I currently plan on between 1.3 and 1.6 lbs. of food per day. Breakfast and dinner tend to be heavy, so I adjust the total day count accordingly. For instance, if I’m trying for 1.4 lbs. per day, and the first day I’m having breakfast before we start, I’ll figure on 1.1 lb. for that day maybe, and if the last day doesn’t include dinner, I’ll probably figure it at 0.8 lbs or so. Ironically, I find for more relaxed, easier trips, I eat more than on more strenuous trips. I pay strict attention to the weight, because, well, what else is there but weight. But also, I know from experience that if I pack more than about 1.4 lbs. per day, I will bring food back. My ideal food packing is to come off the trail hungry, and I always make sure I have a Probar in the car.
I prefer to eat a plant-based (mostly no animal products) diet, so this affects my food choices in town, and also in the backcountry. I do make some exceptions for
backpacking, mostly by taking some string cheese for lunch, because I like the taste and they keep well in the heat. In many cases, my food choices are integrated into choices on clothing, shelter, and hiking style. So it may not make sense to implement just a recipe without at least an effort to understand the integration.
Generally, variety is key for me to avoid boredom. Food choices are, by nature, largely a matter of personal taste. I’m always watching what others are eating, for new ideas that I can incorporate (as long as it doesn’t weigh more). I like to package things so snacks are easy to drop into my pocket, but I don’t make complete packages per day. I prefer to make selections as I go, so I’m always eating what I feel most like at that time. I do like to use the thin plastic produce bags from the grocery store to ‘group’ similar items, so all the breakfasts end up together, all the dinners, snacks and lunches, etc. It just makes it easier to find stuff than if it’s all floating around randomly in my food bag. Typically in the morning before setting out, I’ll pull out a breakfast for the day, maybe a bar, any small energy gel bits, a small snack Ziploc, and put them in the outside pocket of the pack, with the snack bag in my pants pocket for easy access. I figure on getting into my food bag at lunch and dinner, but not other than that. My hiking style favors movement over sitting, so I’m geared to snacking without having to stop. My spinnaker food bag is patterned after a standard plastic grocery bag. Compared to a stuff sack, it is easier to open up and see what’s inside.
For breakfast, if I’m going to be stopping to eat, I have a bag with 3/4 cup or so of grapenuts cereal, 1/4 cup of some dried fruit bits (different ones in different bags for
variety, some favorites are blueberries, pomegranate seeds, cherries), 3 tbsp of powdered coconut milk (for calories, also lends a nice taste), 2 tbsp of brewers yeast, and 2 tbsp of powdered almond or soy milk (or if I can’t find it, powdered whole milk or goats milk). Sometimes I have half a Probar to start, because since I’m carrying minimal insulation, I like to get up and get moving in the morning, then stop after a couple of hours of hiking, in a nice sunny spot, for a leisurely breakfast. But I can usually go for an hour or so with nothing. When it’s time for breakfast, I pour some water into the Ziploc bag, fold down the top for easy access, and happily spoon out my breakfast.
If people are stopping and cooking for breakfast, I may make some hot coffee. I usually keep it simple using the Starbucks Via packets. I sometimes take some cold water in my Smart Water bottle, add a Via packet, shake it, and enjoy some cold coffee in the morning.
If we’re trying to make some miles and are not stopping to eat breakfast, I love munching on a Probar, and another easy-to-eat-while-walking option like a snack bag of granola (I buy from bulk bins, going for whatever has the largest ‘clusters’ for ease of eating), or a breakfast quesadilla (string cheese wrapped in a good quality flour tortilla). Dark chocolate covered espresso beans are a nice morning snack on the run, so you don’t have to stop and make coffee to get your morning buzz.
For lunch, I like a stick of string cheese, maybe a vegan jerky strip (Primal Strips or Louisville Vegan Jerky) or a squeeze package of Trail Butter, and some flavored Triscuit crackers or other hardtack kind of bread. I’m still experimenting, but about 3 oz. of crackers per day seems about right. I’ve also done tortillas, and Dr. Krackers are awesome. The Triscuits tend to be my go-to, as they are easy to find, they travel well with minimal breakage, and they come in different flavors to keep it exciting.
