Food for wilderness travel

Because the foods you eat will directly impact your level of physical performance in the field choosing foods that will allow your body to perform at its peak is one of the most important aspects of expedition planning. Failure to properly plan, especially on long trips, could mean ending your outing in extreme fatigue and misery and /or being completely unable to make it to your final destination at all. It is therefore vitally important to plan a menu that will provide enough food for the duration of your journey and perhaps with a little extra in case you are delayed. In this essay we will highlight the strategies we have successfully used to plan menus and prepare food for prolonged wilderness travel. 

A good time coming by ArthurFitzwilliam Tait

Food planning for an expedition

A good meal when camping gives a festive touch to the day’s accomplishments and keeps spirits up during days of foul weather and inactivity, this becomes especially true on lengthy expeditions. The challenge in planning a menu for an extended outing comes in maintaining food quality, variety and tastiness when the menu is limited by, among other things, the lack of refrigeration. For most of us meal planning and shopping are rarely done for more than a week in advance. If anything is forgotten we can always make another quick stop at the store to pick up those last few ingredients later on. But for extended wilderness travel every item must be meticulously planned, bought, accurately measured and repackaged before leaving home to assure that nothing is forgotten and that every ounce of weight and every inch of space will be accounted for.  

In planning a menu some questions you will need to ask yourself are: How many days will you be gone and what level of physical exertion will the trip entail? What will your body’s true nutritional needs be at that level of physical exertion? What kind of weight restrictions are involved, are you carrying it all on your back or will it be carried in a canoe or kayak, or perhaps a combination of the two such as during a portaging between waterways? What will the weather be like as extreme heat or cold can also limit what can be taken? What cooking gear will you be taking, pots, pans, cook stoves, etc? Also you may want to consider if your supply of cooking fuel will be limited, and if so how much cooking time can be allotted to each meal?

The time available in any given day for cooking also shapes our menu. During an expedition we often arrive in camp totally exhausted and our only desire is to eat a quick meal before crawling into our sleeping bag. Foods that minimize the number of courses, prep and cooking time are the norm. However there are days when we do have the time to linger over a meal and can spend more time cooking for pleasure. On some outings friendly competition ensues as we vie for “Iron Chef of Camp Cuisine”. The decision as to the ratio of fast cooked meals to slow cooked meals on our menu depends on the character and logistics of each trip we plan.  

Please be advised that it is very important to allow a safety margin in your menu planning in case you are delayed for any reason. When it comes to food it is better to bring too much than too little. Emergency rations however need not be gourmet, just provide enough calories to keep you body moving. On a long trip if we return home with a few days worth of extra food we know we have planned our menu correctly.

Taking enough food

A good working knowledge of yourbody’s nutritional needs is important in crafting an expedition menu. On a long expedition your body will need substantially more calories than when you are at home or even on a strenuous weekend outing. This is because, in addition to the increased need for caloric intake to cover the required distance you are asking your body to travel, over time metabolic changes in the body occur during the prolonged rigorous activity and colder temperatures of living and traveling in the wilderness. This is not a time to go on a diet, substantial weight loss and muscle development takes place on even the most well feed expeditions. Be sure to include a variety of foods from all the major food groups as well as any vitamin and mineral supplements you may take to help fuel and build your body properly. 

Once you have assessed your daily individual caloric needs you will want to examine the calories per serving and nutrition information printed on the food packaging labels located on the items you wish to add to your menu. From this information you will be able to calculate the volume of food necessary, per meal, per day and over the duration of the journey. At first this process may be rather slow and time consuming but once you have compiled this information you will be able to quickly and efficiently estimate the calorie and nutritional values required to put together a menu.  

