Fueling the Furnace

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on backpacking equipment

  1. Portable Backcountry Shelters
  2. Staying Warm At Night In the Woods
  3. Fueling the Furnace
  4. Dressing Appropriately
  5. All the Other Stuff We Like To Pack
  6. And, Finally, What To Put It All In
  7. An Example Gear List

One of the joys of being out on a long trip is that you can eat just about anything you want.  But this can also be a challenge; trying to carry enough food to fuel your motor can be a difficult task if you will be out very long.  And it is really more that just being able to eat what you want.  You do need to eat more than you normally would in order to have the energy to put in the miles under load that are typical on the trail.  How much more is dependent on the person, the load they are carrying, the terrain as well as the number of miles they travel in a day.

Nutritional Requirements
In no way am I a nutritional expert.  But it does make sense that if I am going to expect optimal performance from my body when out on a trip that I need to be providing it with a good source of fuel.  For an overnight trip this is not really all that important.  But for trips lasting a week or longer it becomes very important.  For simple laymen like me it is useful to realize that there are four different kinds of food that you can put into your system; carbohydrates, fats, proteins and other (including vitamins, minerals and micro nutrients).

Carbohydrates, including sugars, will provide the quickest metabolizing fuel source.  All that means is that it converts fastest from food to fuel.  Simple carbs will convert fastest but will not stay with you long, leading to spikes and crashes in your energy level.  Complex carbs metabolize slower but will also last longer, giving a more constant energy level.  It is generally recommended that complex carbs make up the bulk of your diet while you are traveling.

Fats metabolize slower than carbohydrates, but actually pack more bang for the buck.  Fats generally will have more calories than carbs for a given weight.  At home, and especially for those leading a sedentary life,  we need to be careful not to over indulge because any excess gets stored in your body as fat.  On the trail though, especially with long hard days, fats become very import in getting enough energy to keep you going.

Proteins will serve two useful functions for the backpacker.  They will help to rebuild muscle tissue and they are used to replace the glycogen stores in your liver, a quick source of backup energy for the rest of your body.  Protein is slow in metabolizing though and is most useful to you at the end of the day as your body rests and prepares for the next day.  Invest in faster metabolizing fuels during your marches and save the bulk of your protein consumption for longer stops and evenings.

Your body also needs a certain amount of vitamins and minerals to function properly, and while these can usually be obtained from your food at home, it is a good practice to pop a daily multi-vitamin while on longer trips just to ensure your body gets what it needs.

How much of each of these you need is really dependent on you and your trip.  Try different things and see how they work for you.  Over a period of time, so long as you continue to experiment, you should be able to discover the proper diet to keep you well fed and performing well out on the trail.

Types of Food
While your nutritional needs will go up when out on the trail, the types of foods that you will have available will be greatly diminished.  Does your food need to be refrigerated or frozen?  Then leave it at home.  Does it require fancy cooking or baking?  Then you should probably not plan on it.  It is fresh produce?  To heavy and bulky.  To be suitable for backpacking your food needs to be lightweight with a high calorie to weight ratio, be easy to prepare, and taste good enough that you will want to eat it.

It is easy to divide food into two general categories.  Those that require cooking and those that do not.  The cooked foods can be further divided into two sub categories.  The first sub-category includes food that actually requires cooking on a stove, while the second is food that only requires the addition of hot water.

About the only food I ever actually cook is Top Ramen.  Anything more than that is just not worth the effort to me.  I do know that there are folks who will cook up fancy meals while on the trail.  But for me the time, effort and extra weight are just not justified for that type of meal preparation.

Most generally if I cook it is only to heat up water that is then poured into freeze dried or dehydrated foods. This puts the missing water back into the food and warms it up, which is especially good on cold mornings or evenings.  There are a large variety of dried foods that generally come in their own foil pouch; just add water, wait a few minutes and eat.  Little to no cleanup involved.  And some of them are fairly good now a days.  Oat meal is another example of food that works well with just adding water and makes a good breakfast to get you going in the morning.

There is actually quite a variety of no-prep foods that are good for the trail including: nuts, dried fruit, dried or foil wrapped meats, Cliff Bars and similar bars from other sources, granola, breakfast bars, pop tarts, candy, some breads, powdered drinks, and even a few cheeses.  Most of these foods are easy to eat while walking down the trail and, if you are a bit careful, will provide all the nutrition you need.  Some folks will actually limit the food they take along to those that require no preparation.  The eliminates the need and weight of a stove and fuel as well as the time taken to prepare and cleanup after a cooked meal.  If you can get by without having a hot breakfast and/or dinner and can live without a cup of coffee, then you should seriously consider this approach.  I quit fixing hot breakfasts last year and have just started exploring leaving the hot dinner behind on longer trips.  It easily drops nearly a pound off the weight you have to carry around and increases the amount of time each day that you can spend on the trail.

