Backcountry Eating

Sorry I’ve been away for the past couple of weeks.  As you might imagine, my wife and I have been working hard in an attempt to get everything ready for our move to Egypt.  Everything seems to be falling into place.  Last week we were able to rent our condo and sell our car, which was a huge relief.  And we’re almost finished going through all of our crap.  The condo sure is feeling empty these days.

In addition to all of this “moving preparation” we spent 4 days in the backcountry hiking, climbing & camping with friends.  Why, you ask, plan a backcountry trip only a couple of weeks before our big move?  As friends and family are aware, climbing mountains is one of my other passions.  I love the combination of technical skill and physical challenge that mountaineering provides.  And the scenery isn’t too bad either!  Since I had planned this trip long before the possibility of moving to Egypt even came up there was no way I was going to pass it up.

We did, however, almost get derailed before we began because of a record storm in June in the region where we had planned to go (Kananaskis).  This is the storm that caused major flooding in Calgary.  Kananaskis got hit even harder than Calgary and all highways, roads & trails in the area were closed for weeks afterwards.  The week before our trip we found out that our backcountry campground was still closed.  Fortunately some last minute scrambling allowed us to find a suitable alternative – the Little Yoho Valley in Yoho National Park in British Columbia.  Our main objective(s) would be The President and/or The Vice President, but there were also several other peaks in the area that we could climb.

When all was said and done we had an amazing time.  We managed to climb 3 mountains – Mount Pollinger (2816m), Mount McArthur (3015m) and The President (3138m).  The latter of which included navigating our way up the President Glacier and some interesting routefinding on the upper slopes of the mountain.  Definitely a great trip.

But, since I am a dietitian (and this is a nutrition blog) I thought I’d speak a little about the types of foods we took with us for the trip and why.

backcountry gear

Typical gear that we carry with us on a backcountry trip

First I’ll begin by stating that eating in the backcountry isn’t first and foremost about choosing the healthiest or most nutritious foods.  It can’t be.  This doesn’t mean all nutrition considerations should go completely out the window, but there are certain limitations in the backcountry that we just don’t have in our regular day-to-day lives.  Unless your trip is in cooler months there is no refrigeration, so food spoilage is a concern.  Weight/space restrictions also seriously limit your food choices.  Remember, you have to carry everything you plan to eat with you on your back, so unless you’re up for hauling a massive 70-80 lbs pack, you need to make some tough choices.  And lastly, the cooking equipment is pretty basic (usually a small, single burner stove), which means you need to choose dishes that require little to no preparation.  It also makes things infinitely easier if everything can be cooked in one or two pots.

So what goes into choosing foods for the backcountry?  My first concern is always whether or not I’ve got enough calories.  The last thing you want to be doing is rationing food towards the end of your trip.  It’s difficult to determine exactly how many calories you burn while hiking.  Most websites talk about hiking/climbing burning somewhere between 400-600 kcal/hour, but at best this is a VERY rough estimate.  There are many variables that factor into the amount of calories you burn while hiking, including the size of the hiker, elevation gained/lost, weight of your pack and quality of the terrain (ie. well-maintained trail vs.  boulder field or loose scree), just to name a few.

This website actually seems to do a decent job of taking some of these factors into account.  I used their calorie calculator to estimate the amount of calories that I burned on our climbs of Mt. Pollinger & Mt. McArthur, which we did in one day.  It calculated that during this climb I burned approximately 1500 kcal over and above my normal daily caloric requirements.  Note that this climb was 18 km round-trip and took a little over 10 hrs to complete.  It involved 950 m of elevation gain and I had approximately 20 lbs in my pack.   Assuming my normal daily caloric requirements are 2000-2500 kcal/day (which should be about right for someone my gender/size), this means my energy expenditure would be ~3500-4000 kcal that day.  So, quite a few calories, but maybe not as much as you might think for such a strenuous day.

Toasting up a bagel for breakfast, with cream cheese.... mmmm....

Toasting up a bagel for breakfast, with cream cheese…. mmmm….

As such, foods that are ideal for the backcountry are those that are energy dense.  Energy dense foods have the duel benefit of providing lots of calories, but taking up minimal space/weight.  Some healthier examples include dried fruits, nuts, cheese, bagels, pitas, oatmeal, pasta and rice.  A few less healthy examples would be chocolate (in various forms), granola bars, gummy candies or cured meats.  Unfortunately, due to the limitations with cooking equipment and fuel, its advantageous for most of the grain products to be more processed than would be ideal in a “real world” environment.  It’s not practical to spend 30 min cooking brown rice when it only takes 5 minutes to make a batch of Minute Rice.  One of my favourite backcountry foods is Couscous, largely due to how quickly it can be cooked.  When combined with a few other dried ingredients and spices, it can make a great breakfast or dinner dish.

Many people rely on pre-purchased, dehydrated meals during backcountry trips.  I tend to minimize their use whenever possible.  Not only are they expensive, but in my experience they don’t tend to pack the caloric punch that I’m looking for when on a strenuous backcountry trip.  Most dehydrated meals range from 250-350 kcals/serving.  When you consider that I need ~3500 kcals/day that doesn’t go very far.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, these meals tend to be incredibly high in sodium too, with one serving generally having 25-40% of the Daily Recommended Value.  They are certainly convenient, but in my opinion, not a great option.

A final tip I can provide is to try to incorporate as much variety into your menu as possible.  Repeating food items meal-after-meal can become very boring, very quickly.  After a long day of hiking, you should be looking forward to a great backcountry dinner, rather than wishing you were at home so you could be eating “insert-your-favourite-dish-here”.

Whatever trip you choose to do, be safe and eat well.  Happy hiking!

So, what are your favourite backcountry meals?  What are your best food tips for hiking?  What are some luxury food items you can’t do without?

group picture on the summit of The President

group picture on the summit of The President

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