KEEP YOUR FEET ON THE GAS: HOW TO RESUPPLY (AND EAT) LIKE A CHAMP ON A THRU HIKE, PART 2
Words and Photos from Eloise Robbins
Tell anyone you hike long distances, and one of the first questions they'll ask you is about food. What do you eat? How do you carry all of your food for five months? (Spoiler alert, you don't.) How much does it weigh? And aren't you hungry? Food is one of the most challenging things to plan. You can pore over gear lists and gain all of the outdoor skills you want, but food is deeply personal. What works for one person will not work for another. Luckily there's a variety of different strategies that will make sure you don't go hungry.
There is an overwhelming number of food options for backcountry adventures. From dehydrated meals to gourmet eggs and bacon, there’s something for everyone. How do you know what will work for you? Your strategy will vary depending on the type of trip you’re on. Here, we’ll focus on high effort, big mileage trips, like thru hiking. Before you choose exactly what you want to eat, consider the points below.
Easy to Make
Backpacking cookbooks and online articles love to suggest fancy meals that require skillets, raw eggs, or lengthy prep time at home. If you’re packing a frying pan on your ultralight backcountry adventure, please invite me along and cook me breakfast (but don’t expect me to help carry your heavy pack). Otherwise, these recipes are best left for cabin trips, car camping, or short overnights where you have time in camp to kill. If you’re expending energy all day on a thru-hike or hard effort trip, even boiling water to tip into your dehydrated dinner can seem like a lot of effort. Keep your meals simple and quick to make so that you can save your energy for hiking.
The easiest meals to make are the ones where you simply add boiling water and let it sit. If you transfer your hot food to a REpack or another cozy, you can save fuel by letting your food soak rather than simmering. A REpack will also keep your dehydrated dinner warm, so you don’t have to reheat it even after it has rehydrated for fifteen minutes.
Avoid foods packaged in bulky or heavy packaging. Cans and glass bottles are a bad idea since they are heavy to carry, and packing out trash is difficult. Some foods can be repackaged in Ziplocs to make them easier to transport. For example, Oreos are easier to carry if you take them out of their plastic sleeve and store them in a Ziploc.
If avoiding unnecessary waste is important to you, you can normally rinse out and reuse freezer Ziplocs a few times before they break. You can also find reusable silicone bags online. However, if you are mailing yourself boxes, reusing bags is less practical since you have to ship your food in something.
High Calorie: Fat is your Friend
You’re tired at the end of a long day, so dinner needs to fill you up. Fat has the highest calorie to weight ratio: an ounce of olive oil has over 250 calories. This doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to high-fat meals, as you can simply add olive oil to your dehydrated food. Soups, stews, and pastas are easy to add oil to without becoming greasy and gross. In town, decant olive oil into a smaller, leakproof, non-glass bottle (I like an empty mini-Sprite bottle). Then add to your dinner every night for a calorie boost.
If you’re on a winter or cool weather trip, keep in mind that olive oil solidifies in cold temperatures, which makes it difficult to get out of a bottle. If temperatures are cold enough that you don’t have to worry about butter or coconut oil melting and making a mess in your pack, take those instead.
Variety is the Spice of Life
On my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, I loved cold-soaked instant mashed potatoes. I ate them every single night for the first 600 miles. And then, suddenly, I couldn’t even look at a packet without gagging. A variety of meal options will help you avoid getting sick of your food. However, you should still plan on hating things after you’ve eaten them for a while. Also, many of the commonly recommended trail foods can seem unappetizing. If you don’t love oatmeal or trail mix in your regular life, you probably won’t be able to tolerate it on trail. Go for foods you know you’ll always want to eat over “healthy” suggestions. If you hate dried fruit, it won’t do you any good if you can’t choke it down. Junk food might be nutritionally terrible, but you’ll always want to eat it.
What Type of Food?
Beyond these considerations, there are three main types of food available. You can eat store-bought “normal food,” commercially dehydrated backpacking food, or homemade dehydrated backpacking food.