A six foot tall, twenty five year old male, weighing 180 lbs will need between 3500 to 4000 calories per day on a multi day hiking or kayaking trip. To achieve this he will need to eat:

What foods to take

In warm weather and without refrigeration menu choices become limited to items that are resistant to spoilage. Weight and available space will further narrow the choices made when determining what items that can be taken. Most all dried packaged foods found on the unrefrigerated shelves of the grocery store will have the ability to last for months if kept dry. This would include rice, beans, noodles, flour, instant potatoes, oatmeal, powdered eggs and dried fruits and vegetables to name but a few. At some point you might also want to consider owning your own food dehydrator to prepare and dry your own recipes. Canned foods like meats and sauces, though heavy, will remain fresh if unopened and can add substantial flavor when combined with dried and packaged foods. Some wet packed items now come in foil packaging instead of cans that save on both weight and space. Snack items like power bars, nuts, dates, candies, crackers and peanut butter all travel well. Some food items predate modern refrigeration and have been the choice of explorers for centuries such as cheese (aged), hard salami, dried meats (jerky), and pemmican.  Also certain fruits and vegetables like oranges, potatoes, onions and carrots are durable and will travel well for several weeks.  Most importantly the foods you take with you on your expedition must be foods that you enjoy eating. If you are unsure about a new recipe it is best to try it at home first before packing into the wilds. 

Menu planning and food list

To plan a menu for weeks, or even months, in the wilderness it is essential to identify the recipes and food items that you wish to bring and then create a detailed menu / shopping list to identify the individual ingredients for each meal and to help calculate the total volume of food to be purchased for the days ahead.

 To begin this process you will need to collect camping recipes for meals that will accommodate your nutritional needs, your personal taste and meet the requirements of weight, space and spoilage resistance for your trip. We try and avoid repetition in our menu and strive to bring a variety of food items on a prolonged expedition. There are numerous books published on backpacking and kayaking recipes along with magazine and web articles to help expand your list of menu choices. If there are any doubts make sure to taste test these recipes at home first to avoid any unpleasant surprises later on in the field.

Next, you will need to create a simple spreadsheet to help plan your menu and act as shopping list when you go to the store. You will probably want a separate page for Breakfast, Lunch & Snacks and Dinner and then for each page a separate column for each ingredient, the number of days that item will be eaten, the quantity to be consumed per day and the total quantity to be purchased. To avoid forgetting anything you may also wish to add a check off column for when it has been bought and the same for when it has been repackaged and packed away.  Here is an example of a dinner menu we developed for a three week kayaking trip:

One additional thought on menu planning, we have found it inadvisable to plan an extended menu for a group of people. At first glance it may seem to be a time saver but in fact it usually takes longer and can create a number of potential logistic and group dynamic problems. Over the long haul it is more time efficient and less stressful to cook your own food and chose menu items that you are personally comfortable with. Instead, if you wish to be social, we suggest bringing a few items that you can share with your friends like some hors d'oeuvres or a desert.  

Packaging and storage

Protecting food from moisture, rot, insect and animal damage is absolutely vital to the success of an expedition, and it is important to note that, for the most part, commercially supplied food packaging that surrounds most products will not adequacy protect foods from the use and abuse of a prolonged wilderness expedition. Additionally commercial packaging is usually too bulky and cannot be satisfactorily resealed once it has been opened. Repackaging those essential food items into more waterproof, compact and durable containers will insure that the fuel needed to power your body will be secure, fit in your pack or kayak and stay edible throughout the length of your journey. 

All dried foods and foods that are sensitive to moisture or germs should be repackaged into Ziploc Freezer Bags. At this time you may want to premix ingredients and individually measure and package each meal to reduce time spent preparing meals in camp at the end of a long day. If the environment that you will be traveling through is going to be extremely wet or the trip prolonged double bagging for additional protection is in order. Be sure and note ingredients and cooking times on the outside of the bag with a waterproof magic marker. Foods like crackers that are easily broken, smashed or damaged should be then placed into a plastic crush proof container. For liquids like cooking oil and pancake syrup etc it is best to use a leak proof durable container, like Nalgene bottles, that cannot be easily punctured or worn through. Some fresh fruits and vegetables will often keep better when they are exposed to fresh air, for these items you might consider using a nylon mesh bag for transport instead.  

