Preparing healthy trail meals.
caption Replacing traditional trail foods with healthier dishes. Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.
How to pack trail meals that are light, delicious, and good for you
By Tim Jones (under the ever-watchful eye of Marilyn Donnelly, RD, LD)
AMC Outdoors, April 2009

In the olden days, B.C. (Before Cholesterol), food for an extended backpacking or paddle trip was simple. The first trail dinner was always a thick steak, potatoes baked in campfire coals (in an area that allowed fires), or a pound of pasta with butter. 

Breakfast next morning was any leftover steak, potatoes, or pasta, plus a half-dozen eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Trail snacks were full of sugar and salt, and lunch was heavy on white flour. Dinners from then on featured ramen noodles, white pasta, quick-cooking white rice, or potato flakes, plus fatty salami or pepperoni and full-fat cheese—anything packed with calories, light to carry, and easy to cook. 

This strategy lightened my pack quickly, but it also helped put my LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride (another baddie) levels off the charts. 

Then I met and fell in love with Marilyn, a registered dietician who made me her pet project and took 60 points off my total cholesterol and more off my triglycerides. Under her relentlessly watchful eye, I added “healthy” to my list of desirable trail food attributes. 

Marilyn taught me ways to transform favorite traditional camp meals into healthier feasts, and introduced me to new foods for the trail that are just as tasty and convenient but better nutritionally. With the following tips in mind and recipes in hand, you too can make easy, lightweight meals that taste good and are good for you. 

The Five Food Virtues
Trail food is always a juggling act among a number of competing factors. There’s no one perfect food (sadly, not even peanut M&Ms). Whenever you are picking foods for your pack, try to keep in mind and balance these five attributes. 

Try these additional trail food recipes from AMC leaders.

1. Lightweight. Food you carry on the trail has to be light. Right? Maybe. Frankly, if you are going out for only one or two nights, lightweight is the least important of the virtues. Carry an extra few ounces and eat well. 

The longer the trip without resupply, the more important weight becomes. If you are going out for more than three nights, ounces really start counting. I freely admit this is one reason most of my backpacking trips are three nights or less.

2. Easy to cook. Cooking takes fuel and more fuel equals more weight. The other real problem is that the heat controls on most backpack stoves won’t let you simmer food easily; too often, any attempt to simmer something results in a burned meal. 

Multiple pots are just wrong on so many levels in camp cooking: more weight, more bulk, more fuel, more cleanup, more hassle. Ideal camp foods cook just by bringing the ingredients to a boil in a single pot.

3. Calorie dense. This is, in many ways, the most important virtue in trail foods. With a pack on your back and walking all day (especially up and down hills), or with a paddle in your hand, gear in your boat, and fighting wind and current, you need fuel. An average-size person burns 400-600 calories per hour walking with a backpack. More weight, more hills, higher speed, means more calories burned. You need to replace most of those to rebuild your muscles, keep yourself warm overnight, and have energy the next day. Generally speaking, the more calories in the food you carry, the better you stay fueled. 

By paying close attention to the number of calories in the food you carry, you can avoid what I call “The Rice Cake Conundrum.” Rice cakes are lightweight and convenient, with enough volume to convince you that you are eating something. But they are so lacking in calories that it would take an entire backpack full to fuel you for a single day. 

Sadly, most of the freeze-dried, pre-prepared meals I’ve seen are nothing more than very expensive, sometimes tasty rice cakes—convenient, lightweight, but short on the calories that fuel you and the nutrition that keeps you healthy. They tend to rely on highly processed, low-fiber carbs like white rice and white pasta that have been stripped of nutrition. 

Check the nutrition label before you buy. Whenever possible, make your own trail meals—you’ll be doing your body and your wallet a favor.

4. Tasty. Taste counts. Big time. Strenuous exercise can actually decrease appetite for some people—just when you really need to refuel. So you need foods that tempt you to eat. 

Unpalatable food is no bargain, no matter how little it weighs or how many calories per ounce or how much nutrition it carries. Otherwise, backpackers would just eat sticks of butter and vitamin pills. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to turn even essentially tasteless but energy-packed foods into savory treats with dried spices and healthy fats like olive oil.

5. Healthy. With the options available in grocery stores and natural food stores, it’s easier than ever to choose healthier alternatives to white pasta, white rice, refined couscous, potato flakes, and other highly processed foods. Even on the trail, you can focus on foods that taste great and are whole grain, higher in fiber, lower in saturated fat, higher in healthy fats, and packed full of nutrients. These foods take longer to digest, so they stick with you longer, meaning less is really more.

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