It’s summer time in Australia. The days are longer, the weather’s looking great and people seem to have more free time than usual. With all these conditions, it’s no wonder many people turn to the great outdoors for an adventure. Whether you’ve signed up for one of our upcoming programs, want to get out of the house for a couple of hours, or are tackling a 30-day trek, food is a consideration at some point in time.
Now to be honest, most of meal preparation and planning for hiking is common sense, but sometimes it’s useful for ‘common sense’ to be explicitly stated – that’s part of what I’m doing here.
As a quick disclaimer, it’s worth noting that I’m not a qualified dietician or nutritionist or anything like that. I’ve never paid or participated in any official “nutrition education” courses or the like. With that being said, let’s get into the meat of the article.
The longer your planned hike, the more important the food equation becomes. Since you could be burning some serious calories as part of your hiking, food is a crucial dimension of your hike.
On the one hand, you could pack too little food: consequences include having to start rationing things out for the duration of your trip, or go through extended periods of fasting. Depending on the length of the hike, this can turn dangerous quickly.
Conversely, if you pack too much the food begins to weigh you down, making your life more difficult.
Not only do we have to worry about the total caloric quantity of food to take, but we also need to consider the taste or appeal of the food item and weight of the food item. Imagine, going on a hike and only eating rice, olive oil and Brussel sprouts? (I actually did this for an 8-day hike.) Sure, you might get all the nutrition and calories you need, but how are you going to feel? If you’re anything like me: pretty rubbish at times, and jealous of all your hiking buddies drinking their hot chocolates and eating trail mixes. Having food that tastes good can also be a godsend when you know you’ve fallen behind on the trail and have a gruelling 30km of climbing ahead of you for the day. Knowing there’s a candy bar at the end of your day can keep you going (unlike, plain rice).
Next, we have the weight of our food to consider. Ah, weight. The constant enemy of the hiker. Weight of your gear becomes so important that it becomes a huge price point comparing items. A sleeping bag that weighs 1.20 kg or one that weighs 0.82 kg? I’d definitely pay more for the lighter one, all other things being equal. (And yes, it does get down to the 0.01 kg accuracy when we value weight this much!) It all makes good sense though; less weight on my back means I have a more enjoyable hiking experience. It also means I burn less energy, which means I require less food.
For the hiker inclined to calculate to the kJ their required daily intake, this can turn into a kind of domino effect. We add more weight, so we need to add more food, which means we’ve added more weight and then need to add more food, etc.
I should also mention the overall health of the food as a required consideration. There are so many diets and ways of eating out there nowadays that I’m not going to make any sweeping statements like “make sure you get your greens everyday”, but I will point out that you need to weigh this factor up with relevance to you. A heads-up though: this might not be an easy factor to balance with the others if you’re inflexible about your eating. Being a fruitarian on a 14-day hike might be challenging if you’re in a region that doesn’t drop any fresh fruit. My advice – whether you’re a full-blown vegan, Fletcherizer or just an average-joe trying to keep healthy – have a think about how important it is that this factor is completely satisfied and make compromises accordingly.
Adding to this, we have preparation. What sort of efforts will you need to go to on the trail to eat your food? Do you need pots, pans, a source of fire, a lemon zester and other contraptions? Or do you just pull out a hunk of salami and take a bite? Preparation is important, not only from the weight/volume side of the coin in terms of what gear you take, but also in terms of time. Time to get the gear out, time to cook the food, time to eat the food, time to clean up the equipment. (Not to mention the extra equipment needed to clean, and the feasibility of cleaning on the trail). There’s a lot to consider here, but again it’s mostly common sense. Depending on how tight your schedule is, you may want to pack more gear and cook some more delicious gourmet food.
Finally, water and cost.
Pretty unrelated factors but both deserve a brief mention. The potential availability of water is a concern in general for your hiking, but here we’re talking in the context of cooking and food. Do you need water to boil for your steamed rice? Where is this water going to come from? Water weighs a lot in your pack (about 1 kg per litre, actually…).
Cost is straightforward but a sneaky one if you plan out all your food before you go to the grocery. Filling your shopping list with Clif bars, Back Country cuisine meals and other pre-packaged hiking foods can quickly become expensive. Think about whether you want to spend more money per day on food hiking than you would at home.
