Editor's note: This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
Waiting for water to boil, I plopped down by the creek, took out my knife and started whittling.
Whittling is not something I typically do on hikes, but it was a hobby I decided to take up after I realized I left my trusty spork at home. With a freeze-dried meal providing the bulk of my calories for the day, I had searched my brain for alternative eating utensils to spare my hands, because God only knows what my hands would encounter on this climb. Plus, I didn't want everything I touched to smell like food afterward.
Then I spotted a fallen twig that didn't seem to be covered in too much dog saliva, and appeared naturally spatula-shaped.
Against the backdrop of Cantata Peak last summer, shoveling hot chicken and rice into my mouth with a speed and intensity that would appall my mother, I considered what other strange things hikers have done for love. Namely, a love of food.
A friend of mine told me that he — somehow — arranged for a pizza drop by helicopter deep in the backcountry. I've watched as friends rigged up bear hangs to secure their rations among the most precarious of fallen trees. Pre-trip worries over friends not packing enough food meant our group had a bona fide smorgasbord last weekend at Lost Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. The result: a sport we described as "snackpacking," wherein constant eating to lighten our packs required about as much energy as backpacking itself.
Also, the thought of pizza and beer back in town is the kind of motivation that will spur me along in the worst conditions. Food is hope. Food is everything.
But even if my post-trip meal takes place in the parking lot of a McDonald's, under the right conditions, it can taste like a feast fit for a king.
Here are some tips on backcountry eating (not to be confused with backcountry cooking, which I'll cover in a future column).
When it comes to the act of eating on the trail, a spork is a luxury item. If you need to improvise and are averse to using your hands, examples of items you can use to cram food into your craw include flat rocks, the pick of an ice ax, a ballpoint pen or permanent marker, the handle of a trekking pole or camping pot, a water bottle lid, your multitool/knife and, indeed, fast-whittled twig spatulas.
If you have hand sanitizer — you should have brought hand sanitizer — common sense dictates you use it before you eat or handle any of your food.
Think fat. Think protein. Real food is cheaper, and nicer, than subsisting solely on processed energy foods.
For snacks, I'll almost always have reindeer sausage and a chunk of sharp cheddar, or any hard cheese, while hiking. Trail mix with nuts, chocolate and dried fruit is a classic. Fresh carrots hold up nicely out of the refrigerator, and smoked salmon ratchets up my joy level to new heights. Nut butters in individual-serving packets or tubes are delicious on their own or used in wraps, added to oatmeal or squeezed on crackers. I might bring some packaged energy foods, like protein bars or caffeinated chews, but they're hardly the only food I rely on. And candy bars — one friend refers to the candy bar she always keeps handy as a "pocket Twix" — can provide a rush of sugar and fat when you need it most.
I'm slightly lazy when it comes to breakfast, so I'll rely on instant coffee and oatmeal with nut butter and fruit. But when I'm motivated, I'll pack a breakfast burrito at home, freeze it, then carry it on the trail as it thaws. Once it warms through on the stove and the tortilla gets a nice crisp to it, it's hard to remember why I ever ate oatmeal.
Sandwiches or cold pizza are standard field lunches, though last winter I started carrying a vacuum-insulated bottle filled with boiling water for instant mashed potatoes or ramen on the fly. I can trick out mashed potatoes with cheese, meat and veggies, and the saltiness of the ramen makes me thirsty — another way to make sure I stay well hydrated on the trail.
I love the simplicity of freeze-dried meals for dinner, but the satisfaction of backcountry cooking (or as is often the case, backcountry re-heating) is tremendous. Consider this a way to flex your creative culinary muscles with pasta, instant rice, prepackaged sauces in liquid or powder form, smoked meats or fish, instant potatoes or instant stuffing. I'll try to sneak in some vegetables, but vegetables are not for everybody. And on Day 1 of a trip, cooking a steak is not unreasonable.
If you're looking for prepackaged freeze-dried meal recommendations, my favorites are the pad thai from Backpacker's Pantry (high fat content, comes with a packet of peanut butter and crushed peanuts), the Thai curry from Good To-Go (plenty of veggies, great flavor) and either the chili mac or chicken and rice from Mountain House (pure sodium-rich comfort food). This seems an especially apt time to reiterate that I also work at an outdoor gear store in Anchorage, where some of these meals are sold, and my opinion is my own, formed after eating other freeze-dried meals I liked much less.
More than anything, when you're considering what food to bring, make sure you know you like it. A campsite in the middle of nowhere is not the place to realize you hate the taste of energy gels when energy gels are the only snack you've packed.
In case you're curious, here's a sampling from our Lost Lake snackpacking feast: dried mangoes, nuts and chocolate, brie and crackers, thick-cut potato chips, hummus, carrots and cucumber, reindeer sausage, homemade beef jerky, salami, garlic baguette, fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil, chicken and broccoli curry with rice and naan bread, real oatmeal with nuts and cinnamon, cherries, roasted peas and raw pumpkin seeds, cheddar and marshmallows. We had to roll ourselves off the trail.
While hiking, I opt for shorter breaks taken more frequently, which informs my snacking behavior. I like periodic grazing rather than three big meals each day. So, while I might pack pizza or dressed-up mashed potatoes for lunch, I'll take bites of it here and there rather than breaking on the tundra to consume a caloric bomb.
You'll want to protect your food from bears and other wildlife, too. I carry a lightweight bearproof canister to stash food and other scented products (toothpaste, hand sanitizer, lip balm, sunscreen) about 100 feet away from my campsite. Hanging your food may be sufficient if you're backpacking below tree line, but depending on the terrain and your aim, this may require more practice to hone your technique.
I've never run out of food on a trip. That's great for survival, but if I consistently end up with tons of food left over, that tells me I need to reassess my calorie consumption and pack accordingly. Otherwise, I'm merely carrying food as weight training. Everyone is different, so it may take a few tries before you figure out what combination of weight and food is best for you. (You can tell I'm not an ultralight backpacker by any definition, but if you're looking for more specific guidance on calorie-to-weight ratios, check out this recent post on the MSR Summit Register blog.)
That being said, a backpacking trip is not the time to count calories. I'll expect to consume between 2,500 and 4,000 calories a day — and I'd stay on the high end of that range on winter trips in particular. A mountaineer I met last year adds powdered butter to nearly everything she consumes on winter backcountry trips, to increase her caloric intake.
To our bodies, food is power. And when we're running at full steam in the mountains, we need all the power we can get.
If you have a favorite trail snack or camp cooking recipe to share, or other suggestions for calorie consumption in the backcountry, I'd love to hear from you. Post in the comments section or send an email my way, and I'll collect them all at the bottom of this article.
Got whittling tips? I'll take those, too.