This is the cheapest, most readily available food. Boxed Mac and Cheese, Ramen, Knorr’s Pasta Sides: all of these wonderfully unhealthy thru-hiker favorites are available in even the smallest towns. It ships well and won’t go bad in a box that’s sitting at a resupply spot for a long time. This diet won’t win any points with nutritionists, but it is certainly high in calories. In larger stores, you can choose healthier options: one of the best trail lunches is a wrap with cheese, pepperoni, and avocado.
Some examples of normal food that translate well to the trail:
– Granola (either dry or with milk powder)
– Instant coffee
– Honey Buns
– Chips, snickers bars, nut mixes, dried fruit
– Hiker Trash Charcuterie board (cheese, cured meat, nuts, crackers)
– Bagels with cream cheese or peanut butter
– Tortilla with tuna pack
– Mac and Cheese (add extra cheese, sausage, and olive oil for extra calories)
– Pasta with instant pesto and olive oil
– Trail Burrito (instant refried beans with instant rice, cheese, tortilla)
If the lack of vegetables here makes you want to cry, you can dehydrate your own vegetable mix to supplement store-bought meals. Also, while you might only want to eat cheeseburgers and fries in town, try and add in a salad every once in a while to balance things out.
Commercially Dehydrated Food
These are meals like Mountain House or Backpacker’s Pantry dinners. They are relatively lightweight and high calorie, but they are expensive and bulky packaging makes them hard to pack. Also, the limited flavors get boring after a few weeks. These are great for a treat, but the high price means most dirtbags won’t eat these for every meal.
Homemade Dehydrated Food
Homemade backpacking food is perfect for those on a special diet, gourmet chefs, or anyone insane enough to want to spend months cooking, dehydrating, and packaging dinners for a thru-hike (full disclosure, I am one of those people). You can control exactly what goes into your food if allergies are a concern, and it’s easy to bump up the vegetable content if you want to be healthy. However, making your own meals is incredibly time-consuming, and you run the risk of getting sick of your options if you only make a few meals. It also ties you to mailing boxes, which can be expensive and leave you waiting in town for mail to show up.
I’ve decided to make my own dehydrated dinners for my Great Divide Trail thru-hike this summer. I already regret my life choices. Why did I decide to undertake this insanity? I already have to mail food boxes to remote visitor centers, I’m tired of “normal food” options, and commercially dehydrated meals are outside of my budget. I do not recommend doing this unless you have dietary issues or unless you’re in a similar situation to me.
However, you don’t have to commit to dehydrating every meal. You can add a blend of dehydrated vegetables, such as mushrooms and kale, to dinners like Mac and Cheese. You can dehydrate your own fruit mixes for a healthy snack. You can also dehydrate sriracha disks or chunks of salsa so that you can spice up otherwise boring meals.
There is a wide range of dehydrators available. Some have timers and temperature controls. Some have fans, and some are simply heating elements. Some ovens even have a dehydrate setting. I firmly believe that the best dehydrator is the one you can borrow from a friend or find at a thrift store, especially if you aren’t sure if you want to commit to making all of your meals yourself. My dehydrator is borrowed, about twenty years old, and doesn’t have temperature control or a fan, but it still works great. If you don’t have a temperature setting, just keep a closer eye on your food.
Fat is NOT Your Friend and Other Tips
Remember earlier when we talked about how fat has a high calorie-to-weight ratio and should be included in all of your backpacking meals? Just to confuse you, you should not dehydrate fatty foods. Fat does not dehydrate well, and you run the risk of your meals going rancid. Instead, choose meals that you can pour olive oil into, like Shake ‘n Bake’s Chili recipe below.
Smaller, evenly chopped food rehydrates better. If you’re dehydrating something with large chunks, mashing it with a potato masher or immersion blender before dehydrating will help it rehydrate more evenly.
Dehydration times will vary based on your dehydrator. Even the weather can affect your dehydration. I find it takes an extra hour or two on humid days to dry a meal. You can speed up times and make sure your meal dehydrates evenly by stirring the food every few hours and rotating your trays.