The factors of influence when planning food for a hike:
- Caloric quantity: How much energy or kJ am I taking?
- Taste or mood value: How good do I feel eating this food?
- Weight: How much is my food weighing me down?
- Health: How does this food line up with my overall diet and eating habits?
- Preparation: How much equipment and time do I need to eat my food on the trail?
- Water: How much water do I need to cook my food and how is my access on the trip?
- Cost: How much will it cost me to eat each day?
2-day meal plan
I told you it was all pretty much common sense. Now getting into a discussion on some of the specifics. Every hiker will naturally find his or her own favourite foods, quantity and when to eat them. What I’m giving you all is a rough guide based on my own experiences and the assumption that you haven’t done much of this sort of thing before (we’ve all been there at some point).
To kick things off, here’s what I typically eat for an overnight hike, with some of those factors I mentioned before.
Phew. Writing those “Appeal” descriptions was tough. I’m by no means a food connoisseur, and usually whenever someone asks me about the taste of food, the conversation goes as follows.
Them: How was it?
Them: What’d you like about it?
Me: It was… tasty?
If you do the math on my typical food, there’s over 13,000 kJ of energy per day. You might think that’s a lot considering the “recommended” 8,700 kJ per person per day, but I disagree. While I’m not going to get into the full details of why I dislike the 8,700 kJ per day suggestion, suffice it to say that hiking burns a lot of energy, particularly if you’re climbing mountains, are exposed to extreme weather and carrying a lot of gear. Not to mention doing “pack-ups” every day.
On the health side of things, when I’m in normal life I like to eat paleo-ish. Over the years I’ve found this to be pretty tough to maintain for extended hikes. Day hike? Sure, pack some dried meats, nuts, or heck, even a packed salad. Hike for longer and this starts to become an issue.
The key problem here is ‘freshness’. At home, I prefer to eat fresh foods. On a 7-day hike, all the food you eat has to sit in your pack for up to 7 days, an environment which is quite warm and subject to being squished. This rules out a lot of the ‘fresh’ foods and requires you to look for longer lasting foods.
Now that you’ve got a bit of a feel for what hiking food might look like, as well as a consideration of some of the important points, here’s a list of common hiking foods for different meal times. Feel free to completely disregard this list if you like, but things become common for a reason. To paraphrase Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his book Antifragile; if something has been around for a thousand years, I expect it to be around for a thousand more. If it’s been around for 5 minutes, then I don’t imagine it will be here long.
Breakfasts can vary quite a bit in terms of extravagance. Some people like to get up, pack up and go in the mornings, while others prefer to take their time, prepare some good food then get on their way. The choice is again usually up to you and the sort of hiking experience you’d like. If you’re part of a group (like an Owlsight course), the organisers will generally establish an expectation before you go of how long you have for breakfast, so you can plan your food accordingly.
- Dehydrated eggs
- Powdered milk
- Muesli bars
- Protein bars
- Tea or coffee
- Fruit (Depending on the length of your trip. Fruits like apples will go a long way, as my friend Isaac will tell you.)
For lunch, you generally want something quick, simple and not-too-filling since it’s likely you’ll be resuming your walking after the meal.
- Vitawheats, Sayos or other ‘cracker’-type biscuits
- Pita or Mountain bread
- Cheeses and cheese spreads
- Smallgoods and dried meats such as salamis and jerkys
- Jams, honey, marmalades, vegemite and other spreads
- Cans of fish (Pro tip: sardines are small, a good source of protein and so cheap at about 70c per can!)
- Dried fruit
It’s the end of the day and you’ve earnt yourself a bit of a break. Some people love to get all the gear out and cook up an outdoor gourmet feast, and others prefer the simple foods or “just-add-water” packs. I like to fall somewhere in the middle. Most of the stuff below falls on the easier side of the equation.
- Cup of soup
- Rice, pasta, noodles or cous cous
- Fresh vegetables (Although think about what will survive in your pack.)
- Dehydrated vegetables (Greater chance of surviving.)
- Dried meat, beef jerky, salami/kabana
- More cans of fish
- Deb potatoes
- Packaged meals
Keeping these within hands reach as you walk can give you a good pick-me-up in between meals. Watch how clean your hands are when going for the trail mixes, though.
