Five Essentials for Food in the Backcountry

The idea for Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’ was born many years ago in our old drafty cedar A-frame in the Tehachapi Range of California. We were newlyweds who spent a great deal of our free time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the scenic long trail that runs over 2600 miles from Mexico to Canada and which passed through the rugged California topography not far from our home.

Returning to our mountain abode from jobs in the blistering Mojave Desert, we’d often see PCT through-hikers, hot, dirty, and beaten down, walking along Highway 58 to reach their next food drop at the town’s post office. Curiosity eventually got the best of us, and we began to offer rides to these unique trail creatures. We found them to be innocuous and endearing folk, and offers of transportation rapidly evolved to include meals and overnight accommodations at our home. Without knowing it, we had officially become ‘trail angels’. Word spreads quickly along even remote trails like the PCT, and phone calls suddenly began en-masse from hikers and other ‘angels’ coordinating arrivals, transportation, and lodging.

Although our newly acquired title was unintentional, we certainly didn’t mind. We were fascinated by the people that we met and the fabulous tales they told. We became particularly intrigued with the way long-distance backpackers sustained themselves for months on the trail. Since we hoped to someday complete our own through-hike of the PCT, we began collecting recipes from our trail acquaintances. These tried-and-true trail-tested recipes became the foundation for Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’ and its recent sequel, Lipsmackin’ Vegetarian Backpackin’.

Over the years, we learned a great deal about selecting and preparing backpacking food from our expert visitors. We’ve distilled these lessons down into the following key parameters that we consider essential for properly planning an extended stay in the backcountry:

Weight: Because long-distance backpackers often travel many days between food drops, food weight is one of the key meal-planning parameters. While this may seem obvious, you’d be surprised at the amount of canned tuna, chicken, and the like discarded by novice through-hikers early in their ventures. Not all heavy foods are evil, of course, especially those that are calorically dense and offering a lot of nutritional bang for the ounce.

Nutrition: Enormous stress is placed upon the body during extended backpacking, and poor on-trail nutrition is the eventual downfall of many hikers. It is critical that backpackers include food that replenishes the body. Understand your body’s own unique requirements, pack foods to support it, and prepare for the dramatic increase in caloric intake that will likely require you to carry more food per day than you are accustomed to on shorter ventures.

Taste and Variety: Six-months-worth of macaroni and cheese might sound like a simple solution to the nightmare of food planning for a long hike. In reality, though, it would likely form the foundation for a psychological disaster once on the trail. Within days after leaving the trailhead, food magically becomes a powerful motivator, controlling the will of the backpacker. Tasteless or repetitious foods can quickly undermine the goals of a sore and blistered backpacker. Food must taste good to provide a psychological reward during a difficult day; and meals must be varied enough to avoid becoming repulsive over time.

Simplicity: It only takes one attempt at food preparation in freezing rain and tent-flattening winds to acquire a strong preference for simple trail-side food preparation. But to-be-sure, simplicity is a welcome characteristic of a good tasting meal at the end of any exhausting day on the trail, good weather or bad. ‘One-pot’ meals help achieve this goal, making food preparation less arduous and clean-up less challenging, especially in areas lacking nearby water sources.

Durability: The interior of a backpack can resemble that of a vegematic, with lots of crushing, grinding, and friction all working to tear your food apart. This extreme environment within a backpack requires that food be durable enough to survive for extended periods of time and without refrigeration. Food dehydration remains one of the most ancient, and best, methods for prolonging the life and taste of food. By removing water, food dehydration has the added benefit of reducing pack weight. We’ve found at-home food dehydration using commercially available appliances to be economical and easy, creating many wonderful new food options for the trail - ones that you will not find in freeze-dried pouches at the camping store. If you are nevertheless leery of this form of food preparation, you’ll find many web-based suppliers of dehydrated ingredients. We’ve included a list of sources at the back of Lipsmackin’ Vegetarian Backpackin’.

There will always be a time and place on the trail for boxed macaroni and cheese, Snickers, and the prepackaged freeze-dried stuff. But we believe that, for longer trips, home preparation of most of your packed food is the most effective way for ensuring that the above key criteria are met. The Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’ books were written to assist you in achieving this goal and, ultimately, to help make your next backcountry experience more successful and enjoyable.

© 2005 Christine and Tim Conners
use without the author's written permission is prohibited.

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