The Art of Backcountry Cooking: a Balancing Act of Planning, Calories, and Grams
One of the most honest, rewarding, and communal aspects of backpacking is cooking. You're building meals to meet your basic needs, and often the needs of your trek mates. This simple task is nourishing for the body and mind, even at home. But, on the trail after traveling miles by human locomotion, this chore and its reward, can become glorious. Many seasoned backpackers would agree, at least one of the favorite meals of their lives was something simple, at the end of a full-day hike. At the same time, it is often the most complex and intimidating part of not only your actual trip but your trip planning as well. How much food will you need? What should you bring? How will you cook it? What will you do with the trash? What should all of it cost?
Recently I had the chance to sit down with Eric Boxer, RightOnTrek’s Food Products Manager, to understand the complicated balancing act of calorie intake, quality nutrition, dietary-restrictions, weight, packability, and the unquantifiable notion of the true joy of cooking on the trail. These pillars of backpack meal planning are how Eric and RightOnTrek help build their clients' meal plans, and you can use these same touchstones to plan yours as well if you want to handle this task on your own.
Calories & Nutrients
The average active adult will use anywhere between 2000-2600 calories per day in their normal state. Add in the strain of an outdoor trek with your pack on, and you've drastically increased your body's caloric need for the day. This is the first piece of the puzzle.
Eric notes that one of the most uncomfortable situations on a backpacking trip is ending up in a constant caloric deficit. Early signs of this include being irritable and unable to think clearly, and as you progress, symptoms can develop into constant hunger, the inability to sleep, and a lack of the energy you need to continue backpacking. To avoid this deficit, you will need to plan to carry and consume upwards of 2600-3000 calories per day. Unfortunately, this isn't as simple as looking at calorie counts on food products. You absolutely can hop on Amazon or go to REI and pick up some of the ready-to-add-water meals and hit the trail. However—Eric, who has spent his career trying to make great tasting foods in packable, trail-ready formats—notes that it’s important to know where the food is coming from and that what you’re eating is the healthiest option, because not all foods, and therefore not all calories, are created equal. The thing that gets Eric excited about working with RightOnTrek is that he is able to give backpackers the most freedom possible by providing calorically dense, healthy foods for the trail. "Meal planning in this way makes your trip more enjoyable,” if for no other reason than you’re feeling well fed.
Once you've considered your caloric need, thought through how to choose foods that are nutrient-dense, and covered all the basic macros of healthy carbs, fats, and proteins, you then have your next task set out before you: how do you get this food to a bearable weight for your trip? Assuming you're not dehydrating or freeze-drying your own foods, you'll likely be looking to make a mix of some original recipes with whole grains like oats or bulgar (the quick-cooking cracked wheat that makes tabbouleh irresistible) combined with purchased dehydrated vegetables and add-ins. You will then want to round out your meal plan with prepackaged foods like bars, trail mix varieties, hydration tabs, and creature comforts like teas and coffee. As you go, think about how you can break up meals, or multiple meals into groups that make sense for you.
Calories and Weight
When you consider what foods you want to pack and judge that against your caloric need, you also must be considerate of weight. Not all foods are created equal when it comes to their calorie count and how much physical weight it has and volume it takes up. A simple example of this is a dried apricot vs a fresh one. Think about how much larger a fresh apricot is compared to a smaller dried one—the calorie count is the same, but with the water removed the dried counterpart not only weighs less but is significantly smaller in your pack. We cannot state enough though, the equation is not as simple as adding up dried foods instead of their fresh brethren, because not all foods deliver the same calorie per weight value.
A great metric that we work with is trying to deliver 125-150 calories per ounce. When you recognize that, for example, an ounce of popcorn is roughly 100 calories compared to 170 calories for one ounce of peanut butter, it becomes easy to decide which becomes the better option. With the same weight-in-pack measurement you're almost doubling the calories you can consume with the peanut butter. This type of thinking, of course, is removing personal preference from the process. However if you are vigilant in making a number of decisions in choosing more calorically dense foods instead of their lighter counterparts, by the time you’re done packing you will have created a meal plan that carries significantly more energy per weight than if you just picked foods that seemed appealing to you without further research.
Packing & Sustainability
At RightOnTrek we like to package your meal kits so it's clear which meal you should eat and when. You may decide to do a single package for all of your dinners, for example, but we have found that to have your meals organized by day AND mealtime is a huge help when you’re on the trail. Many folks, myself included, might question the weight and need for the extra packaging at first, but Eric is quick to respond. "The extra weight from the single-serve packs can be measured in mere grams", and if you're concerned about the ecological impact Eric has an answer for that also: "We choose products and package our own in recyclable #4 films so when you pack them out, you can recycle them".