- Trail mix (Dried fruits and nuts – really easy to make, tasty and a quick energy boost on hand.)
- Scroggin (A prerequisite for writing an article of this kind. Some Chocolate, Raisins, and Other Good Grub, Including Nuts. Typically horribly full of sugar, this hiking staple can be quite different depending on the ‘chef’. One of the more interesting ones I’ve had was: beer nuts, mixed nuts, raisins, M&Ms, gummy bears, coconut and white chocolate.)
- Any sort of energy or protein bar.
Packaging and waste
This leads us into some comments on packaging and waste. Everything you take in with you to national parks you take out with you. Sure, there is rarely a ranger around to police this and make sure you don’t dump all your used cans in a bush; but most of the time, my respect for the environment trumps any discomfort I’ll get from carrying a bit of extra weight and volume.
If space is an issue (space is always an issue), then soft plastics like zip-lock plastic bags are incredibly useful for storing all of your food. I used the zip-lock bag solution for years. They’re light, waterproof, airtight and pack down to a small volume when you’re done with them.
What I didn’t like was the reliance I had on disposable plastic for my trips. When I’d get back from an expedition, I’d throw away all of these plastic bags. I then found out what a tremendous impact these little critters have on the ocean and wanted to find another way of packing things (not just food) for my trips.
When packaging food, use reusable containers with tight-fitting lids. Reusable containers take up more space but make backpack organisation easier.
When you’re packing your food, think about how much of each item you’ll need on the trip and only pack that amount. Want to take some salt and pepper? Roughly how much do you think you’ll use? Take that amount out and package it. Don’t take the whole salt and pepper shakers. Same goes for things like tea and coffee. Only take the amount you think you’ll need to save space.
Eating with 2 or more
Going on a trip with a group of friends or family? Now you can tap into some equipment and preparation efficiencies. The assumption here is that you’re all willing to eat the same thing, but I don’t think that’s too unreasonable.
Packing for multiple people is simple. You just increase the quantities of food you wish to take and then distribute between the party. This means that Alex and I don’t both need to take a skillet, only one of us does, since we’re preparing food together. It also means that one of us can carry all the rice and the other can carry all the cheese, saving on containers and packaging.
As a final tip, it’s good to organise your food together before heading off on your trip. Leaving it up to chance or “you bring some stuff; I’ll bring some stuff” generally leads to way too much food.
If you’re a massive nerd like me, you can play around with spreadsheets which describe weights of food and their containers to distribute between your party evenly. Heck, you can even add in a strength factor for how much people can carry. But I digress with my nerding-out.
As a final point, it’s briefly worth mentioning quarantine factors. If you’re packing your bag, then jumping on a plane to visit another state or country for your hike. Some states and countries have requirements for bringing food in. By ‘requirements’ I mean you’re not allowed to bring certain foods in. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much all of the hiking staples you can imagine.
Sometimes you get lucky – like the time I flew into Tasmania with 2kg of Brussel sprouts and avoided detection from sniffer dogs – but you’re better off doing some research about the place you’re visiting and then buy your food once you get there.
- Pack nutrient-dense emergency food for a few days longer than you plan on going.
- Coordinate with your hiking buddies to save on meal prep, time and money.
- Avoid canned foods that aren’t easily crushed. You’ll be carrying out your rubbish and cans get pretty disgusting and can cut bags open.
- Look up food quarantine laws when travelling across borders.
- Ensure food is packed in a waterproof bag or waterproof containers inside your pack.
- Pack food you enjoy. Hiking can be mentally tough, and it’s sometimes nice to indulge a little.
- Use shorter trips to conduct food experiments. Your risk goes up on longer trips.
- Despite what I’ve said, don’t worry too much about your macros, total intake, weight or any of the other factors. Go with the flow. Hiking can be an opportunity to practice being okay with not-so-perfect situations.
That’s it! By now you should have a pretty good base of knowledge to start preparing your food for a hike. I’m a big believer in getting out there, experiencing things and learning from your mistakes (you will make mistakes, and that’s okay). Have you planned food for a hike or expedition? What’re some of your experiences? Are there foods you go to every time or nuggets of wisdom you’ve picked up over the years? Let us know in the comments.
photos: a couple from my recent visit to Adelaide Botanic Garden; food packaging for a Tasmania trip.