Pineapple Rings Recipe
This is the perfect simple recipe to figure out your dehydrator settings. Pineapple rings make a great healthy trail snack. However, you might have to hide them if you plan on putting them in a resupply box- we eat them right out of the dehydrator.
Ingredients (3 servings):
– One can pineapple rings
- Open can and place rings on mesh dehydrator trays in a single layer. If your dehydrator has a temperature control, set it to 130f/54c.
- Flip the rings every few hours and rotate the trays to ensure even drying.
- Dehydrate until dry and flexible- between 12 and 14 hours.
- Store in a Ziploc and snack on while you hike.
Shake 'N Bake's Chili Recipe
This is my favorite meal on a cold night. It rehydrates well, and the tomatoes disguise fatty olive oil perfectly. We make this for dinner and then dehydrate the leftovers. This version is mild: bump up the spice level if you prefer.
Ingredients (10 Servings):
– 2 cans (19oz/540ml) red beans
– 1 can (19oz/540ml) black beans
– 1 can (27oz/795ml) crushed tomatoes
– 1 can (27oz/795ml) diced tomatoes
– 2 tablespoons cumin
– 1 teaspoon chili powder
– 2 teaspoons garlic salt
– 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
– Olive oil or other fat to serve
– A few canned chipotle chilies (adjust amount based on how spicy you like your chili)
- Add all of the ingredients to a crockpot. Don’t worry if your cans are slightly different sizes as long as the proportions stay the same- Shake ‘n Bake is Canadian, and can sizes vary from country to country. Cook on low for 8 hours. If you don’t have a crockpot, add all of the ingredients to a large pot and cook over medium heat on your stove for 2-3 hours. Do not add oil to your pan.
- Mash chili a little with a potato masher or immersion blender. You’re not trying to puree the chili- just break up larger chunks and whole beans so it will rehydrate better.
- Spread chili over plastic dehydrator trays or on parchment paper cut to fit your dehydrator. Dehydrate at 145f/63c for 8 hours. Every few hours, stir the chili and rotate the trays to ensure even drying. Once the chili is dehydrated, store it in a Ziploc freezer bag. 1 cup of dehydrated chili is one serving.
- On the trail, place your Ziploc in a REpack or another cozy. Alternatively, place contents in a cup or pot to rehydrate. Cover with one cup of boiling water per 1 cup of chili and add olive oil. Let stand for 10-15 minutes (time depends on temperature and elevation). Enjoy!
Fried Rice Recipe
This recipe is perfect no matter what vegetables you use. It’s also a great example of how to add dehydrated vegetables to a “normal” food to create something special. Next time you get takeout, save soy sauce packets to make this dish extra tasty.
Ingredients (one serving):
– ⅓ cup dehydrated vegetables (carrots, celery, mushrooms, kale, and baby corn are my favorites, but you can use almost any vegetable)
– ½ cup instant white rice
– 1 tablespoon fried rice seasoning
– 1 pack single serve soy sauce – Olive oil or other fat (optional)
- Dehydrate your vegetables. Slice thinly to ensure even drying. Place on mesh trays and set your dehydrator at 130f/54c. Carrots take 6-10 hours, celery takes 6-8 hours, mushrooms take 4-8 hours, kale takes 3-4 hours, and canned baby corn takes 8-10 hours. It is easiest to put a different vegetable on each tray and just check them regularly. Dehydrate extra vegetables and save the excess to add to other meals.
- Place ⅓ cup vegetables in a Ziploc freezer bag. Add ½ cup instant white rice and 1 tablespoon fried rice seasoning. Store 1 pack of soy sauce separately.
- On the trail, place your Ziploc in a REpack or another cozy. Alternatively, place contents in a cup or pot to rehydrate. Add half a cup of boiling water, olive oil (optional) and let stand for 5-10 minutes (depending on temperature and elevation). Add soy sauce, and enjoy!
Eloise Robbins is a Triple Crowner who completed the Continental Divide Trail in 2017. She also enjoys canoeing, bikepacking, and getting outdoors all winter long. You can read more of her writing at https://funsizehikes.com.