The above is a scan of a rather elementary school-ish drawing I made to illustrate my version of a food pyramid for backpackers. Obviously, I’m not an artist. Neither am I a nutritionist. This is just a simple, very low-tech presentation to help you visualize the logic I use for planning backpacking menus. This works for me. Please feel free to build on it as your body demands and your talent allows.
I have always struggled with my weight, and happily, like most people I usually come off a trail trip weighing a bit less than when I started. But this is not a diet plan, nor is it the time to try to limit your calories. Calorie needs are based on variables such as your weight, level and endurance of exertion. But when it comes to backpacking, it’s nearly impossible for you to carry enough food for your body to meet demand. Basically, what you put into your body is going to fuel your walk. So think in terms of hiking fuel.
You want to avoid highs and lows in your energy level while on-trail. The highs are usually short-lived, and the lows take all the joy out of the walk. Your goal is to provide a steady stream of long-burning fuel. And it’s good to include occasional quick burning stuff to get you up a big climb or through the last mile of a very long day. Plan on eating often. In fact, nearly non-stop snacking works for many hikers. For me, I’ve found that building my entire menu on long-burning complex carbs is key. You know the roll call, I’m sure: whole grains, oatmeal, rice, beans, etc. These help to give you balanced energy over a long period of time. Simple carbs are the things that taste soooo good and land right on our hips and thighs. You know ’em… the cookies, candy, cakes, pies, and other treats. These do not provide a long, even burn of energy. But, they also play a role in your backpacking adventures. Now and then, a Snickers bar at the bottom of a mountain will help you get to the top. I firmly believe it. In fact, I live for it, because I rarely allow myself to eat Snickers off-trail when I’m living in the paved world. (However, I’ve been known to enjoy an occasional Kit-Kat, and should I find some Godiva chocolate laying around, I wouldn’t necessarily let it go to waste.)
Most of the food I bring on backpacking trips comes straight from the grocery store. Stroll up and down the center aisles and you’ll find lots of processed, quick cooking food that, in my opinion, isn’t all that good for you on an everyday basis. I prefer to eat whole foods and cook from scratch at home. That’s not practical for backpacking. Instead, I look at every convenient, add-water and eat type item in the grocery store as a possible block in the foundation of my hiking food pyramid. Packets of noodles and sauce? Got it! Rice and sauce? Couscous? Dried tortellini? Yep, they go right in the pack. I’ve even cannibalized the guts of boxes of mac and cheese and Hamburger Helper in order to build tasty, long burning fuel/food for my trips.
Once you’ve decided on a tasty long-burning carb, add in some protein to really up the energy burning value of your calories. You no longer have to depend on beef jerky as your only source of protein on a long hike. Step into the tuna fish aisle my friend, step in and behold the bounty! Tuna is available in no-drain pouches, of course. You can even find pre-mixed tuna salad, so no need to mix in little packets of mayo as you sit on a pile of brown leaves next to the trail. Just open the packet, squeeze into a pita bread and eat! In the same aisle you will also find crab, salmon, and shrimp. Look a little further down the shelf and you will find a variety of flavored chicken breasts in pouches. Even single serve slices of Spam are on the shelves these days. A short walk to the deli section, and you’ll find pepperoni, salami, and other dried meats that will keep for days in your pack. Bacon? Would you like some bacon? Sure! Pre-cooked, shelf-stable bacon and ham can also be found at your grocery store. And don’t forget cheese! Hard cheeses or wax covered individual cheeses such as BabyBel carry well in a pack, especially in cooler weather.
Now you have two levels of your pyramid sorted out. Choose something from the carbs level and something from the protein and fat level and mix it together for a tasty meal. Couscous with shredded chicken and a douse of olive oil and Parmesan cheese is a great way to end the day. One of my favorite meals is a combination of Barilla shelf-stable tortellini mixed with a packet of Knorr rosa sauce, diced pepperoni and even more olive oil and cheese stirred in. Oh, and don’t forget peanut butter! Not with the tortellini, of course! But, peanut butter is another grand source of protein and fat. I even enjoy it stirred into my morning oatmeal.
Now we’ve come to the electrolytes and fluids levels. You’ve heard about electrolytes. There are aisles and aisles of electrolyte replacement drinks all across the land. But what ARE electrolytes? Well, let’s just go with the 7 you may be tested for in a basic metabolic profile. These are sodium, potassium, chloride, carbon dioxide, BUN (blood urea nitrogen), glucose, creatinine. OK, that’s more than you needed to know, I suppose. But these little chemical substances keep your bodily functions running the way they should. If you’ve ever had an out-of-whack result on a blood test, you’ve had discussions with your healthcare professionals regarding diabetes, kidney failure, and a host of other life-threatening conditions. And that’s what we’re talking about. Life-enabling/life-threatening chemical balances. As you hike, your body is going to burn fuel and chemicals. You will sweat. Your electrolyte balance is going to get a little wonky. This will effect you along a spectrum that goes from feeling tired and dizzy to being dead. We’d really like to avoid the dead part, so let’s try not to get beyond the tired and dizzy level. To do that, you should plan to replace electrolytes.
And what a lot of choices we have today! You can go well beyond Gatorade. In fact, I’m not a big fan of the flavor of Gatorade, and I prefer something called Nuun, which comes in tablet form. In addition to my Platypus full of water, I always carry a separate bottle filled with water and one or two tablets of Nuun dropped in. I sip from that during the day and enjoy another bottle with my dinner each night. Another of my favorite sources of electrolytes comes from Jelly Belly. Yep! Jelly beans can be electrolyte replacement! Jelly Belly makes something called “Sport beans”. They are sweet, chewy, and deliver a pack of energy and electrolytes to your system. I call them my 1000-feet treat. One packet of those beans gets me to the top of a 1000′ climb. Both Nuun tablets and Jelly Belly sport beans are available at REI and other athletic-oriented stores. Of course, you can find packets of easy-to-mix electrolyte drink powders at your grocery store, too.
I also include soups in the fluids and electrolytes category. I enjoy some instant soups on the trail. Sometimes I make my own dehydrated creations at home. Sometimes, I just carry along envelopes of instant soups from the grocery store. These help get some fluids and sodium into you. And they are a very comforting treat on a cool day in the woods.
Finally, my pyramid is topped with a level I call “Stuff you crave”. It’s basically everything else you bring along. Call it comfort food,if you’d like. For me, these are mostly my snacks and treats. I try to look for things that have a nice calorie punch for their weight. I love little packets of Justin’s nut butters, individual cheeses, hot chocolate for an evening treat. And yes, I even like Cliff and Luna bars. I also like taking along some sort of veggies. There aren’t a lot of calories per weight in vegetables, so I usually wait for an off-trail meal to get my fresh veg dose. But I do like the flavor and texture of veggies added to my meals. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s carries a nice selection of freeze-dried veggies that can be added to your soups and long-burning carb/protein concoctions. In cooler weather, I will sometimes carry a single small cucumber. I like the crunch. Also, baby spinach will hold up well for a couple of days in a plastic bag. I toss a bit into my rehydrating meals for a bit of taste and eye appeal.