With every meal I ate in the weeks leading up to my first multi-day hike, I found myself considering this: “How can I make this meal track-appropriate?”
Thai noodle soup? “How can I make this track appropriate?”
Hearty vegetable coconut curry? “How can I make this track appropriate?”
Steak and chips? “How can I make this track appro…” Ok, this one was probably never going to work out. But there WAS a group of Irish guys I met who DID take steaks with them … unrefrigerated, in early March in Australia, not frozen … and ate them on the second night. SECOND NIGHT! I wouldn’t recommend it, but goddamn it, they smelt amazing.
If you’re planning a multi-day hike and tell anyone with some adventure experience, they will no doubt share a wealth of knowledge and stories with you. No doubt you will hear some great tried-and-tested advice, as well as some funny recounts, like:
“When I was backcountry skiing, I took a block of frozen spaghetti bolognese and just chipped off enough to reheat for dinner each night”… Well OK, that’s some kind of genius…
Or: “We were hiking in a cooler alpine climate, so we took a 2 litre bottle of milk and a carton of eggs”… Wait, what?
Clearly, some ideas are going to be more practical (and pose a lower salmonella risk) than others, and maybe sometimes you might want to take a risk. But in an effort to get you thinking about food for the trail in a practical way, from one rookie to another, I’m going to lay down some meal ideas for you.
Let’s start off with the most important meal of the day….
I want preparations first thing in the morning to be quick and easy, so I can pack up and hit the trail sooner rather than later. I try to choose my breakfast options based around the sole requirement of boiling a single pot of water.
Instant oat sachets are quick and easy and now come in a range of enticing flavours. Adding in some nuts, dried fruit or leftover trail mix from the day before are a tasty and nutritious way to bulk up your brekkie. I also like to add a small spoon of powdered milk for lil extra creaminess.
DIY porridge sachets are super easy to make too. Put a serve of oats and a spoonful of powdered milk, along with any additions you can possibly dream of (like brown sugar, almonds, dried apricots, coconut, freeze-dried raspberries, cocoa, peanuts, ANYTHING) into a ziplock bag. Bowl it, cover with boiling water and stir.
Don’t forget the coffee! If you’re like me, the cost of forgetting the coffee will equate to mid-afternoon withdrawal symptoms and a cracking headache. And besides the need to fuel my caffeine addiction, packing a bag of my favourite grind brightens every morning. The brewing options for a camper’s cup are bountiful.
You’ve got your french press pot attachments (I use one with my Jetboil Flash), your stove-top coffee pots (makes for a heavier pack addition), the old tie-your-grounds-up-in-a-filter-sheet-using-dental-floss-and-use-it-like-a-tea-bag trick, the hallowed Aeropress, or your Nescafe instant sachets. Add a spoonful of powdered milk if you prefer your coffee white, or a dollop of sweetened condensed milk if you prefer your coffee extra!
Other people might like to drink tea instead and they can pack teabags.
Other people might like to drink their own urine and that’s fine, they can do them, I guess.
For refined (or super hungry) babes who want to brunch on the trail:
If you’ve got more time to kill or prefer a bigger brekkie (or want to treat yo’self), shake ’n’ bake pancakes will probably be right up your alley! You can buy smaller 200g bottles of dry mix from the supermarket, just add water, shake and fry them up! You’ll need more than your one pot cooking arrangement for these babies though.
There are also a range of freeze dried and dehydrated breakfast options available in your standard backpacker meal ranges, allowing you the luxury of something akin to loaded scrambled eggs, like Back Country Cuisine’s Cooked Breakfast. You can pick these up at your nearest outdoor gear store.
I like to keep lunch preparation minimal, enjoyment optimal and intake regular, so it generally consists of a varying range of tasty snack foods. You might remember these hacks from my Snack Hacks article for day hikes (namely, the trail cheese board, trail mix or scroggin, jerky and biltong, protein balls, bars, slices and brownies, lollies and chocolates), all of which are suitable for multi-day lunching!
The same principles apply for the multi-day cheeseboard as for day hikes, but there are a few important things to consider:
- Choose cheese that doesn’t need refrigeration
Laughing Cow and Babybel are both good options and are conveniently portioned. Otherwise, you will want to choose a hard cheese, like cheddar, gouda, swiss or parmesan.
- Likewise, choose salami that doesn’t need refrigeration
This will be the kind that comes in sausage form from the deli and has that papery stuff on the outside that no one ever really knows if you’re supposed to remove or eat, not the pre-sliced stuff from the supermarket. Jerky and biltong are a delicious alternative (or addition).
- No one likes sweaty food
Wrapping your cheese and salami in paper or a slightly damp cloth will help prevent sweating.
