WARNING Strictly for hiking geeks only – So yup, I am a freak! I really care about what I eat even when in the bush for days on end (even if I don’t care how I smell). I am always amazed/impressed/jealous at the young guys I see doing long distance hikes surviving on snickers, oatmeal, cheap ramen noodles, peanut butter and not much else. I can’t do that, not only do I like food too much, but a diet with too many carbs makes me grumpy, gives me terrible sugar lows and normally means I eat too much.
the optimisation conditions
So, for those of you who are interested in getting the best nutritional options you can when you are in the bush, here is my view on what works for me. Broadly I aim for 2500-3000 calories a day spread out over breakfast, lunch, dinner, two snacks and a good dessert. This means I run a c. 500 cal deficit every day (as I typically hike 40-50k), which I make up for when I hit a town and then I make sure to eat a lot (burgers and icecream as well as lots of vegetables and fruit).
I need a lot of protein to keep my muscles recovered and in good shape, so I generally aim for a minimum 30 grams of protein and about 15 grams of fat in each meal (these are the ratios which optimise fullness and muscle recovery apparently – for more info see Georgie Fear’s Lean Habits). I also try to keep the junk sugars to a minimum. It is a myth that you need tonnes of carbs, when I am hiking 80% of the calories I burn are from my ample fat stores not from my glycogen stores, so you don’t need to ‘carb load like crazy’. Worse, for me, highly refined carbs don’t make me full so I end up having too carry too much food if I over rely on carbs.
Finally, obviously weight of the food is a priority and I try to optimise the calories per gram. I cap my food weight at 600 grams per day maximum. Andrew Skurka has a good website outlining optimal foods based on ounces per calorie which will be interesting for camping nerds (I loved it)
So, my meal staples based on the above constraints and my food preferences…
I like a bit of savoury, some variety, and also to make sure there is protein, so my standard breakfast options are:
- Instant porridge or cream of wheat with coconut or normal milk powder and some dried fruit or nuts (I like goji berries). To balance this out and add some protein, either add protein powder or also have a protein bar at breakfast (I eat a double chocolate chunk quest bar as well as the porridge). 497 calories, 13g fat, 29g protein (including the protein bar)
- Instant savoury grits (cheese polenta) with powdered eggs and pork jerky or dried ham. Alternatively if you don’t like grits, then you can use instant mash potato. 462 calories, 17g fat, 37g protein
- If I am feeling flush, I will buy a few Mountain House scrambled egg, ham and potato breakfasts. These are quite high in sodium and have more fat than I need but are actually very nice 508 calories, 31g fat, 29g protein
If I am in NZ I will buy vitawheats, dried venison salami (very lean and yummy) and some hard cheese. I struggle to find equivalents for these in the UK. I am also going to experiment with a slightly different walking style on my next trip and take lunch breaks during the heat of the day. So my food options for lunch will be hot meals – these can also work for dinner, but are slightly lower in calories and don’t sit too heavy on the stomach when you have another 25km to go
- Mug shot instant pasta (single serve), supplemented with either an epic bar (dried chicken protein – sounds gross but is pretty good) or a pouch of tuna 393 calories, 9 fat, 23 protein
- Instant couscous (I like Ainsley Harriot), supplemented with either beef or ostrich biltong from Raging Bull. Note you should avoid buying Jerky which has loads of sugar in it, like Jacks. Also you can make your own instant couscous easily by adding herbs, salt a bit of oil, and some dried onions, but I quite like the premade ones 494 calories, 6g fat, 38g protein
- A weird one, but one I like, dehydrated refried beans, a Sriracha epic chicken bar and half a tube of primula instant cheese. If you really want to make it like nachos, add some doritos which aren’t that heavy 464 calories, 16g fat, 36g protein
Note that when I am doing tougher long days and aiming to hit a refuge in time for dinner I am quite comfortable skipping lunch all together and just eating more snacks as I walk, and I pack accordingly
I love a big dinner followed by dessert with lots of tea. I quite like to splash out on dinner, and some of my favourites are
- Mountain House – potato salmon and dill – its good 609 calories, 40g fat, 18g protein
- Mountain House – Macaroni cheese with some parma ham added in – also good 632 calories, 28g fat, 38g protein
- More couscous with dehydrated ground beef from Back Country Cuisine or dehydrated chicken. I have struggled to get good plain dehydrated protein made in the UK, so if you have a source let me know. 672 calories, 21g fat, 45g protein
Dinner isn’t complete without dessert! I change what i eat quite often, but my current favourites are
- Homemade rice pudding – using rice flakes, cinnamon, coconut milk powder, and sultanas – just add hot water 253 calories, 0g fat, 6g protein. (normally served with a couple of pieces of dark chocolate or an ombar)
- Homemade chia, coconut and berry pudding – made with chia seeds, coconut milk powder and freeze dried berries, just add cold water 30 minutes before eating – 236 calories, 16g fat, 6g protein (normally served with a couple of pieces of dark chocolate)
- Chocolate covered salted almonds (a real treat) served with some dried figs – these ones are the best
Everyone recommends versions of nuts and dried fruit as trail mix to eat when hiking. I think I must be a total weirdo as I don’t find nuts at all satiating, and they dry my mouth out. Also, while I love dried fruit, the more I eat, the more I want to eat. So trail mix doesn’t work for me at all.
