West Coast Trail Tips Number 4 – What to Eat
The days of quick oats and Ramen noodles is over. For experienced hikers, it was probably never there. It is possible to have great food without having huge weights to carry and without breaking the bank to do it. Because of the long, continuous exertion of hiking for hours, the need to have good, nutritious food is very high. But nutrition does not always meet the emotional needs after carrying a 40 lb.+ backpack for 7 hours. We also need some comfort foods these days. And we have to carry all of this with the least weight possible. These are the food considerations for a multi-day hike.
Nutrition is about eating the right foods for all your body’s needs. It is not so difficult, but it does take some forethought, especially when trying to keep the weight down. Let’s look at both the vegetarian and meat-eaters options.
Carbs-grains, pasta, breads, crackers, vegetables. The secret to carbs is to keep them lightweight and quick-cooking. Both grains and pastas can be pre-cooked and dried, making them lighter and quick-cooking. Even if you can’t dry food, grains and pasta work well, but the cooking times will be a little longer. Plan on about 1 Â˝ cups of grain per person per meal. For pasta, plan on about 150 grams dry per person per meal.
Vegetables can be dried in a food dryer, also. This dramatically reduces weight and makes it possible to have those healthy veggies. Even if you get some pre-packaged sauce mix, adding extra dried veggies really helps the meal, adding a lot of great nutrition. If you are into your own sauces, they can also be dried. Dried sauces come out like fruit leather from the food dryer and are easily rehydrated at meal time.
Breads are usually pretty heavy, and take up quite a bit of space. Thin breads, such as tortillas, can provide a great base, are easy to carry, and can “carry” a load of stuff on top. Breads and crackers are quick and ready carbs, so they make great lunch bases, requiring no cooking.
These bases apply to both vegetarian and meatatarian meals. Next, we look at the proteins.
Although there is a little protein in all grains and vegetables, it needs to be supplemented. Most vegetarians know how important beans are for their protein needs. Dried refried beans and humous powder are two easy and available protein sources. Both of these can be made into different flavors, effectively turning them into different meals. Peanut butter (peanuts are also beans, technically) is heavy, but is a protein source. If you are not strict, cheese is probably the main protein source of vegetarians. Cheese can be heavy, and dried cheese is not so great.
The bean powders can be added into sauces to thicken them up a bit, adding protein into a meal without having to have pasty bean goop all the time.
Meats do very well being dried in a food drier. This is actually the best way to prepare it for a hike. It will reconstitute, but may need a while. If you are getting into the food drying, jerky is not difficult to make, and will be a lot less expensive if you do it yourself. For the meat, you can dry cooked, canned chicken, shrimp, fish, or even red meat. You can also cook it yourself and dry it. These meats are going into the bases, which are supplying most of the raw energy from carbohydrates.
Sausages and smoked meats, which are usually quite dry, are great for lunches. Any lunch leftovers can be added into dinners, using up the extra meat on that day.
Eggs can be taken on the West Coast Trail, or other hiking trip, but they are best taken in a carton bought from a store and used on the first or second day. If the carton is frozen before leaving, it may last until the third. The down side is the weight, which is another reason for using it quickly. Powdered eggs may work in pancake mixes, but you need the real eggs for French toast or breakfast egg sandwiches.
Making It Taste Great
The secret to flavor is salt and oil. Olive oil, butter, margarine, and salt will make anything taste like it was made at home. Make sure that you take a good supply of salt and plan out your oil supply per meal to keep your weight down.
What will make your meals really yummy is taking and using a bit of extra spice. Dried curry powder creates a nice Indian meal. Add a few cashew and chopped, dried apricots into your meal, and you have gourmet. A bit of chili powder and a small container of jalapeno peppers give a Mexican flair. Take a small bit of cilantro to add a gourmet touch. Even a little of these extras make meals extra special and add to the nutritional value. Look up recipes and menus for hiking trips. Using the sequence of thought- base, veggies, protein, spice, and gourmet extras-gives a way to decide whether to either use the meal as-is or adjust it for weight.
Food for the Soul
At the end of the day, you want something extra to reward yourself. This is where you add in the little extras for evening tea, such as chocolate, a couple of caramels, a couple of cookies, or some other candy or fruit leather. You can go with a full-on dessert that you make, but the ingredients need to be lightweight, so expect to make it and to compromise on weight. Cheesecake, pudding, and chocolate mousse are great possibilities that can be made from ready-made mixes. If you think small and light, you can usually manage a treat after every meal.
Keeping it Light
The key to all of this is to keep it light. If you allow 1.2 pounds (about 550 grams) per day, that is a good rule of thumb. This means about 10 pounds for an 8-day trip. If you can manage to have food dropped in halfway, it is possible to reduce your weight distribution for the whole trip and increase your daily food allowance all in one move. Of course, you pay for it.
The main ways to reduce weight is to remove as much packaging as possible and to dry foods. Repackage if necessary to take only what is needed for each individual meal with no extras. This means plan the menu beforehand and mockup the meals to know how to cook them. Camp stoves are notorious for their inability to simmer and most good camp meals need to simmer. Cook the meals on your camp stove. If you need to disperse the heat a bit, you can buy heat dispersers, or you can make one.
What’s on the Menu?
If this is all too much for you, you can always go on a guided tour. The guides are usually very good cooks and have worked out their menus over years. Some companies are now drying their foods to increase the nutritional value and get away from chemical preservatives. They have the nutrition and the gourmet parts worked out for you. They also work out your snacks and deal with any food allergies or special diets you might have.
On the West Coast Trail, most of the tour companies have a food drop mid-trip to decrease your weight. They have worked this out and paid for the service. This takes you off the hook for lots of time and experimentation before your trip, giving you more time to make sure you are in shape.
At the end of the day, the food you get makes a big impact on the quality of the trip. If you count on about 550 grams of weight per day and a budget of about $15 per day, you can plan your meals and should be able to come in under weight and under budget. If you want to leave it to a tour company, you can rest assured that the guides have worked out great menus and bring the little extras to make your trip truly unforgettable.
Gary Ward has been leading trips and teaching in wilderness areas for 20 years. Having traveled from desert to sea, he spends most of his time now in coastal areas, exploring the boundary between land and sea, land and sky, and sea and sky.
He can be found leading tours on the West Coast Trail, teaching, and writing for his business, Coastal Bliss Adventures.