Variety is a great thing, but I never get tired of a small snack Ziploc of either Chex Party Mix or Cheezit Snack Mix. Something about the different textures, the spices… I eat a small bag of this as snacks every day I’m on the trail, and have for years. I sometimes take some Clif shot blocks, or similar products, to have one or two a day as a little boost/treat. But sometimes I go without.
The one thing I NEVER go without is Emergen-C powdered drink mix – the Joint Health version. Buy it at Trader Joes, they have the best price. This has a gram of vitamin C, plus glucosamine and chondroitin (note: they don’t seem to have the Joint Health version anymore, but I still always take Emergen-C). I mix it weak, and will down generally 3 – 4 packets a day, in a liter of water each. I use a one-liter Smart Water bottle for this purpose, so it doesn’t gunk up the tube on my hydration bladder. I often hike in heat, and often go from sea level, where I live, to high altitude. As long as I stick to my Emergen-C
regimen, I NEVER get cramps or stiffness, in spite of long days with high mileage on an
aging body that generally doesn’t get much exercise between trips. Ron Moak of Six
Moon Designs is a convert, he says this tip changed his life.
Other potential snacks are nuts, flavored almonds or peanuts are nice, although I haven’t taken them in awhile. I love having a Probar or two during the day when I can fit them into the weight limit. The taste and food value is awesome (plus they are vegan), and they have a lot of flavors that I never get tired of. When I hike with Henry Shires of Tarptent, his huge bag of flavored sesame snacks always looks good, but I so far have always forgotten before my next trip, or not had room under the weight limit to include them.
Helping Andrew Skurka lead a Wilderness Trekking School trip changed my life. Of course, the information you learn from hiking with Skurka is like drinking from a fire hose, but the thing that had maybe the most impact was being introduced to Mike Clelland’s dinner plans. There’s an article on BackpackingLight called Groovy-Biotic Cooking, and Mike goes into detail (about dinners plus anything else ultralight you need to know) in his excellent book Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips. Anyone who doesn’t have this book should order it right now, before reading further. Anyway, the general gist of the plan is 3 – 4 oz. of dry food, like instant potatoes, couscous, dried black bean flakes/instant rice, freeze-dried lentils, dehydrated sweet potatoes, quinoa flakes or polenta. To that you add 1.5 to 2 oz. of sauce, based on olive oil with a variety of spices. Mike has a variety of recipes in his book, and in the BPL article. I never really looked forward to dinner before this, and now dinner is a high point every day. The flavors are awesome, especially with some experimentation on the sauces. The olive oil and salt base keeps very well in hot climates, I’ve never had an issue.
I make up sauce batches in the beginning of the season, and store them in small plastic water bottles in the back of the refrigerator where my wife doesn’t look. At the same time, I’ll measure out some dry ingredients into Ziploc bags and store them in a cool dry place (my closet in this case). That way, to prepare for a trip, it’s a simple matter of decanting the appropriate amount of the sauce into a small water bottle and grabbing a couple of ‘dry’ bags. I always pack the sauce bottle inside a pint freezer Ziploc bag to avoid spills.
Mike is the master of cozy cooking, I have a slight variant. I cook in a Heineken can, supported by a Trail Designs Caldera, using esbit tabs (ProTip for esbit, use WetFire tinder to light them, only need a very small amount). For some dry items, like instant potatoes and couscous, I just pour the hot water into the freezer Ziploc, stir it up, and eat, there’s no need to wait. I’ll typically drop the bag into my possumdown hat to use as a
cozy, just to keep it warm, and make it easier to hold. This is nice because there’s no pot to clean. The bags I use for these are the Glad Simply Cooking bags. They are pleated and short, so they are easy to eat out of. They are made for steaming in microwaves, so you just have to put a bit of tape over the steam vent. They aren’t available any more I think, I’m washing and reusing the ones I have.
Personally, I find for the rice/beans, polenta, lentils, and sweet potatoes, while I can make them just by letting them sit in the cozy, I think they are MUCH enhanced by some time simmering in the pot. So, for those, I pour the dry ingredients into the water and bring to a boil. Then I cover the esbit with a piece of titanium foil to let the pot simmer. The trick is to make it a little runny, actually pretty soupy, to avoid a nasty cleanup. Then when done simmering, I remove it from the heat, take my small bag of instant potatoes (plain, or just roasted garlic, to avoid flavor conflicts), and stir in an ounce or so to thicken it up. That way you get the satisfying thickness, without the burnt food on the bottom of the pot. Then of course, I have to wash the pot, but that’s a matter of dropping some water in, doing a scrape with the spoon, drinking the swill, and repeating once or twice. In my experience, it’s well worth the extra trouble.
