”Food is mood.” When you’re out in the woods burning more calories in a day than you typically do in a week at your day job, it’s vital that you have a reliable way to fuel back up. The dreaded “bonk” (total glycogen depletion) isn’t something only distance runners and cyclists have to contend with, it can be a reality for hikers too. And the best way to deal with a bonk is not to have one in the first place. Not only do your legs turn to rubber but your attitude can take a nose dive. It’s right around the bonk zone that people make the rash decision to throw in the towel when all they really need is some good sleep, a few encouraging words from a fellow hiker, and (most important) a couple boxes of Velveeta Shells and Cheese.
I think one of the most difficult things to dial in when preparing for an extended romp in the wilderness, be it on foot or on two wheels, is determining what kind of food to take and how much. Some say that any food worth taking (particularly for the ultra distance stuff where pack weight is a real consideration) ought to contain at least one hundred calories for every ounce it weighs. And, generally, for multi-day trips you want to pack more food than you think you’ll eat.
I realize carbohydrates are not all that popular these days, but they ought to be your staple — pretty easy to digest and quick energy. I don’t care what you’ve heard, olive oil and almonds won’t get you up that hill (unless, that is, they’re a flavoring for pasta). Things like mac and cheese, Top Ramen, cereal bars, Pop Tarts, candy, Nutella/peanut butter tortilla roll-ups, Oreos, and oatmeal are great choices. I like to make sure that there is some salt involved as well to help replace what you sweat out. A bag of chips can fit that bill, especially when you need a break from sweets and a change in texture. I once heard a Tour Divide rider say that the person with the most developed “junk gut” wins the race. I’ve also heard it said that “candy gives you wings.” Being able to scarf down a bunch of processed food — and keep it down — is a valuable skill to learn.
Protein and fat are also key as they will rebuild torn muscle and provide sustained energy. It’s tricky to pack a steak though, so pre-cooked sausages, cheese, nuts, beef jerky, and tuna can be good. Also, textured vegetable protein (TVP) can work if thrown in with ramen. It also packs well. Cliff Bars and the like have a respectable amount of protein, but I urge you to mix them in among your pile of candy bars. One can overdo it on “energy bars” and lose a taste for them pretty quickly. It’s important to want to eat the food you have, otherwise you’ll end up eating less than you need to and move towards a bonk.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to include an apple or some other fruit here and there (preferably fresh rather than dried). The processed stuff has a tendency to throw the digestive system a curve ball and a little roughage can help keep things running smoothly. I recall once encountering a wild apple orchard somewhere on the AT in North Carolina — I’ve not had a more satisfying snack since!
While planning meals, I tend to think in terms of breakfast, snacks, and dinner. Breakfast can be a snack of sorts as well if you’d rather not pull out the stove and cook something. That said, some of us have morning coffee addictions that need to be attended to (to be covered in another post), so might as well throw in some instant oatmeal or grits while you’re at it. Peaches and Cream is the flavor to go with, by the way. Maple and Brown Sugar gets old fast. They make some crazy good Pop Tart flavors these days too!
I try to keep my snacks (candy bars, apple, chips, etc.) in easy-to-reach places in my pack or bike bags, and I’ll portion them out after breakfast to make sure I get energy boosts throughout the day.
Dinner is time to wind down and relax from the day’s journey. Enjoy setting up your stove and preparing a meal. You’ve earned that tuna mac! If you’re hiking in a group, dinnertime is also trading time. Got a hankering for a friend’s PayDay? How many Oreos are you willing to give up for it?
Finally, I suppose I ought to disclose that I’m not a nutritionist, and I realize this diet may not be for everyone. Experiment. Mix it up. Find out what works for you. We’re all built a little differently after all. For example, one of my hiking buddies loves Kipper Snacks (sort of like Anchovies). Yes, they’re packable and full of protein but also, in my opinion, happen to be completely disgusting.