Food for the Trail — Keeping It Simple

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When you’re putting in day after day of hard foot travel, your food requirements change. You need more calories and protein and less foolishness. Your favorite meal at home might be well designed for getting fat on the couch or for staving off extra pounds between workouts, but neither option works when you’re burning thousands of extra calories daily. If you underestimate or overestimate your needs, or if you forget the antacids, a good trip turns quickly to misery.

One of the digestive issues unique to hiking is bouncing. If you eat something and go hiking, it sloshes around, so if your meal has lots of delicious spices and flavorful acids you can experience their joys frequently as they splash into places they don’t usually go. Spaghetti and meatballs stays down lots better without the tomato sauce and the spices. Bland food just works out better. With a few days of living simply behind you, all those extra flavors seem out of place and overpowering anyway. What really tastes good in the woods is simple food. Blend sugar, fat, carbohydrates and protein; and add salt. If you graze on wild edibles or take a vitamin pill you’re all set.

That’s hard to believe when you’re at home planning the trip and wondering what would taste good at the end of the day. If you buy freeze-dried packaged meals, you can eat meals much like what you have at home, but when you’re sitting around the campstove they may not provide as much satisfaction as you think. Mountain House freeze-dried food saves space and weight and cuts back a little on spices in a way that I find sensible. If you haven’t weaned yourself away from civilized flavoring, you’d probably want to bring some pepper, and extra salt is always a good thing if you’re spending your sodium through sweat.

One packet of a Mountain House product is a good start on a meal, but for a mountainous appetite have the good sense to bring extra carbs, like instant brown rice or instant mashed potatoes. At home you might never want to eat them, but in the woods a heaping helping makes the difference between a meal and being hungry all night. Put the fancy freeze-dried beef stew on top for flavor, but it’s the calories down below in the mashed potatoes that you really need. Otherwise you may find yourself in an argument with your own stomach over whether you’ve already had supper or not.

Weight is always a concern, and freeze-dried meals have the advantage there. When it comes down to basic trail food, weight equals calories. Some foods are treats, and some foods are fuel. Fuel almost always weighs more. Instant mashed potatoes work out pretty well for me when I’m hiking. They don’t take up lots of space, they have a good calorie to weight ratio, and the chipmunks don’t steal instant mashed potatoes. If you really want to carry the maximum energy in the smallest space, take plenty of nature’s best energy food, fat. Butter — the real butter — is pretty good but has a fair amount of water in it. Animal fat, the stuff you’re advised not to eat, carries the most calories per ounce. Pemmican came in many different flavors in the old days but the primary ingredient was always the good hard rendered fat that makes people recoil in fear of heart attack today. Some people mixed rendered fat with dried berries, but the commercial product — a standard in trade goods when fur trapping was big business on the Great Lakes — combined rendered bone grease with dried meat.

If you want the real bone grease you’ll need to buy a few pounds of beef knuckle soup bones, the type with the spongy red bone inside, and smash them to splinters before simmering, to float out the grease trapped in the bone pores. Just simmering the bones works to some extent but you’ll have to be patient and you won’t get all the delicious fat out. Rendered fat solidifies at room temperature, but at body temperature it’s fluid, so good pemmican needs good packaging unless you’re willing to wear it all over your gear on a hot day. Any pemmican you buy today is just an imitation of the old trail food, but your civilized tastes probably will reject the old type anyway. Not too many of us think raw bone marrow fat is a tasty treat. Tanka Bars give you a taste of the old world without all the fat. Based on an old Lakota pemmican recipe, these bars combine buffalo range-fed on the prairie with dried cranberries, preserved and flavored by smoking. Tanka Bars are already tender but for real pemmican energy mix in a little butter or olive oil.

Eating fat all by itself doesn’t appeal to me, either, but adding a reasonable amount to a meal certainly does. You can use the healthier fats like extra virgin olive oil or liquid margarine with no trans-fat, and probably enjoy the flavor more as well. Beef fat by itself tastes flat to me, and greasy doesn’t feel good. Fats go well with freeze-dried soups and stews, mixed with grains or blended into mashed potatoes. Fats often get taken out of commercially prepared trail food, to increase the shelf life of the products, but adding them in again is easy enough.

Probably one of the most instructive experiences I ever had while hiking was running out of food a day away from the ride home. I had intentionally pared my gear weight down and took what I thought were enough rations, but in those days I was still thinking in terms of what I would eat at home. I wound up short by several meals. At first I wasn’t concerned, because it was only a day without food, but it doesn’t take long to burn off all your blood sugar and get really really hungry. That one experience pretty much sold me on the value of butter and mashed potatoes. You can always carry more of that than you really need.

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