LIGHT, FAST, DELICIOUS: PICK THREE! JOSH SHEETS SERVES UP SOME FOOD OPTIONS ON TRAIL
Words and Photos from Josh “Soulslosher” Sheets @Josh_Sheets
If backpackers aren't talking about gear on trail, there's a good chance they're talking food. Check out some suggestions and tips from Josh here, and jump into the discussion with your suggestions, too!
It takes calories to climb mountains!
Approaching the topic of backpacking food can be daunting. Among the things to consider are the many different types of food and ways to prepare that food. Even those of us that have been doing this awhile are usually looking for alternatives or to something new to try. If you are a seasoned backpacker that has been wondering if there is room for improvement in variety or efficiency or a newcomer that is not quite sure where to begin, this is for you!
This article does not take the easy route and list the manufacturers of freeze-dried backpacker meals as the answer to your trail food woes. Yes, those types of meals are delicious but they are very expensive. I would occasionally pack them as a treat or when I was craving something tasty and different. However, with that said, we will focus on cheaper and more readily available options. During my PCT hike this year, I noticed with at least some regularity that even finding freeze-dried meals when in certain trail towns was not possible. If you’re open-minded and/or not limited by dietary restrictions, and know what to look for when resupplying in town, trail food can be varied and enjoyed!
Disclaimer: Information regarding types of food, means of preparation, etc. will be dependent on your approach to backpacking. Do you like slow mornings to sip coffee and cook breakfast or do you haul ass out of camp and scarf down some sort of bar while crushing miles? Seeing how Hyperlite is known for pioneering light, fast, and efficient, we will examine that type of approach to backpacking food.
First, some hard and fast rules:
1. Food you carry should be at least 100 calories per ounce*. If you can achieve 125 calories per ounce, even better!
* To those that are admittedly bad a math: take the calories per serving, multiply it by the number of servings in the package, and divide it by the weight of the package.
2. Aim for 1 ½ – 2 ½ lbs. of food per day and total calorie content should be between 2,500 – 4,000 calories.
3. Don’t short yourself! It takes a lot of calories to hike far!
I will start by saying that you do not need to heat up water to enjoy coffee on trail. It may seem sacrilegious but cold coffee is actually a thing. I am a fan of Starbucks Via or any other decent coffee sold in packets: Black Rifle Coffee, Slow Ride, and Cusa (Cold Brew) Tea & Coffee to name a few. I would pour a packet of coffee into my water bottle (filled with delicious, cold mountain water) and then add Breakfast Essentials flavored in either vanilla or chocolate – shake & enjoy! This makes quite a tasty breakfast drink and you still get your coffee (caffeine!) and vitamins and minerals due to adding the Breakfast Essentials. That is very important because if you are on trail long enough, you are likely deficient in vitamins and minerals. You can also cold-soak tea bags, if coffee isn’t your thing.
Readily available breakfast items: Clif, Fig, Pro, Clif Builder, Rx, Luna, Kind, Bobo, Lara, and Green Belly Meal bars, as well as Protein Pucks, PopTarts, Little Debbie or Big Texas cinnamon buns.
I usually had hiked a few miles before I had finished the first part of my breakfast (listed above). I would then be primed for my ‘second breakfast’ somewhere between 5 and 10 miles into the day; depending on terrain. This nicely coincided with the first rest break of the day. Second breakfast was usually various flavored cold-soaked oatmeal [out of my cold-soak jar*] with chia seeds, mixed nuts/berries, peanut butter powder, and/or cacao chips/powder mixed in. When looking for items to mix into your breakfast, instead of plain peanuts or almond, look for chocolate, coffee-toffee crunch, honey glazed, etc. This simple difference can go a very long way in providing different flavors and textures. With that said, I found around 10-15 minutes was needed for the meal to absorb the water so I would actually prep my second breakfast before leaving camp in the morning. I was also known to have granola/cereal when I could find Nido milk powder—just add water and you have cold nutritious milk with your granola/cereal. If you are taking it slow n’ easy in the morning, feel free to cook your oatmeal with suggested additions from above.
* If you are in the market for a cold-soak jar, Talenti gelato or peanut butter jars are lightweight and readily available for the budget-minded Hiker Trash. Plus, you get “free” gelato or peanut butter with your jar purchase! 😉 And, of course, there are companies that specifically make cold-soak jars such as Litesmith.
A solid four (4) days of food.
