - and more taste.

Dinner: Now you have time to get creative. Once you've set up your backpacking tent, use either a stove or fire to make ramen, boil dehydrated potatoes, or even cook fajitas - whatever will replenish you and make you comfortable. It’s also a great time to use your freeze-dried meals, as these tend to be the tastiest way to end the day. Snacks: Don’t restrict your food intake to just three meals. If you are hiking all day, you are likely to run out of energy an hour or two prior to lunch or dinner. Pack along snacks like trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate to eat as you hike. Include some quick-energy, high-sugar food for an emergency. There’s nothing like the occasional candy bar to get you up a mountain.

All over the world, food is synonymous with culture. So take the time to get into the culture of backpacking, and have a strong food plan in place to make sure your trip is as enjoyable as possible.


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