If you want to have hot food or drinks out on the trail you will need to invest in a stove.  While it is possible in some places to use a camp fire to cook or heat drinks, it is much harder to do, and is not allowed in many places.  There are a variety of stoves that are suitable for backcountry use and each one has its advocates as well as detractors.

My first stove was a Coleman Peak1 stove that burned white gas.  30 years ago it was pretty much state of the art and seemed small and compact.  I don’t suppose anyone uses a stove that big and heavy any longer, but white gas stoves are still popular, although much smaller and lighter nowadays.  Many of these stoves will burn a variety of gases which can be a plus, depending on where you like to hike.  I found my old stove to be hard to start when it was cold and a bit messy when refueling, but it appears like those issues have been mostly resolved.

My second stove was a Snow Peak canister stove.  I loved it.  So much smaller, lighter and easier to use.  Canister stoves are more challenging to use when it is very cold or at high altitudes, but neither of those really apply to me.  I also find myself with a collection of nearly empty canisters since I am reluctant to take a near empty and a full canister out on a trip.  And that, to me, is the biggest issue with canister stoves.  The canisters are not refillable and it can be a bit difficult to gauge the fuel level in one, especially out in the field.

I bought an original JetBoil when they first came out, but seldom used it.  It was just so much bigger than my Snow Peak that it didn’t make much sense, nor did it heat a lot faster.  But I have a JetBoil Sol now and it has become my goto stove.  It is much smaller that the original and seems to be much more efficient.  I can use it to fix dinners for a week and still have fuel left in a small canister.

Alcohol stoves are a popular alternative, especially for the lightweight crowd.  They basically amount to a small can (tuna fish size) that you pour some alcohol into and light it.  Your pot sits on a platform above the can.  Alcohol stoves, along with a weeks supply of alcohol are a bit lighter than a Snow Peak type stove with a small canister.  The downsides are that you have no control of the flame, cannot turn off the fire until the alcohol is consumed, it is slower to heat, and there is more effort involved that when using a canister stove.  I have yet to explore this alternative, primarily because of the effort factor; it’s so much easier to heat water in my JetBoil Sol.

Wood burning stoves are a fourth alternative that a few people are using.  These stoves are basically miniature fireplaces made out of a couple of small cans nested inside each other.  For fuel you can just collect a few twigs and small sticks and can produce a flame that can heat up a pot of water in a few minutes.  This is maybe the lightest weight alternative but requires the most effort.  And, along with the alcohol stove, it cannot be legally used where open fires are not allowed.

Food protection
One of the unfortunate aspects of carrying food into the backcountry is that you are not the only creature in the woods who wants to eat it.  Chipmunks, raccoon, deer and bear all want to help you to consume your culinary treasures.  There are a number of ways that have been devised to protect your food so that it is available when you get hungry.  It seems like the most popular is to do nothing and hope for the best, and oftentimes that seems to work.  But for every time it doesn’t you have trained a wild animal that human camps are a viable source for food; food which is generally not good for them as well as making them a nuisance.

One way that is generally effective is to hang your food up in a tree, or between a pair of trees.  This is generally effective so long as you get it high enough from the ground and far enough away from a tree or branch to prevent bears form getting it.  It is not overly effective against mice and other small rodents though.  I have retrieved food hung in a tree overnight to find small holes chewed in the bag with missing food.  It also requires you to carry enough line to use for the hanging, unless you camp in places with established bear wires.

Another alternative is to use a bear resistant container.  These are usually large plastic cans that can withstand a bear attack, making them useful against other animals as well.  Bear cans are relatively heavy though and most people prefer not to use them unless required to.  Ursacks, a lighter weight alternative to cans, are made of kevlar and are generally impervious to an animals teeth or claws, although the food they protect may end up mangled.  An Ursack is not always a legal substitute for a bear can but is my preferred choice where they are.

OP Saks resemble a very large zip lock bag, but are heavy enough that they keep food orders trapped inside.  These are generally used either alone or inside of an Ursack to prevent an animal from smelling your food and coming to investigate.

Water is not strictly speaking a food, but it is vitally important for your bodies health.  I try to drink close to a gallon a day when out backpacking, although that number may vary depending on the climate and the terrain I am traversing.  But water weights about 8 pounds per gallon, making it something that you don’t want to carry much of.  But always carry enough water to get you between water sources on the trail; if not you might end up in a sorry state.

It is generally recommended that you also treat any water you pull out of a lake or stream.  There are a number of creepy crawlies living in water found out in the wild that can play havoc with your intestinal tract.  Not all water has this problem, and not everyone seems to have an issue with it.  But from all accounts I have heard it is not something you would want to experience.  Whether you chemically treat, filter, boil or use a UV light source, I would highly recommend that you do something to keep those little critters out of your gut.

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