- Choose harder, wholegrain crackers that won’t go stale quickly
This will guarantee longer-term satisfaction and crunch. Vita-Weats are my favourite for long hikes.
In cooler weather, or for leisurely lunching, whipping out the camp stove might be a welcome effort to enjoy a Cup-a-Soup, 2-minute noodles, or warm beverage.
Here is where we come back to my thought patterns leading up to my first multi-day hike. For me, food brings happiness into everyday, so when it came to planning a week in the wilderness, I took my menu planning pretty seriously. I chatted to my adventurer friends, to experts at my local adventure gear stores, made a lot of Google searches and read a lot of blogs.
After years (a few weeks) of grueling (it wasn’t really grueling) research and trying trials (I took a few test runs to work for lunch), I had a lot of options laid out in front of me. But I figured that if I could incorporate a carb-loaded base, at least some vegetables and ideally some form of protein, I could complement the dish with a pre-prepared spice-mix inspired by nearly any recipe to guarantee a one-way ticket to flavour central. I also determined that dinner should be as nutritious as the trail would allow to ensure my batteries were sufficiently charged for the following day.
There was a particular range of products I found that made creating my own camp recipes a whole lot easier and opened up a range of possibilities, and that was…
Freeze dried vegetables:
Some backpacker cuisine companies also produce freeze dried vegetables. Campers Pantry have a fantastic range, including broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms and more, and they can be ordered conveniently online if not supplied at your nearest adventure gear store. Some dried vegetables can also be bought from the supermarket, like peas and mushrooms.
I used an assortment of freeze dried veggies to incorporate flavour, fibre and well, “health” really, into my meals. You can download a few of my favourite camp recipes here:
Camp Khao Soi: Inspired by the northern Thai yellow curry noodle dish.
Sandra’s coconut curry: Based on my friend’s mum’s foolproof coconut curry recipe. Thanks Sandra.
Udon noodle soup: Inspired by, um, udon noodle soup.
Mac & cheese: An old favourite, three ways!
Shorter trips and overnighters may allow the luxury of taking some fresh vegetables along, just be mindful that cooking time can be longer for fresh veggies so you’ll need to ensure you’ve got enough fuel for your stove. Other quick and easy dinner fillers include instant mashed potatoes, and couscous.
For those who want to take the easy road, and by easy I just mean less preparation time and/or less cleaning required post-meal, there are other options available:
Freeze dried and dehydrated meals:
Store bought dehydrated and freeze-dried backpacker meals are fantastic in terms of weight, ease and convenience, and they come in a diverse range of flavours. But, if there are other more delicious options available, eating one of these might make you kinda sad (or so I found when I took one to work to “test” and ate it at my desk while woefully considering what the pre-dehydrated dish might have been like and gazing longingly out the window at a Pizza Hut sign). That said, at the end of a big day you’ll welcome the easy preparation and warming concoction these meals have to offer. I would suggest taking a few on longer multi-day hikes and having them at the end of the longer trail days when you’re exhausted (and maybe make sure you have a sneaky dessert packed to chase it down).
Some experienced adventurers will tell you to buy, hire or borrow a dehydrator. I’m yet to do this, but it will open up a world of opportunity – particularly when it comes to ultralight meal options. A dehydrator will allow you to prepare your own nutritious home-cooked meals, dried fruit and fruit leather, and an array of other snacks and treats. Dehydrating your own meals will also give you full flavour and portion control.
If you’re still reading, we’ve covered the main meals of the day but snacks and treats still need some love, and on the long trail days of a multi-day hike YOU WILL WANT THEM. Everyone has their vices, but here’s a few of my favourites.
Snacks and treats
- Hot drinks (teas, hot chocolate sachets, more coffee) all are warming, comforting, and weigh next to nothing
- Chocolate (I took a whole block of chocolate on the Overland Track so I could have a row for dessert each night and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made)
- Popcorn kernels (pop them in your cooker with some salt and oil!)
- Custard baby food snack pouches (what! They don’t need refrigeration and custard is delicious. Why should babies have all the fun?!)
Keep it light:
I’m not talking about putting you on a diet, you’re exerting a lot of energy on the trail – if anything you should be eating MORE calories! I’m talking about your pack and all of the items in it – you need to carry all of this on your back. Your pack weight should never exceed a third of your body weight. When you’re planning your menu, the weight of your food items is important to consider along with nutritional value and balance. It will vary depending on the length of your trip, what you like to eat and what you end up taking, but aiming for around 800g of food per day is a good ballpark. I personally happened to spent a lot of time researching and choosing all of my adventure gear in an attempt to keep my pack weight down so I could take better food on trips. We all have our priorities, right?