My outdoor diet has been honed through years of experience and over 30,000+ miles. It might not work for everybody, but it works for me, at least right now.
Considerations in Food Items
It is difficult to find food items that are compatible with a long-term trip. Below are the most important factors I consider when I am food-shopping.
Caloric density (i.e. calories/ounce). One ounce of fat contains 240 calories; one ounce of carbohydrates or proteins contains just 100 calories. So, the fattier my diet, the less food-weight I need to carry in order to achieve a caloric target. In: olive oil and peanut butter. Out: fresh produce and tuna packets. Basically, I try consume as much fat as I can, so long as my diet remains palatable and practical.
Spatial efficiency (i.e. calories/volume). During this trip I will pack up to 2 weeks worth of food, and if my food is not dense (think energy bars versus bagels) that will be problematic—my pack won’t have enough space for it all.
Conduciveness to separating in snack-sized portions. I like to have “structured discipline” in my snacks so that I don’t eat more than I’m supposed to, which I almost certainly will if given the opportunity. Granola bars, candy bars, and energy bars already are snack-sized; and I re-bag all of my bulk snacks (e.g. sesame sticks and Peanut M&Ms) instead of keeping them in large bags. Foods that are difficult to repackage (e.g. jars of peanut butter, or 1-pound bags of beef jerky that will go bad shortly after being opened) present challenges.
Taste, and diversity of textures, flavors, and sources. Within tough limits, I try to keep my food interesting and exciting.
Nutritional value. There is a lot of evidence to support the argument that this doesn’t matter. For example, Brian Robinson, who was the first to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail in a single calendar year, ate only one thing during the day (Snickers bars) and had only a 3-meal dinner rotation.
Shelf life. There are few nutritionally-rich foods that are shelf-stable for up to seven months. One trick: take over your mom’s downstairs freezer.
Pre-trip prep time. Before the Alaska-Yukon Expedition my family had a big “food party” to assemble a lot of my food, but we decided to stay away from really time-consuming work like making beef jerky or dehydrating dinners, which might be more practical for a shorter trip.
In-field prep time. I demand zero or minimal “assembly” time—I just want to grab and eat, usually while moving. You won’t see me making pita-cheese roll-ups, but you will see me pouring trail mix into my mouth out of a Zip-lok bag.
Expense. My food bill during this trip will be less than if I lived a conventional life during this trip (even accounting for the increase in caloric consumption), but I am cost-conscious when I go shopping.
How Much I Eat
For this trip I am packing about 4,750-5,000 calories a day, or about 2-2.25 pounds at 140 calories/ounce. This is not quite enough to avoid unhealthy weight loss, so I will make up some of the difference at town stops. On average, I will probably consume about 5,500 calories a day over the length of the trip.
While I need about 5,000 calories a day on a long-distance trip, I recommend much less to anybody doing a trip of less than 2 weeks. When I guide clients and groups, packing about 3,000 calories a day (or 1.5 pounds of food per day at about 125 calories/ounce) seems to work really well.
How I Eat
I start the day with an on-the-go breakfast–a mealbar and a granola bar. I snack every two to three hours thereafter, depending on trip intensity and trip length. On longer (i.e. two-plus weeks) and more intense trips (i.e. solo, long days, difficult terrain) I need to eat more often. On shorter and more casual trips, I can eat less often. I will have four to seven snacks a day.
I have a pre-dinner desert as soon as I roll into camp in order to hold me over until dinner, or use it as a final snack if necessary. Then I’ll quickly prepare a “boil-only” dinner. If the nights are long, I may plan a “midnight snack” between dinner and breakfast so I stay warmer throughout the night.
I prefer this “caloric drip” system of eating many small meals consistently over the day, rather than just a few large meals, for three reasons: my energy level stays more consistent; I don’t have post-meal food comas; and I’m never hungry for very long before it’s time for another snack.
Specific Food Items
Never have I wished that I took less chocolate on a backpacking trip. It simply cannot be done. It is the only thing that infinitely satisfies me.
I do need some diversity, however, as well as some different nutrients. So I alternate chocolate with beef jerky, salami, protein bars, fried chips (e.g. Fritos, Pringles) and other snacky foods.
While this menu may not sound appealing, you need to remember that “hunger is the best seasoning,” and since I am almost always hungry out here, I am almost always looking forward to my next meal.
Where I Shop
For shorter trips (i.e. one month or less) I can usually get everything I need by visiting a few local supermarkets, which in Colorado means King Soopers, Safeway, and Wal-Mart Supercenter. For longer trips, I can save money and improve food quality by shopping elsewhere.
I go to Sam’s Club or Costco for restaurant-portion basics like instant potatoes and rice, parmesan cheese, and spices; and bulk quantities of beef jerky, candy bars, and corn chips. At Trader Joe’s I was able to find “fun” snacks like chocolate-covered peanut butter cookies, honey-glazed sesame sticks, and toffee-covered cashews. I visit the bulk bins at Whole Foods (or a local grocery store) and get wasabi peas, trail mix, couscous, and trail mix. At a discount grocer like Ocean State Job Lot I can sometimes find great deals on foods that are normally expensive–like 16-oz jars of organic peanut butter for $2 or pre-spiced couscous for $3 a pound. And, if I’m buying retailer-sized quantities of a particular item, I will call up the company and see if I can get wholesale pricing. Before this expedition I did this with Mealpack and PROBAR and both companies offered me volume discounts.