Snacks / Lunch
I find lunch to be the most cumbersome of the trail meals. There have been times where I have just packed a ton of snacks to munch on throughout the day. There have also been times where I stop hiking and actually make a meal. Which do you prefer?
Readily available snacks: cracker sandwiches from Lance, Kebler, Austin, etc., Combos, candy bars* (Snickers, PayDay, Baby Ruth, Reese’s, peanut/almond M&Ms, etc.), Lenny & Larry’s Complete Cookies, Fig Newtons, potato chips (choose a Pringles can over a bag if you cherish unbroken chips), gummy bears, jelly beans, mixed nuts/berries/trail mix, and essentially any “bar” that you can think of.
* Be mindful of the temperature where you will be hiking. Packing chocolate can get messy and very difficult to eat once it has melted.
Readily available lunch items: I found tortillas to be the bane of my existence and longed for something different. I branched out into bagels, English muffins, or even multi-grain bread. String or block cheese but the harder the cheese, the better, as it will last longer outside of refrigeration. BabyBel cheese is a good go-to, as well. For meat-eaters, salami, pepperoni, summer sausage, or jerky can accompany your lunch wrap/sandwich. A pro tip is to find mustard, mayo, hot sauce, etc. packets to add some flare to your lunch sandwiches. These can be scored at any deli counter, some grocery stores, and take-out places. I have also carried peanut/almond/cashew butter and/or Nutella and various jelly packets scored from a diner to make PB&J-style sandwiches. Also, if you do not eat meat or want something different, try packing out hummus, pesto, cream cheese with tofu.
Dinner was perhaps my favorite meal of the day because I felt as if I had truly earned it and was not eating simply to be able to make miles. I needed solid sustenance to recoup from the day’s hiking! Below you will find some suggestions that you can incorporate into your food strategy.
Readily available dinner items: Idahoan/Betty Crocker potatoes, Ramen (instead of Top Ramen or Maruchan, aim for Shin Black or Ichiban ramen), and couscous. I carried a 16 oz bottle of olive oil to bump up the flavor and calories. You can also bring butter but I found olive oil to be a better choice and it packs better, too. Many folks add tuna/salmon packets to their dinner meals to add some protein and different texture. This isn’t a bad idea; however, most packets are in the 80-100 calorie range and thus, are not a good source for additional calories. For more calories and perhaps better flavor, consider carrying more salami, pepperoni, summer sausage, or even tuna packets with olive oil. Additionally, feel free to add cheese to your dinner dish; this is best if you are cooking (melted cheese!). Depending how long you are out for, you may opt to simply bring at least an 8 oz block of cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano, or any aged cheese… gouda, cheddar, etc.) instead of individually wrapped. This will cut down on the amount of trash, as well. Finally, add some dehydrated veggies to your dinner for vitamins/minerals and texture. I will admit, these can be difficult to find and you may want to incorporate them into any mail drops for food, gear, etc. you have planned.
Dessert. No dinner is complete without dessert, especially on trail! For me, I would usually bring along a bar of dark chocolate, fun size candy bars, or cookies.
Freeze-dried meals. If you are bringing along these types of meals, you may notice that they usually take up quite a lot of space and thus do not pack well. Consider repackaging them into a Ziplock bag, label the type of meal, how much water to add, and cook times. Keep at least one in its original packaging and then reuse that package to cook remaining meals.
Repackage. Speaking of Ziplock bags, they are your friend! When readying your food bag, strip as much packaging as you can. Take items out of cumbersome packaging and place into a Ziplock. If an item has multiple packets, combine everything into one bag.
Meats & Cheeses. Many first-time backpackers are skeptical about carrying around meat and cheese in their backpacks for days on end due to the lack of refrigeration. However, fear not! I have found that most cheeses and meats are good for 3-5 days when packed with care. Try to pack these items deep in your food bag to help minimize exposure to higher temps.
Fresh ingredients. I was always astonished at how many hikers unknowingly passed by bushes loaded with blueberries, huckleberries or ramps, mint, etc. Learn to identify what is around you and incorporate that into your meals!
Fresh WA-state huckleberries atop cold-soaked oats!
Josh Sheets is a Social Worker and Adventurer. After completing the Appalachian Trail in 2011, he turned his focus to HIV social work. In subsequent years, he completed other trails including the Long Trail, Colorado Trail, Foothills Trail, Tahoe Rim, Laurel Highlands, Teton Crest and Wind River Range Traverses, and the Uinta Highline. He can be found and followed as “Soulslosher” on the social channels.