This is a short overview of some issues and topics that, in my opinion, should get more attention in any discussion about food selection, preparation, packaging and cooking for effective and sensible backpacking.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I am not a physician nor a dietician or nutrition specialist. The content of this page and all the articles which will follow on the same themes (as well as any other present and future content published here) are not to be considered or used as professional reports and advice from a medical/dietetic point of view. Whatever you find here is only to provide a summary of what are, in my opinion, the main criteria that you should follow and of the questions you should ask to yourself before packing or buying groceries for your next hike, together with the answers and resources which, in the author’s experience, seem more reasonable and reliable. Corrections, feedback, practical experience and pointers to other, similar resources are always welcome.
How many people study before starting to prepare their menus for multi-days hikes, in any season, things like:
basic nutrition facts
correct ratios among main food groups
calories intake from each of them
how many meals or snacks you should have on the trail and when, depending on your activity (while following, as long as possible, Italian traditions)
what, how, when and how much to drink…
Choice, purchase and preparation of food
Is it worth, on a multi-day trek, to never or almost never cook? If not, does it make more sense to carry meals which are already fully or partly cooked or mixed, or just raw food to combine and cook? Which kinds of foods, cooked or not, are the most interesting ones for a responsible backpacker and, above all, why, that is for which reasons? Which are the right questions to ask?
Packaging and transportation of backpacking meals
Unfortunately, backpacking foods must be chosen also taking into account their compactness, resistance to compression and “compatibility” with the rest of your gear. The best menu is the one which, besides obviously satisfying all your nutrition needs while hiking, corresponds to the smallest possible weight and bulk of your whole backpack in the moment when you leave home.
Getting to that point, however, is much less simple than it may seem. There are several interactions among all the pieces of this puzzle, and they aren’t always evident. Some foods, for example, are light and compact but may require any combination of extra tools, water or fuel to be ready.
I am not vegetarian, but for a backpacker there may be excellent practical reasons (besides the purely dietetic ones) to limit his or her consumption of meat and dairies on the trail. First of all, according to Vegan3000Info, “without consumption of meat, only one fifth of the land currently used for agriculture and farming would still be needed”. In other words, such choices may sensibly limit the impact on those forests and wilderness areas where we like so much to hike. In addition to this, a menu which is at least partially vegetarian may be an excellent way to reduce the total weight and bulk of the food in your backpack, without losing anything as far as energy intake and balanced nutrition are concerned. In some extreme cases, the combination of food, stove, cooking tools and containers may force you to go for a bigger, that is heavier, backpack.
Bread and friends
Bread, in all its varieties from baguettes to kebab, it’s an excellent, cheap source of complex carbohydrates, that is energy. Fresh baked traditional bread in most mountain villages of Italy can also be one of the greatest pleasures of a trek! Bread, however, is also quite fragile and bulky, at least in some cases. Is it possible to bake yourself, at home or along the road, the best possible bread for trekking? If yes, how? When does it make sense?
Particularly interesting off the shelf (Italian!) foods
Many Internet websites already offer more or less detailed tables which list to the last gram the nutritional value of all the possible categories of foods. Sooner or later I will publish precise information also on specific brands of food, including traditional Italian items, which are particularly interesting for backpacking and often available for sale even in the normal, small and family-ran grocery stores of Italian mountain villages. I’ll try to cover here both single foods, from clarified butter to couscous, and backpacking-friendly recipes.
How many ways there are to cook when on the trail? I must learn more about solar cooking, which is extremely interesting even if not really suitable for backpacking every day to a different place, and the several types of ovens that can be used in backpacking.