Beyond recycling, there’s also an intrinsic value in people having a great time on the trail. Eric says, "The knowledge you gain from being in nature for extended periods of time will ultimately foster a love for nature, and offset the slight impact you might have from your food packaging." The logic holds up, especially when you consider that the average person will be lucky enough to spend 14 days a year backpacking, but will be able to defend and advocate for our wild spaces each and every day that they’re not on the trail. It's still a lot to consider, even when making your own meal kits at home, and we still haven't even considered dietary restrictions and taste.
Diets, allergies, and preferences
It shouldn't go without saying that your personal preference, as well as special dietary needs have to be a part of your meal kit plan. If you're a vegetarian, you'll need to opt for beans and legumes for your proteins instead of freeze-dried or dehydrated meats. Perhaps you're sensitive to gluten or have a nut allergy, this of course takes precedence over weight, caloric-density, and macros. Chances are if you have any of these special needs you already know how to find great alternatives. A great way to build a meal plan in this instance is to look at some of the traditional backpacking meals and their nutritional value and try to replicate it with your alternative grains or vegetarian and vegan replacements. In the same way that you can find the freedom to cook for yourself at home in the way that suits you, your flavor preference, and dietary needs, you can find that freedom on the trail.
The Joy of Cooking (On The Trail)
A lot of factors go into the taste. It starts with great ingredients but then quickly moves to preparation. Have you thought about your camp cookstove? Will you only be able to boil water, or do you think you'll be able to cook over a pot or a pan as well? Have you thought about what will make your dish unique, or provide comfort through flavor? Is there a particular spice or seasoning that you have a fond memory or connection to that will make you feel even more at home on the trail? These answers will lead you to better planning around how you can develop flavors while cooking on the trail when you are backpacking.
Make sure to read the instructions on any prepackaged meals, and do a test run on any homemade recipes that you've created for yourself. The last place you'll want to realize you need more seasoning or a way to make your pot less sticky is on the trail in the middle of a 7-day backpacking trip. Again, Eric and the team have thought through this for you. "You'll need to bring a pot because we don't pack our meals with extra thick foil and film capable of handling the heat loss of food prep. But largely, that's all you'll need aside from your cookstove." If you can boil water, Eric states, then you can cook our meals. And that's where the magic happens: when, after hours of planning (sometimes spread out over weeks), you sit down and begin to prepare your first meal on the trail. You've already carried your gear and your food over endless rises and miles, it doesn't need to be rocket science to prepare it. Choose meals and food that are simple for you to cook with boiling water, or unpack your day’s meal kit from RightOnTrek and enjoy.
One last note of consideration is that of cost. If you look at the above “pillars” that we’ve adopted, you can see that this is all doable, but what will all of these considerations cost? Or to reframe the question a bit: what should be the cost? At RightOnTrek, we believe that $20-$25 per day of hiking is appropriate and doable—this includes snacks and beverage add-ins. This task of considering nutrition, calorie-density, weight, preparation, and more, and then trying to achieve all of it for $25 or less per-day is one that might make Rachel Ray blush, but we’re confident that you can do it.
First, you should consider your overall meal plan. Can you buy dried legumes in bulk and use them in 7 out of you 12 meals? Check your favorite local grocer to see if they offer whole grains as well as dried nuts and seeds in bulk. You can often save money in these areas because the foods are sold without packaging or brand names. Additionally, your neighborhood co-op might be able to sell you discounted goods if you order them ahead of time in bulk. Any way you slice it, it's not a task that is without work, but now that you have that $25-or-less goal, it will give you something to work toward.
RightOnTrek exists to give you the resources you need to have many unforgettable backpacking trips, and one of the ways we simplify the entire process is through our meal plans and meal kits. We have put years of industry knowledge and research to the test and built a method for making lightweight, great-tasting meals and snacks for you to enjoy. You can, of course, go about this on your own. If you can understand the basic pillars of meal planning that we’ve outlined here: calories, whole nutrition, weight, dietary-restrictions, packability, and taste, then you can plan meals for your entire backpacking trip. It can seem intimidating, but it is also incredibly rewarding in its own way. At its most basic, you are providing fuel for your body to carry you (and your gear) to the next amazing destination, and at its most complex, you're playing the role of nutritionist, physician, and chef. We can't wait to see what you end up cooking out there to fuel your next big adventure.