Chapter 11: Hiking light – Pack Lighter by Reducing the Weight of Food in Your Backpack
Hiking light helps you have more fun. You feel less burdened, more invigorated, and closer to nature. To lighten your pack as much as possible, you need to become an expert at choosing light food. You can lighten the weight of the food you carry and maintain great nutrition and taste.
The most important food you carry is water. It’s more important than other foods for survival and many bodily functions such as staying cool or warm. And since water is heavy, you need to carry enough without carrying too much. Reading your map and learning from others about water sources before you hike will reduce your water weight. In some areas you need to carry large amounts of water between sources. In other areas, you can drink large amounts when you’re at water sources and not carry much in between.
The main thing to remember when you’re planning your food is you’ll need more than normal. Lots more. If you’re hiking full days, you can plan for almost twice your normal calories. But don’t fall into the trap of filling in the extra calories with packaged junk food. You don’t need empty calories. You need nutritious calories.
For weekend trips, you can get away with less nutritious meals. You might even use the trip as a bit of a diet, within reason. But if you’re thru hiking on the long trails, you’ll quickly burn up your reserves and your body won’t function well without good nutrition.
When you’re hiking, good nutrition is much the same as it is anytime. You should stay well hydrated, get lots of protein, complex carbohydrates, and good fats. Eat fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and fiber. Veggies might be the biggest challenge on long trips, although you can find them in freeze dried form. They won’t be as nutritious as fresh, but you’ll still benefit from them.
When thru hikers reach main roads and civilization, they’re often ready to gorge on all the wrong things like sugar-filled ice cream. It would be better to overload on vegetables that you’ve been missing.
Fruits are a little easier to pack than vegetables, because you can readily find fruit leather and things like dried apricots, banana chips, and apple chips.
Freeze dried meals are light, but are expensive and not always dense in nutritious calories. Become more of a label reader when you buy any processed food. On nutrition labels for freeze dried food you’ll notice the meals are high in sodium, sugar, and fats. Your body can handle some of those negatives since you’re burning so many calories, but they’re not the highest quality calories. In recent years, there have been improvements to nutrition and taste in freeze dried foods. Experiment before your hikes to see what’s healthiest and what you like.
To reduce the weight and bulk of freeze dried meals, always repackage them in lighter bags, and remember to keep the label and cooking instructions.
Many backpackers use energy bars as part of their diet, even substituting them for regular meals so they can hike without stopping. Energy bars are best used short term because they’re nutritional value is questionable. This is another time to read the nutrition label. You’ll usually find energy bars are high in sugar which translates to empty calories. Energy bars are often expensive and short on taste. Like many other foods, you may find better choices in the health food aisle of your supermarket. But shopping of the health food aisle doesn’t mean it’s all nutritious. And organic doesn’t mean it’s always healthy food.
Processed foods always lose some food value. Many processed foods, like instant noodles, are of questionable value anytime. For the first day or two of your hike you can take a lot of fresh food if you plan ahead. With practice, you can locate the foods that give the most nutrition for their weight.
For breakfast, granola and fruit meals work great. Oatmeal is a good starter. Whole grain dry cereals with powdered milk work well. Some hikers like instant puddings to get started.
Throughout the day you can snack on things like nuts or sunflower seeds which are high in calories and protein. Whole grain crackers or pretzels are good choices. I like organic blue corn tortilla chips. Trail mixes are great because the varied content is tasty and you need to sustain energy between meals. There are a wide variety of ingredients you can experiment with at your local supermarket.
Whole grain tortillas are becoming more available. Quick cook whole grain brown rice is easy to find. Dry soup mixes can be found in any store. I mix them with about 2/3 of the water recommended so it’s quicker to heat the water and the soup is thicker. Dried soup mixes are a convenient extra meal to carry in case of an emergency.
String cheese is a good snack. Beef and turkey jerky are old favorites. Dried, refried black beans are nutritious and flavorful. Peanut butter is a favorite staple of many lightweight backpackers, and it’s becoming available in small, individual packages. Tuna is now offered in small, foil pouches.
A food dehydrator can be a great investment for lightweight backpackers. You can experiment and find foods you really like. You can also package the perfect amounts.
Powdered sports drinks are a convenient way to replace electrolytes, and you can use them to flavor treated water.
Remember to take your vitamin pill. It can’t replace a meal, but it supplements your efforts.
Food is a memorable part of any backpacking trip. You can trim the food weight in your backpack, increase your energy, and enjoy your meals and snacks.