Trail Food for Thought

Done right, meals on a trip can be a highlight and give you something to look forward to. Everything tastes better when you're doing something challenging outside. Food is necessary for fueling adventures, but there is more to it than that. It's interesting to see what food people bring for outdoor activities.


My friend and frequent adventure partner, Ekaterina, has occasionally come on a full day, strenuous trip with only two peaches and a bag of beef jerky because she couldn't decide which foods would be suitable for the trip. She may have a stronger constitution than I do; I would be laying on the ground with low blood sugar foraging for clams if I did this. As another example, my partner is willing to pack a single large container of dinner leftovers to eat cold throughout a day-long trip (craziness!).


Those approaches to food are fine and they both certainty always survive, but for me, I need to put a little more thought into it. I typically like to bring a variety of food and often look forward to the snacks I bring.. For an activity that lasts all day and burns a lot of calories, I want to have appealing things to eat to keep my energy up. I figured I'd write a bit about what stuff I usually bring and why. There are a lot of things to consider when packing trip meals and snacks.


Size & Weight


Depending on the activity you're doing, weight may or may not be a concern. If you're car camping, of course you can go ahead and bring a cooler and not worry much about repackaging. At the other extreme, backpacking, you want to avoid heavy containers and excessive packaging and pay more attention to portion sizes. You may even want to buy or make dehydrated food for the convenience and low weight.


For me, I pack for bike trips similar to backpacking. After all, you still have to carry whatever you bring and there is a high potential for squashed foods. Kayaking is somewhere in between, depending on the trip. I've led many guided sea kayaking trips where we brought coolers, and on my own longer sea kayaking expedition I brought canned and jarred food to spice up boring carb-loaded dinners. We even brought a whole pineapple on one trip. Very refreshing! Depending on the boats you're using, you might have a lot of packing space.


For kayaking, you can also use heavier (waterproof always) containers to protect your food, meaning you have more options. For a sweet energy boost, I like to bring dry cereal in a jar. More delicate fruits like raspberries, pears, and stone fruit can also be brought in containers. I would not bring bananas anywhere myself, because they ripen so quickly when confined.

Food for a solo four-day bikepacking trip.

Temperature


The outside temperature can be a major factor for deciding what foods to bring. Cold temperatures can cause issues with foods getting frozen or, at the very least, quite hard. Protein bars turn into paving stones, and fruit does poorly in freezing temperatures. If you want to eat a protein bar while snowshoeing for example, you'll probably need keep it warm against your body.


This February, Karisma and I went snowshoeing when it was extremely cold, around 5° F. I packed us some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, nice and high calorie and not likely to turn into bricks. She decided to bring a dehydrated meal and heat up water for a nice warm and filling lunch. I thought that was a great idea, but it didn't work out the way we thought! It was so cold that we couldn't stand still long enough to boil the water without becoming too chilly. A good learning experience.


The heat brings up other issues. If it's very hot things will melt, such as chocolate protein bars. Some bars with more grains and no chocolate coating are better for summer, such as Zone Perfect's Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk bar, my favorite for hot weather (no, they don't sponsor me, but they should!) Oreos are good for a non-melting chocolatey snack as well. Cheeses are great trail food, but soft cheeses don't do well in heat. I like to bring brie when I can, but the hotter the weather, the harder the cheese should be. Parmesan and similar cheeses do fine in the heat.


If it's hot out, you may be more likely to be craving juicy fruits and vegetables. I like to bring more types of fruit in the heat. Carrots and snap peas are also great to have. Dry foods may not be as appealing if you're struggling to stay hydrated. If you're sweating heavily, salty foods might call to you, so it's good to have something like that as an option as well.


This is also a consideration for foods that will eventually spoil. For myself, I often like to pack smoked fish and eat it on the second day of a trip for lunch. This is well and good, but if the weather is extremely hot I'd eat the fish on the first day only. If you're bringing fresh produce like bell peppers or grapes, they also hold up better in cooler weather. Most dips will last without refrigeration for at least a few days, but if they will be in the sun or the heat, you can't count on them lasting as long as they normally would.


Trip Length


On the thirty day kayak trip I went on a few years ago, we ended up eating a ton of pasta and rice for dinners. Those foods last forever, and the carbs are necessary for that length of trip. I was surprised by how consistently hungry I was. Normally I don't really eat pasta, but on a longer trip you have to make sure you're getting decent nutrition. It can be easy to underestimate how much you'll want to eat, especially if you don't regularly do strenuous trips. On a challenging day trip, I usually bring at least one more snack than I think I'll need, and this is even more important on multiday trips.


Sometimes, you might be able to supplement the food you have with you while you're on the trip. On my Shore to Shore bikepacking trip last summer I planned on buying one breakfast along the way because I passed through many towns. You might also get lucky and find a few edible berries, nuts, mushrooms, or other things along the way; but if you're planning on foraging you should of course only eat things that you're very confident in. I've been given fish before while traveling along the coast, and I always keep an eye out for wild grapes and blackberries.

Food for two, for a somewhat strenuous day trip.

When I was packing food for Ekaterina and I on our trip down the Flint River - South Branch, I knew the weather was going to be very hot. I also thought it might be a very long day, so I wanted to bring quite a few different things. Because of the heat I brought three different types of fruit: nectarines, cherries, and cut up strawberries I had left over. I love stone fruit, but they are quite messy and need to be kept in a ziplock bag. This is fine for eating near the water, but I don't like to bring them hiking.


In the blue container is homemade garlic sauce, I planned to eat this with the pita bread for breakfast as I drove up. For day trips, I always preslice cheese for convenience. This is a few different types with crackers. Baby carrots and hummus are one of my favorites, especially for hot weather. Hummus lasts a long time unrefrigerated and is decent nutrition. The tuna with mayo was a backup meal. We didn't end up needing it, but I wasn't sure how long this trip was and thought we might be out late enough that we'd want it. Turkey jerky sticks are always good to have, and I also like peanut butter filled pretzels as a filling snack.

Food for two, dinner and breakfast at a basecamp, then three days of backpacking.

Getting food organized for a multi-day trip for a group is a big undertaking. Planning the menu around differing tastes and dietary needs and taking weight and volume into account requires a lot of forethought, especially if you will be dehydrating things in advance.


The food above was for a trip Laura and I went on at the Porcupine Mountains to prepare for Wild Heart. It looks like a lot, but I had a few extra snack options that we chose from on the day of. Also, its good to have a little extra; appetites are often higher than usual when hiking. I was trying out a few recipes but decided that they could use some improvement. Lately I've been dehydrating food to add to the meals and I think it will turn out great. This is time consuming initially but definitely worth it to make a memorable experience. Once the food is dry, it is fairly convenient to just grab what you need and put together meals, and trail cooking becomes extremely easy.

With consideration given to size and weight, the temperature, and the length of the trip, you can pack great snacks and meals for your trip, whether you like savory snacks or prefer sweets.

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