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Food is Fuel

An Experience in Backcountry Eating

Story and Photos by Philip Gunderson

Over spring break, I headed into the woods to get away from the stress of capstone, job search, and senior semester. It was the longest backpacking trip I’ve done, and I wanted to document the role that food plays in surviving four days in the woods. Come along, and I’ll tell you about our adventures and the food that got me through the first day.  

It’s 6:30 p.m. on the Friday before spring break. My friend Leina and I are weaving our way around Stop and Shop, dodging other customers and checking our shopping list before chucking food in the basket. A few hours ago, we sat hunched over a map in ISEC with our friend Riley, poring over possible backpacking routes. After an hour and half of deliberation, we decided on the Art-Loeb Trail. It’s a 30-mile trail in the Pisgah National Forest, deep in North Carolina. The plan is to get on the trail Sunday morning, but between us lies 1,000-some miles and a minor snowstorm. The three of us will leave at 4 a.m. Saturday morning, and hopefully set up camp before midnight.  

Leina and I fill our baskets with pretzels, chips, tuna, and dried meals. We double check the calories on a dried pasta dish. Should we get three or four? I vote four. We toss them in the basket and keep moving.

This will be the longest backpacking trip I have done, and the first where I have planned meals. Most of my previous trips have been one-nighters: eat a big lunch before the hike in, pack a freeze-dried meal, scarf a granola bar for breakfast, then chow down at a diner back in civilization. Worst-case scenario, you eat all your food and spend a few hours hungry on the hike out.

But this is different.

We will be on the trail from Sunday to Wednesday. We aren’t sure of mileage but it’s likely to be around 45 — meaning over 10 miles each day. We’ll be spending at least six hours on our feet each day. Packing enough, and packing the right kind of foods ensures we’ll have enough energy to keep moving. For our purposes, food is fuel – we need to have enough in the tank to go the distance we need.

So, what do you eat on an average day? Could you carry it on your back and prepare it without a microwave or other appliances? Unfortunately, the similarities between the modern kitchen and the backcountry end at wood finishes and lots of stone. There are no refrigerators, chef’s knives, or cast iron skillets. The criteria that make a good backpacking food are the following:

  • Easy-to-prepare: Like I said, there’s no kitchen in the backcountry. Most people carry a lightweight cookstove. With a compact cookset, you might be able to do some sauteeing on a frypan. More likely than not, you’re just going to be able to boil water. After a long day hiking, even that’s going to feel like a lot of prep.
  • Lightweight: every ounce adds up when you are carrying it on your back. That can of beans may be ready to eat, but it’s gonna feel like a ton of bricks in a backpack.
  • Calorie-dense: A salad may be nice for a light lunch, or after yoga class. But moving for hours on end, your metabolism is going to be full-throttle. Your food should deliver energy fast, and keep delivering for hours more. Think high-fat, high-carb, high-sugar.

Now that we’re packed, let’s get on the trail!

It’s 6:45 AM on Sunday morning. I snuggle into my sleeping bag. The previous day we cruised down the East Coast, dodging a pesky snowstorm in Connecticut, blasting oldies, and indulging in gas-station delicacies (yes, I’m talking about the two hot dogs I ate at 8 AM). Arriving at 10 PM, we set up at a campsite near the trailhead and promptly passed out. Leina yells at me through the tent, “Get up, we’re packing the bear cans!” I unzip and hurriedly pull shoes on. I have pictures to take.

One additional consideration of backcountry eating arises in bear country. Animals are interested in two things: eating and procreating. While the latter is no business of humans, the former is certainly relevant.  To a bear, we are just three large tasty morsels traipsing about the woods with a collection of smaller tasty morsels. That’s why it’s standard practice to use a ‘bear can’. This large plastic can is essentially a giant Nalgene. You stuff all of your food inside, close the lid, and come hell or high water, it’s not going to break. Before bed each night, you stuff the can with food, wrappers and all scented hygiene products and place it a few hundred feet from the tent. I like to think of it as a sort of peace offering to the bear: here’s our food; come, smell, smack it around even. But for the love of God, please don’t come in our tent.

I get my camera out of the car, then hurry to take pictures of the food. As I click away, Leina and Riley divide the food amongst two bear cans. They are intentionally difficult to open, so loading them efficiently will save us a lot of time and effort later. Breakfast and dinner foods go in one can, lunch and snacks in another. This way we only have to unpack one can for lunch food. I grab two Clif Bars for breakfast before closing the cans. The plan is to cover 16 miles today, stopping for lunch at a shelter midway. I scarf my first bar down as we load up our packs and head for the trail.