One of the richest meals I ever had was dehydrated sweet potatoes. I didn’t follow Mike’s instructions somehow, I cooked them and dried them (for days), then took those hard shreds and ground them in a Vitamix blender. It made so much noise the dog ran for the door, and I had to wear ear protection. I ended up with a fine orange dust. But when I added hot water to that dust, oh my, was that delicious with sauce.
It’s sometimes nice to add some enhancements to the dry ingredients. Depending on the meal, pine nuts, dried mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, even freeze-dried tofu (or for an omnivore, some meat) can all add flavor and/or protein. A favorite, which I picked up from Brian Frankle (founder of ULA), is Frito bits. Buy a small bag, stick a pin in it to let the air out, crush into bits for easier packing, then put a piece of tape over the pinhole to preserve freshness. I like to stir in the Frito bits at the end for a crunchy treat that adds calories. It’s excellent with potatoes, rice/beans, and sweet potatoes, from personal experience. Brian also uses Funions in a similar manner.
My dinners are weighted with fat calories, which helps keep me warm at night with minimal clothing, sleeping bag and pad. Recently, to provide my muscles some extra protein at night for recovery, I’ve been adding a protein bar as dessert. There are a lot of bad tasting ones out there. So far I like the Stinger, Raw Revolution or ProBar ones best, they really taste like dessert.
Update: I’m currently in a ‘lazy’ stretch, using pre-packaged meals for dinners (and sometimes a cold-soak one for lunch). My favorites are those from Outdoor Herbivore (Basil Walnut Penne is my favorite, but I haven’t tasted some of the more recent ones) and Food for the Sole (Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Kale and Quinoa, Coconut Rice and Cuben Black Beans, Zesty Miso Broccoli Slaw are my favorites).
I already discussed under Breakfast how I get up in the morning and start hiking, then stop later for breakfast. This minimizes the amount of clothing I have to carry, since I don’t need the added insulation for sitting around in camp in the cold morning air. Likewise, I prefer not to eat dinner at my campsite. It is much superior to make dinner in the late afternoon/early evening, then hike on for awhile before setting up camp. This allows you pick a dinner spot for it’s beauty and water, and it doesn’t need to be a good camping spot, in fact can be a spot that you’re not allowed to camp. You don’t need a lot of extra insulation because the chill of the day hasn’t set in. As you continue, your work to set up camp is reduced, because you no longer need to cook dinner. You don’t have the cooking smells in camp to attract attention of bears or other varmits. Those last miles of the day are usually easy, because you’re charged up from a good dinner, and the day has cooled off. You often get to enjoy the wildlife starting to become active. That’s really what it’s all about, enjoying the backcountry.
Update: For dinner, my current strategy is to pull up to a nice location, with a log or rock to sit on. I’ll pull out the foam pad from the back of my pack to sit on, then sit down and open my pack. I take out my clothes bag, put on a layer, maybe my hat, then pull out my thin gloves and stow them in a pocket. I set the clothes bag aside and pull out my food bag. From that I remove my stove setup, assemble it, add water, and get the Esbit going. With the water heating, I pull out a dinner, and a powdered Miso soup envelope, and my bamboo spoon or chopsticks. I put on my right glove for handling the pot since it doesn’t have heavy handles. When the water is boiling, I add it to the meal pouch and seal it. Since I’ve removed the clothes bag and food bag from my pack, the sleeping bag is about all that’s left in it, and I puff it up so it takes up the entire pack (it’s not in a stuff sack, to save weight). I nestle the meal pouch in the sleeping bag, which is a much better cozy than something extra that you have to carry. Then I put some more water in the pot, which the rest of the esbit heats up. When the esbit is done, I add the Miso soup powder to the hot water. I remove the pot and put it in the stuff sack (which is insulated on the bottom), and sip my hot soup while I enjoy the evening. This helps rehydrate and replenish electrolytes. When I’m done with the soup, I take the pot, rinse it out, stow the windscreen inside. Then I remove the meal pouch, and put it into the insulated stuff sack. This way I get to enjoy my rehydrated dinner, and it stays hot while I’m eating it.