Food advice articles are always an interesting read, not because the topic itself is inherently intriguing, rather they are interesting because every time I read one, previous information I have learned seems to be contradicted. Our ancestors who wandered the wilderness before us fortunately did not have to deal with this problem. For them, trail food was the food you ate, the trail is where you lived. Once we humans settled down into agricultural communities, it probably can be said the first category of food came into existence. Trail food was what you carried with you on a journey, as opposed to the food you ate on the farm or in your local community.
While our ancient ancestors may not have been trekking about on well blazed trails to get away from civilization for the weekend, they were no less mobile and spent plenty of time in the outdoors. Those primitive people faced many of the same food issues modern hikers have. How much can we carry with us? Should we cook it over this fancy new flame making thing? Is it going to cost us an arm and a leg to get? (We can imagine that in a world populated by giant saber tooth tigers that this particular query may have been taken a little more seriously). Will this be enough to sustain us until the next proper meal?
Today, these questions are a little easier to answer. Still, most backpackers must balance the delicate equation of weight, calories, energy, ease of preparation, and price.
Walk into your local supermarket, and the sheer diversity of vitamins, energy bars, energy drinks, energy vitamins, energy vitamin drinks, and other “edible food-like substances” makes it easy to imagine that one might just have to pick the right combination of drinkable energy protein to balance the backpacking meal equation. It would still of course be up to the individual to develop a method for washing out the layer of chalk that tends to congeal around the tongue after consuming these edible shortcuts. There are no silver bullets! In reality, a few of these hyper optimized snacks can be an easy supplement for your backpacking diet, but shouldn’t be relied on solely, as your source of fuel.
There are also those backpackers whose picnic tables ultimately end up looking like the food storage unit on the International Space Station. Freeze-dried foods are popular with some hikers because they are long lasting and can provide an impressive diversity of foods for their weight. One downside to freeze drying is that NASA-inspired food isn’t cheap.
For those of us who are more comfortable with the tried and true, here are some trail foods that will never let you down and will always fill you up.
Sure, it can be a little heavy, but pound for pound it is hard to top the versatility, durability, and vitamin-packed benefits of peanut butter. It goes with just about anything, has plenty of protein, and will disappear, well before it goes bad. For vegetarians and vegans especially, there isn’t much that beats a good jar of PB. You may say, yeah but you are carrying the whole peanut butter jar! No need to do that. Use a reusable plastic food squeeze tube or reusable jar. A good addition to the PB is jam or jelly, a well preserved food item packed with calories.
Dried fruit is a classic food for travelers. People have been drying food and taking it with them on trips since the fourth century BC. A great source of essential vitamins and minerals, easy to pack, and good for ages, it’s hard to go wrong with dried fruit. It is important to keep your dried fruit as dry as possible or it will start to grow the same kind of fuzz that fresh fruit does when left out for too long.
The key to having good cheese on the trail is to remember that not all cheeses are created equally. That delicious ball of fresh mozzarella may look good when you pack it, but I promise, you will feel quite differently about it after two days out in the wilderness. Gruyere or an aged gouda or cheddar are much better options, if you are planning on being without refrigeration for up to a week. It may seem a bit counterintuitive, but these cheeses are packed with moisture and enzymes that should be exposed to air when packed. Avoid air-tight containers like plastic bags or Tupperware®. Instead, wrap your cheese in wax or parchment paper and store it in the coolest part of your bag.
For millennia people have used flat breads on treks and caravans. Whether it is a roti, naan, pita or tortilla, these breads pack flat to maximize space and provide a great delivery system for nut butters, jam and cheese. Breads are a great dip for soups which are a key trail food.
Good Old Raisins and Peanuts. Or at least that is what it stood for, back when your parents were slogging up mountains in shorts that, by modern standards, wouldn’t pass as sufficient length for underwear. I happen to be a big fan of those little multi-colored chocolates that, despite the creative marketing, do in fact melt in both your hands and your mouth (as well as in your GORP bag.) For purists however, it isn’t GORMMP for a reason. The more basic variety won’t make you as many friends on the trail, but it is bullet proof, high in all the right nutrients, and as cheap a trail snack as you can possibly find.
Another important food on the trail is soup. After a long day on the trail, much sweat and nutrients have been expended to move you down the line. Soup will rehydrate you and put valuable sodium and potassium as well as other vitamins back into you system. Bouillon packs very small – just add some dried vegetables and voilà – soup! Dried meats like beef, chicken or turkey jerky are also a great way to create a broth.