Snack Attack: The Best Foods For The Trail

What is the best food to eat on the trail? The answer is, of course...it depends!

By: Sarah Seads
August 24, 2015

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One perk to spending days moving in the mountains is that you can eat like a horse and never replace all you burn. It is nearly impossible to replace all of the calories that are used up during long consecutive days in the mountains. This is especially true in cold climates where the body must work even harder to maintain a safe temperature. The good news is that this means you can eat pretty much anything you want on multi-day backpacking, mountain biking or skiing trips without worrying about the scale when you return home.

Carbohydrates are the body's preferred energy source and should make up the majority of calories on a daily basis, as well as during endurance activities. Carbohydrates breakdown easily into glucose which is used by the brain and nervous system and are stored as glycogen for use in the muscles. Your body loves carbohydrates for high intensity exercise and it has a hard time keeping up the pace without them. Proteins and fats require additional energy to break down and may cause gastric distress when eaten during high intensity exercise such as running.

Photo: Sarah Seads

During lower intensity activities such as steady hiking, ski-touring or biking, your body will happily digest fats and proteins in addition to carbohydrates without much stress on your system. Fats yield more than twice the calories per gram as carbohydrates and proteins and therefor provide more bang for the buck when space and weight are an issue. Mountaineers are well known for adding butter to everything they eat and living off of high fat foods during expeditions. During long slow adventures, when weight is an issue, and in cold environments, fat becomes the fuel of choice.

What foods make you happy? What do you crave after 6 hours on your feet? It is important to pack foods that you know you will enjoy after a long day in the hills. Energy gel's may be small and lightweight, but they sure won't hit the spot on day two! Be sure to pack foods that satiate you, energize you, meet your nutrition needs and keep you happy too. Check out the Top 5 Unnecessary Backpacking Foods Worth Their Weight to learn a few tasty eats that are sure to be a pick-me-up after a long day on the trail.

Photo: Sarah Seads

Drink often to avoid dehydration while in the mountains. On a day hike you can usually carry all of the fluids you will need for the day. When backpacking, you will need to find water along the way and be prepared to treat it with a filter or tablets. Water is heavy - about 2lbs per litre - but don’t skimp to try and lighten your load! You risk much greater discomfort if you become dehydrated on the trail. Aim to consume 1-3 cups per hour during your endurance activities and even more on hot days or at elevation.

How much food is enough? Your caloric output depends on your weight, age, gender, intensity and individual metabolism. Out on the trail it seems as if you always want and need to eat twice as much as at home, especially if you have a desk job. Just walking rapidly burns 300 calories per hour and you burn a lot more when you are going up steep grades carrying a loaded pack. Hiking 7 hours or more on a challenging trail your energy requirements could easily rise to 4000-5000 cals/day - double your home consumption. With a good balance between carbohydrates, proteins and fat, you can get those 4000+ calories a day in about 2-2.5lbs. Plan each meal carefully and pack an extra day’s rations for emergency situations.

So, back to the question at hand: What are the best foods to eat on the trail?

The best foods are the ones that work best for you and your adventure of choice. Consider these questions when deciding what food is best for your next adventure:

  • How are you traveling? Hiking, biking, skiing or running?
  • For how long are you traveling? Day tripping, overnighting or multi-day?
  • What is the temperature/pace/terrain?
  • How many calories do you need?
  • How much weight can you carry?

Photo: Sarah Seads

Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about your own personal menu plan for your next big adventure:

Day hiking

Many hikers and backpackers never stop for an identifiable lunch-instead they take frequent ‘munch’ breaks to ensure a steady supply of energy without feeling over-full. Regular water and snack breaks can prevent low energy and muscle fatigue on the trail. Keep some snacks, such as trail mix or dried fruit, in a handy side pocket that is easy to access for a quick energy boost.

On a day hike, you can carry whatever you are willing to cart along. Sandwiches on hearty breads or bagels, cheese and crackers, hard boiled eggs, fruit (bananas and peaches aren’t the best choice unless you can protect them!) granola, energy bars, cookies etc. If you can carry it, you can eat it!

Weekend Overnight Trips

For a night or two, your choices are also quite wide open. In warm weather you could leave the stove at home and carry only hearty sandwiches, hard boiled eggs and other day hiking foods such as those listed above. If you opt for convenience and luxury over the lightest pack, you can pack your favorite canned meals, soups and other hot eats.

Multi Day Treks

On trips of more than a day or two, weight is of primary concern. The pounds add up quickly and the lighter you can make your food supply the happier you will be on the trail. An easy choice is dried or dehydrated backpacking meals, but you can also be creative at the supermarket. Dehydrated foods are light, convenient, easy to prepare and usually high in calories. Simply boil water, heat, and eat right out of the pouch. These prepared foods are also expensive, however. Food from the supermarket takes a little more preparation and planning but is a lot more affordable. Be sure to remove all unnecessarypackaging from your store bought foods. Using lightweight ziplock bags will save you precious pounds and take up less space in your pack. Most of a food’s weight is in the water it contains. You can save weight by bringing dried snacks with you as well. Or invest in your own dehydrator and you will be able to eat your favourite home-cooked meals no matter how far you are off the grid!

Photo: Sarah Seads

Here are some ideas for your menu:

Breakfast: Hot or cold cereal with milk powder, breakfast bars, granola bars, dried fruit or hard boiled eggs.

Lunch and snacks: Crackers and cheese (I take a wheel of camembert on every trip- yum!), hard breads or tortilla wraps with your choice of non-perishable fillings (nut butters, jams, dried meat and fish), energy bars, dried fruit, trail mix, chocolate, cookies, granola bars.

Dinner: Dehydrated meals, noodle, bean or rice dinners with added protein such as hard salami, pepperoni, smoked salmon, or nuts and seeds. Travel friendly veggies such as pre-cooked potatoes and carrots can add nutrition and colour to many packaged meals.

For gourmet meal ideas, check backpacking cookbooks, which are usually on the shelves in outdoor retail stores. Backpackers have come up with amazingly tasty recipes and you will find plenty of inspiration to create your own menu.

Additional items:

Dried soup, coffee, tea, cocoa, drink powders, spices and bouillon add very little weight but much enjoyment to a cool night or a wet trip.

One of my favourite hiking meals is sushi- boil up some rice and wrap it up in nori (carefully pack these delicate sheets in a book or at the top of your pack), smoked salmon and carrots with a splash of soy sauce and wasabi. What a treat in the mountains!

With a little creativity and some pre-planning you are sure to come up with some interesting backpacking menu ideas. Happy trails!

Photo: Sarah Seads

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