It’s almost 2 PM. We’ve been hiking for 5 hours and have yet to break for lunch. The shelter was supposed to be 8 miles in but my watch says 9 and it’s nowhere to be found. I finished my second Clif Bar hours ago and have only had a few handfuls of trail mix since then. I can feel myself starting to hit a wall. If I don’t eat soon I’m going to be exhausted for the second half of the day. We come around a bend and see a little grove with a fallen tree. I make the call: this is our lunch spot.

Dropping our packs, Riley pulls out the lunch bear can. It’s going to have to be a quick lunch: the weather forecast called for rain at 10, so we’re long overdue. Staring out at us from the top of the can are jars of cheap peanut butter and hazelnut spread. Ravenous, we crack these open — first dipping one finger into the peanut butter, the next into the hazelnut and eating it off. You don’t need table manners if there’s no table.

Riley is vegetarian, so his lunch is going to be a couple more tablespoons of each nut butter scooped into a tortilla. The tortilla is the perfect vessel for the job. It is small, lightweight and easy to roll up. Sliced bread would be ashamed to see the sheer volume of nut butter that tortilla deftly contains.

Leina and I haven’t quite kicked our carnivorous tendencies so we eat Starkist Lunch creation tuna packets spooned out over Triscuit crackers. The tuna is surprisingly tasty and the sharp white cheddar (I convinced Leina to buy) rounds out the ensemble nicely. The whole effect is surprisingly appealing — they look like an hors d’oeuvre you might serve at a dinner party, if the guests didn’t mind that the host had prepared them on his lap with a crusty spork. I pound the crackers back — one tuna packet, two tuna packets, done. I relax for a minute. The food hit the spot. These calories will keep us running for the next few hours as we try to push on to the second shelter.

We check the map and split a s’mores Pop-Tart, savoring each bite as we estimate how far we have come, how much further we have left to go. As we talk, a stiff breeze rustles the tree branches over our heads. Leina and I smell the air and look at each other knowingly. The rain will be here soon. We close the bear can up, put on our rain gear, and shoulder our packs as we head back onto the trail.

It’s 6:30 PM. We are curled inside our sleeping bags, under the shelter, trying to warm up. It started raining no more than 10 minutes after we broke from lunch and did not let up until shortly after we arrived at the shelter. In the morning, the 40° temperatures were pleasant, just cool enough to keep away the sweat. But as the rain fell water penetrated our clothes, sucking away precious body heat. By the time we arrived at the shelter we had been trudging through the rain for almost 4 hours. The trail was a muddy mess and there weren’t even any views to make our struggle worth it. At the shelter we stripped out of our clothes, put on dry layers and crawled inside our bags to defrost.

We munch on trail mix and bemoan our bad luck. With a little life back in us, we get out of our bags and go to find water for dinner. Luckily for us, there’s a little stream a hundred feet from the shelter. The recent rain has given it enough flow to fill up our containers: filtered water for drinking in the Nalgene, untreated water for cooking right in the pot. We’re using a Jetboil. This stove can only do one thing — boil water — but it does it damn well.

We make a pot of tea to warm up some more before dinner. Dissatisfied with the cheap black tea we brought I decide to make something a little stronger. I slip out the plastic water bottle we filled with honey whiskey and pour a dram into my mug. The sweet booze complements the bitter tea and leaves my stomach and throat glowing with warmth. We pass around mugs, pouring more whiskey and tea until the pot is empty.

Finally starting to feel warm, Leina heats the water for dinner. Tonight’s meal is instant pasta. It’s a simple affair. Boil the water, dump in the packets and let it sit. The first few bites are piping hot, so I let Leina and Riley have first go at it. When it gets to me I blow hard on each spoonful, exercising all of my patience to not scarf it down immediately. We pass around the pot, each person eating until they feel content (or until someone starts stealing sidelong glances at it). The pasta is surprisingly not bad — it’s creamy alfredo with broccoli. Well, creamy may be a bit overzealous, but the pasta is starchy and salty and it hits the spot.

We heat up two more packets for ‘second dinner’, this time parmesan and herb flavored. We eat this one a little slower, savoring it. Nearing the end, Leina is still hungry and volunteers to finish the pot, picking out each piece of pasta stuck to the side. As she chews, she mumbles the ancient proverb of the backcountry: “Waste no grain.” We break off a piece of dark chocolate for a tasty nightcap and put the food away. Satisfied for the night,we stash the bear cans behind a tree a hundred feet away.  

Peace offering made, we retire to our sleeping bags. It was an exhausting day. The pasta and whiskey fill my stomach with a warm glow. It radiates out and I feel the empty spaces of the bag start to heat up. I say goodnight to Leina and Riley, then roll on my side and shut my eyes. I listen to the soft breathing of the others before I also fall asleep.  


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