Eating Well in the Backcountry

Growing up in Colorado, I have always had a strong love for the outdoors. I fondly remember camping trips with my family, day hikes in the mountains near our home, and backpacking trips once I got a little bit older. I quickly learned that food never tastes better than it does after a day of hiking, and that cooking delicious, nutritious food is not an easy task in the middle of the wilderness. In college, I led trips for the Colorado State University Outdoor Club and I watched new outdoorsmen/women eat multiple packages of ramen, oatmeal, and loaves of bread – amiss for how to properly fuel their bodies. Through my experiences in the backcountry, I have grown to love backcountry nutrition and cooking, and continue to experiment with new recipes.

While hiking, skiing, climbing, and camping in the backcountry, it is important to take in enough energy (calories) to prevent low blood sugar, promote endurance and strength, and maintain mental clarity.  In the backcountry, energy needs can be significantly higher than normal. In fact, carrying heavy gear or hiking steep inclines may increase your energy needs by up to 40%.  In the late fall or winter, energy needs may be even higher because your body will require extra energy to keep warm.  It is a good idea to eat a small meal every 60-90 minutes. This will help keep your energy up throughout the day.  In addition to meeting calorie needs in the backcountry, it is also important to make sure you are receiving the proper balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat).

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbohydrates, like whole grain bread, oats, quinoa, granola, and starchy vegetables, are digested slowly, providing a steady stream of energy throughout the day. Incorporate these carbohydrates into each meal for sustained energy. When choosing whole grains to pack on the trip, remember that water boils at a lower temperature, making the cooking time for these products much longer. Therefore, opt for instant oats, quick-cook grains, and thin pasta to reduce cooking time. On the other hand, simple carbohydrates such as dried fruit and dark chocolate provide a fast-acting burst of energy. These are great to have in an easily accessible pocket for breaks and steep inclines. Plan to get about 50% of your calories from carbohydrates.

Protein is important for building muscle, maintaining a strong immune system, and increasing the efficiency of nutrient transport in the body.  In the backcountry, the muscles are working much harder. Therefore, it is important to incorporate more protein into backcountry meals. However, more protein isn’t always better – too much protein will increase pack weight and may cause excessive urination and need for hydration, putting extra burden on your kidneys. Aim for 1 additional serving of protein per day to meet your protein needs (about 20% of total calories). Good sources of protein are legumes, cheese, meat/ meat jerky, fish, nuts, and seeds.  Find dried or vacuum-packaged meats and fish to maintain food safety and prevent unnecessary weight in your pack.

Fat is a good source of energy for low-intensity, endurance hikes. Fat intake for backcountry travelers should be about 30% of total calories.  Like carbohydrates, not all fats are created equal. Saturated fat, found in processed foods, red meat, and desserts, is less healthy and should be limited to no more than 10% of total calories.  Unsaturated fat, on the other hand, has anti-inflammatory properties which can help reduce muscle soreness.  Add healthy unsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and freeze dried or dehydrated fish into your backcountry meals.

When thinking about backcountry nutrition, perhaps one of the most important considerations is water intake. The National Outdoor Leadership School recommends ½ liter of water per hour of moderately strenuous activity in moderately hot weather.  If you are excessively sweating, it may be a good idea to consume fluids containing electrolytes to avoid over hydration.  Carry a water filter with you to make sure the water you are drinking is safe.

In addition to backcountry nutrition, it is important to consider recovery nutrition following a backcountry trip. Continue to drink plenty of water (2 or more liters per day) and follow general recommendations for healthy nutrition, including whole grains, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. Omega-3 containing foods (such as fish), and foods with antioxidants (such as berries) are helpful for reducing inflammation and preventing sore muscles.

If you’re interested in changing up your backcountry nutrition routine, here are some of my favorite backcountry meals!

Breakfast:

You will need: 1 backcountry cooking pot, 1 mixing spoon, bowls + spoons, camping mug

  • 1 ¼ c water
  • ½ cup oats
  • dried fruit (cranberries, plums, blueberries, bananas)
  • pb2 peanut butter powder
  • chia/flaxseeds
  • Starbucks VIA instant coffee

Pour oats, dried fruit, pb2 peanut butter powder, and chia/flaxseeds into the bowls. Pour VIA instant coffee into your mug. Bring water to a boil, and pour over the oats to reach desired consistency. Pour the rest of the water in the coffee mix, and stir to dissolve.

Snack:

Lunch: Bean & Rice Mix

You will need: 1 backcountry cooking pot, 1 mixing spoon, bowls + spoons

  • Water
  • Uncle Bens instant Mexican brown rice
  • Dried vegetables (I dry frozen peas, carrots, and corn in my dehydrator)
  • Dried Onion
  • Canned/packaged chicken
  • 1 tsp cumin, cayenne, chili powder
  • Whole Wheat Tortilla

Bring the water to a boil and add instant brown rice. Cook as directed on the package, then add dried union, packaged chicken, and spices. Pour the mixture into the tortilla & enjoy!

Snack:

  • ½ cup nuts (mixed, unsalted)
  • dried fruit
  • dark chocolate chips

Dinner: Minestrone Soup

You will need: 1 backcountry cooking pot, 1 mixing spoon, bowls + spoons.

  • 3 ½ – 4 ½ cups water (Remember, it will take longer for the water to boil at high altitude.)
  • 1 cup pasta (I like frozen/dried tortellini)
  • ¾ cups cooked & dried beans (Cook the beans as normal, allow them to cool, then dry in the dehydrator! You can also dry canned beans. I do black, pinto, and garbanzo beans. These will hydrate very quickly in the boiling water.)
  • ½ cup dried vegetables (I dry frozen peas, carrots, and corn in my dehydrator)
  • Sundried tomatoes (a great source of vitamin C)
  • 2 Tbs. dried pepper
  • 2 Tbs. dried onion
  • 2-3 broth packets (I use a low-sodium bouillon cube)
  • Olive oil (hello, healthy fats!)
  • 1 tsp. black pepper, garlic salt, dried basil

Bring water to a boil and add pasta. Cook until semi-tender (just before done), then add all other ingredients. Continue to cook until pasta is done & all other ingredients are rehydrated. Serve with bread (optional), and enjoy!

 

 Treats:After a long day of backpacking, it is nice to reward yourself with a little treat! I like to bring dark chocolate squares because they are light weight and delicious! You can also try this

Chocolaty banana recipe if you are feeling more adventurous!

You will need: tin foil, pocket or utility knife, campfire, fork

  • 1 banana (peel on)
  • Handful of dark chocolate chips
  • Optional: nuts, peanut butter, marshmallows, smashed graham crackers

Using a pocket knife, slit banana along the length (about ½ way through) to create a pocket. Fill slit with toppings of choice. Wrap tightly in tin foil, and place on hot coals around the edge of the fire pit for 5-10 minutes. When done, the banana and toppings will be warm and gooey. Eat right out of the peel with your fork!   

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