There are 3 distinctly different methods of dealing with food on a backpacking trip. The first method involves bringing a mix of food bases (pasta, rice, etc...) with various fresh vegetables, fruits, cheeses, and meat. The second method consists of pre-dehydrated meals full of calorically dense foods, and meals designed to be prepared with just a pot of hot water. The third method limits your diet to items that don't need any sort of cooking at all. Each one of these styles has numerous benefits and drawbacks, so let's take a look at each in a little more detail.
However, before we can really get into those details we need to have a little side conversation regarding the fine balance between calorically dense foods versus flavorful, nutrient rich foods.
Caloric density is a way of measuring the amount of calories per weight in food. One of the most common measurements is calories per ounce of food. For example, a snickers bar weighs 1.86 ounces and has a total of 250 calories.
250 divided by 1.86 comes out to a caloric density of 134.
You might be familiar with caloric density because it is one of the leading metrics to use when establishing healthy eating habits. At home, you want to pack your meals full of the foods that fill you up but don't have tons of calories (ie. vegetables, fruits, seafood, and legumes). Most of these food have a caloric density of less than 50. This is one of the best ways to lose weight while also stuffing your body full of a healthy variety of nutrients.
The problem is, there are two major issues with these types of food in the backcountry: they spoil quickly and you use a LOT more calories while backpacking, which means you'd have to bring a LOT more of this type of food. The result would be a lot of weight and bulk in your backpack and could only do shorter trips.
Luckily there is another end to the caloric density spectrum -- the high density foods! Think about all the food you are supposed to minimize eating at home: pasta, nuts, butter, chocolate... One of the great aspects of a backpacking trip is that these foods should be the foundation of your diet. The caloric density of these items ranges from 100 (butter), to 164 (peanuts), all the way up to 266 (dried cherries) and beyond!!
Now a common response I hear is, "well since you are eating all this bad food you are sacrificing nutrients, a balanced diet, and your overall health." Yep. You are totally correct. Ideally, your at-home diet is packed full of vegetables and other healthy foods so that your occasional weeks spent backpacking aren't a big impact on your overall health. Of course there are still ways to eat healthily and have high caloric density foods, I am definitely not saying to go into the woods with a backpack full of snickers bars (delicious...). However, like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are different methods of dealing with food, so find what works for you. It's all a balancing act.
Let's look at each of those methods in a little more detail.
#1 - Fresh Foods in the Backcountry
This method uses a base of higher density foods (such as pasta, rice, and quinoa) but adds in the flavors and nutrients that fresh foods provide. Common fresh food items are bell peppers, zucchini, apples, oranges, salami, hard cheeses, and butter. This method tends to work well for larger group trips where slightly higher pack weight can be distributed between numerous individuals. I really enjoy bringing produce into the backcountry with me. It means spending a little extra time preparing and cleaning up meals, but has almost limitless potential. I regularly cook pizza, curry, pesto pasta, pho, and other "fancy" meals, and the enjoyment of crunching on fresh vegetables a week into your trip cannot be overstated.
I've created a chart that can serve as a guideline when choosing fresh foods. Certain items (bananas, peaches, red meat, seafood) spoil very quickly, while other items (hardy vegetables, citrus, dried meat, hard cheese) can easily last a week or more. This chart is just a guideline based on average daily conditions (80 degree high, 40 degree low). If you are travelling in an extra hot or humid region, then shorten these estimates. If you are winter camping, then it isn't unreasonable to bring that steak, salmon, or whatever else you can think of; the whole area is a big old freezer! Of course always use your judgement before eating questionable produce, this chart definitely doesn't adhere to FDA guidelines.
I would venture to guess that this is the method most commonly associated with backpacking. REI and other sporting good stores have shelves lined with premade dehydrated meals that only require boiling water. Even better, you can make your own meals, which saves a lot of money, is healthier, and allows you to really customize the quantities, fillings, and spice levels to your own personal taste. This method is great for smaller groups or if you are cooking just for yourself. It also requires much less preparation and almost no cleanup in the field because you have done all the prep work at home.
It is harder to eat healthily if you go this route, but you can still pack your meals full of dried veggies to give your body a little nutrient boost. The biggest advantage to this method is that that you shave off numerous pound of the food's water weight compared to method #1, meaning you have a lighter pack and can cover more ground.
#3 - No Cook Camping
Just as the title says, this methods means you leave your stove at home. This act alone can save you 1-3 pounds depending on your cooking set up (stove, fuel, pot, etc), so this method has the potential to be the lightest weight option. I say potential because often times the best way to balance this sort of diet is by bringing along some of the fresh foods we talked about in method #1, which tends to eliminate most of the saved weight.
The biggest advantage to this method is that it means you don't have to take as much STUFF. No fuel to leak, no gross pot to clean, just a mix of grabbable foods and the occasional pre-dehydrated meal. One tip if you decide to go this route is to actually cook the meal ahead of time, then slop the whole thing onto the dehydrator tray and dry it up. This drastically reduces the time it takes for food to reconstitute, and lessens the chance of getting a belly-ache from food that wasn't properly rehydrated. Remember though, these meals will be the same temperature as the water source (cold) so don't plan on a meal that will warm you up.
So there we have it, the foundation for any backpacking trip. I would recommend finding a blend of all three of these methods that works best for you. For instance, I almost never have a hot meal for breakfast. I don't like standing around when I could be enjoying the cool morning air and fresh energy from last night's rest, so I essentially am operating under method #3 - No Cook Camping. Same thing for lunch, it's often a mixture of grabbable snacks with no cooking involved, a combination of methods #1 and #3. For dinner I often switch off between a pre-dehydrated meal to save weight (method #2), and a meal with fresh foods to keep my body happy (method #1). So it's a blend on most trips for me.
How about you? Which method(s) do you typically use on a backpacking trip?