Once repackaged all food item should be stored in bear resistant containers. We prefer using Ursack® bags because they are lighter for hiking and fit better inside our kayaks than hard plastic bear barrels. Ursack® is a bear resistant food sack made from lightweight, flexible, "bullet proof" Spectra fabric that can withstand even the most determined bear. It can be hung up in a tree for additional protection or stored on the ground when camping on barren terrain. Line the inside of any bear resistant container with a durable trash compactor bag, these 2 mil heavy weight plastic bags will add an extra layer of moisture protection and help reduce animal attracting odors. You may want to bring along several extra trash compactor bags for garbage and trash storage while in route as well.  

“An army marches on its stomach” - Napoleon Bonaparte

Food from the land and sea

For the modern wilderness explorer taking sustenance from the land and sea can add greater variety to the menu, provide a link to our ancestral past and perhaps offer us a deeper understanding the natural world and our place in it. But first, let us preface this by saying that, generally speaking, for hiking and kayaking expeditions harvesting food in field should only be used to augment a well planed menu. It is unwise to expect that you will be able to “live off the land” while in route, fish and game has a funny way of becoming scarce when it is needed most. It is also very important to obtain all necessary licensing and follow all applicable laws and regulations. That said, having the opportunity to harvest wild foods during your journey can offer an interesting diversion to your itinerary and provide a delightful change in cuisine after days of prepackaged meals.

When hunting and fishing during an expedition you should target smaller sized fish and game (usually under ten pounds) and prepare and cook them as quickly as possible to avoid spoilage and waste. A good rule of thumb is that at 60º F (15.5 C) fresh meat will only remain safe to eat for about 4 to 6 hours. If necessary you can extend this time some by hanging your catch in a cool, dry, breezy location and over a smoldering smoky fire, this will help dry the meat and retard insect and bacteria activity. Especially when it comes to fish and shellfish the quicker it travels from water to the pan the better it will taste. 

For taking small game animals (and for personal protection) we prefer a lightweight shotgun and carry with us a variety of shells ranging from # 2 shot to 00 Buck shot, this variability of ammo provides us a range of options for different kinds of game. Another good game getter is a compact 22 caliber rifle; it has the advantage of being lighter and smaller than the shotgun, but it’s a bit more limited in the types of game that it can effectively take down. In deciding what type of firearm to bring you will probably want to consider the amount of time you will have available to hunt and the types of game you are likely to encounter. 

A lightweight collapsible rod and reel that can fit into a hard crushproof protective case is our first and often only choice when it comes to adding fish to the menu. Bring only the flies or lures for the species you are likely to encounter, leave the big tackle box at home. This may involve some research on the waters you will be visiting and require some conversations with local fisherman to establish what works best. For some saltwater trips we bring a hand line on a spool with heaver line and weights for fishing at depth. Trailed behind our kayak as we paddle this rig has never failed to produce a meal.

There are a number of edible intertidal species that can be easily harvested from Northwest beaches. Dungeness crabs are delicious and can be found during low tide hiding under seaweed and hunkered down in tide pools along with sea urchins and sea cucumbers. Shellfish like clams and mussels are plentiful but should be harvested with caution as they may be contaminated with Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) a deadly naturally occurring toxin. Contact local natural resource agencies in the area you will be traveling for the latest information on PSP contamination. Certain shellfish like abalones, chitons and limpets are not filter feeders and subsequently are not affected by PSP. It is also worthwhile to point out that some species of seaweed are quite nutritious and can be used either fresh or dried and are best when added to soups and stews. As the old adage goes; when the tide is out the table is set.

The forest also provides, and it is a good idea to be able to identify the edible plants, mushrooms and berries in the area you will be traveling in. On long outings fresh greens are certainly a welcome change from dried vegetables and fresh berries are always a nice addition to your morning oatmeal and pancakes. When harvesting from the forest however it is very important to be able to accurately identify the species you are collecting. In some cases misidentifying a toxic lookalike could make you very sick and even prove fatal, so unless you are absolutely solid in your knowledge of the local flora it may be wise to bring along a local guide book for a positive identification.

Besides expanding our camping menu, harvesting foods from the land and sea will bring us closer to the natural world in which we travel. By directing our focus to the intricate patterns of life of the species we are seeking it makes us better naturalist, and in so doing it will nourish our mind as well as our body.    

Bon Appétit!