Also, lots of people eat candy bars! Snickers, Mars, Moro, Milky Way. These don’t work for me either as they only keep me full for about a nano second, and I have a big sugar crash afterwards.
So, I tend to eat the following snacks in combinations which mean I am getting some carbs and some protein. Note that I am aware these aren’t the best nutritional options as the protein bars have artificial sweeteners in them and the clif bars have a bit too much sugar, but combined they do a good job keeping me full
- Mornings I will typically eat an Oats/Whey bars from Myprotein – 316 calories, 8g fat, 22g protein
- Afternoons I will eat a Clif bar (chocolate chip or white chocolate macadamia are two favourites) 240 calories, 5g fat, 10g protein combined with either a Quest double chunk bars 180 calories, 8g fat, 20g protein or some biltong – 138 calories, 3g fat, 25g protein
I can survive on water for cold drinks, though sometimes take some Nuun or High5 zero calorie electrolyte tabs on shorter trips. However, I drink a lot of coffee, decaf coffee (after lunch), herbal tea and cacao, so I make sure I have plenty of powder.
The one thing I would recommend is that you repack everything before you go into lighter ziplock bags, making sure to note how much water you need in everything. The original packaging on most of these things is actually pretty heavy, so you will save a lot of weight repacking everything in ziplock bags. Also the ziplock are easier to pack out as waste.
Also, for people like me who will eat anything in front of them, I always recommend portioning food out for individuals days and meals. If I have a bag of something which is supposed to last over 2-3 meals or days, I always eat more than my fair share on the first day – I just can’t help it.
I tend to do a few big shops on line and then spend a day at the dining table with scales, a marker and ziplock bags. Good stockists are
- In the UK Ultralight outdoor gear; Expedition foods; Cotswold Outdoors stock Mountain House and Expedition Foods
- In NZ all outdoor stores (e.g Bivouac, Macpac Torpedo 7) stock BackCountry Cuisine and Outdoor Gourmet
- In the US you can get everything from Harmony House, Amazon and REI (check out Andrew Skurka’s list of stockists)
Note, to keep weight down I only carry a cup and my jet boil, and also just a spoon and a small knife. I often just add water to the bag and eat out of the bag so I don’t have to wash the dishes. If you want to put it in a bowl go ahead but then you have to clean it.
Any other ideas gratefully received! It is much easier in the US where there are more dehydrated options available. Note, that if you start ordering a lot of dehydrated food online you do start getting lots of weird advertising on your YouTube feed targeted at survivalists who are building bunkers (actually pretty amusing)
So, thats it. There are plenty of hikers who swear by not cooking at all and just take bars. I met one guy who only had oatmeal and sugar for a ten day hike. I have met other people who are dedicated enough to dehydrate their own meals (I worry I would poison myself with poor food prep). And I have met some people who carry bottles of wine (or decant wine into their camelbacks). Whatever works for you, you should embrace it.